It was total chaos on the battlefield: limbs and blood flew everywhere like macabre festival confetti, screams of men and metal shrieked through the air, and once colourful banners were now covered in so much muck that it was nearly impossible to tell who fought for whom. And to top it all off, Imperial infantryman Fuller had no fucking idea where his commanding officer was.
At the moment, he was doing his utmost to stay alive in the face of some big bruiser’s eager attempts at smashing a morningstar into his skull, and Fuller couldn’t help but wish fervently – for the umpteenth time that morning – that he had learned a trade. The big bastard’s horrifically bloodied morningstar clubbed unforgivingly into Fuller’s shield and as he fell onto one knee from the sheer force behind the strike, he sank slightly into the soggy mire underfoot. Out of desperation, Fuller targeted the one area he could reach from under the protection of his round shield, lunging forward with a vicious jab of his short sword into his assailant’s boot.
His enemy reared back with a scream of agony and, as luck would have it, tripped clumsily over a fallen comrade behind him. Fuller took full advantage of his assailant’s strife – opportunism being the mistress of infantry soldiers everywhere – and leapt for the kill, sinking his blade into the big bastard’s heart. As he stood up, he shook his shield arm experimentally with a wince; his fingers and bicep had gone numb from the impact of the morningstar and were it not for the strappings that secured the shield to his forearm, he would have lost it for sure. He shot his head about in search of anyone in his colours resembling an officer who could issue him some kind of command, any order that could make sense of the loud and roiling mess he was knee deep in; but the battle was furious.
When he heard the distant call for archers, Fuller crouched instinctively and brought his shield up and over his head like a tortoise, awaiting the thunderous impacts of arrows. One arrow rebounded sharply from the rim of his shield, but another thudded home into the shield’s wooden body and thoroughly embedded itself with the grip of a feral dog. After a moment’s wait within the lethal storm of wood and iron, he became satisfied no more arrows were to come and stood up in spite of the tremble within his knees. Fuller cleaved the arrow shaft from his shield with an almost indifferent sweep of his short sword and as he turned, he finally caught sight of an officer, still miraculously on horseback with his bloodied long sword pointed at the enemy heroically.
“Push through the gap, men! Onward, to victory!”
Fuller snorted disdainfully at the eager tone and word choice, watching his fellow soldiers flood through the indicated gap like forging ants. More pleased at the knowledge that he now had clear instructions, rather than the insipid notion of ‘victory’, Fuller followed through after he was certain he wasn’t one of the first in line. The battle swallowed around the contingent of men as thickly as tar and as each fought with the ferocity of survival instinct, they cleaved and slashed their way through the enemy. To his credit, the officer had followed and fought alongside the contingent, mercilessly swinging his long sword into the enemy that surged on either side of his great horse’s heaving flanks.
Fuller rammed the enemy in front of him with his shield and followed up with a short thrust of his blade into the neck, an economy of movement that allowed him as much preservation of stamina as possible. He had learned long ago that when in small individual duels and skirmishes it was all well and good to pour your all into it, but on the battlefield, finesse got a soldier nowhere.
In battle the aim was finishing your opponent off as quickly as possible with minimal damage to yourself, and young Fuller had discovered quickly the certain tricks that helped a man do that were best learned from the dog–eared veterans. To his jaded mind, basic training only took a man so far, and in spite of what the officers thought of ‘honour’, Fuller couldn’t ignore that those vicious, dirty tricks he had gleaned over the years had saved his skin on more than a few occasions.
Of course, a lot of Fuller’s survival was owed to his certain style of pragmatism, for he rarely volunteered for anything or put himself forward for ‘glory’. A soldier didn’t last long if he chased every enemy like a dog after a butcher’s cart either, and as such Fuller had developed a keen sense that spoke of when the right moment was for joining a fray. It had served him well so far, since he was still alive and breathing with not too many serious wounds to spoil his day.
This didn’t mean that Fuller was a coward or ran from his duty by any means, far from it in fact. He had simply come to realise that there was a difference between the fight – which he revelled in – and war – which he knew was a never ending struggle and one that held no real tangible satisfaction. As such, he was more than happy to earn his wage, albeit with an indifferent resignation, for he had developed a realism of war that bordered precariously on pessimism.
In his twelve years as a soldier, Fuller had come to nurse the niggling tingle at the back of his brain that told him his survival so far had pushed his odds beyond normal; that luck probably had more of a hand in his longevity than skill. He had come to call the voice ‘the mother–in–law’ and did his very best in drowning it out when off the battlefield in whatever mind loosening distraction was available.
But here, today, he was seized with a burning clarity that was fuelled by pure instinct, known to most veterans as the soldier’s instinct. He let the years of training and fighting guide his sword arm as he cut his way into enemy bodies, shutting off the part in his mind that wondered dispassionately whose son this one could be. When a young lad suddenly charged at him, Fuller ducked his head and the hapless boy slammed face first into the peaked crest of Fuller’s helm. A short stab in the gut was all that was needed to dispatch the stunned lad, and Fuller felt the slippery fish of a rogue thought that chased through the carefully constructed net of his mind: all that training just to be killed in less than ten seconds.
