by Matthew Acheson
I have neglected this journal for some weeks--I only wish it mattered.
Whether anyone will ever read these words, I cannot say, for I am more
afraid now than ever that mankind’s days are drawing to an end. In
truth, these feeble scratchings are little more than a distraction to
still the tremors in my hands, and settle the writhing serpents in my
belly. My men should not see me troubled so.
Today marked the first day of the third year of this war.
It will be remembered as the day the ancient castle city of Eastport
fell; its proud spires toppled, buildings shattered, people ravaged.
The men of my legion stood shivering in our animal skin cloaks and
patchwork of metal armor, and watched the carnage from the palisade
atop Hommland’s Hill--the last iron mine in the East that has not been
Their arrival was a terrible sight. The light from the full moon
cast a strange, eerie glow upon the host of pale corpse things and
their shrieking masters which stretched across the vale for miles in
every direction. They swept the valley like a flood that left only ash,
carrion and pestilence in its wake.
The dead shambled through a rain of flaming arrows and stones, and
assaulted the city for three nights without pause. The Earl of Gosford
and his men slew them by the hundreds, and thousands, but they came on
relentlessly and without fear, until the bodies of the twice dead were
piled so high the others used them as ramps to scale the mossy granite
walls. Eventually, the bastions of the outer city were taken, and the
iron studded oak gates of the ancient citadel battered down.
In all my days on this earth I have never imagined such carnage. The
stink of ash and brine and rotting flesh is heavy about this place, and
when I close my eyes I can still see the fires, and hear the screams.
My hands now suffer from a shaking sickness that only setting quill to
parchment seems to put right, and I cannot rid myself of this uneasy
feeling in my stomach.
Soon, they will come for us too.
When it was over, one of my men threw down his sword and shield and
wept openly in front of all. “There is no end to them,” he sobbed as he
retched into the high grass. Later he was caught deserting, and I had
him tied to a post and whipped by one of my junior officers as an
example to the others.
These are hard, brutal times when a boy must be flogged bloody for
doing what his commander has considered more often than he can recall.
Sometimes, when I am alone and cold in my bed, I dream of shedding the
mantle of this responsibility and returning home to my Gwen and our
little ones. But after all that I have seen, I wonder if I could truly
lay down this burden.
Could I pass the cup, and trust other men to stand at the edge of
the black pit and hold their torches out into the darkness through all
the long watches of the damnable night? Nothing is simple anymore.
Today, I feared the men were close to breaking, and called them
together to give some words of encouragement. When they formed up, I
walked down the line and saw an army of weary friends and strangers
clad in torn, faded tunics and rusted mail, their faces drawn and
haggard. Most of our legion’s original five thousand fell over years of
fighting, and those few hundred that remained were bloodied, bent, and
cleaved. How could I speak of honor, duty, and sacrifice when so many
had already fought and died at my command in a war that some believed
could not be won?
I cleared my throat and prepared to remind them that our 6th Legion
was all that stood between the enemy, a hundred villages, a thousand
farms and the sea. But when the moment came my voice faltered and salty
tears streaked down into my beard. It was all I could do to thrust my
sword in the air and call out the legion’s motto “no further!” We all
shouted the damn thing until we were red-faced and hoarse. I pray it
Sir Belric sat beside me in the mess tent at dinner, and counseled
that in the morning we should throw open our gates, and lead our
knights and infantry down into the valley below. “Bring battle to them
for once,” he said.
There was a feverish gleam in his eyes when he spoke, which I have
seen before. It is a look some men get when they have stood too long in
shadow, seen death, hopelessness and despair, and no longer have any
fear. I clapped my graying friend on the shoulder, served him a second
helping of hard-bread and mutton stew, and said nothing. It took half a
mug of wine to dam the rivers in my eyes, and dull the aching in my
We must not lose hope.
I have been standing watch on the palisade walls with my men for
most of the afternoon. Dusk is approaching, and there is a terrible
screeching in the hill country around us. It is a bone chilling sound,
and one of the new recruits standing watch beside me trembled like a
leaf until fear ran streaming hot down his leg. I do not envy his youth
and inexperience; those of us who are long veterans of this war know
well the source of those inhuman shrieks, and the pale faces with black
eyes that leer and hate and murder beyond the edge of the light.
It won’t be long now before the shriekers are upon us, biting,
howling, and tearing their way through men that I have shivered beside
and bled with all these long years. I cannot begin to describe how
weary and hollow that thought makes me feel. They are all my brothers,
or near enough.
We have made what preparations we could, wrapping arrows in
oil-soaked rags, filling casks with burning pitch, and digging covered
pits. I have instructed my officers to douse the tents and thatched
huts of our encampment with oil. Every man of us agrees that when the
end comes we will not allow ourselves to be taken. I intend to bury
this journal, so that perhaps the lives and deaths of the men of the
6th Legion will not be forgotten. I can only hope and pray that there
will be people left in this world to read it.
Sir Lancaster has offered to take command of the wall so I can steal
a few moments of rest. I close this book and put my quill down bleary
eyed and exhausted to the bone.
* * *
Night is upon us, black as pitch, and there is no moon. I hear a
shrill brass cry in the darkness--a watcher’s horn is blowing. Our camp
is all shouts and chaos. The horses are braying and kicking, and the
dogs have gone feral. There are pale, hunchbacked shapes lingering at
the edge of the firelight, hissing at us from the gloom. I have never
been so afraid.
They are coming.
© 2013 Matthew Acheson
Bio: Matthew Acheson earned his bachelor's from the University of
Southern Maine, and lives in Orono, Maine. He works as a senior manager
in the technology sector, and remains sane through much writing and
occasional archaeology therapy in Egypt, Israel, and New England. He is
a member of the Horror Writers Association, and his Nordurlandes Saga
tales have appeared in Buzzy Mag, Spinetinglers, Underground Voices,
Pseudopod, and others. On some cold winter nights you'll find him by
the fireplace, entertaining his fourteen nieces and nephews with
strange tales of the fantastic. Other times they just play the tin foil
boat game. His website is www.nordurlandes.com
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.