Fire and clashing arms, dying screams mix with howls from unholy things. A gentle cackle of mad laughter comes from soldiers who have broken before the tide.
This is Raidwall.
The gigantic fortification stands far to the north of the blessed River Salvation, across the mouth of the Raiding River valley. It is a mountain of piled earth reaching skyward, one of many that close off the Saved Lands from that which lies beyond. An entire world filled with Horrors.
The Raiding River itself passes through a floodgate on the eastern arm of Raidwall, barred with a hundred gratings of bronze and iron. They are all wasted metal while the wall stands unfinished. A twenty mile gap still remains in the western arm, its temporary earthworks bare and exposed to the onslaught of the attacking Horde. In good times the Raidwall gap will claim a hundred men each day. The Horde that now breaks is consuming thousands.
A boy named Svartalf sits on a stool outside a command tend in the supply camp, far to the rear of the front lines. He sees little. Smoke and distance conceal all but shadows from the battle, but an occasional brilliance illuminates the haze. These lights are missiles of flaming pitch, thrown by catapult, arcing high only to strike some unnameable thing that strides slowly towards the defenders. Whatever it is stands a hundred feet tall. Sounds carry better in the smoky air, shrill calls, guttural moaning, and shouts from desperate men. Svartalf can only imagine the sights they must imply. Despite the blind courage of boyhood, he shies from these thoughts. It was a mistake to come here.
Soldiers of the Council military often travel to Raidwall through the Post North Marshes, where Svartalf’s father Jotun commands. Few of those men ever return. Svartalf has always marveled at their clear eyed bravery, such a great contrast to the bland officiousness of his own father with his purchased rank. The people of the Post would be better served, Svartalf feels, by the kind of man who gives himself over something greater. Such men march by the hundreds to service on Raidwall, and the boy yearns to understand them.
Eight days ago, when a minister of the Salvation Council bureaucracy came to the Post, Svartalf found his chance. The minister met with Svartalf’s father in haste, and orders went out within an hour that an escort be made ready for departure at sunrise. The best guides and strongest fighters rode forth with the Council minister, to see him safely through the swamps of the Murk. For three days the native marsh man rangers did not discover Svartalf following behind, a testament to the skill he has gained under their tutelage. The distance was judged too great to send him back alone, and none could be spared from their duty to the minister. There was no choice but to bring Svartalf along.
Six men died during the journey, their task made harder by the boy’s useless presence. Svartalf feels their blood is on his hands. He is here now, but what of it? How many of those clear eyed men have died while he listened, sitting helpless and small on this stool? It was a mistake to come here.
The minister strides forth from the tent. A Marshal of the Council military, with a thick mustache, walks at his side.
“Come, boy,” the minister says. “It may prove useful if the commander of the Post has sent his own son for an honor guard.”
“It will do no good, Lord Minister,” the Marshal says. “Honors mean little here.”
“Every man enjoys the accolades of his betters, Lord Marshal. Come along, boy.”
The two men continue on, while Svartalf hurries to catch up.
“Where are we going, sirs?” the boy asks.
“To collect a man. He is one of those brave souls who defends us all, and ensures that the Council’s Second Building will reach its conclusion.”
The minister holds up an ornate and beribboned scroll.
“I carry a commendation for that man. It is issued by unanimous vote of the Salvation Council in general session. It bestows a mandatory discharge from service, and a truly excessive stipend, with the very highest honors possible. Several of these honors have been previously granted only to commanding generals and our most famous heroes. In fact, the discharge carries a promotion to the officer class solely that these honors might be properly received. You are to meet a living legend, boy.”
“I’s doubt it will work, Lord Minister. The Sargent has refused discharge many times. He’s will not care about colored ribbons and medals. The promotion will seem an insult. The Sargent doesn’t think much of the officer core.”
“He has no choice but to accept, Lord Marshal. The soldiers talk of this ‘Twenty Year Man’ on all the Great Walls of the Second Building. No other man has served more than twelve, before perishing to the Hordes. Every new recruit training on Corpsewall thinks that they will be the next Adoget of Raidwall. He has become a culture hero for the whole Council military, they think he is invincible, and his death against a Horde would be disastrous for morale. The Council will not risk it. If he will not come willingly, then you will clap him in irons and send him away. A Marshal should not suffer such defiance from a mere enlisted man, however fecklessly fortunate he has been to survive so long.”
The Marshal stops, grabs the minister by his robe, and hauls his face close.
“And you, Lord Minister, will not disregard or belittle the Sargent again in my hearing. He’s ten years on Raidwall before I’s set foot here. Five tours he’s stood his watch against nightmares that ministers and children cannot imagine. Fourteen Hordes he’s faced, while you have shuffled around dusty offices, and a string of generals fled into retirement. I’s was a raw lieutenant from a minor family when they saddled my first command, in their small minds, with their most difficult Sargent. I’s live today only because of my good fortune at their lack of vision. You will respect this man! When Adoget speaks, we’s of Raidwall damned well listen.”
