Arcanum 1780: A New World
Tales - Death without Glory
Campfire Tales – Death Without Glory
The fire crackled lively in the early evening, while a frosty wind blew in from the west. Even clustered tightly around the campfire, the soldiers shivered against the cold summer evening. They glanced nervously at one another, uncomfortable in the silence that had arrived alongside the stranger who had stumbled across them.
He was covered in bruises, cuts and blood, rendering the uniform of His Majesty’s fusiliers nigh unrecognizable. They had been trying to coax information out of him since before the sun dipped below the horizon, but he remained as silent and still as a winter pond. Once he had set himself by the fire, his sole movement was to gesture for a blanket to wrap around himself. A heavy expectation settled around the camp, and none seemed willing, or indeed seemed able, to break the silence that was slowly suffocating them all.
“Two days.” The crack of his broken voice shattered the silence that had surrounded them, leaving them all painfully aware of every breath that passed through the brambles of the soldier’s vocal cords. After that brief burst of sound, the oppressive silence returned, hushing the wind and the summer birds. Just as the silence had finished bleeding them of their breath, another chill breeze swept through the camp, forcing shivers into their spines, threatening to shake them apart.
“What?” Thackery, sweet Thackery – never able to keep his mouth shut. Most times, a curse, but today, quite the opposite. His question seemed to shake their visitor out of his fugue.
“It’s what you were all wondering – how long I have been running.” His cold eyes pierced into each one of them. “I know everything you are too scared to ask. Am I a deserter? Of what? My entire regiment is gone. The entire 9th Fusiliers. I’m the last. They are all dead, to a man.”
Around the fire, eyes fell to the dirt as heads bowed. They had never encountered the 9th Fusiliers, but they were all King’s men, each one of them. A loss of an entire regiment was no small blow.
“How?” Thackery’s usual enthusiasm was vacant from his voice – it was impossible to tell if it he said anything at all, or if the word was whispered by the wind itself.
“I…” The stranger started and then fell silent. “There was a battle.” A few staggered nods around the campfire, urging the man to continue. “No. That’s not what done us in. Not entirely.” He took a drink of offered water, cleared his throat and began to speak, low and quiet.
“It started with a battle. Just the Spaniards and our boys, lined up like proper gentlemen. An honourable battle.” Thackery scoffed. The lad had his fill of honourable combat when the Rangers were attached to the King’s 117th Infantry. They all had. Too much honour could see a man put to the dirt far away from those who would mourn him.
“It all started as these things must – the opening salvos, the closing of ranks. Doing our duty for the King, putting the steel to those Spanish bastards. After the charge, we were at them with sword and bayonet, tooth and fury, giving worse than we got. When the mist rolled in, I thought nothing of it – bad choice of weather for a fracas, but Lord knows we aren’t in command of such things. It wasn’t until the mist turned to a roiling fog that I grew concerned. The fear didn’t come until after the screaming started.” The stranger retreated to the silence, eyes locking to Thackery’s, as though daring him to speak again. The embers of the fire slowly died as the cold air began to creep inside their ragtag uniforms.
“Who? Who started screaming?” Thackery asked, unbidden, his boyish voice barely audible above a whisper.
The stranger took a long, raspy breath before continuing. “Everyone.”
A pale wind swept through the camp, tearing at their breath and making it difficult to breathe. Thackery’s mouth worked open repeatedly, but even he had his words stolen away. The stranger scarcely seemed bothered by the wind now, even though the blanket had long since fallen from his shoulders. He continued, his voice hoary and low.
“The roiling fog wrapped around all of us, thick as you like, to where I couldn’t see the blood on the end of my sword. The screams, they started slowly at first, barely audible over the din of combat. In ones and twos, then quickly silenced. The cries started off in Spanish, but when I heard one of ours cry out for the Lord, I realized the sounds of fighting had died. The only sounds now were terrified screams, followed by noises seldom heard outside of an abattoir – wet, horrid. As the screaming came closer, I lost my nerve and turned to run – I’ve no notion of how many started running, but the screams were growing more infrequent when I fled. After long, all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing, the slap of my boots against the ground, and the pulsing of blood through my ears. It wasn’t until I slowed that I realized there was the sound of something else running alongside me. One horrified glance was all it took to confirm that it was a Spaniard, fleeing for the life through the woods, by sheer chance keeping abreast of me as we cut through the trees. Our path through the woods drew us closer together, almost by fate more than the natural growth of the trees, and with a shared glance we began to tire and slow. That was when I heard another scream – something intense, animal, and starved for the taste of flesh. The sound came from everywhere – at first I thought it so close as to be in front of us, but the snapping of branches came from behind. A glance behind revealed the advancing mist. I took one look to the side and locked eyes with the Spaniard, seeing my terror mirrored in his face – it was then that I knew I would be the one to survive. I still see the look of surprise in his face as I plunged my knife into his leg, the sound of him crashing into the underbrush as he lost his footing. Until I am laid in my grave, I’ll not forget the sounds of his agonized screams as he discovered the truth about our pursuer. And yet still I ran, through the night, until I came here, not resting once.”
The stranger sagged forward, almost pitching into the cold ashes of the fire. Those assembled all stared at each other with faces full of concern and horror. From far behind them, there was a loud crack in the woods, causing each of them to jump in turn.
Thackery cleared his throat, causing a start from his comrades, and earning him his share of glares. “I know we’re all tired, but didn’t he say he ran straight here?” The woods groaned again, and in silent agreement, the exhausted troop set off again, leaving the stranger behind at the remains of the fire, awaiting the coming darkness.
- Rase Cidraen