SURVIVOR GUILT • by Robert Kibble

I watched from the wall as they began arriving.  First in ones and twos, then larger groups of desolate soldiers trudging towards the city.  There was no doubting what this meant: the capital had fallen.  The walls which had held for four hundred years were breached.

The horde would follow.

Behind me I could see the dusty road that led to the border.  Already it was jammed with carts slipping away.  We had been ordered to search anyone trying to leave, ensuring they didn’t take food or weapons.  How were they meant to reach safety without food or weapons?  How were they meant to reach it at all?  Was there anywhere safe?

We had also been given orders to stand here, no matter what the cost, if only to give our countrymen time.

***

When my watch ended I walked home past the infirmary.  I lingered by the door, listening for a few minutes.

“There were too many of them.”

“It was carnage.  Only a small number of us…”

“…burnt everything…”

“…harried us all the way…”

“…it’s all gone…”

“…the stench.  You can’t imagine…”

“On the last day we broke out.  We abandoned them all.  We don’t deserve to live.”  That last voice was so tragic.  He sounded like he wanted only the relief of death.  I leant in through the door.  There was nothing physically wrong with him.  He stared wide-eyed as he gripped another man’s shoulders.  “We made a mistake leaving them.  I won’t make that mistake again.  God will see that I stand here.  And die if He wills it.”  These were the survivors, and they would stand with us.

At home my son greeted me by leaping up.  As if nothing was wrong.  I looked at my wife.  Her face showed nothing, but her eyes were sad.  I said, “You have to go.”

“Without you?”

“We’ve been through this, my love.  I cannot leave.  For his sake, go.”

She looked angry.  It was unfair, I knew, but it might save their lives.

“You could…” she began, but I shook my head.  I had taken the oath.  There was no choice now.

“When?” she asked.

“Immediately.  The horde cannot be more than a few days from here.  If they surround the city, it will be too late.”

She burst into tears.  Our son ran over and hugged her, not understanding what was going on.  He was a good boy.  I would miss him.  I would miss her.  Not for long, at least – that was a comfort.

I needed to do something.  “I will pack what you need.”

“Where will we go?”

“As far as you can.”

“I don’t speak other languages.”

“You will learn.”

“I don’t want…”  I stepped forward and held her, and my son.  I knew.  But there was no choice.

***

The gate was closed when we arrived.  I begged the captain, persuading him with now-pointless money.  He took it all.  Through the small door I could see a few distant carts.  “Hurry,” I said.  “Catch up with them and you will be safer.  A group of survivors is providing escort.”

She tried to speak, but couldn’t.  They flung themselves at me.  I pushed my wife and son away.

“Take care of him for me.  Good luck.”

I turned.  It would only get harder the longer it took.  The captain closed the gate, and her sobs were cut short.  I hoped she wouldn’t linger, but there was nothing I could do now.  I had to get some rest before the battle began.

***

The survivors were scattered amongst us, filling our ranks.  Seeing the numbers on the walls gave me brief hope, until I remembered who we were fighting.  No walls could withstand the horde.  No army could stop them.  Sometimes no one survived – sometimes a few lived to tell the tale.  My heart sank as a cold wind gusted round the city.

“The Baron has given orders,” said a man near me, a survivor.  “No inch of the wall is to be surrendered.  He will make a final stand in the keep.  We must not leave our posts.”

Of course we wouldn’t.  The walls looked strong.  There was still no sign of any army.  That gave me hope.  Maybe there had been a miracle?  At least my family would be long-gone before the horde reached us.

A horn blew, and there was commotion by the back gate.  Surely my wife would not have returned?

Please God.

The word spread rapidly.  An ambush.  The survivors described their battle.  They had been driven back, separated from the women and children.  When a chance came to return, the slaughter was complete.  With nothing to fight for, the survivors rode back for the city.

My heart was ice.  I had only one task to accomplish now.  To avenge them.  To drag as many of the horde to hell as I could, to make them pay for what they had taken.  My death now meant nothing.

I heard the horn sound three times.  It was the sound of an attack, but still no army.  A man to my right screamed.  And one to my left.

I saw a survivor thrust his sword through one of our soldiers and push him off the wall.  The other side, the same.  All along the walls, men were falling.  I drew my sword to face the survivor in front of me.  I recognised him from the infirmary, but his face was different now.  He stared into my eyes, grinning.  I raised my sword, parried his blow and responded as swiftly as I could.  He crumpled, clutching his chest.  I turned to face another, blocking a blow to my head.  I prepared to counter, but felt the steel run me through from behind, and then a boot, and then merciful blackness, swallowing up the betrayal.


When not writing, and not suffering the burden of a very much less creative day job, Robert Kibble is usually upset about the lack of a single Russian oligarch with a preference for recreating zeppelins over buying football teams, is accidentally collecting whisky, or ranting about the vagaries of modern life. He has written a novella, “The Girl in the Wave”, which is a modern gothic horror set on the beautiful Cornish coastline.


