Dukirk admired his chainmail armor. He had lifted it fair and square from a pikeman who fell in the field over the summer. Since then, it had taken up space in his pack as he lugged it along for a month. He still remembered cursing at the weight, but persevered in the hope that he could use it or sell it. He had stowed in a hole when his division had come together to erect the fortifications around their encampment. Now, with everyone at their ease, he had retrieved the armor. Everyone was at their ease. The first frost had fell the week before and marked the close of the campaign season. Even the grim looking Lieutenant Reef had given the men a nod at revelry and promised two fifths of whiskey for each company. This was the time to don the chainmail. The sergeant would assume he’d traded or gambled for it. It was still muddy in spots and it reeked of rust, but it was still better than those ratty bits of boiled leather he had before. Dukirk could well imagine he was a hero. There were even spots where it still reflected lights from the evening campfires. He felt as though he’d waited a long time for this moment. Nobody he knew had been treated to more than a bit of liquor and extra rations for a long time. Now, he’d put together a proper reward for himself. He nearly wrenched his shoulder patting himself on the back.
Dukirk had forced himself to wait until he drew night watch before digging up his armor. He had been careful not to seem to eager; groaning when his mark came up; bitching to the sergeant (although not too much); offering to trade with a few of the men that he knew would never accept. He had crept out of the log enclosure and thirty yards down the road before he’d turned off into the ditch to start grubbing through the dirt. He had stayed off the road and out of the light so he could struggle into the armor and figure out how all of the clever little clasps fit together. Even after donning it, he had leaned back in the ditch and relaxed, letting his limbs grow accustomed to the weight. This was why he was perfectly situated to see a ball of fire streak from the west and slam into the wooden barricades. The wood immediately burst into flames at the impact. He saw torches being lit to the south as a large group of men were moving from that direction. He imagined he could almost see the sword and sun emblems on their tabards. It could only be the red army of Pernok, coming to pay a visit. Dukirk started crawling through the ditch toward the burning barricades. He blessed his luck that his tabard and armor were saturated in mud and camouflaged from the approaching army.
It would take him only a few minutes to reach the fortification and sound the alarm. He would have made it undetected too, were it not for the dogs. They came running up the road, baying and barking in the night. There was no chance they would miss him, squirming in the muck. Sure enough, one of the dogs lept down into the ditch and started to worry his foot, having no vantage to grab his arms or throat. Dukirk kicked down hard. The dog yelped and jumped back. It crawled up on the other side of the ditch, barking. It’s fellows had caught on to the game and were piling around him. One had gotten ahead of him and was pouncing from side to side, barking and snarling. Dukirk drew the metal coif over his head and continued on determined. He imagined that he would meet his mates on the other side of the wall, their swords drawn and faces grinning; the captains shouting orders and rallying the men for war. He did not expect to see, past the snapping jaws of the dogs, the burnt corpse of the other sentry. Gams looked mighty surprised with the fire burning around him and the knife in his back.
‘Poor blighter’ thought Dukirk, although he secretly felt glad it was Gams and not himself who had found the wrong end of the knife. The dogs were getting more determined, trying to grab his neck around the coif and worrying his legs and arms. He was forced to kick out more and more. Occasionally he was greeted with a satisfying yelp as his foot connected. He knew eventually that he’d have to get up, or the men approaching from behind would catch him. He shook his head and continued to slog forward. He heard a whistling sound and instinctively flattened himself against the ditch. He heard several yelps and saw that some of the dogs had been slain by arrows. He pulled himself up and started to run toward the burning fortification.
“Over here you damn fool!” There was a small group of grubby soldiers hiding behind a hill to his right. He curved around to join them. They used their bows to slay the dogs that still followed him.
“Huh, no sword? Here you go soldier.” One of the men drew a long dagger and handed it to him. “It’ll serve you until we can find you better.”
“There’s soldiers coming up the road!” Dukirk was amazed that his voice worked.
“Yeah, we saw. Not much we can do. The other side of our little camp is in flames too. We were on night patrol. Lucky us.” He pointed down to the burning barricade. Screams could be heard.
“Why are we not fighting back? A little fire shouldn’t be enough to stop us.” Dukirk felt genuinely confused. And lucky. Very lucky.
“Black elves came up through the earth. A least, that’s our guess. Saw one of them climbing the walls. No one’s likely to get out of this alive. We’ve got one thing in our favor though. The general took a group of men and sallied out a few days ago. I think he meant to harry the enemy behind the lines. Cheeky. Not as cheeky as this though.”
“So, he’s alive?” Dukirk was surprised at how much genuine hope he felt.
“Yeah, maybe. We’ll find out. Who knows, maybe we actually still have an army around here somewhere. There’s always Hourtill too. Guess we could head that way. Me, I think we need to find the general. Boulandrick is a fair man. He’ll want to reward us for bringing him news. My names Sevil by the way, Sergeant to you though. These are my men Haras, Ponter, Basil, Vimer, and that comely lass is Helena”
“Fuck you Sevil” said Helena. She was at the edge of the group, an arrow knocked to her bow. Her voice was imperious, but tired. The sergeant laughed softly.
“Dukirk.” said Dukirk, nodding at the others.
“Fine, well this little bonfire roast is a mess and those soldiers are only a mile away. It’s time to flee. Haras, point. Ponter, Helena, take rear. Dukirk with me, and welcome to the Crossroads Irregulars. Now, move!”
The troop moved out to the east before curving north. Behind them the fortifications burned, casting a soft orange glow to the horizon. After a time, even that faded until only the stars showed the way.