He listened to the incoherent hollers of the officers that had caught up with the party he had found himself with, and Fuller was seasoned enough that he didn’t panic when he realised he hadn’t understood a single bloody word they had said. He watched when his fellow soldiers swarmed like locusts along the barricades and makeshift battlements the enemy had made, and he followed suit, again careful that he wasn’t among the first to arrive.
Fuller brought up the rear of a train of his fellows through a rabbit warren battlement, indifferently detached as he skewered those fallen enemies that hadn’t quite died yet. As they scorched through trenches and corridors like a ravenous lava flow, the party dispatched the enemy archers that still hid in their dugouts, and the way for the rest of Fuller’s kin was paved to push farther into the encampment.
He heard the cry of an officer, a rally that urged the men forward, “For Agathem! For the Emperor!”
And at last a destructive wave of his fellow soldiers flooded into the centre of the enemy encampment, as unstoppable as the rage of the sea. Fuller, for his part, took his time in clambering down to the new development in the battle, for his grizzled mind reasoned that the murderous fight would still be there by the time he arrived.
When he got there it was clear that the sheer force of Imperial numbers had pushed the enemy to their very limits, and he joined the fight replenished with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time until the battle was over.
Fuller pushed through with his shield, the weight of his advance insistent upon the unfortunate soldier in front of him. He grinned in malignant glee when he noticed the soldier’s helm didn’t have a nose guard and as Fuller crouched sharply, he brought his shield down in level with his shoulder. As expected, the enemy soldier kept his gaze on Fuller and with the sudden upwards sweep of his shield, the man’s nose broke against the metallic rim with a bursting gush of blood. The man’s head snapped backward with a shout and quicker than blinking, Fuller stepped forward, plunging his blade into the soldier’s exposed throat just enough to kill him.
Before his first enemy had fallen, Fuller marked the next that had flanked him on his exposed side, rotating with the natural action of his last strike upon the first soldier. His shield arm shuddered with the impact of a turned attack as he completed his spin, and after he brought his knee crashing up into the enemy’s groin, he delivered a hefty headbutt with the crest of his helm. A sliver of skin was seen between the suddenly senseless enemy’s helm and pauldron, and when Fuller seized upon his target with a reversed–grip stab, the blood stained blade pierced deeply into the soldier’s collarbone.
Among his dispassionate instinct Fuller became aware of a mixed blare of horns, a call of retreat that screamed of distress. He stood in bleary contemplation of whose side had won and as he looked up, the banners atop the encampment’s poles were set alight by flaming arrows. Clean up for the cavalry. Fuller thought as he watched the enemy flee amid the triumphant roars of his fellow soldiers, unwittingly straight toward the contingent of Imperial cavalry that surrounded the encampment.
Fuller panted heavily in both weary relief and exertion as he speared his sword into the ground, and he lifted his helm with a tired grunt. He wiped the sweat, grime and blood from his face and as he tucked his helm under his shield arm, he swept his gaze along the devastation of the battlefield with squinted eyes.
Bodies lay strewn like gruesome birdseed and Fuller glanced upwards with a wry grimace at the crows that already circled ominously overhead, eager for the feast of carrion. The once green hill now stank of death – a metallic, human waste infused, sickly sweet stench unlike any other – and the ground was pierced with arrows in a mockery of the vibrant wildflowers that used to grow here. Horses screamed and screeched as they tried to cope with broken and slashed limbs, a cacophony of sound that matched the wails and moans of the survivors – some of whom could only loosely be called so.
It was a sight that Fuller was so familiar with and so tired of, yet as much as he was so indifferent of such destruction it was a sign that once again, he had somehow survived another battle.
“Hey, hey! Fuller!” A fellow soldier shouted cheerfully. Fuller turned his head at the sound of the hail and saw the man who had addressed him, surreptitiously placing the sole of his boot against that of a dead soldier. The man then grinned at Fuller with a happy-go-lucky slash of teeth and called, “Looks like you made it through!”
“And you, Ristus.” Fuller replied as he pulled his short sword from the ground with a weary sigh, the blade black and sticky from the lifeblood of so many bodies. He rotated his head, wincing when the bones in his neck cracked loudly, and when he looked back Ristus had already unabashedly hauled the dead man’s boots off.
“Anyone would think we were soldiers, eh?” Ristus said cheerfully as he sat on the filthy ground and exchanged his own tatty boots for the ones still warm, heedless of the dead soldier’s entrails that steamed wetly beside him.
“I’m beginning to wonder, Ristus.” Fuller replied and absentmindedly glanced down at the sound of an agonised moan. He hadn’t even noticed that an enemy soldier lay at his feet, bloody hands still clutched at his stomach where a hefty blade wound had scored a livid gash that pumped blood interminably.
“Still, it’s nice to know that old dogs like us are still lucky.” Ristus said as he stood up and experimentally wiggled his toes inside his newly acquired boots.
The man at Fuller’s feet stared up at him and even though blood welled from his mouth, a consuming fear steadily grew in his eyes as Fuller raised his blade.
“Lucky.” Fuller replied dispassionately and plunged the short sword into the prone soldier’s chest, chasing the last of the man’s life away.
It didn’t take long for the crows to descend for their feast and among the squawking, feathered devils moved the looters. Looting on the battlefield was one of these things that was accepted in a frowned–upon sort of way, that somehow directing attention away from it made it less unacceptable. The harsh reality was, as Fuller saw it anyway, an infantryman’s salary and kit were both as woeful as each other. There was an old saying within the Imperial army: the dead have no use for possessions. And as such, if an opportunity for a new pair of boots or extra spot of rations cropped up your way, you bloody well seized them with both hands and counted yourself lucky.
