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…”
“…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.”
“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?
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.