January 5th - Skalk
Brigdha sat in the darkest corner of the common room of The Golden Lion, still dressed in her dust-stained woodland livery and using her cloak as a pillow. She'd considered changing into clothes more befitting her status, but there were advantages to dressing like a common soldier.
Not that a common soldier would be studying a first edition of Kelwyn's Toxophilite, picking indifferently at a plate of cheese and cold meats whilst her ale went largely unnoticed. She had a recollection image of her sister Moira being scolded by their father after one of her drunken binges. She missed both her sisters, but Moira the most.
The evening was starting to liven up and Brigdha wondered if this was quite the right choice of retreat after all. The previous night The Golden Lion had been dead - proabably because so many of the mustered companies had arrived late and been kept busy setting up camp. Tonight though she'd probably have had a better chance of a quiet drink in her bivouac, but for all that she loved her men she sometimes needed time alone to think. After all, she was the reflective one amongst the Dubhaine brood, the daughter who studied science and philosophy when the others had preferred their horses and the hunt. At least her men wouldn't know her guilty secret, and that brought a comely smile to her too-often serious face.
Glancing up from her book for a moment she couldn't help but notice the gang of miscreants creating most of the noise. Definitely not soldiers that was for sure, but likely the kind who indulge in professional skullduggery. Their tab was being paid by an attractive woman, currently sat in deep conversation with a grizzled veteran: judging by his bearing and courtly manners he was a noble of some importance and Brigdha assumed they must be discussing the forthcoming campaign. Perhaps the woman was an agent of some kind, reporting back on troop dispositions, or maybe he was outlining some strategem that would open a city's gates at the crucial moment.
Speculation. She turned her attention back to Kelwyn's description of the spin shot, a cast that allows the arrow to travel in a flat trajectory with increased precision, but out of the corner of her eye she continued to study the couple, looking for any clues that would support her surmise. The eyes of a practiced archer easily picked out details others would probably miss, in this case the ring on the woman's finger - a ring bearing the same crest as that on the livery of the veteran's companions.
"So she's more than just an agent," Brigdha mused. "That's more the gift one gives a favoured vassal. Or perhaps even a sweetheart."
The man finished his tankard of ale and returned to his own party, but Brigdha was more intrigued by the woman. What secrets had she seen in her travels? Her eyes carried the pain of battles fought and friends lost, but you would never tell it from looking at her. Would those be Brigdha's eyes one day? Assuming she survived the coming campaign...
Brigdha hadn't expected her ale to go flat quite so soon. Or perhaps she'd been too engrossed in the events around her: brief tableaux of strangers' lives played out for her entertainment? She was minded of Kelwyn's opening thesis:
"An archer aims; an archer shoots; an archer reloads. That is the way of war. But the Toxophilite waits. He holds his breath and studies his surroundings: the wind swaying through the grass; the sun or moon reflecting from the clouds; he picks his target and he draws it to him as the lodestone draws a needle. Only when the target fills his mind and his heart does he loose the arrow, and as the arrow becomes death so the Toxiphilite becomes the destroyer of worlds."
Admittedly she didn't feel much like a destroyer of worlds, but she had a sense of what those words meant and the distinction between archers who merely wielded the bow on the battlefield and those who made its mastery their passion... and quite unexpectedly she found herself laughing out loud at her own foolish pretension. For a brief moment the room fell silent and all eyes to turned in her direction.
"My apologies. I was enjoying a private joke," a slight hint of embarrassment in her voice.
A moment later the room was alive with the sounds of men and women carousing and Brigdha shrunk back into the shadows, once more alone with her thoughts...
January 12th - Esgalons
The battle in Esgalons had been hard fought, but that made the victory all the sweeter. This had been Brigdha's first experience of fighting the unliving and the speed and brutality of their onslaught had barely allowed for a single volley from her company's mighty yew bows, forcing them to rely on their long knives and bow staves.
The old wives tales she'd heard as a child had scarce prepare her for the reality of this particular enemy: the feral gleam in those rotting eyes; the stench of the grave; the preternatural speed. Humans don't move like that or fight like that, untiring and regardless of their own safety. A remorseless tide of cadaverous flesh breaking on their ranks, jagged nails like razors ripping at their faces and teeth dripping fetid ichor rending at their limbs. The burden of command had never felt so heavy as it did at that moment, literally staring death in the face and her voice rising staccato across the line.
"ARCHERS!!! STAND YOUR GROUND!!!"
They did. She didn't know how, but they did. It was hard, gruesome work and their light arming jacks offered little protection against the beastial strength of that charnal horde, but The Black Swans stood firm and traded blow for diseased blow.
Yet Brigdha knew that battle would have been lost if it hadn't been for Duke Pikku and his indomitable Veriruusukaarti, grimly hacking through the mass of gibbous flesh. Such slaughter they wrought, if slaughter is the right word for the dismemberment of that unhallowed company. And even then the battle had been a costly affair. Six of her company boasted serious wounds that would keep them out of action for a while, and four others had been beyond the power of her healer Nishka to recall.
In the aftermath of that fetid work the wounds of the fallen had been dressed and they had been laid together in vigilant rest beneath a shallow barrow: long-faced Veris from the Ixcan marches; Eugenie the inn-keeper's daughter from Calis; Lamoch and Kellen, twin brothers from her family estate whom she'd known since childhood.
She'd read a few words over their grave, but it hardly seemed adequate. And yet despite the grim tithe they'd paid the survivors were in high spirits. Perhaps it was the knowledge that they had fought the dead, yet lived to tell the tale. A tale that no doubt would grow in stature by the time it reached the taverns of Calis...