His brother soldier Ristus, however, took an even more profitable view on looting: if a dead man carried the likes of gold teeth, buttons and jewellery, then it was a good way for him to boost his wage. He never took coin purses though, for these were far harder to hide and explain away to the brass…but a little jewellery always made the whores just that little bit more eager to please, and nothing made Ristus happier than a happy whore.
Fuller sat upon the remnants of a destroyed barricade and stared reflectively into the middle distance, his fist curled protectively around the cigarette he had found in someone’s pocket. He enjoyed these calm moments after battle, for they were the only real peace he was offered these days, apart from when he slept. Fuller liked to let his mind wander into the thick soup of absolutely nothing, a valuable skill that veterans learned quickly before the voices took over.
He savoured the cigarette – his first in…God knows how long – as Ristus industriously picked his way through the pockets of a soldier nearby, the dead man laden with a gut full of arrows. Ristus now had the man’s mouth open as though he were inspecting a horse, searching for the elusive gold teeth that not many had the fortune to afford these days. Ristus was an optimist of a certain macabre quality, and even though Fuller was an opportunist himself, he had never felt the need to root around in someone else’s mouth.
“Pearly white, the lucky bastard.” Ristus remarked and rocked back on his haunches. He then chuckled as he plucked one of the many arrows that pierced the soldier and quipped in dark humour, “Well, in a manner of speaking.”
Fuller couldn’t help the wry smile that tugged at the edge of his mouth and, with eyes still focused sightlessly on the middle distance, held the cigarette out in a silent offer for Ristus.
Ristus stood up stiffly, arching his back to stretch his spine with a wince, but his face lit up in a smile of thanks when he reached out for the cigarette. He glanced at Fuller through the stream of smoke with a thoughtful squint and returned the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb.
“You’ve got that look on your face.” Ristus remarked as Fuller accepted the cigarette back, his eyes still empty and vague.
“Hmm?” Fuller responded distractedly.
“Like you can’t remember where you buried your bone.” Ristus said and watched Fuller carefully when he took a draw.
When Fuller finally looked up and focused on Ristus, he blew a stream of smoke through his nostrils as he thought on how he should respond. “Just thinking.” He said flatly.
Ristus’s eyebrows hiked as he quipped, “Careful, lad, you know it’s the officers that do the thinking.”
Fuller didn’t laugh nor respond and with a sense of awkward inevitability, Ristus braced himself for what he knew was coming next.
“I think it’s time for me to chuck it in.” Fuller said finally and as he cast his eyes along the dead battlefield, he thumbed the now chilled sweat away from his nose with a sniff.
Ristus stared at him silently for a moment, for even though his prediction had been right, it was still quite a thing hearing it spoken aloud. “How many campaigns does this make it, then?” He asked finally.
Fuller raised his eyes towards the heavens and inhaled wearily as he constructed the timeline of his career, as though the answer was written among the clouds for the world to see. “This’ll be…five. I think.”
Ristus whistled in appreciation. “Four for me.” He said in empathy. He then inhaled through his teeth philosophically as he tilted his head and moved onto his next body, “Seems like we’re old hands at this lark, you and me.”
“Yeah…” Fuller replied in a quiet mumble as he absentmindedly picked a piece of crusted gore from the toe seam of his boot, “That’s the problem.”
Fuller’s childhood had been basic; simple, but full of love, born into a poor family with nothing but the shack of a house Fuller’s father had built himself. His parents had had pride, however, and so his father had done all he could to provide while his mother proudly schooled him in writing and reading, with high hopes for his future.
Then the red plague had come to his home town of Oreus…Fuller’s father had been away at the hiring fair in the eponymous capital of Imperial Agathem in the relentless search for work. But his mother…
Fuller’s father had come home to a dead wife and an emaciated, sobbing seven year old son and from that moment on, Fuller had known that life would never be easy for him. He had watched his father steadily cripple himself with back breaking work and Fuller had realised with cold clarity that looking at his father, was looking at his own future. As soon as Fuller had reached eighteen, he had announced that he had joined the Emperor’s army and there had been both relief and a deep sadness in his father’s eyes.
Fuller had blindly joined campaign after campaign, had been to so many different countries and places, and sent his poor father as much money as he could with each letter he wrote. In return for his youth, army life had made a hardened man of him; but six years into his career, Fuller had received news that his father had passed. The letter had been dated from six months previously and Fuller had realised with a plunge of his stomach that he was now all alone.
After his third campaign, he had returned home to see the house was a wreck of the place it had once been and those within the town had treated him as a stranger. For he was physically and mentally different from the quiet, little boy that had happily run about the streets all those years ago. Fuller had contemplated on staying, but a strange panic had seized him when he had sat in the kitchen that seemed so alien, in spite of his fond childhood memories. He had realised then that Oreus could no longer be his home, never mind Agathem, and even though he had never truly reflected the desires of his Emperor – like so many of his brothers – Fuller had grown up knowing nothing else but the ways of war.
