Sweat

Sweat was pouring down Thasus’ face. He squinted, both against the sting in his eyes and the glare coming off the dry desert sand. The press of bodies in his regiment did nothing for the heat.

“Cohort! Advance!” came the call from the centurion. Thasus felt himself stiffen at the sound of the first word, and his feet were moving before the order had finished. The only sound of acknowledgement came from the sandaled feet and the creak of leather.

From his position in the second rank, Thasus caught glimpses of the enemy as the man in front’s helmet gently swayed with his step. Irregular infantry, lightly armoured in robes of flowing white. The sun glared off them, too. Beneath simple helmets dark faces peered across the distance between, flanked by dunes on either side.

They didn’t move, and didn’t flinch. Though he couldn’t see them for the press of bodies around him, he knew another cohort advanced on either side of his. Thasus had never seen an enemy regiment stand like this, passive and almost disinterested. Usually the barbarians hooted and hollered, or maneouvered to prepare for the coming charge. A niggle of worry tugged at Thasus’ resolve. A subtle shift in the manner of the cohort told him his brothers grew uneasy as well.

A buzzing sound came from behind the enemy. Thasus felt a warm wind in his face moments before the cohort flinched as one. Sand pelted at them as the buzzing increased. Their advance was momentarily checked.

As the gust died down, the centurion rallied. “Forward!” the order sounded, but this time Thasus didn’t hear the cohort either side. They advanced once more in step.

Again the buzzing sounded. The centurion ordered a halt and the cohort braced. Again the sand bit at their naked legs and against their closed eyes. Again the wind died down and the cohort advanced.

Close in within charging distance now, the buzzing sounded again. Once more the cohort braced, but this time the sand did not come. Over the top of the dune to their right, the cavalry charge swept down on them.

Before the centurion could react, the horsemen had slammed into the unprotected flank, torn through the centre and were back up the dune on the other side. As they came through and Thasus recovered, the man in front pushed back into him. On instinct, Thasus pushed him back into formation with his tower shield, but the man fell forward instead. The enemy had charged in complete silence.

Surprised, Thasus knew the man was already too close for his spear. The flash of his scimitar came arcing toward his spear arm, but Thasus’ instincts shifted the shield to meet the blow. Already he’d let the spear go, and his right arm was vertical, flat against the inside of the shield as the scimitar struck it.

Immediately, Thasus shoved forward and caught his adversary with the lip of the shield under his jaw. He lifted the shield slightly, forcing the man’s head back, and saw him grimace. He was confident this contest had already been won as he pulled his gladius from its sheath.

He pulled the large shield back towards him, getting it out from under the man’s jaw, then immediately slammed it into him again in an arc, planting it on the ground on his left side. The gladius immediately followed and took the man in his side, upwards into his torso.

The shield was what saved him. The cavalry came through again, and the moment that Thasus pulled the gladius back out of the falling corpse the horseman slammed into him.

He was knocked to the ground, his shield on top of him. Though he was dazed, he saw the horses charging through his cohort, and felt their hooves beat the ground through his back. His left arm hurt, but the pain was dulled by the adrenaline and the acute awareness that unless he got to his feet he’d be on his back permanently.

Pulling his arm from the shield, he scrambled to his feet. He realised he’d lost his gladius, but as he pulled his dagger he saw that he wouldn’t need it. His cohort had been decimated; only a couple of his brothers were standing, though a large number of wounded were moaning or screaming on the ground.

Thasus watched the enemy infantry retreat as the buzzing faded. A feeble wind gently cooled Thasus’ sweat-sheened arms and legs.

Snow

Bartle eyed the first snowfall of the year. It was early. He’d felt the icy wind bite at his bones these past few days; he’d eyed the mountain and seen nothing but cloud. Now the heavy cloud was driven before the wind, and snow fell on Bartle’s crops.

It was far too early.

The worst of it was that the harvest was only a week away at best. He’d been preparing for it, oiling his sickle and weaving the rope to hold the bales together. Now the entire crop would freeze in the night. Bartle sighed.

