Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
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The General's Last Battle

by Jack Mellanby




The dwarves marched through the cavern, iron boots crunching into the stone beneath, filling the cavern with a low rumble. Soft blue light from hanging fungi reflected off the dwarves’ armour, most brilliantly from the frontline hammerhead of heavy infantry.

General Stoneaxe walked at the back of the army, surrounded by his staff and black-axe bodyguards. His knees ached with every step he took, but he ignored them, refusing to accept any discomfort of old age. The irritating presence of his nephew further distracted him from the pain.

Colonel Ironpole was thinner, taller, and had a darker beard than his uncle. But his looks were not what bothered the general.

“I really don’t see why we’re down here,” said Colonel Ironpole. “Instead of chasing the goblins down these bottomless pits, why don’t we just block off the tunnels? Think of the lives we could save.”

General Stoneaxe sighed and considered not replying. But that would just make his nephew jabber worse.

“Why bother?” he said. “My strategy works fine. It always has, and it always will. And more importantly, it’s cheap. How much do you think great big stone walls cost? This way is better for the economy.”

Why did my brother want me to take this one along? And why did I agree to it? Can’t an old general just have a peaceful march for once? Before the blood and passion of battle.

“I’m not denying your success against the goblins. I’m just saying that a lot more dwarves would get to return home if we adopted a more defensive strategy.”

“Defensive? Offense is what we need. Fighting is good for a young dwarf. It was good for me, and it’s going to be good for these young ones too. Toughens the spirit, toughens the body too. You’d know, if you’d ever drawn that sword of yours.”

Ironpole didn’t take the bait.

“Why bother drawing your sword if you don’t have to? That’s what dwarves should be about these days, doing the necessary things. Like balancing the budget, not chasing goblins in tunnels ten miles under our bottommost city.”

“If you’d been around in my day, you’d understand why I’m chasing the goblins. You don’t know what they’re capable of.”

Good old days, when the goblins put up a proper fight, and I could get my axe swinging. Blood and gore spraying in arcs, hoarse goblin screams ringing throughout the battlefield.

He recalled his first battle: the feel of his pounding heart; of his rapid breath; of his shaking hands. His fingers began to quiver, and a weakness took hold in his stomach.

Ironpole continued to jabber.

“Yes uncle, but with all respect to your age and experience, there have been no goblin raids in nearly a decade.”

“Because I’ve been chasing them down here! If-”

Shouting from the front ranks cut him off. The goblins had arrived.

“Get me a better look!” he shouted, and two bodyguards knelt to place a large shield at the general’s feet. He stepped onto the black disc and was raised up; the battlefield stretched out in front of him.

At the front of the army, the elite hammerhead had sighted the foe. Compared to the gleaming steel plate and geometrically perfect hammers of the dwarf infantry, the goblin equipment was pitiful. They wore little more than rags, and the poor workmanship of their spears was obvious even from two hundred metres away. General Stoneaxe grinned down at his nephew.

“These are the most pathetic goblins I’ve ever seen! See how my campaigns have crushed them? Hah!”

An ear splitting roar swept over the dwarven army, loud enough to shake dust from the cavern walls. Every single soldier flinched at the sound, and the hair underneath General Stoneaxe’s armour stood on end.

“What was that!” cried Ironpole, his face pale.

But the general was too excited for the sound to register more than a vague sense of worry.

“It was nothing! Just the cavern settling. Advance the formation!”

The musicians blew the note to advance on their cavern-snail horns. The ranks of dwarves surged forward, pushing the hammerhead elites into the lightly armoured goblins. It was less a fight than a trampling. General Stoneaxe’s heavily armoured troops crushed a couple hundred squealing goblins beneath steel boots and drove the rest to the ‘T’ junction at the end of the tunnel.

“Are you sure we should be advancing so recklessly?” asked Ironpole.

Damn this boy! Do I have to explain every little detail?

“This is the Stoneaxe special! Be quiet and learn.”

The ‘Stoneaxe special’ was the strategy that won the general his most famous victory. Thirty years ago, he split a goblin army in half at a junction like this and inflicted a crushing defeat. In truth, it had been a happy accident, but one he managed to pull off several more times in the following years. Seeing it once more was like his past glories born again, and his heart swelled with pride.

That glorious day. How my axe swung...

He remembered how small it had felt in his grip, and his sense of powerlessness as the goblin line advanced. His hands began to shake, but he clenched them and forced himself to smile.

“Uncle! Something’s wrong!”

“Wrong?”

The goblins were pulling back now, retreating. Overenthusiastic dwarves ran after them, confidence getting the better of them.

Too little discipline. I’ll have to do something about that later. But a bunch of untrained miners could trounce this sorry crowd of a goblin army.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said.

“Yes there is!” cried Ironpole. “To the right!”

General Stoneaxe looked, and nearly fell off the shield. Tricked! The lightly armoured goblins had been a distraction. To the right flank of the overextended dwarves lay the real goblin frontline.

