Chronicles of the Winterguard
Part 2 – Pyotr
"Hey Pyotr, I left you a present, because I know you like them so much."
Dimitri laughed deep from his belly and walked back to the main part of the camp, leaving me to my work. I wiped dirt and filth from my face and picked up the shovel at my feet. I didn’t think that Miloslav told the other men in the unit about my cowardice, which led to Alexei’s death, but he didn’t hide his hatred for me either. And now that he commanded our unit, he gave me the worst jobs he could think of, like the one I worked at now, digging and filling in latrines. I pulled a scarf over my mouth and nose and drove the blade of the shovel into the frozen ground. Temperatures in Khador prohibited significant digging, in fact, nobody even bothered with a latrine, except for our unit. I never finished a proper latrine, but Miloslav made me work all the same. He also gave me the longest guard duty at night and point duty when we patrolled. I couldn’t think of any thing good about my life at that time. So I just dug and I thought of the best meal I had ever eaten. I thought of a well-done venison steak garnished with sweet onions, mushrooms, and oregano. I thought of marbled rye bread and boiled wild rice. But mostly, I thought of a tall mug of beer to wash it all down. In my mind I could see the foam head reaching the top of the stein and dripping ever so slightly over the rim and sliding down the side to make a ring around the bottom of the mug on the table. I picked up the mug and tipped it back to my mouth. The fermented liquid hit my lips and washed over my tongue. My mouth turned downward and I cringed as the bitter drink ignited my tastebuds, then relief and relaxation took over as I absorbed the alcohol into my bloodstream. Those thoughts carried me through the worst days of my life.
The sunlight fell to eye level and the shadows stretched long over the ground. I picked up my shovel and walked back to camp, feeling sorry for myself, and getting ready for another four hours of guard duty.
Since my first battle against Cygnar, we had turned north to face a new threat from the Legion of Everblight. We walked twenty five miles a day, camped at night for six or seven hours, then marched again the next day. I had a lot of time to think.
I reached the camp and the rest of the men stood in a semi-circle around Miloslav. I walked to the crowd and everyone took a step away, disgusted by my stench. Miloslav looked at me and smiled.
"Alright men, tomorrow we are going to patrol for enemy activity. We believe that the Legion are camped about five miles north. Kossites have reported back from scouting patrols that they number about half of our current strength. If we can find some good ground to mount an offensive from we should be in battle in no more than two days. I want everyone to get a good night’s rest because we all have to be alert tomorrow.
"Pyotr, you’re on guard duty until relieved."
Everyone laughed in derision.
Everyone broke formation and wandered back to their tents in groups of two or three, leaving me standing alone. Even though I don’t think anyone truly knew why Miloslav hated me, they didn’t hesitate to join in with the punishment. I felt like an outcast amongst my own unit. A soldier should be able to count on his brothers in battle, but I knew I couldn’t. I would only survive on my own.
I walked back to my tent, situated about twenty feet from the main cluster, and cleaned up in the snow. I grabbed my blunderbuss, heaviest furs, gloves and hat, and walked to perimeter of the camp. I paced back and forth in a hundred foot elipse watching for enemy activity and dreaming about my perfect meal with the perfect beer.
I don’t know how much time passed before someone relieved me. Exhausted, in a semi-trance, I trudged back to my tent and collapsed face first into my blankets. I didn’t even bother to take off my armor as sleep washed over me.
I had no sooner closed my eyes than I felt someone kicking my feet and Miloslav’s voice in my head.
"Get up you lazy slug, you’re on point for the patrol today."
I crawled out my tent and gathered my blunderbuss, axe, and extra ammo. I didn’t need to pack my tent or personal gear; we would be back here after patrol. My muscles resisted any movement, desperate for much needed rest. My brain overrode the pain and ordered my heat to pump more blood to loosen them up. I mustered with the rest of the unit. Miloslav spoke when I reached the rest of the group.
"OK, we’re going out about two miles to the east, then we’ll circle northwest around the top of the camp and come in from the west side. No too fast, but not too slow. We don’t want to miss anything and we’re looking to see how the terrain is to mount an attack. We shouldn’t meet any resistance, but you never know, so be careful. Pyotr, anytime you’re ready, we can leave. Everybody, give him fifty yards for point."
Everyone looked at me so I hoisted my gear and trudged into the woods. I peered out into the dense pine trees that limited my vision to a hundred feet or so. I looked back to the men behind me and saw nothing but more trees.
Fifty yards, I thought, you can’t see more than half of that. What good is a point man if you can’t see him? Because he’s trying to kill me, that’s why.
I shook my head in disgust, gripped my blunderbuss tighter, and crouched a little lower as I made my way through the thick woods.
Well, I’m not going out like that. OK, so I panicked and ran. Alexei grabbed me and made me fight. I’m sorry he’s dead, but I don’t think I killed him. He was the one standing out in the open when there was a Thunderhead charging in. It’s his own stupid fault, not mine. He should have been hiding in cover. Hell, I was probably the only smart one there. Only an idiot would try to take on a ‘jack alone. And I don’t think me and Miloslav could have done it. It took a Kodiak and a Kovnik to bring it down, what can two Winterguard do?
I picked my way further into the trees and the logic of my argument brought my blood to a boil.
He wants to kill me? Well, fine, maybe I’ll just kill him. I don’t deserve this treatment and I’m not going to stand for it. When we get back I’m going to tell him that he can’t treat me this way. How can a man be on guard duty all night, get two hours sleep, then be expected to fight or march the next day? There has to be some sort of regulation against this sort of thing. I’m going to the kapitan with this.
