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The Coward’s Taste For Chaff.

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“Fuck this,” he muttered bitterly, dragging himself across the frost speckled grass underfoot. He clung with all his worth to his bitten walking stick. Without its support he would end up face down in the cold, wet mud. “Fuck me, fuck all of us! That’s what you want, isn’t it? Fuck you, Uroc!”

Four arduous weeks scraped by before Bannoc was finally able to walk alongside the war wagons unaided. One could hardly call it walking. Hobbling on a stick painted a more precise picture. His garish limp had eased somewhat after the initial visit to the mobile medical tent, but it still prevailed. A part of him feared that he may never walk the same again. The broken bones in his leg had set since the battle, yet that pervasive aching pain refused to relinquish its savage grip on him. Only the strongest wine pilfered from dead Imperial soldiers provided any semblance of relief, prying away the iron fingers crushing his shin, if only for a few hours at a time. Truth be known, he was becoming something of a drunk these days. Everyone knew it. Imbibing alcohol in frivolous amounts had always been profoundly frowned upon by the no-nonsense tribes. Such activities were reserved for the great victory feasts thrown to commemorate successful raids. He knew in his heart that he should want to stop drinking, that is what his fellow Karvosi expected of him. But he did not want to stop. He wanted to curl into a ball in the rain and drink himself to death.

Lost in his depressive quagmire of chaste thoughts, Bannoc failed to notice a pothole in the dirt before him. He floundered and would have bit the earth if not for Vanscar’s lightning reflexes. His friend had not left his side since their jarring defeat to the Imperials on the slopes of Uroc’s spine. Unfailing, here he was again to catch Bannoc, this time by the arm.

“Steady on, Bann. You need help?”

Bannoc snorted and pulled from Vanscar’s grip, steadying himself with his stick. He hated being a burden. What else could he be?

Vanscar shrugged, wise enough to know when to leave things be. Both men walked on. Either side of them padded warriors from tribe Sigurn, Waerok, Voden and Umbor. At the rear came the supply wagons, flanked by the Endrosi. The survivors of the engagement with Coromalus’ legions a month past, had fled south, absorbing other fleeing tribes on their march to the Hinterlands. By all accounts, reaching the Kyfeni fort in the hills of Kyfe, was their only hope. It was said that Getae tribes were mustering there, preparing to wage war against the Imperium.

A war they could never hope to win. Bannoc realised it. Before long, his comrades would too. What use could he be? It was entirely possible that he was destined to be a cripple now. Forget the cryptic dreams of glory and prophecy. This was his lot. To die a parentless cripple. What did it matter, he wondered sullenly. Why fret if he had already resigned himself to their inevitable fate? He did not care for the deluge of dreams that howled at him each night, pressuring him to seek out the Queen all of gold. He paid no thought to their dire situation, nor did his heart brim with passion at the prospect of shedding Imperial blood. He swore vengeance on their ilk, but why should he honour his oaths? He had kept his vows all his life, obediently walking the Storm-God’s path with a conviction worthy of kings. Not once had he faltered or shirked his duty, So why had Uroc seen fit to abandon him? Bannoc proffered his God everything, and in return he had been fed bitter chaff.

As the murky orange sun began its descent behind a wall of broiling grey crowds, the conglomeration of fleeing Getae warbands, battered and bruised but still breathing, made camp on the edge of the Hinterlands. It would be sundown soon. Hide tents started going up. Fires crackled to life.

Vanscar finished pounding in the last tent pegs with his sword pommel. He glanced up at Bannoc cautiously, trying to read the other’s stony expression. “We shall arrive at the Kyfeni fort before midday on the morrow,” he stated, testing the water…

Bannoc shrugged. He groaned, stress building around his knee as he shakily eased himself into a seat upon a moss ridden log.

“No thoughts? Nothing to say?”

“Wine.”

Vanscar’s beady eyes narrowed to slits. One skin of wine remained in his pack, but he was not ready to surrender it yet. “That has become your answer to everything. How can a drunkard hope to do battle with the Imperium?”

“You make the error of assuming I still intend to fight…”

“What else would you do?”

Bannoc spat. “Drink and die. Perhaps you have failed to notice, but I am barely capable of walking, never mind swinging a sword. Now give me that wine!”

The demand was ignored. “You will get better, you just need time to heal. You shall have that once we reach the fort.”

“I wish that I was able to believe you.” He sounded bowed. Beaten to within an inch of his being.

“So what will you do?” Growled Vanscar, “nothing at all? Mope and drink yourself into oblivion? I never took you for a coward, Bann.”

“Well now you know,” he sneered.

Finally brought to anger, Vanscar smashed his meaty fist into the tree beside him! Bones fractured noisily. Rendered bark flew left and right. A volatile crimson rage haunted his stare. He pointed accusingly. “I appreciate the loss of your family has struck you hard. Losing so many in such a short time is never going to be easy on the heart. I feel for you, my brother, I do. But you are bound by duty. We have all lost. We have all suffered. Now we must fight!” His vigour did nothing to solicitate the slightest response. Bannoc remained motionless, his face haggard, leeched of all colour and life. With a heavy sigh, Vanscar snatched the wine skin from his pack and launched it at his friend. “There! Indulge if it pleases you. They would be disappointed and you know it. You are defiling their memory.” There was no need to elaborate on who he was referring to. They knew. With that said, he turned his back and stormed off.

Bannoc peered down through stinging tears at the trembling skin in his hand. He held onto it for dear life. Of course they would be disappointed, especially his mother and sister. His father would have flown into a frenzied rage if he was still alive, denouncing him as a gutless craven. His brother Korol would have leered at and mocked him. It pained him to dwell on this truth. It also reiterated his lack of worth. His helplessness. He had been unable to save any of his family. Uron, twelve years old now, had survived, but Bannoc had no hand in that. If he had, Uron might have perished too. Despite his early victories, the Imperium thwarted his plans and crushed him absent much effort on the field of battle. The legions razed his home to the ground, and he did nothing. Uroc did nothing.

I am pathetic and this is all I deserve.

He summoned Amawyth’s cherubic face to mind, recalled that glorious smile of pearls that had so often raised his hopes. He missed her more than he could ever begin to describe. Tears streaked down his tattooed face, staining him with his own despair. Uncorking the wine skin with his teeth, he sucked that poison down. Drawing his traditional Tharyx sword from its scabbard in his belt, he raised the battle-weary weapon, an intricate pattern welded blade once wielded with terrifying grace by Korol. Growling at it, he tossed it away into the darkness, into the thick foliage ahead of him. He would not be needing it again.

He drank long into the night, swallowing wine until he passed out cold in a putrid puddle of his own vomit.

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