And so Fuller had sold the house that should have been his, for civilian life seemed like an unreachable dream that he had instinctively known he couldn’t be a part of. He left again for the army that was both his home and his prison, joining the ranks for yet another pointless war that the Emperor had conjured out of nothing. It hadn’t been the best choice, he knew that now; but Fuller couldn’t die helpless to some plague, or kill his pride with work that demeaned him. Even though each war seemed just as ludicrous as the last to Fuller, he still went where he was told and was paid for his troubles.
But after the death of his father…it was hard for a soldier to fight in the name of loved ones when you knew they were already dead. And after the years that had followed, Fuller had slowly begun to question himself, his motives and his future. But it had only been over the past two or three years that the questions had formed their own voice within him, and it was one that joined the mother–in–law in nagging harmony.
Ristus’s voice cut through the deep ocean of Fuller’s thoughts when he asked, “What would you do?”
Fuller looked up once more; Ristus had pulled a small knife from his belt and tirelessly cut the many buttons off the dead soldier’s double breasted overcoat. No doubt they’d fetch a pretty trade later on.
Fuller shrugged in silent reply, watching on as Ristus pulled a nasty, discoloured sock from his belt pouch and tipped the buttons inside. Ristus then sighed as he passed a dirty hand over his face, bristled with days old stubble, and glanced thoughtfully at Fuller side on.
“How long have you been thinking this?” He asked finally.
“A while now.”
“Weeks? Months?” Ristus asked as he watched Fuller’s face for clues. But when Fuller didn’t respond, the severity of the thoughts clicked in his mind and he finished gravely, “Ah.”
“Yeah.” Fuller said almost sadly.
Ristus nodded slowly. “You know what happens when a soldier starts thinking shit like that, right?” He asked quietly.
“Yeah, I know.” Fuller replied and threw the stub of cigarette away. As soon as a soldier thought the way Fuller had been for some time now, he found his instincts dulled and his speed slowed. He had undeniably lost his heart for the fight and he knew it would be only a matter of time until he paid the ultimate price for it.
“You just need a bit of leave, is all.” Ristus said guardedly and when he stood up once more, he dusted his lap off with dirty hands. He had been aware that Fuller had been daydreaming a lot more than usual lately, as he always did after a certain time without leave. But Ristus hadn’t broached the subject until now, in case one of them had said something the other would have regretted terminally.
“Sure, I guess you’re right.” Fuller said and shook himself both physically and mentally. He needed to get his shit together, he knew, but he was just so tired of it all. He sighed and continued, “Damn, but this campaign has been a long stretch.”
“That it has, brother.” Ristus said in truth as he offered a hand. Fuller gripped the hand with a grin and allowed himself to be pulled onto his feet, accepting the following friendly clap on the shoulder with a grateful nod.
“Tell you what, when we get into the nearest town we’ll cut loose, blow off some steam.” Ristus said reasonably.
Fuller nodded morosely in answer.
Ristus then grinned suddenly and raised his hands in front of his chest. “And I’ll buy you a nice distraction with lovely, big tits to sink your face into.” He said with a suggestive wiggle of his fingers.
Fuller laughed and slapped a hand onto Ristus’s shoulder, grateful for his friend’s uncomplicated brand of counselling. “Can’t say no to that!” He replied with a genuine smile.
As he watched Ristus move onto the next lifeless victim with a grin on his face, Fuller thought about the truth in his friend’s words. Yes, he definitely needed a…distraction…but it wasn’t likely that this uneasiness he had kept stored for so long would just disappear after his horse had been unbridled, so to speak. He was battle weary, and not just from this recent stretch of duty, but from years of built up fatigue. He had become so dispassionate, so jaded in everything that he sometimes wondered if there was still anything left within his soul at all. He had also found himself wondering darkly what all these battles and injuries were doing to his body in the long run.
It was only a few nights ago when he had sat on guard duty alone, silently alert while the rain had beaten a harsh tattoo on his helm, that he had realised he was only in his thirties. He felt and looked far older than he was – a symptom of life in the Imperial army, where every time you drew your sword, another year was sheared off your life. His mind was that of a middle aged man, his cynicism a solid foundation under the temple that was his pragmatism, and his knees were beginning to crap out.
All in all, Fuller considered life in the Imperial army was slowly killing him and his own short sword was the murder weapon. Then again, it could be said that he used it on himself, for no one had ever forced him to sign up on a new campaign.
He kneeled gazing into a mucky puddle nearby and stared with self–criticism at the effects twelve years of near constant war had inflicted upon him. His dark blue eyes held a scornful cynicism that had slowly developed over the years and, in conjunction with the furrows on his forehead and eyes, his expression looked as though it was in a perpetual state of sarcastic disapproval. But at least his trusted helm had spared him from any disastrous scars along the years, aside from the old ones across the bridge of his nose, above his lip and the other in the pit of his cheek.
When he was young, Fuller’s hair had been a deep brown on the verge of black, thick and straight. Now, after the hardships of army life, there were obvious slashes of grey at the temples that were concealed by the close–cropped back and sides regulation haircut. He ruffled a dirty hand through the grimy tangle on top and passed the hand along his jaw, unshaven for at least a week after the long march to the encampment. He hadn’t had the opportunity to maintain his regulation grooming – not that he cared much – and with it was the uncomfortable crackle of blood, sweat and muck that coated his face like a second skin.
