Transcript – Grim Business

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Thirty One: Grim Business

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Daschind Hundl. Canrian, aged forty-three, identified as male. Memory regards a vision experienced at the Battle of Gaalis Ridge and was donated on the first of Baretree in the year 615. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the twenty-first of Bloomingtine, 730.

We Begin.

I never had a talent for very much. I was never booksmart nor was I any good at mending things or building things. And it’s not like I didn’t try. Growing up in Kaiartanholm, I was apprenticed more than a few times. I tried out as a carpenter, a cobbler, and even as an engineer for about a month. But none of it was any good. I don’t know what it is but I just didn’t have the knack for anything.

About the only thing I ever was good at was fighting. I was a bit of a rough and tumble kid. Got into more than my fair share of scrapes, both in and out of school. Strange thing is, I was never the biggest or the strongest which you’d think would be a disadvantage, especially for a kid. But I won way more fights than I lost.

So, when it was clear that that was all I could really do, I thought maybe I’d finally find something I was good at in the military. But Gelland doesn’t have much of an army, just local militias that protect the towns and cities from khirroc raids and fight the occasional border war. That wasn’t really what I wanted. I wanted to join a proper military and I knew one place I could definitely see more of that sort of life was down south in the Federation.

You folks never seem to have any shortage of enemies to fight, whether it’s uprisings in Vivvok or those stripy bastards over in the Laohin Republic.

So, when I turned eighteen, I emigrated south and applied for a military visa. Ten years service in the army and I get full citizenship at the end. Seemed like a good deal.

Basic training wasn’t too bad. Turns out I’m as good with a musket and short sword as I am with my fists. I even got put on the Specialist track. That was where I met my best friend, Belan duHale. He was a human but I didn’t hold that against him. He was the kind of guy who could make a joke of anything, always able to make you smile, but not so much that he seemed like he wasn’t taking the job seriously. If anything, he took the job more seriously than I did, kept talking about how he couldn’t wait to get out of boot camp and fight for the Federation.

Only thing really strange about him was his good luck charm. He had this little statuette, made of ivory I think, looked like a woman wearing a crown and holding a sword. He told me he got it from his grandfather who’d told him it was older than the Federation, from way back in the Dark Age, and that as long as you kept it on your person, you’d be kept safe from harm.

Honestly, I think it was just a cheap trinket his grandfather had picked up somewhere. But Belan believed the story and kept the thing on him at all times. And I will say that, over the next few years, he never got hit once, which is pretty spectacular.

Soon enough the training was over, and not long after, I was on a troop train heading south.

I’d heard of the southlands. As different from the cold, white north of Gelland as night is from day. A dry place with vast savannas and hot deserts. A place where they never see snow.

I tell you, when I got off that train the warm air hit me like a hammer blow. I thought I was ready for it but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for that. I think that was also when it hit me, just how far from Kaiartanholm I was. It was like a whole other world.

I wasn’t given much time to acclimatise though. I was in the 37th Foot Regiment now, one of the Hounds of duQiin, and we were there to do a job. Belan was there with me, he’d been assigned to the same regiment, though he was in a different squad. Still, it was good to have a friendly and familiar face around.

The job we’d been sent to do was simple in theory. We were being thrown against the enemies of the Federation. We were to seize ground, pacify the locals and put down any aggression we encountered. And that’s what we spent the better part of the next ten years doing. We campaigned all across the Sand Sea, fighting the enemy wherever we found them. There were plenty of battles, some worse than others.

Kayali Gorge. By the time we were finished there, the yellow sandstone had been turned red by the blood of the fallen. Fhur’kaan was once a beautiful place, they told me, the bread basket of the country, fields of golden wheat and wide blue rivers. It’s a blasted wasteland now, the fields black and pitted with impact craters. We fought there alongside the Blackscale partisans in a brutal guerilla campaign which took us all across Sha’yen’shan.

But the worst, by far, was Gaalis Ridge. There, there was no clever tactics, no manoeuvring, just a long and brutal slog. Back and forth, day after day, night after night with the air filled by the booming of cannons and the cracking of muskets.

Foxholes and bunkers began to become connected as we started digging our way from cover to cover to avoid being caught out in the open. Eventually the great trench network we’d built stretched almost all across the ridge, from one side to the other with us scurrying through them like rats in a maze. Occasionally we pulled ourselves up into the open fields to charge screaming into enemy fire in a vainglorious effort to take another yard of the field, a stretch of riverbed or a small copse of trees.

