Chronicles of the Winterguard
Part 1 – Miloslav
I slumped down onto the snow-covered ground and lay back. The cold air enveloped me and the snow made a soft bed. Although the current temperature would kill an exposed man in less than hour sweat ran down my face. The fur-lined clothing and heavy metal armor kept me warm, and, after marching all day, you couldn’t help but sweat.
“You’ll catch your death lying in the snow, Miloslav.”
I looked up at the grizzled face of Alexei, my sergeant, and laughed.
“And I won’t by fighting the Cygnarans? Besides, I like the snow. Every day of my life I have seen snow. It’s a part of me.”
“Well,” he said, “we’re on our way south beating back those Southern dogs. Soon, it will be too warm to wear your heavy furs.”
“Have you ever been that far south?” I said.
“Only once, to send Cygnar back to their home, like we are doing now, but that was a long time ago, hopefully we can do it again.”
I didn’t try to hide my surprise at his statement.
“You don’t think Kommandant Irusk will lead us to victory?”
He looked at me with a somber expression.
“I’ve been a soldier since I was your age and I’ve seen a lot of battles. Victories are fleeting, just like defeats. Only the Motherland and death are permanent.”
Before I could respond a loud crash brought our attention to a meter or two to my right. The newest recruit in our unit, Pyotr, had dropped his entire kit and the contents spilled onto the ground. Sergeant Alexei moved his shoulders up and down with a heavy sigh.
“These new recruits are as worthless as a Scrapthrall,” he said. “Why do they send us these incompetent fools?”
I laughed again and stood.
“I’ll help him,” I said. “He’s just new. I was new once too, and so were you.”
“I don’t think we were ever that new.”
He turned towards the command tent, took a few steps, and then spoke to me without turning around.
“Make sure both of you are ready for tomorrow. We should break their Cygnaran backs in the morning, but only if all my men are in top condition, whatever that top condition is.”
I smiled and walked towards Pyotr as Alexei made his way to the command tent. When I reached Pyotr I bent to one knee and helped him scoop up his belongings.
“You need to be more careful,” I said. “You don’t want to get your mess kit dirty.”
Pyotr looked at me with wide eyes filled with fear and confusion.
“I can’t seem to get these things packed right.”
I picked up some items and started to put them into his pack.
“Like this,” I said.
I showed him how to pack everything in the correct order to maximize the space. When I finished he looked everything over and I knew he still didn’t know what I did.
“You’ll get it,” I said. “After a month you’ll know all the tricks of the Winterguard.”
He looked at me with more fear in his eyes than before.
“I don’t think I’m going to live that long.”
My blood ran cold at his statement. I knew he believed what he said.
“You shouldn’t think that way. That’s a sure way to get yourself killed. And I know I don’t want to die just yet, especially at the hand of Cygnaran scum.”
“People die all the time in battles,” he said. “That’s why I’m here; I’m a replacement for somebody that died. And I’m so stupid that I’m going to die tomorrow.”
I slapped him across the face. He looked at me with horror and shock. He opened his mouth to say something so I hit him again before he could form a word. Tears ran down his face and his bottom lip quivered. I raised my hand to slap him again and he cringed from the oncoming blow. I stayed my hand and glared at him.
“You will die with that attitude, but I’m not going to let that happen. Tomorrow when we face those Southern dogs, you will live, and you will kill as many men as possible. You will not run, you will not die. I won’t let you.”
I turned and walked back to my own kit before he could answer.
A few minutes later I filed into the chow line with the other men of the 33rd Winterguard, the Ice Brigade. I studied the faces of the men around me. I fought with these men over the last six months. We fought together and we died together. Our unit took the least amount of losses in all of the battles combined. Some said that we were the best. At that moment I believed it. I don’t think anyone in this company had more patriotism or bravery than anyone else in Khador, I think we had the most brains. We definitely had the best commander. Kommandant Irusk embodied the word genius. In any battle against the odds, outnumbered, or having the low ground, he found a way to beat the enemy. And his genius trickled down to the lowliest grunt, like me. I learned plenty from his tactics and used them for myself. And that’s how I stayed alive.