Svartalf stares, wide eyed at the exchange. Violence or intimidation against a representative of the Salvation Council is a death sentence. Still, the boy is sure that the minister holds his life in his hands should he push the other man even an inch farther. The Marshal’s wallman accent grows thicker in his anger. He now sounds no different than the common men he commands. The minister, though arrogant, is not stupid. He seems to realize his position.
“My apologies, Lord Marshal. A common Sargent, with a reputation so great as Adoget of Raidwall, is unprecedented. That is the problem we face. I admit, I do not know how to properly manage the difference between his rank and the respect he is due. But, the point stands. The Council will not tolerate his continued service on Raidwall. You and I must see him removed, for his sake as much as ours.”
“The Post has no soldiers.”
Both men look down at Svartalf, surprised by his outburst.
“The marsh men only know the Murk,” he continues. “They are brave, but they don’t know how to defend a settlement. They built stick villages before the Council commissioned the Post. Whenever they were attacked they abandoned everything and ran. Nothing outruns a marsh man in the Murk. With the settlement they can’t do that anymore, but they don’t know anything else and my father can’t teach them. He is an administrator, like the Lord Minister. We haven’t got a Marshal, or even a Sargent. If he can’t stay here, well, maybe he could come home with me.”
A shrewd look comes over the face of the Council minister.
“Do you think it might work, Lord Marshal? We only need him off the wall. Every bit of arms or food these men get comes through North Marshes, Beastwall too. That muckhole is strategically vital, at least until we can manage to hold the support cities for more than a month. Adoget would still be serving, only not here.”
“He wouldn’t like a transfer, but it’s not as though he’d be running. I think he could be convinced if it wasn’t for that fancy scroll of yours. That writ calls for a discharge from service. He’ll never accept it.”
“Then it’s a lie.”
“What? No it isn’t”
“It is, Lord Marshal. The Council writ is a falsehood, the result of a necessary deception.
“You see, the North Marshes was established by the military, but it is a civilian settlement. It has a municipal guard staffed with hapless local soldiers, like the boy says. The military hasn’t the authority, nor the budget, to staff the Post with anyone save its commander. No budget is why the boy’s father was able to buy his rank.
“You can say, to Adoget, that the general staff needs him to shore up the North Marshes guard and protect the supply lines. It is a vital task, but he can only go if he isn’t formally serving. It’s a secret posting, some sleight of hand to deceive the Council bureaucracy. His discharge is a lie, Lord Marshal, that’s what you’ll tell him.”
“But the honors and the promotion?”
“The stipend, Lord Marshal. The money he needs to equip his men and hold that settlement. The rank, the ribbons, all just smoke and mirrors. Your masters needed to use them to get that stipend through the Council. They played up Adoget as some dauntless hero, all to hide the money.”
The Marshal is taken aback by this change in the minister’s character. He is used to dealing with arrogant officials, but seldom one with such practiced deviousness.
“…It is plausible. At least, I think it is. I can’t say if Adoget will buy into it.”
“You just make clear all the good he would do for his fellows, here on Raidwall and Beastwall too. Lay the bait out there, I’ll get him to take it.
“You say Adoget looks down on the officer core? Lets see how he feels about a pompous idiot of a Council minister. I will believe every word of that writ, and worship this mighty figure like one of the twelve gods descended from heaven. I’ll lick his boots like he is the most incompetent, self absorbed officer the man has ever had to suffer under. If he is an ounce who you think he is, my display will sicken him.
“He’ll believe you. He’ll grasp for any explanation besides the one I’m peddling. And, on top of that, we have the boy here.”
Svartalf almost flinches away when the minister, so radically changed, clasps his shoulder and looks him in the eye.
“What do you say, boy? Do you need this man? Can your father hold the Post alone?”
“I wouldn’t like to speak against my father, sir.”
“You traipse around the Murk with the marsh men, boy. I saw you. The Post isn’t your political ambition, like your father. North Marshes is your home. Do you want see it die? Can your father defend it?”
“…No… No, sir.”
“What about you? Did you come running here to Raidwall to become a man like your father, all dusty ledgers and tarnished coin? This Sargent Adoget trained the Lord Marshal here. Is there anyone in North Marshes that make such a man of you? One who could protect your people?”
“Again, do you need this man?”
“Yes! Yes, we need him.”
“That’s right, boy. And no man serves twenty years without needing to be needed. When we meet this living legend, be honest about that. Keep your mouth shut and let us tell our lies, while you just be honest about what your people need. Some day, when he has a wife and a family and his people are your own, you can tell Adoget all about what happened here. But, for now, you need to help us trick this man. Can you do that? For the marsh men? For the Post?”
“…Yes… I don’t like doing it, but I’ll help.”
“Of course you will, boy. That’s because you are a servant to your people, good and loyal, not like your father at all. You wish to be honest, but above all you will do what must be done.
“There is, in you, a strength of character that will make a leader worthy of the North Marshes. Rest assured, young Svartalf, that this Adoget will see that strength cultivated to its fullest.”