He scooped up some of the puddle water in his palm and while the indifferent face within distorted and swirled, he splashed his head and face, softening up most of the muck. When he finally stood up, Fuller rounded his shoulders wearily, for his back had already stiffened terribly in spite of the experience and hard muscle developed over the years.
Fuller glanced over at Ristus once again and examined him silently while the man industriously pulled a ring from a swollen, dead hand without any sign of repulsion. He had known Ristus for about seven years now; their friendship sealed by belonging to that particular fraternity of those who somehow stayed just outside of Death’s sight. It was hard to tell whether or not Fuller would have been friends with Ristus outside of army life, but he did know that the opportunistic soldier was great to be around when on leave.
Fuller could honestly say that being friends with Ristus was an education in itself, for the man cut loose like no other and enthusiastically celebrated his continuation of life through whores, drink and drugs until he either ran out of money, or the call to arms came. Ristus did everything he could to spend any accumulated money or loot with the fervour of a dying man, and as such was a real wild card that often graced the jail cells of many a town – usually with Fuller in tow as a casualty of his celebrations.
He kept his blond hair shorn in the same regulation manner as Fuller, his frame was slighter and shorter than he, and Ristus had developed a knack of turning a battlefield into his quarter–house. If a soldier was ever in need of spare buttons, a replacement knife or was desperate for tobacco, then Ristus was always the man to go to. Ristus always seized the opportunity of gleaning a new pair of boots for himself, for a soldier was nothing without his feet to move him, and had a particular set of morals that only made sense once explained aloud. His personality was definitely an acquired taste, but Fuller figured it took a soldier to understand a soldier and as such, took Ristus’s foibles at face value.
A furious squawk to his left tore Fuller’s eyes away and he spied the argumentative crows as they fought over some soldier’s eyeball that flapped wetly from a cruel beak. He stooped to pick up a rock and when he hurled it at the crows, they wheeled into the sky in an explosion of feathers and shrieks. He walked towards the corpse then and his nose wrinkled in distaste: the man was now a mess of gouges from the sharp beaks that had sliced his face and he stared sightlessly into the sky.
Fuller bent down and stared impassively into that ruined face, a dispassionate wonder within him of whether there would be any point in closing the soldier’s remaining eye. He placed a hand on the man’s chest and patted in condolence, an action that brought his puzzled attention to the unusual bulge within the soldier’s overcoat.
With a frown of curiosity, Fuller pulled the overcoat open, scattering buttons into the dirt underfoot, and he patted down the soldier’s chest. After his search proved inconclusive, Fuller checked the overcoat for inside pockets, and was surprised at the discovery of a rudimentary pocket that had been hand sewn into the lining. He tore the hem open with his fingers and his face broke into a toothsome grin at the treasure within: a small pouch that didn’t have the heft of a coin purse. Curious, he pulled the strings for a furtive peek inside and chuckled in approval at what was surprisingly hidden within.
“Hey! Ristus!” He called with a backwards hitch of his head, his eyes still on the unexpected bounty.
When he heard Ristus approach, Fuller turned on his haunches and held up his prize with a grin of triumph. Ristus peered inside the pouch and Fuller’s grin widened when he heard the envious moan.
“You jammy bastard!” Ristus cried, genuinely jealous he hadn’t found the rare stash of cured hemp buds before Fuller.
Fuller stood up and glanced around furtively as Ristus handed him back the pouch with a reluctant look. “Guard duty?” Fuller asked conspiratorially with a held out fist.
“Too fucking right.” Ristus replied with a smile that lit up his face and bumped his own fist against Fuller’s. He snaked his head back in case any officers were nearby and, satisfied no one official was around, he hitched a thumb in a gesture that suggested Fuller should follow.
Fuller trailed behind Ristus and glanced around surreptitiously as he pressed the pouch against his thigh while he walked. He knew that as soon as any officer spotted them the pouch would be confiscated and the men whipped, but…Fuck ‘em, we’ve earned it. He thought rebelliously. Ristus led the way towards a small clearing behind one of the encampment’s shacks, and into an area mercifully full of dense shrub that would give them plenty of cover.
Fuller exclaimed happily at the sight of a hollow log laid strewn on the mulch floor and with a slight stoop, Ristus dragged it into a particularly well–hidden spot amid the cover of the largest bush. As Fuller sat down and investigated the contents of the pouch, Ristus sat beside him, rubbing his hands together with obvious anticipation. He produced the small clay pipe he had ‘discovered’ years ago and passed it to Fuller, eager that they get started before they were inevitably caught. Ristus couldn’t help the sudden salivation in his mouth when he watched his friend break up some buds into the bowl of the pipe, for this find was a rare treat indeed.
Fuller popped the pipe between his lips and patted himself down in search of the matches he had used only a moment ago. Ristus proffered his own in his eagerness to get Fuller started, for it brought his turn a little closer, and Fuller accepted the matchbox with a crooked smile.
Fuller struck a match and slowly brought it close to the pipe, fully aware that he teased Ristus in taking so long. Ristus’s eyes flickered between the pipe and Fuller’s eyes until he became impatient and sighed with mild frustration.
“All right, Fuller, it’s not foreplay!”
“Patience, patience!” Fuller chastised and with a cheeky grin, he finally put them both out of their misery and lit the ambrosia within.