The fighting went on for days. Then weeks. Then months. In the end, I lost all track of time. It all just blended together in my mind until it was either night or day and I was either resting, eating, preparing for a fight, or fighting.

That was all there was to my life.

Then orders came down from Headquarters. We were going to make a big push into the enemy territory. We might once have celebrated to hear the news, but all the months of grim attrition had worn away any capability to celebrate. Now we were just determined to get the job done.

Then, a few days before the push, Belan got caught by a sniper. It wasn’t fatal, just a shot to the leg, but it was bad enough that he had to be carted back to the field hospital at Vivvok. I don’t know whether he was more disappointed or relieved. Before he left, he gave me his ivory statuette, told me it would keep me safe.

Now I don’t really believe in stuff like that but I wasn’t going to turn down any help if it was going. So, I slipped the thing into my coat pocket and waved to my friend as his cart pulled off.

Then the day finally came. Our goal was to reach what had once been a highway that ran across the ridge. There was a row of stone buildings beside the road, or rather there had once been stone buildings. They were little more than blasted out shells now, a rough approximation of what they had once been. Maybe they had been homes, maybe a row of shops where people came to buy groceries and the like. Didn’t matter. What they were now was potential cover, cover that we desperately needed if we were ever going to advance across the ridge.

And that cover lay only a hundred yards from our front-most trench. That was all. A mere one hundred yards. That’s… what? A couple of minutes’ walk? The kind of distance you would normally pay no mind to. But on a battle field… the killing ground that Gaalis Ridge had become, a couple of minutes out in the open can be a long time.

It only takes a second for the musket ball to hit you, to tear through your skin and flesh, to break your bones and leave you sprawled on the ground, quivering with the shock and the pain, sometimes not able to call out because of it.

And this wasn’t a leisurely walk through a field either. The months of bombardment and the ground being soaked with the blood and… the other stuff from the dead and the dying, it had turned the ground of Gaalis Ridge into near enough a marshland. Not what you want when you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry.

I don’t know how many we lost in the mad dash to reach those stone walls. The air was thick with smoke and earth kicked up by the impact of cannon balls. But we made it. A fair few of us anyway. We made it to the walls and near enough dived for cover, keeping those high stone walls between us and the enemy.

Our orders had been to make it to that position, take it and hold it until the next morning. So that was what we did. We knew it was going to be a hard thing. And it was.

We shared out the remaining shot and powder we had left and we waited.

They came soon enough.

I tried at first to be conservative with my shooting. I didn’t pull that trigger unless I knew it was going to hit someone. After all, we didn’t know how long we were going to be stuck out there before the supply carts caught up with us.

But, as careful as we tried to be, we still eventually ran out.

Night was falling by then and we knew it wouldn’t end just because the sun went down. The enemy would be sending night raids.

And so, after fighting all day, we began our night. The cannons still blasted again and again, somewhere far away and, in the shadows cast by the moon, we met the night raids with bayonets, long knives, teeth, claws, fists, basically anything we could inflict damage with.

I remember screaming as I buried my knife in an enemy’s throat, again and again and again until they finally went down. I did not allow myself a second to enjoy my victory as, soon enough, there was another of them before me, bellowing for my death, a sword raised high ready to cut down into my neck and finish me there and then.

On instinct I leapt forward, slamming into them like a lion taking down a prairie deer. The sword clattered away, immediately lost in the dark and I was driving my knife down into them. I couldn’t see them but I heard the scream, felt the blade pierce and then my enemy was still.

And so, it went on. And on. And on. I lost count of how many I fought that night, how many I killed.

All I know is, all of a sudden, it was morning.

I think I must have fallen asleep because I’m sure I remember it being the middle of the night with only the pale moon illuminating the surrounding area and the next second I was blinking in the dawn light.

It was a faint, sickly dawn, thick with fog and overcast, you could hardly say the sun had risen at all. But it was still blinding compared to what had been, to me, only a second ago.

I was so startled by the sudden morning light that it took me a moment to realise what was missing.

In all the long… I don’t know, months, years, however long we’d been there, in all that time, the cannons had never been silent. They hadn’t always been going close by, sometimes you’d only hear them in the distance, but you could always hear them. Now, they had fallen silent. And with them, so had everything. Not a sound could be heard, not anywhere on Gaalis Ridge.

I found a musket lying in the mud and I used it to push myself up onto my feet. Silence might mean something good had happened, but it could just as easily mean something bad. And after… after everything, I was pretty sure I knew which was more likely.

