BY MATTHEW T. ACHESON
(Originally Published by Underground Voices, August 2012 Issue)
I have neglected this journal for some weeks – I only wish it mattered. Whether anyone will ever read these words, I cannot say, for I am more afraid now than ever that mankind’s days are drawing to an end. In truth, these feeble scratchings are little more than a distraction to still the tremors in my hands, and settle the writhing serpents in my belly. My men should not see me troubled so.
Today marked the first day of the third year of this war.
It will be remembered as the day the ancient castle city of Eastport fell; its proud spires toppled, buildings shattered, people ravaged. The men of my legion stood shivering in our animal skin cloaks and patchwork of metal armor, and watched the carnage from the palisade atop Hommland’s Hill – the last iron mine in the East that has not been overrun.
Their arrival was a terrible sight. The light from the full moon cast a strange, eerie glow upon the host of pale corpse things and their shrieking masters which stretched across the vale for miles in every direction. They swept the valley like a flood that left only ash, carrion and pestilence in its wake.
The dead shambled through a rain of flaming arrows and stones, and assaulted the city for three nights without pause. The Earl of Gosford and his men slew them by the hundreds, and thousands, but they came on relentlessly and without fear, until the bodies of the twice dead were piled so high the others used them as ramps to scale the mossy granite walls. Eventually, the bastions of the outer city were taken, and the iron studded oak gates of the ancient citadel battered down.
In all my days on this earth I have never imagined such carnage. The stink of ash and brine and rotting flesh is heavy about this place, and when I close my eyes I can still see the fires, and hear the screams. My hands now suffer from a shaking sickness that only setting quill to parchment seems to put right, and I cannot rid myself of this uneasy feeling in my stomach.
Soon, they will come for us too.
When it was over, one of my men threw down his sword and shield and wept openly in front of all. “There is no end to them,” he sobbed as he retched into the high grass. Later he was caught deserting, and I had him tied to a post and whipped by one of my junior officers as an example to the others.
These are hard, brutal times when a boy must be flogged bloody for doing what his commander has considered more often than he can recall. Sometimes, when I am alone and cold in my bed, I dream of shedding the mantle of this responsibility and returning home to my Gwen and our little ones. But after all that I have seen, I wonder if I could truly lay down this burden. Could I pass the cup, and trust other men to stand at the edge of the black pit and hold their torches out into the darkness through all the long watches of the damnable night? Nothing is simple anymore.
Today, I feared the men were close to breaking, and called them together to give some words of encouragement. When they formed up, I walked down the line and saw an army of weary friends and strangers clad in torn, faded tunics and rusted mail, their faces drawn and haggard. Most of our legion’s original five thousand had fallen over years of fighting, and those few hundred that remained were bloodied, bent, and cleaved. How could I speak of honor, duty, and sacrifice when so many had already fought and died at my command in a war that some believed could not be won?
I cleared my throat and prepared to remind them that our 6th Legion was all that stood between the enemy, a hundred villages, a thousand farms and the sea. But when the moment came my voice faltered and salty tears streaked down into my beard. It was all I could do to thrust my sword in the air and call out the legion’s motto “no further!” We all shouted the damn thing until we were red-faced and hoarse. I pray it was enough.
Sir Belric sat beside me in the mess tent at dinner, and counseled that in the morning we should throw open our gates, and lead our knights and infantry down into the valley below. “Bring battle to them for once,” he said.
There was a feverish gleam in his eyes when he spoke, which I have seen before. It is a look some men get when they have stood too long in shadow, seen death, hopelessness and despair, and no longer have any fear. I clapped my graying friend on the shoulder, served him a second helping of hard-bread and mutton stew, and said nothing. It took half a mug of wine to dam the rivers in my eyes, and dull the aching in my throat.
We must not lose hope.
I have been standing watch on the palisade walls with my men for most of the afternoon. Dusk is approaching, and there is a terrible screeching in the hill country around us. It is a bone chilling sound, and one of the new recruits standing watch beside me trembled like a leaf until fear ran streaming hot down his leg. I do not envy his youth and inexperience; those of us who are long veterans of this war know well the source of those inhuman shrieks, and the pale faces with black eyes that leer and hate and murder beyond the edge of the light.
It won’t be long now before the shriekers are upon us, biting, howling, and tearing their way through men that I have shivered beside and bled with all these long years. I cannot begin to describe how weary and hollow that thought makes me feel. They are all my brothers, or near enough.
We have made what preparations we could, wrapping arrows in oil-soaked rags, filling casks with burning pitch, and digging covered pits. I have instructed my officers to douse the tents and thatched huts of our encampment with oil. Every man of us agrees that when the end comes we will not allow ourselves to be taken. I intend to bury this journal, so that perhaps the lives and deaths of the men of the 6th Legion will not be forgotten. I can only hope and pray that there will be people left in this world to read it.
Sir Lancaster has offered to take command of the wall so I can steal a few moments of rest. I close this book and put my quill down bleary eyed and exhausted to the bone.
* * * * * * * * *
Night is upon us, black as pitch, and there is no moon. I hear a shrill brass cry in the darkness – a watcher’s horn is blowing. Our camp is all shouts and chaos. The horses are braying and kicking, and the dogs have gone feral. There are pale, hunchbacked shapes lingering at the edge of the firelight, hissing at us from the gloom. I have never been so afraid.
They are coming.