A Simple Task
flash fiction by Astrid S. Nielsen and Tommy Fransgaard
There was grass breaking through the flagstones. Ilyich stared at it, unblinking. Grass, slowly clawing its way from darkness into light, unstoppable, even in his shadow. He felt that thing again, gnawing inside of him, that…feeling. His bony fingers clutched the hilt of his sword harder, and with the point of it he scraped away the grass. Though it would come back. It always came back.
He froze; he could feel their eyes, the others like him, skeleton figures clad in rusty armour and dark robes billowing slowly about them.
I did not move, he would have said if the silence between them had not been as old as the death they shared. I do not feel, and the wind doesn’t whisper to me. About riding to battle on a misty morning, with a beating heart. The warmth of a fire. Lenji’s laughter.
I am not Ilyich. I am only my master’s will.
But his master’s will was failing.
So many they had been to begin with, left here by his master to guard the bridge across the chasm and whatever secrets lay on the other side. They had stood here waiting, waiting, waiting for the enemy, and the stars had not changed, and he had thought that neither would they.
Then a skeleton warrior suddenly ceased to be anything more than just bones, falling rattling to the ground, truly dead. Slowly, their numbers dwindled. And now, so few of them remained. Now, bones and pieces of rusty armour were scattered about the rocky ground as if it’d been the scene of an ancient battle.
But that was yet to come.
He straightened, resumed his pose, hand resting lightly on his sword, gaze fixed on the ridge and the shadows between the pines. There would be movement there, one day. The enemy would come. His master’s will might be failing. But he would not.
◊ ◊ ◊
The dwarf scout Kalmen Orefall looked back over his shoulder, then turned and leaned on his axe.
“What in the bottom of Abyss did he have to go and do that for. Taking a cannon along,” he grumbled through his teeth as so many times before.
They were out of sight, for now, the baron’s brat of a youngest son and those fools who didn’t dare tell him what an idiot he was. Who were tripping over their feet to help him. With his cannon. Kalmen sighed. Somewhere down that steep path winding its way between the pines, they were still struggling to drag that damn thing along, he could tell by the scrambling noises and the swearing carrying through the wood. Not that he would have expected them to give up.
“A cannon is our mightiest weapon. I’m not going without my cannon,” the young Lord Greyrock had insisted.
Fool that he was, Kalmen had answered he’d better stay home, then.
And then it became a matter of principle.
The baron’s youngest son was… Well, the baron’s son, even if he did not posses any other qualities. The baron had thought a harmless mission, one that couldn’t possibly fail, might just be the thing to give the boy some sense of valour. And when an old parchment was found, speaking of an ancient artifact of great power hidden in this deserted part of the mountains, far from enemy lines—it had seemed just such a mission.
Thoran Blackhammer, who was the only one in the party besides Kalmen not keeping to the young lord’s slow pace, scratched his grey streaked beard. “Maybe we should go back and help young sir Greyrock with the cannon?”
Kalmen raised a bushy eyebrow, looked his friend in the eye. They both burst out laughing. “Good one, that.” Kalmen wiped at a tear at the corner of his eye. “Well, let’s see what lies ahead.”
They continued, crested the ridge. And froze.
There was a bridge across a chasm, just like the parchment had described it. In front of it, though, a plain of bones stretched out, a small army of undead gathered in the centre. The red burning eyes of a wight lord met Kalmen’s. He felt the back of his neck prickle, cursed under his breath. “What’s taking them so long with that cannon!”