Since I'll be in Spain for the next two weeks, I thought I'd leave you with the beginnng of a short story. Enjoy.
Latest of night, earliest of day, as the slothful globe of the sunâ€™s first timid light creeps over the hilltops, the scent of morning carried briskly alongside the rushing illumination. But the darkness is always there first, waiting for it, grinning in its almost innocent way. Even now, upon the eave of all eaves, the grin could, in the half-light, perhaps pass as pretty. Even fair. Like a gnarled tree, warped and torn, an ugly sight to behold, and yet in the same time and place, quite charming. It could be pitied, and pity was a snare.
The landscape is almost eclipsed by a tide of bodies, moving with malignant purpose, a stride feral and yet determined, determined to bring about itâ€™s iron domination, to tighten itâ€™s hold over the world and squeeze until it bleeds. There are hills, the closest more precisely hillocks, rolling and barely elevated, where, if not for the endless marching, grass would sway in the fresh morning air. Further, towards the horizon, making it jagged, the rocky premises beyond promised real hills, hardly touched by the taming hands of mankind. Even from here, one can see the approaching swarm, distant but still irrevocably deadly & terrifying, toiling across the harsh terrain. No doubt they stretched further into the distance, blotting out all vestiges of hope.
The fields and farmsteads lying vulnerably within The Wallâ€™s looming shadow were long emptied of populace & livestock, although no reason presented itself as to why the cattle had been herded behind The Wallâ€™s protection. If there were any survivors by the end of this day, there would be more pressing matters than farming on their minds.
Leonard sniffed the air as it brushed past his skin, ruffling ever so slightly the long, silky black hair that cascaded down his shoulders like an ebony waterfall. There were embers borne aloft upon the faint breeze, a few sparse sparks of dying heat making it past The Wall. He stared down at the impossibly vast sea of flesh below, musing upon how to an onlooker, the grey line which was The Wall was dwarfed a hundred times over by the horde below. And The Wall was practically a city.
It had grown over time; itâ€™s seasoned stone proving reliable. It was a shield, or at least it had been in earlier years. But arrogance had allowed The Wall of Argothaene to thrive, to blossom into what resembled a grand settlement of stone. There were houses among the barracks, tradesmen, salesmen, families that lived upon the very border between order and chaos. There were towers, not just the steadfast, solid constructs built for defence, but spires of rock that reached solemnly toward the sun, tallest above all The Tower of Argothion, a testament to the bravery of those who lived hundreds of years ago. Those who had taken back The Wall from the stronghold that once stood in its place. Leonard sighed to the uncaring, despondent dawn. It even had itâ€™s own ruler, or director of a sorts. Itâ€™s Thane, Lord Reilhost of Hasgardel. Leonard understood that he had once been a Duke charged with overseeing the plains on the Misty Landâ€™s borders.
He shifted uneasily upon the battlements, a line of gleaming metal flanking him on both sides. The defenders of The Wall would stand fast in the face of any foe. They knew that they were the shield, the best and first defence. If they could not break the back of this fell wave then no army of the known world could. Compulsively, Leonard felt his fingers curling around the hilt of his sword, Astahlfang. It shone up at him, brilliant as a diamond, all exquisite, cold edges. Below, the braying had become a roar, a ferocious chant that gripped the stomach like blood-curdling scream. He could see from here that each ghoul gripped a torch in both hands. An old trick, but not one, which even the brightest ghoul would contrive. Nargrellâ€™s dark tide was spurred on by the whip of a master whom Leonard much desired to meet. One who had led the horde upon a rampage fuelled by bloodlust, a path of war that had torn through two proud armies like parchment.
