My teeth are beginning to ache. The column is longready to move out, but instead, we wait. Our mounts, equipment stowed, stand in line, their bowed heads reminiscent of the trophy heads dangling from looped lanyards at their withers. One horse snorts. It doesn’t understand why we haven’t left yet. My men, standing to attention beside their steeds, are doing a better job of suppressing their impatience. Underneath, I know they are seething like me.
In the wake of a brief late season squall, blackened blood drips from the trophies as our uniform leathers steam. Sweat beads under my uniform collar. Spring is on the charge again. I force my jaw to relax.
I glance at the sky. Though leaden, we can be grateful for the little colour it offers. It is a clear sign that we are beyond the kraulikt, the dulling half shadow cast across the Borderlands by the Realm of Chaos. Nevertheless, even though the night is hardly darker than the day this close to the edge, the grubby blue is clearly deepening. We really should have left long ago.
It had better be soon.
But first, we must wait for the patrol to be properly finished. At last I hear stamping feet. I turn to watch the approach. Shirt unbuttoned and hair falling in his eyes, he marches heavily, boots splattering the grey slush. He hopes to find some grip in the gravel and stones below, to not land on his arse in front of us, to avoid making an embarrassment of himself.
It is already far too late for that.
He already is an embarrassment, to the Aether Guard, to our blessed Homelands and to every other nation of the Rationalle. Likely, even the Temporalis shudders at the thought of him. Not applying procedure during a patrol hand over and commanding no discipline over his rabble is contemptable. Not following uniform regulation is an indictment. Above all else, arriving late is beyond excusable. His commission should be stripped at the very least. The image of that ceremony brings a brief smile to my lips before his blithe approach brings me back to the present.
Am I supposed to trust this pitiful specimen to hold back the encroachment of whatever Spawn the Realm of Chaos spits out into the Borderlands? Is this what is going to keep the Homelands safe? How did he achieve a commission in the first place, let alone get to lead men into the killing zone of the Borderlands? Family connections, no doubt. It is a struggle not to spit my rising bile.
Grinning broadly, he stamps to a halt in front of me and beats a fist against his bare chest. “Shield of the Homelands!” He waits for my return salute before continuing. “I must say, I didn’t expect you boys to stick around quite so long after we turned up. Thought you’d be keen to trot off rather than wait for us to settle in. It’s jolly decent of you, I must say.”
The urge to spit has disappeared. Instead, I imagine loosening a section of his grin. It is a pleasant image, but I keep my balled fists firmly banished to the small of my back. “It is not ‘jolly decent’. It is procedure. We have all been looking forward to going home ever since relieving the previous patrol. Every guard does. Patrolling is not a fun day out. It is our sworn duty. Nevertheless, as we are not by nature deserters, we never leave our assigned posting until we have been officially relieved.”
A shadow flits briefly across his boyish features. “But we’re here now, and not all that late into the bargain. I don’t see what your problem is.”
“Disregarding the fact that you are late at all, my problem is that we need to be relieved officially.” My teeth threaten to start grinding again. “You have to say it explicitly or else we cannot leave.”
“Oh, I see. Oops!” He shrugs. “Okay. Well, consider yourselves relieved. I’ve taken command of Watch Post twelve now.”
I turn to my waiting patrol. “Mount up!” I swing into my own saddle.
Frowning slightly, he looks up at me. “Captain Doneir, may I ask you a question?”
He glances at all the trophy heads, grotesque in rictus, swinging against our horses’ haunches. “Well, what with your reputation and all.” Reputation or no, our haul must be just about the best we have ever had. It is sure to improve my team’s standing, get us first place at last. He chews his lip. “How much Spawn do you think you’ve actually left for us to claim?”
I look up and down the length of the column. Sergeant Haddar nods from the vanguard. I point down the valley track and blow my whistle. “Move out!” The column begins to file onto the path. Before looking down at the pup captain, I glance around at the men who sauntered up the same way with him this afternoon. They are lounging at their posts. The sentries aren’t even looking out over the shield wall. “To claim? You really are the idiot you look! There is nothing to claim in the Borderlands. It is a battle just to stay alive over there. If it is not Spawn trying to tear your throat out, then it is the ground itself rising up to swallow you whole. Pray you see nothing and find nothing. Pray that the Borderlands don’t even notice your pathetic presence. From what I have seen of your command today, your patrol is probably going to get taken out by the very first phratt you come across.”
