North-west of Merywyn, Llael.
7th of Katesh, 611 AR.
It was supposed to be over. Yegor was dead at unbelievable cost; the villain was defeated. What a child I am, Kirk thought. He’d conferred all of his fear and aggression against the Khadorans to the now-dead battle wizard. Nothing but a focal point for the stress of war; there would be no victory with Yegor’s death, no end to the grind. The villain was dead, but he was left wondering how to make sense of the ongoing nightmare. Mortal danger had not grown any less oppressive. Now it was in the shape of Kayazy lurking through the fog.
He could hear Peter reloading behind him. “What do we do?” Peter hissed.
“We stay put unless ordered otherwise,” Kirk said, following protocol for an intrusion of this nature. The Kayazy assassins had slipped in with the fog and were darting between trees, trying to catch the now-alert trenchers off guard. Shots pierced the darkness. Voices calling friend and foe.
“Anyone alive over there!?” Kirk shouted to the foxhole nearest to him. There had been sounds of a scuffle and then quiet. He pulled a grenade off his bandolier. “Water on the beach!”
Quiet. A hooded figure tried crawling stealthily out from behind the small embankment, blending in with the ground so well that Kirk wasn’t entirely sure he’d seen anything. He knew better than to be overly cautious. He pushed the firing pin and lobbed the grenade. The figure saw the deadly orb approaching and tried to leap away but was too slow; the grenade burst inside the fox hole and the assassin disappeared in a wisp of gore.
“Fourth platoon, on me! On me!” Lieutenant Reynold’s voice sang out in the fog. Peter and Kirk jumped out of their foxhole, catching a few other groups doing the same. They circle each other as they approached their lieutenant’s position. Units gathered together to form a growing circle, impossible to sneak up on. An assassin tried to slip past them behind a tree and took several bullets before falling to the ground, and then the blanket of silence returned. White eyes flickered in the gloom.
“Spread out by unit,” Reynolds ordered the huge ring of men. “Don’t get too far apart. We’re clearing these woods.” Similar orders were being barked in the distance for the other platoons. Within minutes, a line of almost three hundred trenchers marching just a few feet apart crept through the wide lanes of the forest, weapons up. They flushed out the surviving Kayazy almost immediately. With nowhere to hide they ran as the trenchers approached, hoping to reach the depths of the fog before they were spotted. All of them failed.
Thirty minutes of slow, careful walking brought them to the far end of the woodland, looking out over a moonlit expanse of fog-laden farmlands. Reynolds ordered them to stop and go back to their foxholes, where they counted the dead. Thirty Kayazy, twelve trenchers. Peter had probably saved a lot of people with his early warning. They found Lucas the replacement behind a tree just fifty yards from their foxhole, his throat slashed, pants still open and piss on his trousers. Kirk looked down at the ashen face of the boy.
“Sorry I can’t remember your name,” he said to the body. Why am I lying to a corpse? he wondered.
Not all of the replacements were greenies. A full unit had been rotated into their company from another division, and they were some of the most hard-bitten veterans Kirk had seen yet. Had they been permitted to grow out their facial hair they might have passed for Bearded Bastards. They kept to themselves and seemed to be disgusted by the overwhelmingly green Hammer Company. The derision in their gaze as they looked at their inexperienced compatriots was palpable. A few times Kirk desperately wanted to defend the company, to explain that they were far from new to battle, that the fresh troops were mostly replacements. He didn’t think they would care. Their presence reeked of a bureaucratic error and they seemed to know it.
The morning after the Kayazy infiltration was cloudy with a thin drizzle that never let up, eventually soaking through everything and forcing Kirk to once again hide his cartridges from the moisture. They marched over deserted farmland, clearing a few empty barns and finding signs of Khadoran encampment. Word spread, putting everyone back on edge. The march stopped and word came from Captain Kasey to start search-and-destroy patrols. The newly-assigned veterans were first to volunteer.
Kirk approached them, overcome with an inexplicable desire to go with them. They were huddled around a tree stump checking their gear, all of them freezing to stare at him as he walked up. Kirk’s stomach leapt into his throat. What am I doing?
“I’d like to join your patrol,” he said with confidence he did not feel. One of the men snickered.
“Oh yeah?” the veteran asked. He was bald, with an array of five straight scars on his head that looked exactly like scratch marks from an animal.
“Yeah,” Kirk said.
“We’re not interested in greenies,” another vet said as he flipped his helmet in his hands, crouched beside the stump.
“I’m not green,” Kirk said.
“You look green,” Scar-Head said.
“Looks are deceiving,” Kirk replied. The vets all looked at each other.
“Alright,” their unit leader said, a corporal with enough broken teeth to make his mouth look full of fangs. “You get to walk in front, then.”
“Fine,” Kirk said, both elated to join them and terrified at being point-man on a patrol in enemy territory.
They fanned out at the edge of a thirty-acre plot of tilled earth, neary a copse of tall bushy trees bordering the farm. Their patrol took them on a slow, careful loop around the whole field. There were signs of activity on the opposite side; large, heavy, iron-shod boot prints in the soft grass beneath the trees. Kirk bent down and inspected the tracks.
“These look recent,” he said quietly, feeling the edges of the freshly-broken grass. Without a spoken word, the whole unit had their rifles up and were circling, crouched low, looking for the enemy.
“Psst!” Scar-Head whispered, gesturing violently at the opposite end of the field– the side they had just come around. About half-way across the field a unit of Winter Guard infantry were sneaking away as fast as they could. Scar-Head dropped to one knee and let off a shot, aiming high. The rest of the unit followed his lead, letting off a barrage of shots that sailed in a high arc and landed a couple of very lucky hits, taking two down. The rest of the northerners slipped into the woods and out of range.