Slowly, and very cautiously, I poked my head out from behind the wall, ready to pull it back at the merest hint of the flash of an enemy musket. But nothing happened. There was no sign of any life whatsoever from the other side of the ridge.

They were gone. All of them were gone. They had left, fled, retreated. It was over.

I turned to my companions, excitedly, to tell them that the nightmare we’d been living through had finally ended. My head was filled with parades through the streets, of a medal, of being able to return to the countries of the Federation where I could enjoy my citizenship.

But they were gone.

For a second I was confused. Had they left without me? Maybe they’d thought I was dead, lying on the ground with the other corpses and had just left me behind.

Thinking of that, that’s when I realised something I hadn’t noticed until then. There weren’t any corpses. None. And that’s what started to really unnerve me.

I know that sounds a little ghoulish. I don’t mean I wanted to see the bodies… or, I suppose I do. Because that would have made sense. There were supposed to be bodies. The fighting in the night hadn’t been ranged, it had been up close and brutal, there should have been bodies there. But there weren’t any. None at all. I was standing there by myself surrounded by nothing.

A thought came into my head then.

I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to look back. But I had to. I had to see. I prayed that I was wrong but I knew I would be right.

The other side of Gaalis Ridge, the side that had been at my back since we had arrived, the side that had been home-base for me and the rest of my regiment, was completely deserted. As empty as the enemy side.

I didn’t know what else to do. So, I started walking. I could feel my bones screaming in protest with every step. My stomach snarled, feeling like a chasm inside me, reminding me just how long it had been since I’d last eaten.

I decided to walk towards what had been the enemy line. After so long fighting to get there, I figured I may as well make it to the end.

I walked. And I walked. And I walked. My boots squelched in the well churned mud, as did the butt of my musket which I’d brought along more out of habit than anything else. I was using it as a walking stick, supporting my tortured bones and muscles.

The place I and the rest of my regiment had been trying to reach for the gods alone know how long, I made it to, that morning, inside of an hour.

It was so… peaceful. No, that’s the wrong word. Peaceful gives the idea of quiet fields, silence broken by the sound of the wind in the trees and birds twittering overhead. There was none of that. No wind. No birds. No anything.

Just an absolute tranquillity that was somehow more unnerving than any other sound I might have heard in that lonely place.

The only indication that anyone had ever fought there was the impact craters made by our cannons returning fire. Some that looked pretty fresh, others that must have been there for months if the stagnant water at the bottom was anything to go by.

It was as I was passing one of these craters that my eye was caught by something poking up above the dirty water. It looked like a Federal Army uniform. It was made of the same blue wool as the coat I was wearing. I was long past what had been the enemy line by this point so I was surprised to see this here. It was also the only thing I’d seen in a while that wasn’t more mud so I carefully made my way down the edge of the crater to get a closer look.

I leaned in, took hold of the cloth and pulled. There was some resistance for a moment then it began to give. I pulled a bit harder, then harder still. I was worried for a minute about the coat tearing but it finally came free with an unpleasant wet sound.

It wasn’t just a coat. There was someone wearing it. It was impossible to tell who at first, all their features were obscured by the wet clotted mud. About the only thing I could tell was that they were human, and even that was just a guess.

Then I wiped the mud away from their face and my heart froze in my chest. It was Belan. I couldn’t believe it at first, refused to believe it. It couldn’t be Belan. Of course, it couldn’t be, I’d seen him getting on the transport back to Vivvok and nowhere near enough time had passed for him to get all the way there and back. He couldn’t have been here. But it was him. Undeniably. I knew his face by then better than I knew my own.

I wiped more of the mud away. It struck me then that Belan looked so much older than he had the last time I’d seen him. His face was lined with age and the hair that I could see was grey where it had once been black.

I was getting scared now. I left Belan there. It wasn’t like there was anything I could do for him. I thought maybe I’d find someone and somehow convince them to come with me to retrieve his body.

After a little while longer walking, I finally saw a town in the distance, outlined by the bleak pale sky. By that time, I didn’t care who I might find there, friend or foe, I just wanted to see another living soul.

It took another hour to reach the town. A cold wind blew through the place as I arrived, breaking the silence with the creaking sound of a rusted hinge, the gate it was attached to slamming against its frame again and again.

I couldn’t see anyone. I slung my musket over my shoulder and held up my hands, calling for someone, anyone. There was no answer.

I was seriously starting to despair at that point, thinking I’d been left to wander Gaalis Ridge alone. When I saw something. A reflection in a window, a sign of movement around the corner.

Flushed with excitement, I ran forward, turning the corner to see who else was here. Then excitement turned to horror in my throat.