After chow we mustered for the briefing on the next day’s battle. Sergeant Alexei spoke to the ten men he commanded, which, of course, included me.
“Alright comrades, tomorrow we plan to route those Southern mongrels once and for all. As you know we’ve had them on the run for a month. It looks like they’ve decided to make their last stand about two miles from here. We know we’ve got them outnumbered, but they have the better ground. And their trenchers have setup good positions on the front line and they’re dug in tighter than a polar bear’s asshole. That’s OK, because we have a plan. Each platoon will be accompanied by a Kovnik, Devastator, and Kodiak. The Kovnik will lead the way with the ‘jacks. The Devastator will break the trencher lines with grenades and the Kodiak will protect for the counter charge. Once there’s a hole in the line, we charge through and mop up what’s left. We’ve done this before, so I assume there are no questions.”
Pyotr, standing next to me, started to raise his hand and he opened his mouth to speak. I swatted his hand down and glared at him. He almost cried out, and then thought better of it. Nobody mentioned our “incident.” Alexei spoke again.
“Good. Now everybody get to sleep, we move at first light, dismissed.”
We broke muster and walked back to our tents. I knew Pyotr walked beside me without looking.
“Why did you stop me?” he said. “Why did you stop me from asking a question?”
I stopped walking and looked at him.
“Because you were going to ask a stupid question,” I said. “The Sergeant doesn’t need to be bothered with your stupid questions; he’s got enough on his mind already. If you have stupid questions then ask me.”
“OK,” he said. “Why do you think I had a stupid question?”
I chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Because you’re stupid, but that’s OK, because I’m going to teach you to be smart. Consider me your shadow from now on.”
He mulled that over for a moment.
He hung his head in shame. I thought he would start crying.
“That’s OK,” I said. “Now what was your question? If you don’t ask it then you’ll never have an answer, no matter how stupid it is.”
He didn’t look up.
“Well, what if the Devastator and Kodiak can’t break the trencher line. Then what do we do?”
“They will break the line,” I said. “Don’t worry about that. But you just look to me and I’ll get you through this. Trust me, after tomorrow you won’t be worried about trenchers. Southerners are soft and weak. You’ll see that tomorrow.”
He looked up at me.
“Get some sleep,” I said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
I walked to my tent and crawled in. I wrapped myself in the bundle of blankets and shut my eyes. I fell asleep wondering if I had ever been as stupid as Pyotr and agreed with Alexei’s statement. Nobody can be as stupid as Pyotr.
The red rays of the morning dawn washed over the ground, making the snow appear to be covered in blood, giving an ominous hue to air. We had a two-mile march to the Cygnar line. On the day of battle we only carried weapons and ammunition. I walked over to Pyotr. He fumbled with his blunderbuss and dropped a box of ammo into the snow. I picked it up and handed it to him.
“You better be ready today,” I said.
He took the box from me and slung the blunderbuss over his shoulder.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be ready,” he said.
“I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”
He looked at me but didn't say anything.
“Listen,” I said, “just stay close to me and we’ll get through this. One good push today and we’ll break their backs. Don’t you want to send those sons of goats home with their tales between their legs?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then act like it. Act like a Khadoran.”
He puffed his chest out a little.
“I will,” he said.
“Good, now let’s muster up. We’ll move out in about 15 minutes.”
We walked to the command area and fell in with our unit. Alexei stood before us with a Man-O-War Kovnik in full armor next to him. He paced back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back. After a minute or two he stopped and addressed us.
“Men, we are about to go into battle. For many of us this is nothing new, for others, this is the first. Whoever we are remember one thing, we are brothers, and we are Khadoran. The man next is the only one that can save your life and you are the only one that can save his life. We are the Winterguard. Think about our title, Winterguard. We are the guardians of Khador. No one in the Kingdom has a higher honor than us, for without us the Motherland would surely crumble. Today we fight the Cygnaran invaders in the name of the Motherland! We do not fight for politics, we do not fight for gold, or greed, or hatred. We fight for honor and the right to be free men. We fight for Khador! For the Motherland!”