He pulled the pipe from his mouth at the top of his inhalation and as he held his breath, he passed the pipe to Ristus, who took a draw with a moan of enjoyment. As soon as Fuller blew out the smoke, he nodded in appreciation and awaited the delicious moment when the buds hit. Fuller and Ristus sat on their hollow log peaceably and as they passed the small clay pipe between one another, the smoke blew freely around them.
When the hit finally came into lethargic bloom, they turned their eyes to each other slowly and grinned widely with a creaking of childish laughter.
“Say what you like about the fuckers,” Fuller said as he brought the pipe back up, “they cure damn good buds.”
“It’s just a shame we have to kill ‘em all.” Ristus responded and the pair chuckled at the absurdity of it all, a slow laughter that gained momentum as it went on.
“What the fuck are we doing here, anyway?” Fuller asked with bleary eyes.
“You’re askin’ me?” Ristus replied as he exhaled a trail of smoke that tumbled into the air, “I only show up for the looting.”
Fuller laughed in response, a tumbleweed laughter that gathered Ristus up in its wake like an inept tornado. They sat there in humour for a while and enjoyed the simplistic laughter and company for as long as it lasted, before the business of war reared its ugly head once more.
“So…were you serious?” Ristus asked in continuation of the conversation from before as he accepted the pipe again.
“Hmmm?” Fuller mumbled distantly as he puffed a smoke ring and watched it float away.
“Leaving the army. You’re serious?”
Fuller nodded slowly and giggled at the landscape as it bobbed in his vision. “Yeah…” He sighed, “I’m done with all this. I’m not even that good a soldier, let’s be honest.”
“Sure you are.” Ristus said as he blew out a stream of smoke and offered the pipe back to Fuller, “You’re still alive, ain’t you?”
Fuller took a deep puff of the pipe and as he held the smoke for a moment, he squinted his eyes, shaking his head in response. He then blew the smoke out steadily and said, “Don’t make me a good soldier.”
“True…” Ristus replied with a moronic grin as he nudged Fuller’s knee in a silently cheeky request for another pass of the pipe. Fuller nearly fell drunkenly off the log from the slight pressure upon his leg, which only caused the pair to laugh even more into breathless, idiotic grins.
“No, seriously.” Fuller said after he had regained some kind of equilibrium, “I reckon I should be doin’ something…soldiery right now.” He then looked at Ristus and his face creased into a helpless rictus when he started to chuckle madly, “But you’re far too fucking stoned!”
The pair laughed again and the hilarity degenerated into that breathless hacking and wheezing that over–laughing always produced. They were so intoxicated they didn’t even hear the tombstone footfalls of Sergeant Brethas on his approach, for he had been alerted by the sounds of the two men’s unbridled laughter.
“What the fuck is going on over here!” Sergeant Brethas roared as soon as he had burst through into the clearing, his armoured chest proud and thunderous face chiselled from indignant rock.
“Aw, shit.” Ristus muttered as he furtively tapped out the contents of the pipe against the log and hid it somewhere within his clothing with a sleight of hand Fuller couldn’t even hope to follow.
Fuller, for his part, simply stared up at the sergeant with wide eyes, for his mouth was closed and his cheeks were still puffed full of smoke. Even as the sergeant stared at the pair incredulously with the fire of hell in his eyes, he watched as Fuller cracked a corner of his mouth and expelled the smoke as surreptitiously as he could.
That was enough for Sergeant Brethas to thoroughly lose his temper. “Fuller! Ristus! On your fucking feet!!” He screamed indignantly and rage marked his titanic face terribly with a swathe of red heat.
To give them their due, Fuller and Ristus both automatically jumped onto their feet at the unquestionable authority within that ferocious roar – albeit shakily – and stood to rigid, bleary eyed attention.
“Yes’sarge!” Fuller rapped with an emphatic salute, but his sharp form was completely ruined by the idiot grin that was plastered across his face.
“Explain to me exactly what you two shit slingers are doing here?” The sergeant barked with hands on hips, his body practically vibrating from the barely controlled rage that bubbled within him like an overheated cauldron.
Fuller maintained his salute with twitching lips as he lined the words up in the fuzzy fog of his inebriated mind. Eventually, he hazarded an answer with a bleary creak of both voice and eyes, “Guard duty?”
Ristus snorted and laughed like a drain. “Yeah, what he said.” He supplied with a jerk of his thumb at Fuller.
Sergeant Brethas sniffed the air – more for dramatic effect, for the smell of the cured hemp buds was incredibly potent even from beyond the clearing. His eyes flickered between Fuller and Ristus angrily and he groaned internally at the sight of both men’s faces that trembled with barely suppressed laughter.
“Are you high, soldier?” Sergeant Brethas asked Ristus with a dangerous growl as he stepped forward uncomfortably close into Ristus’s personal space, staring sideways into a bloodshot eye.
“Me? Nah…I’m only five foot eight.” Ristus quipped.
The sergeant’s eyes bulged in horrified silence while Fuller sniggered and surreptitiously snaked his fingers towards Ristus, who played his own fingertips against his with a moronic grin.
“Are you two fucking kidding me? Of all the soldiers to survive, you two useless cunts had to be among them?” Sergeant Brethas ranted. He then suddenly slapped Ristus harshly when the soldier’s eyes listed blearily away and the sergeant shouted point blank into his face, “Hey! I’m talking to you, Ristus!”