He puffs up like a toad. “I appreciate that I’m new, and my patrol inexperienced, but that’s no reason to be rude. Even the best had to start from scratch.” He tries to look down his nose at me. “Even you, I’m sure.” It is difficult to look superior with your neck craned back like that, so he gives it up. “Aren’t we all in this together, fighting the Spawn side by side? I didn’t need to sign up, you know. Mother was quite against it, but I wanted to do my bit.”
The end of my column is drawing past. I pat my horse’s neck. “Chalka, take me home.” She snorts and falls in at the rear of the line. Behind me the pup’s blustering begins to fade. Soon, I can only hear the echoing of our hooves amidst the bustle of spring in the canyon. With every clop we are one more step away from the Realm of Chaos and its accursed Borderlands. More importantly, we are one step deeper into the Homelands on our way home.
It is the simple things I miss most on patrol. The things that most people, safe in their little lives far from the Borderlands, take for granted. Things like nightfall.
Cool, black and luscious, dusk creeps up the valley to meet us. Sweet and viscous as molasses, it enfolds us. How long has it been since last I felt its welcome? Tensions ease, pain dulls, my eyelids grow heavy. Even better than the embrace of night is the knowledge that the kiss of a true dawn shall follow. My mind fills with long supressed memories. Light sparkling on water. Wheat rippling in a breeze. Bread fresh from the oven. Mead foaming in a flagon. Linen smoothed across a bed. Tender words whispered. Her smile.
A shout from the head of the column jolts me awake. It must have rained recently. I revel in the rich loamy smell kicked up by the passing hooves.
Chalka is not so thrilled. She snorts at the delay. I pat her neck as I let my dozy mind catch up. We must have halted for a reason. Obviously, not an attack and there are no forks on this path. I blink into the night, judging our surroundings. The column stands at a threshold. Behind us the narrow winding valley exits the hulking silhouette of the highlands, before us a meadow expands out toward the lowland plains.
I told Haddar we would re-muster the column for the lowlands. In the confines of the gorge we must remain in single file with no chance to change station. This field is at the first widening going down valley.
Hooves, muffled by the soft ground, approach from the head of the line. Moments later, Sgt. Haddar emerges from the darkness and draws up next to me. “Captain!” We exchange salutes. “I just wanted to confirm procedure before continuing, sir.”
“I see two options, strike camp or force a night march.”
“I don’t know about you, but I rather fancy pushing on. We need to make up distance after today’s farce of a hand over. The sooner we get back to Afreem the better in my book.”
“Certainly has its merits, sir.”
“How about the men? They up for it?”
“Aye, the majority would even welcome it, I’m sure.”
“Good, we shall ride on then. Buddy the men up to ride two abreast. One man dozes whilst the other keeps an eye open. We shall switch the watch back and forth regularly. Should get us through the night without anyone going astray.”
“Good plan, sir.”
“Very well. Let me know when the men are ready. I shall be waiting at the head of the line.”
Long before my eyes see the first light of daybreak, I know it is coming. Dawn’s chorus fills my ears as the land we pass through awakens. Creatures stir and the trees creak in anticipation. Only once the world is ready does the curtain of night ease back to reveal the day.
Tangled grey forms loom from the dawn mist, their twisted tentacles reaching out to grasp me. I grab for my sword in sudden horror. Has the Shadow pursued us? How have these monstrosities managed to cross over from the Borderlands? Have we unwittingly stumbled back into the dim featureless grey of the kraulikt?
Then, as quickly as my dread flares, the swelling light of day extinguishes my fear. Writhing limbs are nothing more than the rustling branches of fruit trees in blossom, blackened heath turns into rolling fields of vibrant spring green, the billowing grey shadows are but mist that fades away with the passing of dawn.
Somewhere, a heifer lows and a cowbell clanks in response to a farmer calling his herd to the milking shed. An involuntary yap of joy escapes me, startling the soldier riding at my side. “Everything alright, sir?”
I lean across and slap him on the shoulder. “Guardsman Nevom, we are back in the homelands, we have a massive collection of trophies and first place in the rankings is surely now ours. Everything is just fine. Just fine.” I call a halt to enjoy breakfast in the golden kiss of the morning light. Afterwards, we continue at the canter and by late afternoon are entering the gates of the Afreem Guardhouse.