Ghouls. Folklore told that they were undead, creatures without life, animated only by their masterâ€™s will. And in a twisted fashion, folklore was right. The first ghouls had been humans. They had been the dregs of humanity; petty thieves, murderers and the like, cast out, banished from the civilized kingdoms. Death would find them unless they became something less than human, something that feasted upon dead flesh and savoured cannibalized meat. The horrific act of depravity was the first step in a long road of corruption. Living well past the borders of sanity, it was painfully easy for Nargrell, the undying darkness, then only a flicker of a nightmare, to usher them further. And, under his sadistically cruel protection the ragged humans bred in the coldest reaches of the north, warped by their own sins and the manipulations of Nargrell into the ghastly creatures that existed today. Mindless, bereft of will but that too feed, and stolen of emotion apart from the deathless, burning hatred for those who damned their ancestors.
Leonard had heard once that their guttural cries and chilling roars were screams of agony. He had dismissed it as campfire talk, what one might have been told by their brother whoâ€™s uncleâ€™s shipmate knew a wizard... But now, before the army to end all armies, it seemed hauntingly believable. Tortured wails or not, the beasts would feel the vengeful edge of Astahlfang.
There was a metallic ring as the blade, gleaming in the half-light, slid from its scabbard. There was strength in those tones, a sort of weight that belonged to a far greater, more dramatic sound, perhaps the roll of thunder of the steady roaring of an avalanche. In the silence that had fallen across The Wall, it was like this hissing of a snake.
The sound of tension filled the air around Leonard, the atmosphere becoming thicker than treacle. And then, with a sound of a thousand striking asps, the sky overhead became a furious black as arrows filled the sky, deadly sparrows searching for ghoulish flesh. They descended upon the lines, in a cloud thick enough to heed not fear of inaccuracy, and thudded into the horde as a storm of manâ€™s making. Mottled bodies rolled, tumbling with shafts imbedded in their chests, becoming a carpet of bleeding, empty shells.
But the line refused to break. There was no shattering this wave; not with many more showers of whistling death. They hummed frantically overhead once more, and again, striking true within the swarm, but it was clear to all who had eyes that it made no more difference than rain bombarding a mountain. The dull, harsh twanging of bows was joined by the heaver shafts, the battlements shuddering ever so slightly as a nearby ballistae flung its giant bolt with tremendous force. The crash of itâ€™s impact sounded briefly above the howling as it ploughed through skin and bone, tearing a line of shattered corpses through the endless ranks below.
With a sound resembling a hornet, something whizzed past Leonardâ€™s ear, fate conspiring to let his handsome, even beautiful features remain intact. The same could not be said for the defender to his right, who collapsed with a single arrow protruding from his flesh. Leonardâ€™s fine chain would protect from such a fate only in vain. The knowledge that death could come at any given moment should have flooded him, but, to his surprise, he found that it was already there. He bobbed slightly, executing a gentle weave as the angry hissing of barbed shafts stung the air about him, a few brief human cries cut short by dull, sticky thuds. He growled under his breath at the senseless waste.
Astahlfang resonated approvingly, a hum that could be called a metallic, steely purr.
And the ramparts shook. They shuddered as below, in the hands of salivating ghouls, the clawed, steel head of a battering ram thundered restlessly against the mighty pair of twin gates that barred their way. It was like a heartbeat, a vicious, ferocious heartbeat of some great beast, the horde. The sturdy wood could only last so long against the reckless rage that propelled that siege implement. Splinters flew, stone carvings, elaborate and painstakingly fashioned, chipped and shot aside as the onslaught bore down upon the defences. Leonard stared down, at the baleful claw, fashioned after Nargrellâ€™s own fist, as it crashed again and again upon the gates that had only once been breached. So enthralled was he, that he barely saw what happened next.
The corner of Leonardâ€™s eyes saved the swordsman. Like a creature driven mad, he ploughed into a heavy dive, crashing clumsily into the defenders upon his left who crumpled and staggered back in their shock. He felt the breastplate of the man he fell upon bruise his cheek, raising a numbness in his face. His ears rang as the ramparts upon which he formerly stood exploded in a shower of stone and dust, a thick, heavy slab of black metal, borne aloft by the beating of a beastâ€™s leathery wings, crashed through the sturdy stone.
His thoughts a mess, ears still echoing and dizziness interfering with his gaze, he stood, coughing violently at the cloud of dirt that swirled around him.