“They’re headed straight for our line,” the corporal said, snickering.
“Fuckin’ dead meat,” one of the other men said. A scream of agony came up from the field.
“Got a live one,” Scar-Head said. The wounded Khadoran howled again.
“I don’t like that,” the fang-toothed corporal muttered. “He’s going to draw a lot of attention. Could be more units around.”
“Someone needs to finish him,” Scar-Head said.
“I ain’t going out in the open,” someone said.
All eyes turned to Kirk.
“You wanted to come with us, boy,” the corporal said. “You go take care of him.” He slid his trench knife from the sheath fixed to his left shoulder pauldron, flipped it over, and offered it to Kirk. “Be quick, be quiet.”
Kirk stared at the handle of the big knife. He opened the breech of his rifle and reloaded.
“I’ll just shoot him–”
“No you fucking won’t,” Scar-Head said. “You’re not going to waste a bullet. You’re going to do it clean and fast. He smiled. “Don’t be scared, greenie.”
Kirk took the knife angrily.
“I fought inside Albyn,” Kirk said, words dripping with menace. “I fought doom reavers. I’m not scared.”
The whole unit laughed.
“Doom reavers?” Scar-Head chuckled. “You mean kids with swords?” Kirk spun on his heel and marched into the field. “Keep your head low!” Scar-Head called after him. “His buddies might be waiting on the other side.” Kirk crouch-ran across the open field, neck prickling. He could feel eyes on him. Were they just the trenchers, or were the Winter Guard waiting in the trees to open fire on him as soon as he got close?
What am I doing? Kirk asked himself angrily. He got within a few yards of the downed enemy and crouched so low he was almost crawling. The man was still screaming, but growing weaker. He was belly-crawling away from Kirk through the dirt. Kirk stepped up behind him, grabbed his rounded shoulder plate, flipped him over–
It was Alex.
Kirk stepped back with a gasp of horror. Blonde hair, mischievous green eyes now twisted in pain, the cords in his neck bulging from stress, face ashen. The illusion vanished as quickly as it arrived. This was not Alex.
He just looked like him.
The young man stared up at him in terror, clutching his side where a bullet had tumbled through. A heavy layer of dark sticky blood soaked his grey uniform at the abdomen. His teeth chattered.
“Na,” the boy managed to stutter. “Na.” He was about to die. The grip of death was in his eyes, slowly drawing the remaining strength from his muscles. Kirk could feel the boy’s spirit grasping to his failing body. He’d seen this many times now. There was no mistaking it.
One of the trenchers whistled at him from across the field, urging him on. Kirk refused to turn. There was no point stabbing this Khadoran. He would be dead in minutes, and even if his comrades came to retrieve him, they wouldn’t be able to save him. He was no danger to anybody.
The trencher whistled again, more urgently this time. Kirk looked up into the forest in front of him on the other side of the field but saw no sign of the enemy; they had abandoned their friend. The young man clawed at Kirk’s boot, gasping in pain.
“Na takin obrazit,” he chattered. “Pozulshtya.” Kirk didn’t know enough Khadoran to know what the man was saying, but he could guess. The soldier was staring at the huge blade in Kirk’s clenched fist. The young man shook his head violently and pierced Kirk with his vibrant green eyes, tears streaming down his temples. “Pozulshtya,” he said, gulping. “Na takin…obrazit,” he repeated, chest heaving. Kirk knelt over him, poised the knife over the man’s forehead…
“Na, pozulshtya!” he screamed.
Kirk’s hand was trembling violently.
“God…dammnit,” he hissed through gritted teeth. He tried to picture the dead children in the basement with Ludwig; he tried to remember Merrimack taking a sniper bullet; he tried to recall the terror of watching bewitched villagers assault him from that dark hallway.
But all he could see was Alex’s face writhing in pain beneath him.
Kirk plunged the knife into the soft earth just beside the northerner’s right ear. His enemy gasped in surprise. Kirk held a finger up to his lips. “Shh.” He pulled the knife out of the dirt and wiped it on the young man’s pant leg. The young Khadoran stared at him in stunned silence, his breath slowing, death gently peeling him away. The trencher whistled again. Kirk stood, watching a look of distant peace wash over the young man as he shuddered and stared up at the sky.
“Spasibo,” he whispered, tears trickling into his sweat-soaked hair. “Spasibo…” he let out a final trembling breath and went still, eyes fixated on nothing. Kirk walked slowly back to his unit.
“What the fuck took you so long?” the corporal snapped. Kirk handed the knife back to his superior.
“I wanted him to die slow,” Kirk said, meeting the sharp-toothed vet’s steely gaze. It was a technical truth, just enough to pass the corporal’s bullshit detector. The corporal frowned and took the knife angrily, shoving it back into its sheath.
“That’s trencher talk, that is,” Scar-Head said, laughing. “Fuck yeah.”
“That’s hard shit,” one of the other vets said, nodding in agreement. “Respect.”
“That is the exact opposite of what I told you to do, dumbass,” the corporal bit back. His frown softened. “But, respect.” He turned to his fellow veterans. “Alright, let’s pull out.”
The others didn’t make Kirk walk point on the return to their line, and there were no more comments about him being green or jokes about children doom reavers. Kirk stared at Scar-Head’s back as they marched on. I can’t do it, he almost said aloud. I can’t be like you. And another part of him– a part he hadn’t heard from in quite some time– chimed in.
And I don’t want to be.