The pair giggled like schoolchildren and Brethas sighed with a roll of his eyes, for he knew that there was no way he could get any sense out of them now.
“Oh, for the love of…give me that shit!”
Fuller handed over the pouch reluctantly and the sergeant snatched the contraband so sharply, that Fuller rocked forward unintentionally. The sergeant glared at Fuller as he ineptly righted himself and offered him a weak, thin lipped grin of apology.
“Get yourselves the fuck in front of the Colonel, right now.” Sergeant Brethas snapped in disgust as he scattered the contents of the pouch into the dirt, grinding the decision into the mud with a furious boot, “I’ve had enough of you two!”
“Yes, Sarge.” Ristus said gravely in return, for his sobriety had returned with the cold clarity of ice water down his spine at the mention of Colonel Galorian. He was already on shaky ground with him from previous disciplinaries, and Ristus knew that another serious indiscretion would mean the tanty for him.
“And as for you!” The sergeant rapped as he pointed a finger straight into Fuller’s face, “Wipe that shit–eating grin off your face before I punch it the fuck off, clear?”
“Yes, Sarge.” Fuller responded and even though he set his face as best he could, he thought hazily that the sergeant really should have kept the buds for himself.
Sergeant Brethas gazed at both men in question of their ability, but he groaned in exasperation and shook his head derisively. “I don’t trust you two clowns to get there, so I’ll take you myself.” He said angrily. He then stood to spine–snapping attention and, with his chest puffed out in indignant sergeant fashion, he barked, “Left face!”
Fuller and Ristus followed the order instinctively even as their minds lagged behind and for their efforts, they nearly stumbled over each other in another fit of giggles.
“Quick march! Go on, get out of here!!” Sergeant Brethas roared and as he shoved the men in the direction of Colonel Galorian’s tent, he already bristled with rage and shame at what the Colonel was going to say this time.
Fuller stood in the cold, pouring rain and as he wriggled uncomfortably in his armour, he winced at how the roughness of his shirt rubbed agonisingly on the fresh welts inflicted upon his back. The Colonel had been swift in doling out the punishment for Fuller and Ristus – a dozen lashes each – which both men took without defiance or argument, for it hadn’t been their first time. Once his shirt had settled enough to not worry his welts any further, Fuller rubbed the new bruise that ached and swelled on his jaw. He knew that Brethas had knocked a couple of teeth loose after he had distributed his own discipline upon Fuller afterward, but at least the beating he had gotten had been more preferable to what Ristus had ended up with.
Being a supply encampment, the captured base didn’t have a tanty, and so Ristus had found himself flung incongruously into the pig pen. Knee deep in pig shit and mud, he was now a thoroughly miserable man, with no peace to lick his wounds or walk off the pain. And since Colonel Galorian had suspended his pay as a reinforcement of previous indiscretions, Ristus’s already foul mood had only darkened into a mire of self–pity.
Fuller sighed and shook his head at his own misery; not that he had taken advantage of the rare treasure – for nothing quite emptied his head of troubles like a good batch of hemp buds – but rather that he’d been caught like some green recruit. He really had lost his edge after all.
He shouldered his crossbow and winced when the stock bumped his pauldron agonisingly down onto the raw edge of one of his lashes. It caused a chain reaction of pain that made him grunt and as he wriggled once more, he cursed under his breath of the Colonel’s parentage. Once the shrieking pain had subsided into a dull throb, Fuller grudgingly walked his patrol along the border of the outer barricades, a plan within his mind that he would take his time over the sweep.
He was going to be on duty for at least four more hours after all, so he failed to see where the rush was. As he squelched through packed mud and badly placed stones, he wished fervently that he had a smoke and cast his optimistic eyes along the surface of the battlement for any glimpse of a cigarette. After his search proved fruitless, Fuller continued his patrol with a lazy gait and as his feet swung like an effortless clock pendulum, he let his mind wander contemplatively onto other things.
Yes this campaign had already been a long stretch so far…and Fuller couldn’t help but notice its cause was even more ridiculous than the Emperor’s usual fare. This land he found himself in now, Demaria, was in direct trade with one of Agathem’s sworn enemies and as such, were tarred as enemies of the Empire.
The ludicrous part was that the trade in question was cotton, a product that Agathem held in natural abundance and was therefore of absolutely no value to the Emperor whatsoever. But still the Emperor had waged war and as an extension of his sword arm, the Imperial army had been sent out across the small stretch of sea that separated the two countries. From what little he had seen of Demaria’s countryside, Fuller had quickly realised that the land was actually quite a beautiful country; when guts weren’t being spilled across the grass, that was. He also couldn’t help but wonder wryly where in the hell the Emperor would suggest they keep the spoils when they inevitably won.
He stopped when he overlooked a clearing, presumably created by the previous occupants – if the tree stumps and trampled dirt were any judge – and cast his bored eyes along the landscape with a weary sigh. Fuller then raised his eyes towards the moon, its silver face full and fat in the sky, and as he puffed his breath he watched the moisture steam away across it. He smiled slightly at this simple amusement and as his fingers tapped a beat on the stock of his crossbow, he rocked languidly back on his heels.