We cheered and threw up our hands, but Pyotr stood silent and frightened. I took his hand and raised it in the air, but he did not join in with the cheer.
“You will be fine,” I said.
He turned his mouth into a weak smile and the same chill I felt yesterday when he said he would die ran through me again.
The sound of the warjacks ended the cheer and we all stared at the lumbering hulks. Any person that never saw a warjack before would truly be amazed. The combination of metal, steam and magic brought on a sense of timidity to the most hardened veteran. The Devastator, the most heavily armored warjack known in the Iron Kingdoms, passed us, followed by the streamlined Kodiak. We gathered our gear and fell into step behind the metal giants, marching toward the enemy, and to our destiny.
Twenty minutes later smoke blocked the bright sunshine that filled the pine forest.
“What’s causing all the smoke?” Pyotr said.
“Trenchers,” I said. “They throw out the hazer pots to make a smokescreen. Then, when we’re in the middle of it they open fire.”
A high whistle cut through the smoke.
“That’s the signal, keep your head down,” I said.
Everyone crouched low and readied their blunderbusses. The Devastator and Kodiak picked up speed, crashing through the forest. We increased our pace to keep up. Suddenly, like hitting an invisible wall, the air became as thick as a bog. No matter how hard we pumped our legs we couldn’t move faster than a walking pace.
I looked at Pyotr and smiled.
“That daughter of a whore, Haley, she slows us to a crawl to give them time to shoot us to bits. Don’t worry, just keep pushing ahead.”
I could barely see Pyotr next to me through the smoke. He seemed in a trance, his focus intent on the ground ahead.
Another whistle sounded and then a loud bang. The smoke swirled from a hot wind blowing back at us. Around me the roar of battle cries filled the air and as one entity we pushed forward. Like swimming against the current of a river we moved into the enemy lines. Shots erupted from blunderbusses, drowning out the rifles of the trenchers. Men screamed in agony and the Cygnarans broke their line, retreating from the hail of fire from blunderbusses and the grenades of the Devastator. I shouted to Pyotr above the noise and confusion.
“We’ve broken the trencher line! Kill anything that’s not Khadoran!”
Before he could answer I joined in with cries.
“For the Motherland! For the Motherland! For the Motherland!”
A blue silhouette appeared before me and I opened fire with my blunderbuss, never slowing or missing a stride. The recoil rocked my shoulder and the trencher fell back. I stepped over his dead body without looking down. I reloaded and fired another shot into retreating mass of Cygnar soldiers. We reached the fortified position of the trenchers, now abandoned, and jumped into the foxholes they had dug. Pyotr jumped in next to me and ducked low under the ground level. A bullet buzzed passed my ear and I fired back wildly, since I hadn’t seen my attacker. I slid to the bottom of the foxhole and reloaded my blunderbuss.
“Are you waiting for a written invitation?” I said.
Pyotr looked at me, confused, and I grabbed him by the collar.
“Your weapon, fire it, man! This is it, the real thing! They are preparing a counter charge right now, you better be ready!”
I let go of him and raised myself up to look out of hole. I set my blunderbuss into my shoulder and Pyotr pulled himself up and mimicked my stance. The ground shook as the warjacks moved about. The Devastator continued to fire its grenades, the Kodiak created huge clouds of deadly hot steam, melting snow completely down to the mud. The Kovnik stood in the middle of the field and gave orders, unafraid of the shots flying around him and ricocheting off his armor.
I could feel the air change, as if charged with electricity. I took a deep breath and prepared for the wave of men and metal that I knew moved towards us for a counter attack. Pyotr let out a small whimper. I almost turned to scold him when one of the biggest warjacks I had ever seen came into view. It seemed to pulse with electricity. A sudden bolt of lightning erupted from the coils on its back and struck the Kovnik ahead of us. He fell to his knees and the ‘jack charged straight for our hole. The faceplate grinned at us, foreshadowing our doom.