He had been depending on the harvest, just like every other year. His farm wasn’t small, but a large portion of his land was covered in forest. He’d once had plans to cut it back, and had made some headway in that endeavour, but the loss of his daughter three winters ago seemed to sap his will to the work. He sighed again.

Shanna had been hit harder. She would visit the grave every day, recounting its events to the cairn. Bartle felt a twinge of guilt; he’d not been to the graves close on a month. The day his wife had died stood stark in his memory. He doubted he would ever forget it.

She’d gone into the woods to pick wildflowers, hoping to decorate their kitchen for the coming harvest season. The crops had come in exceptionally well, and the harvest would provide enough for them to really push the tree line back. They were both excited, already looking forward to the next year’s harvest, which should be even larger. Bartle had already begun thinking about a barn, perhaps some chickens.

He’d been working in the field, inspecting the crop for rot and disease when it occurred to him it had been some time since Shanna had left. He’d found her propped against a tree, clutching the bouquet in bloody fingers, smiling wistfully. She’d been mauled, perhaps by a bear or a wolf; Bartle was too beside himself to be sure.

He was pulled out of his reverie by movement at the corner of his eye. Two dark shapes had detached themselves from the tree line and disappeared into the crop. Bartle knew they were wolves, driven from the mountain and the forest by the coming snow. Their prey would have easily frozen to death in the too-early winter, and they were looking for food.

Bartle turned on his porch and strode into the kitchen. The sickle was lying lazily on the kitchen table next to the whetstone and small flask of oil. He scooped it up and went back outside, then stood in the cleared area in front of the porch. His muscles taught, the sickle felt dangerous in his hand. His breathing was steady; he wasn’t afraid of death, but he did want it to be on his own terms.

He heard the first one to his side, the rustle of the crop and the thudding of its paws on the packed ground. He spun and brought the sickle up defensively, somewhat clumsily. The wolf leapt, snarling, but Bartle knew it would. He stepped to the left of its arc and brought the sickle upwards into its belly.

The impact nearly wrenched his shoulder out of its socket. As he stumbled, he heard the wolf give a short, sharp yelp, but it lay still where it fell, the sickle underneath it. Bartle heard a growl and rolled desperately. He felt hot, wet fur brush his arm as the claw bit into it, but the teeth never came.

The roll was uncontrolled, and in a moment Bartle found himself on his back. He flipped over, but as he was coming up the second wolf bit into his arm, hard. The wolf braced its feet and yanked hard, throwing its head to the side. Pain shot up his arm, but Bartle’s cry was anger, not anguish.

He pulled the wolf down under him with his arm still between its teeth, awkwardly planted his knee on its neck and pushed downwards with all his weight. Stubbornly, the wolf held on. Bartle realised he had nowhere to go now. The muscular neck was too tough for him to strangle the wolf and he had no weapon. The wolf also had no reason to let go, and unless it did soon it would break his bone.

Desperately, Bartle looked around. He realised that the fight had brought them within arm’s reach of the first wolf.

And his sickle.

He lifted his knee and rolled forward over the prone wolf before it could react. This left him on his back, and he realised the sickle was out of reach. Grabbing a handful of fur, with a bestial roar he pulled the dead wolf over him and on top of the other wolf. He couldn’t put a lot of force into it, but in the confusion he felt his arm come free.

The second wolf scrambled away, and Bartle took up his sickle in his good arm. He’d had enough.

The wolf backed away, snarling and growling as Bartle advanced on it. Realising it had lost the initiative, it turned and fled into the crop. Bartle heard it running, and saw it disappear into the trees.

As the adrenaline left his body, he realised the snow had now covered the ground. The pain in his arm was returning, and he knew it needed tending to. The wolf body on the ground was steaming.

He buried his sickle securely in its flank, then dragged it nearer the house. He could dry the meat, and the wolf’s hide would make good armour against the cold.