Never expect life to be fair.
Daul was five rows back and the mortar fire had already come. It had rained down from the sky in deathly silence and would have caught them off guard if some veteran in the front row hadn’t raised up his flak shield and set off a chain reaction that slowly progressed all the way through the ranks. It was better than it could have been, but some of them had still been late with their defenses, or put them up at an ineffective angle. They continued screaming even now, but Daul could hardly hear it anymore.
Daul was past the moment of fear. The nausea was gone, the tightness in his bowels. There was no way out, nowhere to run and hide. The forces had engaged. The mortars were proof of that. So now he was committed, and that lent him a peculiar type of calm. He was just waiting for it. Waiting to run forward to die or to live. That appeared to be his destiny. Now that he had marched up to the precipice, he found he could handle it.
He was not a large soldier, not the kind that reveled in battle. There were those around him that were. Brutors the size of mountains who considered the fray in a completely different perspective. It would take something special to bring them down, and they took the field with a reasonable expectation to be able to walk back off it when all was accounted for at the end.
Daul, on the other hand, was an average sized man. He was well trained and athletic, but this was his first battle, and he knew that there were those in the opposing army who had advantages of both size and experience. One strike was bad enough, two was unnerving. But as he had already concluded, there was no way out of it now, nowhere but forward to run.
Five rows back, he thought. Maybe, just maybe, the battle wouldn’t come to him. Maybe he could stay hidden behind his comrades.
He looked to his left and saw a mammoth Brutor with bulging muscle and a huge red beard smiling in anticipation. Something about that crazed look told him that he would be seeing action, that he wasn’t far enough back for security.
As one they started to move. Daul hadn’t heard any word of command, but the press of the bodies sent him forward. Shoulder to shoulder they crept along and Daul found that he could not allow himself to drift further back in the ranks as he had been secretly planning to. They were all too close, and they all pushed each other along as if they all shared the idea of the subtle retreat.
The walk became a jog, the jog a run, the run a sprint, and the exhilaration of the moment stirred his adrenaline. This was the battle. This was the moment of truth. And he felt the pounding of his heart in his ears and in the shortness of his breath. He resolved instantly that if this was to be his last accounting, it would be a good one, and he let loose with a wild scream that was picked up and repeated by the hoarse and nervous throats of the men beside him. His whoop became louder with their augmentation, and he picked up his own volume to pay greater homage to the cacophony they were creating.
Everything slowed in a sense. His eyes recorded the images that flashed before him. The color of the men. So stark and white against the grey suburbia and blue skies.
The feel of the concrete beneath his boots, rubble and debris littered everywhere. The sharpness of the air as he gasped for it, seeming to cut his throat as he drew it in. And then, the clash of the weapons from the lines ahead amidst the sounds of gunfire.
It was like standing in one place and watching a storm blow in. A sheet of water and darkness, chaos, the fist of nature, coming at you in a black wall and then swallowing you.
Daul struck out around him madly. Nothing came close. Nothing was allowed. Arms, hands, broken weapons, the moment they entered his field of vision he smashed them away with a strike from his slender vibro sword. He spun in circles, blindly, mud and blood tossed up from the foul below and smearing his face and clothing until he was an unrecognizable mass. He stood in one place, never advancing, and the battle came to him.
It thinned after a while, after an eternal minute. Daul had no idea how long it had been, but he knew he was exhausted, and that there was nobody close to him. Slowly, his senses returned. The berserker rage that had overcome him had spent itself, and his body had rightly decided that the best chance for survival lay again in absolute faith for the control of his reason. He stumbled forward, the throng just ahead. He surmised his comrades were the ones whose backs were to him.
Suddenly, out of the wall of flesh broke a single soldier. The enemy, he could tell by the color of his armour beneath the blood. He was frenzied and broken like a struggling deer. Young, like Daul, he broke from between two bodies and looked up one and down the other before ever turning his eyes forward. He was nose to nose with Daul before he ever noticed him in his path. Daul just stood there in shock, waiting for him to come.
The madness had left Daul, the killing instinct, and it had left this soldier as well. Daul was watching him keenly, but detached, as in a vision, as he stepped forward. The soldier seemed relieved to be out of the fray. He seemed overcome that the two pillars of men he had passed through had taken no heed of his escape. He finished looking behind him and turned his eyes forward, meeting the eyes of Daul.
Daul saw himself reflected. For the first time in this battlefield of lunacy and blood, he saw the watery blue of intelligence. There was a soul in those eyes, an understanding. This was a young soldier, like him, one that was only looking for a way out.
They paused, a fragile truce. They waited and drew nervous breath. Daul could see a pleading there, the desire to escape. Or so he thought. Was he just imagining it?
With that question the moment was broken and the brief tranquility was overwhelmed by a stampeding fear. It was a battle. This was the enemy.
The other soldier saw the change in Daul’s posture and started to react, but it was too late. The sword had already skewered him. The lifeless body slid down the blade, and Daul came face to face with the eyes again, the eyes that had pleaded for non-aggression.
He turned the sword down and to the side, the body slid off in silence. He had triumphed, he had slain his attacker. But he felt nothing but scorn and self-loathing. No words had been spoken, but this man had asked for a truce, and Daul had responded to the request with blood.
Daul was still standing there over the body when the battle ended.
The soldiers came walking back, picking their way through the bodies. Some in a daze, others joyous and relieved.
A meaty hand crashed down on Daul’s back.
“You’re first battle, right lad? Nice to see you‘ve made the cut.” It was the man-mountain with the fiery beard. “You’ve got a few tricks now, you’ll make it OK. The ones that survive their first battle, tend to make it all the way. Glad to have you with us.”
Daul didn’t make a response. He knew what the difference was between the ones that made it and the ones that didn’t. The ones that made it killed. They ignored the pleas for mercy in the enemies’ eyes, they accepted the rules of the situation they were in and didn’t waste energy on dreams for a peaceful future.
Daul looked up at the carnage and the brutes that surrounded him. This was his world, these were his people, the desolation and the foulness of the living.
He glanced down one last time at the body at his feet, peaceful in its death-mask, and as he turned to walk off the field of battle with the other grotesque and misshapen approximations of the living, he wondered who the real victor was.