(Hope you guys enjoy this! I wrote it late last night. I even chose a soundtrack for it, and I really think the music helps enhance the setting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jQ_NbelyZE. Enjoy! )
They never tell you how muddy the battlefield gets. How it smells afterward.
The smell. I hate, hate, hate the smell.
You try to ignore it but it sears your nostrils. The smell of blood and fear and sweat and steel. The smell of fire and ash and smoke that spirals upward in great black columns. Or the way the rain makes a metallic ping-ing sound as it hits your armor, the way it’s doing now. Even more than the mud, the rain makes everything worse.
Through the eye-holes of my helmet I see the enemy coming, screaming, shouting, waving their weapons like madmen. Easterlings on horseback. The ground before them is littered with the slain.
Four times they’ve tried to break through our lines. Four times they’ve failed.
The world is filled with the thunder of their charge, but I can still hear Lantharion blow the whistle that hangs about his neck. Three blasts. We all know what it means.
My body moves automatically. We all do, hundreds of us, all along the line. The product of countless drills and thousands of hours of training and combat experience. I hear metal crashing as we lock our shields together, brace one foot behind the other to avoid being pushed backward by the weight of the onrushing foe.
Closer, now. Closer. I can make out their faces, dark-haired and swarthy.
Another blast of the whistle. Lantharion is prowling up and down the ranks. In our ears, he bellows the order that always comes next.
The rushing rattle of shivering wooden hafts as hundreds of spears are brought to bear, lowering like the barbed spines of a gigantic sea urchin. Lightning flashes above our heads, splitting the sky with a jagged bolt shaped like a dragon’s tongue, and for a moment I see the standard of the Red Company lit up against the gloom and smoke and driving rain. A gold phoenix on red, now torn and rent and stained.
Just like the rest of us.
The Easterlings are almost upon us. Mere seconds until they hit and break against our shields like the tide against rocks.
Lantharion raises an arm, a signal. His whistle shrieks, but two blasts this time instead of three.
“NOCK AND SET!” The order runs down the line like an echo. The archers are behind the second rank, far enough away from the cavalry to avoid being run down, but close enough to fire over our heads and send volleys of shafts into the ranks of the onrushing enemy.
“DRAW!” Lantharion cries, and I can almost hear three hundred bowstrings creak with strain.
A collective whoosh as the massed volley soars over us. Three hundred arrows fly and three hundred arrows find their marks. The enemy vanguard is decimated before they even reach our lines. They go down and their horses go down, and if they’re not dead by the time they hit the dirt, they’re trampled to death beneath the hooves of their comrades.
But the Easterlings keep coming. I blink rainwater out of my eyes.
For a brief moment, the faces of friends and allies flash through my head. I’ve lost so many. We’ve lost so many. How many will we have to lose before the war is over?
Then the cavalry slams into us, colliding with so much force that the whole front rank is pushed back several paces. The noise is tremendous, deafening. The impact makes my very teeth rattle. But we hold the line, and our shield wall doesn’t break, and the spear-hafts shake as they’re thrust forward to pierce faces and chests and necks. The archers let off volleys at almost point-blank range.
When you fight enough battles, eventually you start getting some kind of gut feeling, almost like a sixth sense, that tells you when it’s time to take the initiative and switch from defense to attack. I get that feeling now, and so do my brothers and sisters beside me. I can see it in their eyes.
Lantharion feels it too. Phweet goes the whistle and crack goes the ripping thunder. “FRONT LINE…PUSH!”
I snap my shield to the right in a scything arc, slamming into horse and rider with crushing force. The animal’s front legs break with an audible crunch and the Easterling in the saddle is sent sprawling. A spear takes him through the chest as he tries to get to his feet. A moment later, my sword pierces the heart of his mount. A mercy kill, I think to myself. The horse would have died either way.
The thin red line, the Red Company, advances a pace over the bodies of the fallen.
The order comes again. “ARCHERS…LOOSE!”
Again the arrows fly. Pandemonium among the Easterlings. Their charge devolves into a disorganized melee.
“FRONT LINE! READY, AND…PUSH!"
A collective cry of exertion. The shields snap out and the spears and swords stab, and more Easterlings die. Another step forward. How many lives lost for it?
"ADVANCE! ADVANCE! FORWARD!"
Again and again. The same old terrible song. It seems to go on forever, until suddenly the Elf next to you is shaking your shoulder, telling you it’s over, you’ve won again, the enemy is fleeing or dead.
But that moment hasn't come yet. Easterlings don’t break easy. This will be a long slog.
During those long grueling hours, you try to ignore how heavy your limbs feel, how tired you are or how the gore makes you sick to your stomach. You have to ignore it all, because in the midst battle, none of it matters.
You have to keep going. Take the field. Drive them back. Destroy the enemy. Advance over the bodies of those you’ve killed, look for new enemies to slay, die if you have to…but win.
Push. Loose arrows. Push. Advance.
The carnage. The ground is so slick with blood and mud that I nearly trip and fall flat on my armored face.
This is my world, I realize.
Crows have already begun to circle overhead. Every now and again some of them alight on the bodies of those who have fallen, landing like scraps of ragged dark cloth to feast on the flesh of both the dead and the dying. Their caws sound like the mocking laughter of demons. The gently rolling ground blazes with sheets of errant flame, and as far as I can see there is only death, mile upon mile of total devastation. Here and there tattered banners still flap forlornly in a gale-force wind that carries that damn smell with it, hot and thick and cloying.
Whoever wins the war for Middle Earth will be lord over ashes.
Did I have a life before I took the red cloak? Before we, all of us, found ourselves fighting in the front lines of this cataclysm? What were we, before the war found us? Were we carpenters, or smiths, or farmers?
Some of us don’t even remember. Those that do cling to those memories and try not to think what the conflict has made them become.
The Red Company keeps advancing, the Easterlings keep retreating, and the war grinds on.