If you want to keep EDF around, Patreon is the answer.

Rate this story:
 average 4 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Wow, that was a sad tale. But very well-written and rather engaging. And in contrast with several recent stories, I wasn’t confused. There was just enough information to know what was going on so I could focus on the real story.

    Very well done. Thanks for sharing!

    • Robert Kibble

      Thank you!

  • Wow, that was a sad tale. But very well-written and rather engaging. And in contrast with several recent stories, I wasn’t confused. There was just enough information to know what was going on so I could focus on the real story.

    Very well done. Thanks for sharing!

    • Robert Kibble

      Thank you!

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Maybe it’s just me, but I would have liked a few pointers towards era and location. Although engaging, I also felt too much was packed into this story, thereby diluting its impact.

    • Robert Kibble

      Interesting feedback. The ending was actually what I wrote first, and the bits cut to make the word count were mostly from earlier. I’ll reread and see if I can spot why you and the others found the ending unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s a problem of a catastrophic betrayal, that as soon as it’s clear it’s happened, that’s the end.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Maybe it’s just me, but I would have liked a few pointers towards era and location. Although engaging, I also felt too much was packed into this story, thereby diluting its impact.

    • Robert Kibble

      Interesting feedback. The ending was actually what I wrote first, and the bits cut to make the word count were mostly from earlier. I’ll reread and see if I can spot why you and the others found the ending unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s a problem of a catastrophic betrayal, that as soon as it’s clear it’s happened, that’s the end.

  • Bud Clayman

    I have to agree with Paul. The first half of the piece was beautifully written, but the second half was truncated. It was almost as if the writer knew he had so many words left, yet he still chose to cram an entire battle scene in at the end. I’ll give it two and a half stars.

  • Bud Clayman

    I have to agree with Paul. The first half of the piece was beautifully written, but the second half was truncated. It was almost as if the writer knew he had so many words left, yet he still chose to cram an entire battle scene in at the end. I’ll give it two and a half stars.

  • Bud Clayman

    I should have said that the last part near the end was truncated. Perhaps, a different ending would work unless the writer plans to expand the story?

  • Bud Clayman

    I should have said that the last part near the end was truncated. Perhaps, a different ending would work unless the writer plans to expand the story?

  • MPmcgurty

    I’ll echo what Paul and Bud said in terms of packing too much into this. It’s written very well, and I appreciated its straightforward story-telling style until the end. I didn’t mind any solid clues as to what period this was and I loved that the characters didn’t engage in epic-speak. For me, it was more than a war story. It was about bravery and defense of home and loved ones. The last two ‘graphs, though…I almost felt that they belonged with another version of this tale – the war story – and at the last minute were included because the author thought the war story needed a finish. We already know that he is going to die – we didn’t need to see it.

  • MPmcgurty

    I’ll echo what Paul and Bud said in terms of packing too much into this. It’s written very well, and I appreciated its straightforward story-telling style until the end. I didn’t mind any solid clues as to what period this was and I loved that the characters didn’t engage in epic-speak. For me, it was more than a war story. It was about bravery and defense of home and loved ones. The last two ‘graphs, though…I almost felt that they belonged with another version of this tale – the war story – and at the last minute were included because the author thought the war story needed a finish. We already know that he is going to die – we didn’t need to see it.

  • I found this a good moving tale. It took the reader to another place and time. I also liked the twist in the tale.

  • I found this a good moving tale. It took the reader to another place and time. I also liked the twist in the tale.

  • weequahic

    Very well written. Curious, though, just how the enemy accomplished this: Mind control? Body take over?The Survivors were not enemy infiltrators, for the main character recognized at least one of them from the infirmary. (What did I miss?)

    Stalin was afraid of endings like this, why he (re-)imprisoned so many of his own Survivors.

    • Robert Kibble

      The idea was that survivors of a previous attack would implicitly be trusted, so as long as this band kept going from place to place telling their tale and betraying the next, they would get away with it.

      • weequahic

        Great idea, didn’t think of that. You wouldn’t expect a bunch called “the horde” to be so clever.

  • weequahic

    Very well written. Curious, though, just how the enemy accomplished this: Mind control? Body take over?The Survivors were not enemy infiltrators, for the main character recognized at least one of them from the infirmary. (What did I miss?)

    Stalin was afraid of endings like this, why he (re-)imprisoned so many of his own Survivors.

    • Robert Kibble

      The idea was that survivors of a previous attack would implicitly be trusted, so as long as this band kept going from place to place telling their tale and betraying the next, they would get away with it.

      • weequahic

        Great idea, didn’t think of that. You wouldn’t expect a bunch called “the horde” to be so clever.

  • Kimberly Caldwell

    A very sad tale, beautifully told.

  • Kimberly Caldwell

    A very sad tale, beautifully told.

  • Netty net

    Sad story I don’t what war this was, ok it dosen’t matter, well written

  • Netty net

    Sad story I don’t what war this was, ok it dosen’t matter, well written