Yes, remaining proud of your nation was hard when you knew deep inside that your Emperor was a fucking idiot and a temperamental lunatic to boot. Fuller suspected it was only a matter of time until these wars turned into bar room brawl types: you spilled my pint, you bastard! But these thoughts were just as dangerous as the soldierly “why am I even here?” thoughts; for if he let his guard down and spoke them aloud, even if the people who heard them agreed with him, it would mean his execution.
He knew that Ristus didn’t care either way, but still wouldn’t voice his thoughts aloud, hence the reason for his tight lip as of late. The lines between the two internal thoughts had become so blurred that Fuller wasn’t sure where one finished and the other started.
When he suddenly thought he had seen movement from within the clearing, so indistinct that he wondered if he had seen it at all, Fuller’s eyes squinted and his hands twitched for the crossbow. He stood stock still then, one hand on his crossbow while the other reached for a bolt within the battered quiver strapped against his thigh. As he slotted a bolt slowly into the flight groove, he kept his eyes firmly glued onto the suggested origin of motion, almost to the point of drying his eyes out.
But it wasn’t until he finally blinked that there was a definite rustle among a patch of shrub nearby, and Fuller tensed with a hiss between his teeth. He raised the crossbow slowly and, with a roll of his shoulder that fit the stock snugly against the joint, his breath was calm and controlled as he watched with hunter’s eyes.
A rabbit abruptly exploded from out of the shrub with erect ears and as it cut a zigzag path across the clearing, its little cotton tail bounced a white dot among the dark of night. Fuller hiked his crossbow upwards with a snarl of frustration that was married with relief and glared at the rabbit as it rocketed away. He then continued on the path that would bring him onto the battlements that overlooked the main encampment, and joined the other soldier on duty in his sector.
“Evenin’, Fuller.” The soldier murmured as he looked outwards across the barren land.
“Marcus.” Fuller replied and nodded a greeting as he stood beside his fellow soldier.
“Quiet tonight, at least.”
“Aye, nearly scored a rabbit not two minutes ago.” Fuller said as he cast his own eyes across the ruin of land. In his periphery, he saw Marcus had turned towards him and the whistle of empathetic appreciation told Fuller that the swell of his jaw had been noticed.
“That’s going to be a belter in the morning.”
Fuller smiled crookedly and pointed at his jaw. “This? Nah, Brethas hits like a pussy.”
Marcus chuckled in response, “Brethas, eh? What did you do to deserve that?”
“He caught me and Ristus with a pouch of hemp bud.”
“Hemp bud?” Marcus asked with an impressed furrow of his brow, “Where the hell did you get that?”
Fuller looked at Marcus with a sly half grin that told his fellow soldier everything he needed to know. Marcus acknowledged the significant look with a nod and casually dismissed the implication it brought.
“You still got it?” He asked as he counted in his head how many brass buttons he had that could be used as an acceptable trade.
“No…” Fuller said sullenly and turned towards the moonlit scenery again, “Brethas poured it out into the dirt.”
“What a bastard.”
Marcus skewed his lips, disappointed that the buds had been discarded, but he tilted his head philosophically and said, “Well, at least you didn’t get lashed.”
“Oh no, I did, all right.” Fuller replied and rounded his shoulders when the merest mention of his punishment made his welts itch uncomfortably, “Twelve of them. Brethas just added his own flavour to it afterwards.”
Marcus pursed his lips and inhaled a hiss of condolence. “Shit, he really doesn’t like you, does he?” He said with a chuckle.
Fuller shifted his feet and grinned. “I reckon he just doesn’t want to show favouritism, is all.” He replied brashly.
Marcus laughed. “And Ristus? What happened to him?”
“He got the same, but now he’s knee deep in pig shit for a spell.”
Marcus’s nose wrinkled in distaste and he opened his mouth in response, until a flurry of activity spurred him into raising his crossbow. Fuller instinctually raised his own weapon and as he pointed it towards where Marcus had been alerted, his eyes scoured across the scrub.
“Movement.” Marcus murmured superfluously under the barest of breaths and waited statue–still for any further motion.
There ahead…another rustle of movement within the leaves and branches and suddenly a cloud of birds erupted from their roosts, spiralling into the sky.
“Shit.” Fuller muttered and his mind brought him the instinctual warning that something big must have made the birds panic the way they had.
But the disturbance was well beyond the borders of his or Marcus’s patrol and, since his back still stung hotly after the recent punishment inflicted upon him, Fuller was in no hurry to disobey orders and leave his post for any reason.
A wolf then howled eerily into the night’s darkness like the wail of a banshee and in that immediate moment, the primal hairs on both Fuller’s and Marcus’s necks electrified. They stared at each other, wide eyed and dumb as the howl rolled on, so close to the encampment that Fuller wondered if it had been a wolf they had seen within the scrub. They stood in silence long after the howl had ended and Marcus’s mouth twitched uneasily as he watched the landscape for any further movement.
Marcus stood slowly from his reflexive stoop after it became apparent that no more motion was to be had, his flesh still tingling with apprehensive adrenalin. “Maybe it was just passing.” He mused dubiously, but his fingers twitched nervously on the stock of his crossbow.
“Maybe.” Fuller agreed in a mutter, utterly grateful that Marcus hadn’t made the bloody fool suggestion that they investigate.
Then with the barest nod of parting, Fuller slunk away in continuation of his long patrol…but he now kept his hand on his crossbow at all times, far more alert than he had been before.