“Aim for the body, fire on my mark!” I said. “We can take it down if we concentrate our fire!”
Pyotr screamed like a madman and fled our foxhole, running towards our camp, away from the enemy. I turned and started to scramble out of the hole after him and cursed him.
“Get back here you coward!”
Before I could get out of the foxhole Alexei appeared from the smoke and tackled Pyotr, driving him into the ground. Alexei got to his feet and dragged Pyotr back to our foxhole and threw him in.
“Nobody runs in my unit!” Alexei said. “Now get your weapon and fire on that warjack. I want it turned into scrap!”
He raised his hands in a wide arc and called out.
“For the Motherland!”
Alexei towered above us, not ducking for cover, oblivious to everything except us and our foxhole. At that moment he embodied the strength of the Motherland, standing like an immovable object. I turned to Pyotr and he had grabbed his blunderbuss. Before we could position for our shots a bolt of lightning whizzed above our heads and struck Alexei square in the chest. It lifted him from the ground and dumped him unceremoniously on the edge of the foxhole. I scrambled to him and grabbed his smoking body. I pulled my hands back from the electrical shock when I touched his armor. The stench of charred flesh filled my nostrils.
I screamed in frustration, grabbed my blunderbuss and fired at the metal giant. The shot bounced harmlessly off the thick armor and I prepared for another round. Tears ran down my face and I had one thought that consumed me, kill every Cygnaran. The enemy warjack continued to move towards our position. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur of red and the Kodiak slammed into the Thunderhead, bringing it to the ground. The Kodiak’s huge fists pounded onto the Thunderhead, over and over, until the lightning stopped crackling and leaping from its coils. The Kovnik appeared above us, his armor black and burned and scarred, and he pointed at me.
“You there, lead your unit! The enemy is retreating! Keep up the pursuit!”
He turned and bounded off with the Kodiak in tow. I turned to Pyotr and he stared at me, crying.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to . . .”
“Shut up,” I said. “Get your ass out of this hole and pursue the enemy.”
I pulled myself up to the foxhole and rounded up the rest of the unit. We chased the Cygnarans for another mile. Finally we stopped, victorious on the battlefield. The men stood around me, happy in our success, but confused and sad for the loss of Alexei.
“What happened?” Dmitri asked. “What happened to Alexei?”
I looked at Pyotr.
“He gave his life saving another. He died a hero for the Motherland.”
Pyotr turned his head in shame.
“I’m sergeant now,” I said. “Let’s get back to camp and get some rest, it’s been a hard day for everyone.”
We walked back to camp, somber and exhausted. Some men stopped over bodies of dead trenchers and searched them for valuables, but I didn’t stop them, they earned the right. To the victor go the spoils. Pyotr pulled me away from listening distance of the other men.
“Miloslav, I’m sorry . . .”
I put my hand up and stopped his pathetic attempt to reconcile.
“It’s Sergeant Miloslav to you,” I said. “Now get back to camp and out of my sight.”
“Are you going to turn me in?” he said. “For desertion, that is?”
“No. I’m going to make you the best damn soldier in the Winterguard. Alexei died saving you, so you owe it to him. You dishonored him in life; I won’t let you dishonor him again in his death.”
He looked at me for moment, opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and turned away in shame. I called to him as he walked towards the camp.
“It’s best if you stay out of my way, though. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but you will serve in this army. Any attempt to run like you did today and I will kill you myself. You aren’t a quarter of the soldier Alexei was and right now your life isn't worth a bucket of spit. If you do anything, anything at all, I will come down on you like a warjack.”
He stopped walking, let my words sink in, and then continued his hike back to camp.
I watched him leave and thought about Alexei. Everything I knew about being in the Winterguard, being a soldier, and being a patriot came from him. I watched the men of the unit scavenge the bodies of the dead trenchers and thought about ways I would make Pyotr’s life a living Hell as long as he served under me.