Scourgelady (melee offence officer)
Joined: 17 Oct 2007
|Posted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 1:54 am Post subject: The Last March
|All semblance of discipline had vanished. People were pushing, shoving, fighting with each other over what equipment there was to be had, before running off singly or in small groups into the darkness. Seja and the handful of soldiers who followed her ran between the lines of tents, heading towards the sound of war horns in the distance, where the knights were preparing to force a breach. As they ran, Seja caught sight of another, familiar-looking officer standing among the tents yelling at an ill-favoured looking soldier.
“You men get to the rally point, quickly! I’ll catch you up.” They ran on. Seja wasn’t even sure they had heard her. She ran towards the other two. As she did so, the soldier made a grab for the officer’s sword. She pushed him away. He knocked her to the ground, bent over her, and tried to take her weapon again, but by then Seja was hurtling out of the shadows and was on him. Her knee crashed into the side of his face, she yanked his head back by the hair and slashed the offered throat wide open with her knife. The man fell bonelessly to the muddy ground, and she kicked his corpse to one side.
“You killed him!”
“He would have done the same for you. Pick your sword up and follow me, we need to get out of here.”
A colossal explosion rent the air as a fireball rose up in the near distance, followed shortly by another. The two women raced towards the light and sound and burst out into the marshalling yard where the survivors had gathered up. Another volley of fire arrows cut blazing trails across the sky as it streaked out in the direction of the last ammunition dump. When it went up, the whole north of the camp was a seething inferno. It would shield them from the undead for a short while, time enough hopefully to make a break for the ships to the south.
The knights made a brave show, but they were too few. For all that, their presence inspired the men, who managed to form some semblance of a battle line behind them. Seja and Joanna joined the throng. With a blare of trumpets, the knights charged forwards, the soldiers running behind. The next few minutes were nothing more than a blur. Running, stumbling through snowdrifts, aware dimly of her fellows around her, hearing shouted commands and the clash of steel, the thunder of hooves, the screams of the dying. And then all of a sudden, they were free. The snow ahead glimmered pure and white under the starlight and beyond it was the forest, the path to the shore, the ships, safety. The ragged group of survivors pressed on doggedly towards it, the cavalry reforming up on their flanks.
Seja looked behind them. The camp was a sea of flame, dominating the skyline with an ugly pall of black smoke. Against the background of the inferno, nothing could be seen; off to each side, the shadows were even darker and closer than they had been. Shapes flittered in and around the plumes of soot and ash, as moths drawn to a flame, wings beating the clouds into an indistinct haze.
Joanna turned her head, following Seja’s gaze, “Those are the largest bats I’ve ever seen.”
Several of the shapes broke free of the clouds and became more clearly outlined against the roiling clouds as they came closer.
“I don’t think those are bats.”
One of the shapes detached itself from the group, folded its wings, and plummeted from the heavens, becoming larger and larger as it fell towards the group struggling in the snow. Those who had seen it coming began to jostle and shove at their fellows, causing a new panic as people looked around wildly to see what was happening. The creature opened its wings at the last moment with a snap, and swooped low overhead, snatching a mounted rider from his saddle and carrying him away screaming back into the mists above.
“Shoot it down!”
A few archers still had their bows, and fired off a scattering of shots at the receding monster, but it was too late. More of the creatures screamed down from above, their shrieks tearing the air asunder. The retreat became a rout, soldiers dropping their weapons and scattering every which way, some heading for the distant forest, some running towards the hills, others throwing themselves down in the snow in an attempt to escape those terrible beating wings.
A mounted rider galloped by without giving them so much as a glance. A rider-less horse was following close behind him. Joanna grabbed at its reins and hauled herself into the saddle before it could run past them. By the barding and the size of the animal it must have belonged to one of the knights. What fate had befallen him Seja preferred not to speculate on. She climbed up behind her friend and held on as they rode for the tree line. They would be safe under the long overhanging branches, if they could make it there.
A deafening shriek from above was followed by a colossal blow to the back of Seja’s body. She felt cruel claws scrabble for purchase against her armour and then she was being lifted out of the saddle. Flailing helplessly in its grip, she twisted around and felt something snag. Her foot had caught in the stirrup. Above her, the creature let out a bellow of rage as it lost its grip. The horse balked in terror and threw both of them off.
The creature landed in front of them, sprawling in the snow. Vaguely humanoid in appearance, it was scrawny, with a greyish pallid hide, its elongated arms possessed of enormous wings after the manner of some huge bat. It gathered its ungainly limbs under it, crouched on the snow, and stared at the two women and the horse for a second, malevolent yellow eyes flickering with an obscene hunger.
Their horse reared up and lashed out with heavy iron-shod hooves, catching the hideous beast full in its misshapen face. There was an ugly cracking sound and the creature screamed, staggering backwards. And then Joanna’s sword was sweeping around from behind it and parting the gargoyle’s head from its body with a single savage swipe. The remains fell back into the snow, where they lay twitching, pumping black ichor from the severed neck into the white shroud that covered the land.
“By the Light, what was that thing?” Joanna wiped her sword on the creature’s leathery hide and watched the sky anxiously as Seja calmed their horse.
“I don’t intend to hang around to examine it. We won’t be able to ride under those trees, but we’ll need the horse on the other side. Come quickly, let’s get out of here.”
The dense, white covered fir trees swallowed them up within minutes, the heavy layers of snow muting sounds and making the surroundings eerily quiet. They pressed on for what seemed like hours, drenched by snow drifts, shivering, cold and terrified. Sometimes they heard what they thought might be voices, shouts, but where they were coming from and how far off they were was impossible to tell. The darkness was all consuming, all pervading. Seja was forced to halt them to light one of their few precious torches. The forest grew deeper, the trees more massive and ancient. They were passing under the branches now, not pushing between them. The floor of the ancient wood was carpeted with soft brown needles fallen from the trees in autumns past. It was possible to see further ahead now, and further behind.
Seja turned and risked a look back the way they had come. The forest was moving softly, slowly, and not with the howling winds far above them. It was crawling with the undead. The shadows between and under the trees writhed and gibbered. Every dark corner and dim recess of that wood was alive with foreboding and pregnant with malice. Screams suddenly burst out some distance behind them, and were just as suddenly silenced.
“They’re too close, all around us. We’re not going to make it, we can’t make it, they’re too close, they’re everywhere…”
“Joanna, listen to me.” Seja grabbed the other woman’s cheeks in her hands and held her face reassuringly. “Listen, we aren’t going to make it out of here like this. They’re following the torchlight, but without it we won’t find our way back to the coast.” Seja seized the bundle of letters out of her saddlebag and thrust it into her friend’s hands. “These letters and documents must reach the King. Take our horse and ride south east, follow the coast when you get to it. Find a whaling station or lumber yard and get a ship home. I’ll take the torches and lure the undead south. With luck, they’ll follow me and you will get clear.”
“I won’t just abandon you to die alone in the snow at the claws of these … beasts!”
“You will if I order you to. Don’t be a sentimental fool. One of us has to get back home to warn them of what’s happened here. We’ll stand a better chance at surviving if we split up like this. And if we don’t, well, we’re soldiers after all. Our lives are coin to be spent in the defence of the realm.”
Joanna mounted up and turned their horse towards the east, before setting off between the trees at a hard gallop. The gloom swallowed her up swiftly, and she was gone. Seja was alone.
“Now then you monsters, catch me if you can.”
Chapter 6 - Frostmourne the Kinslayer