The sound of a twig snapping brought my attention to the present. I stopped in my tracks and scanned the woods in a full circle around me. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the forest had grown denser than when we first started out. I crouched low in the snow and set my blunderbuss into my shoulder. Another twig snapped behind me and I whirled around ready to squeeze the trigger and let loose with some grapeshot to spray the forest with deadly pellets. Nothing came into view so I scanned in a full circle again. Sweat ran down my face and my breathing became heavier and labored as I waited for the rest of the unit to catch up. Footsteps announced the approach of someone to my left and I leveled my blunderbuss towards the sound. I recognized the dark grey coat of the Winterguard and red markings of my unit insignia as a man materialized into my view.
"Scared like a rabbit in a trap?" Gregor said and he laughed.
"Shut up," I said, " there’s something out there. Listen."
He cocked his head to one side and listened with a queer look on his face. Nothing sounded for a minute or so and he laughed again.
"So now you’re hearing things," he said. "Maybe I should take over point for a while."
"Maybe you should keep up," I said. "What good is a point man if it takes you five minutes to catch up?"
He snorted in derision and turned back the way he had come. He waved his hand and called out.
"He’s up here Sergeant. Crouched in the snow like a squir- . . ."
He didn’t finish his sentence as an off-white blur knocked him to the ground. The monster couldn’t have been bigger than a man, shorter by a head at least, but it had the strength of ten men and ferocity of a wild cat. Gregor screamed the most horrible scream I ever heard, then the beast silenced him forever. It turned to me and grinned. It’s long fangs dripped blood. If it had eyes it’s stare would have penetrated my flesh and looked into my soul, but no eyes resided on it’s head. It’s small arms waved about, too small to grasp anything, but grabbing nontheless at the air. A small growl exited the abomination and it took a step towards me, gnashing its teeth.
I shouldered my blunderbuss again and fired the grapeshot at the beast, knowing that the other members of my unit walked towards the blast, but some primal instinct to survive put aside the safety of everyone else above my own. The pellets ripped through the beast’s flesh, exposing an unnatural green liquid, maybe blood. It howled in pain and charged headlong towards me. Screams of alarm from my fellow Winterguard echoed through the forest. I dropped flat on my back and closed my eyes, waiting for the maw of the beast to lock on my throat. I felt a rush of wind wash over me and I opened my eyes. I scrambled to my knees and saw the beast ten or fifteen yards to my right. It must have ran right over me, unable to slow its charge when I ducked. I fumbled with another round of ammo, trying to load it into my blunderbuss. I locked the bolt, cocked the hammer, and swung the barrel towards the beast, pulling the trigger while the rifle sat on my hip. This time the full force of the bullet caught the beast in the face and blew its head off. I heard commands from Miloslav to my left.
"Pull back! Pull back to the camp! We’re outnumbered!"
They’re leaving me! They’re leaving me here to die!
I loaded another round into my blunderbuss and stood up. The forest made it impossible for me to regain my sense of direction so I broke into a full run towards the sound of Miloslav’s voice. I stumbled over a dead body of one of my comrade’s but I didn’t stop or slow down to see who lay dead in the snow.
Above my head I heard a loud, high-pitched whistle. I looked up and saw a rain of arrows coming down on me, blanketing the entire area around me. I crouched low into a fetal position and pulled my armored coat up over my head, preparing for the piercing sting of a thousand arrows in my flesh. I felt the arrows hit my body, but none of them made it through my armor. I uncovered my head and looked around. Arrows stuck out of the ground, in tree trunks, in the body of the Winterguard behind me. I got to my feet again and ran as fast as I could towards, hopefully, the camp.
I broke out of the dense woods into a clearing and I tripped and fell facefirst onto the hard ground. All around me sounds of men shouting, running, and readying weapons filled the air. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the sky. The bright blue contrasted with the white clouds and the tranquility of the sight calmed me. I recalled the last few moments and laughed at how I made it out of there alive.
I sat up and looked around at the commotion ensuing. Men prepared for the incoming attack, but I just sat there, watching. I couldn’t move, or I didn’t want to move, I just wanted to watch. I wanted to watch men prepare for their death. But I had no desire to join in the futility. I would rather just wait for the inevitable.
A hand struck my head and my cap fell off into the snow. Miloslav grabbed me by my collar and screamed in my face.
"You worthless pile of shit, get on your feet and prepare to fight!"
I slapped his hands away shoved his face hard to put some distance between us.
"Get away from me! You left me to die in those woods! You set me up to get killed on that patrol!"
Miloslav looked at me his jaw gaping open, confusion on his face. I swung my fist hard at his head and connected. He reeled back and shouted at me.
"You insubordinate worm, I’ll see you courtmartialed for this!"
He glared at me, fire burned in his eyes. He rubbed his jaw and I watched his mouth turn up into an evil grin.
"You’re right," he said. "I did want you to die out there, but somehow you made it. Why is it that cowards always live while heroes always die?"
He turned his back on me and walked back towards the unit and the chaos that reigned.
At that moment something in me snapped. A rage consumed me and I could no longer see anything other than Miloslav. Every word he ever said to me repeated over and over in my head. Scenes replayed in my mind where he berated me, scolded me like a child, and humiliated me in front of the unit, and those incidents fueled my anger. I grabbed the axe hanging at my belt and lifted it high above my head. I took three steps towards Miloslav and brought the axe down into his head. It sunk into his skull with a sickening thud. Blood spurted out and sprayed me in the face. Miloslav fell to the ground, lifeless, and all of my fears, self-doubt, and self-pity died too.
I felt a blow strike the back of my head and I knew my skull split open. A bright light blinded my vision, then the world went black.