There were people, but none were alive.

The dead littered the streets. A scant few wore the uniforms of the enemy, though they all looked like they’d been injured before they’d been gunned down. They all wore bandages or were holding crutches in their lifeless hands. The rest of the dead wore the clothes of civilians. And there were children among them.

One of the children hung above the rest, flanked on either side by two adults. Gallows had been erected here at some point and the three bodies now swung in the wind. That had been the movement I’d seen. A sign had been hung from the neck of one of the adults.

“Death to the Enemy.”

That was what it said.

It was written in Senterian. I had to fight the urge to vomit. This massacre… it had been our side who’d done it.

In war, it’s very easy to forget that the people you’re fighting are just that. People. In fact, those in charge like it when you forget, they encourage it. So you buy in to all the propaganda, you start believing that the enemy deserve to die because they are “The Other.” They’re not “One of Us” so they deserve what they get. It doesn’t matter if they’re soldiers, there to do the same job as you just on the other side, or if they’re the people back at home, just trying to live their lives. They all belong to “the other side,” and so we are, therefore, justified in dealing with them as we please.

Because they’re not people, not anymore, not to you. They’re the enemy.

I turned away, unable to look at it anymore, facing back the way I had come. And then I saw them.

I swear they hadn’t been there when I had approached the town. The fields had been blasted to a muddy wasteland; they had been barren, completely empty.

They weren’t anymore.

The dead lay all around. Sprawled in the mud, piled high, lying face down or staring upwards with blank eyes unable to see the sky. Every direction I looked I saw nothing but the dead and the dead and the dead. Some wore the Federal uniform; others wore the uniform of the enemy. Others wore uniforms I had never seen before. These were soldiers I had never fought, had not been anywhere on the battlefield, but they were still there in the fields of the dead. All victims of the grim business we call war.

I wanted to run, to get away from it all. But there was nowhere I could go that wasn’t carpeted with corpses. I couldn’t get away from them, away from the blank eyes that began to stare at me, accusing me for the role I had played in their deaths.

I fell to my knees, tears streaming from my eyes, apologising again and again, begging those lifeless faces for forgiveness. I felt something hard against my chest and pulled out the ivory statuette. I held it tight in my hand and closed my eyes, begging any god that might be listening to end this nightmare.

And the next thing I knew, I was waking up in a field hospital. Belan was there at my bedside. He told me I’d been found wandering in no-man’s land, delirious and saying things that made no sense. I tried to get up, wincing at the pain. Belan grabbed my shoulder and held me down. He told me to stay where I was and rest. The enemy could wait until I was back at full strength.

The war ended not long after, before I was discharged from the hospital. I’d served long enough to secure my citizenship so I resigned from the army and came back to the Federation. I’d seen enough of war. They did offer me a commission which I turned down. Said I’d earned it for my heroism.

I don’t remember being particularly heroic. Strangest thing is, I don’t even remember who it was we were fighting.

Final Notes; When I was in school, I read about Gaalis Ridge. The final and most bloody engagement of the Ji’Urken War, a three year conflict between the Federation and a Separatist faction operating out of the Sand Sea. I remember reading about how terrible it was. I can’t imagine what living through it must have been like.

Mr. Hundl, however, apparently could. The battle of Gaalis Ridge took place nearly thirty years after his death in 616.

It’s a similar story to the other battles he mentioned.

Kayali Gorge, a decisive event during the Ten Year War, was fought in 576, when Mr Hundl would have been around four years old. And the battle of Fhur’kaan was a major conflict during the Pacification of Vivvok. To say Mr. Hundl could not have been there would be an understatement.

And yet there’s his account of Gaalis Ridge. I’d call it the ramblings of a mad man, except the details are so correct. I was able to track down a mission report, detailing the last day of the conflict, the final push, and its almost exactly as Mr. Hundl described it. How could he possibly have predicted such a thing?

Any follow up is obviously impossible. Everyone noted in this donation is, of course, long dead. I have no idea why this one was chosen for inscription but I suppose the High Librarian has his reasons. The only other thing I have here about Mr. Hundl is a copy of a death certificate. He died a year after this donation and was buried in his hometown of Kaitenham. Cause of death is listed as suicide.

The only other information we were able to find out is the fate of Mr. Hundl’s friend, this Belan duHale. Mr. duHale took a commission in the federal army in 598 and rose to the rank of Field Major. He died in 627 at the siege of Saanium.

The name Belan rings a bell but I can’t place it at the moment. I’m thinking of a ship for some reason.

Inscription complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]