Bronze plated goblin elites, real goblin soldiers like in the old days, advanced at a steady jog. But unlike the spears of old, each one held a two handed spiked warhammer. General Stoneaxe saw one goblin swing down at a lone dwarf. The dwarf caught the hammer on his shield, but the bronze spikes stuck in the wood and the goblin ripped his protection away, and another goblin caved the dwarf’s helmet in.

“Pull back the front lines and form ranks!” shouted the general.

The musicians sounded the note to reform, and the dwarf elites began to pull back. The goblins pursued in formation, killing any dwarf who ran too slowly. Which was dozens of them.

“It’s too late!” screeched Ironpole.

General Stoneaxe opened his mouth to tell his nephew to shut up, but Ironpole was right. At this rate the goblins would disintegrate his entire front rank.

“Rock slingers move up!” he ordered.

The rock slingers at the back of the army advanced to position. They began to swing their slings in great whooshing circles.

All at once, they released their payload. The lead bullets whistled towards the cavern ceiling then impacted it with hard cracks. A mass of stalactites, blue fungi and lead balls rained down on the goblins and the cavern trembled. Taking advantage of the confusion, the elite hammerhead formed themselves into neat lines. General Stoneaxe breathed a sigh of relief.

A close call. Outsmarted by goblins! But the frontline should hold now.

But the bronze armour had protected the goblins from the worst of the barrage, and only a few lay crushed. An instant after the front lines were ordered, the goblin ranks crashed into the dwarven. The dwarves fought defensively, blocking more than attacking in the face of the mighty goblin hammerers. Some began to back away.

They are going to rout.

“Take me to the heavy infantry!” ordered the general, and his bodyguards carried him through the ranks. Colonel Ironpole and the rest of the staff followed, brows dark with concern, but a glint of excited expectation was in their eyes as well. Clearing his throat, General Stoneaxe let out a hum to prepare his voice.

He had been proud of his speeches for a long time. Every battle required a one, usually at the beginning but sometimes, when morale began to waver, it required one in the middle.

As soon as they reached the back of the dwarf frontline, General Stoneaxe began to speak. He blasted out every scrap of air in his lungs at full volume, and his voice carried over the din of battle louder than a horn ever could.

“Proud Dwarves, today you face real goblins! Bigger, fiercer and tougher than what you are used to. But I am used to them! These are the goblins your fathers and I fought and defeated back in the bad old days. And you will defeat them today, just like your fathers did! So do not falter, have faith that we will win this day, and make the cavern slippery with goblin blood!”

A cheer erupted from the dwarves and they attacked with renewed vigour, swinging out their hammers from behind raised shields, even as those shields were smashed to splinters. Each hammer blow cracked a goblin bone, and the enemy stumbled back, their assault blunted.

But they would not rout. General Stoneaxe could see a bitter determination in their black eyes that brought a tic to his. He knew from old experience that his dwarves, weighed down by their armour, would tire more quickly than their foes.

“Uncle, perhaps you should enter the fray.” suggested Ironpole.

“Nonsense! A general should always trust his men to do the job.”

But he heard the lack of conviction in his own words, and if he could hear it, so could the rest of his staff. He felt worried stares boring into his back, and knew what the starers thought.

They think I have lost my nerve. Well, that’s an easy enough problem to remedy. All I need to do is give the order to part the lines, and my bodyguard and I will charge through and smash the goblin phalanx. I just need to give the order!

Long suppressed terror and hopelessness resurfaced. In his mind’s eye he saw a horde of goblins bearing down upon him, the image from three decades ago just as real as the battle today. He remembered the meaty thuds when his axe reached goblin flesh, and how his shield shivered as he took spear blow after spear blow on it. His whole body began to shake at the memory, and he shut his eyes.

He could do nothing but listen to the screams of dwarves and the victorious cries of the goblins, and could tell from them the frontline buckled. Then another ear-splitting roar shook the cavern, followed by the stomp of monstrously heavy feet and a wash of prickly heat like from a forge. A new cry of despair went up from the dwarves.

The wail of despair drove through the general’s body like a nail of ice.

I cannot give up directing the battle, even if I cannot charge myself.

With no small effort, he forced his eyes open. At the sight before him his nervous tremblings doubled.

From behind the goblin lines came a creature from the darkest depths of myth and legend. A terrible dragon, dark green with chained up wings and coal black eyes. Its jaws dripped with fire, and a group of goblins rode a platform erected on its back. One of the goblins, attired in a dark leather, violently prodded the dragon behind the head with a three pronged spear. The beast let out another roar, and from its mouth crimson flames gushed forth to rain upon the front ranks of the dwarves.

Screams of pure agony overwhelmed all other sound in the cavern. Dwarves, and a few goblins, writhed within the red dragonfire, armour glowing white with heat. The smell of roasted meat filled the cavern. Dwarves pushed each other aside in their terror to scramble back, all comradeship and honour forgotten.

“General!” shouted Ironpole. “We should run away!”

I cannot run away. I will not! No matter how much my hands shake, I am still General Stoneaxe. No. I will advance, no matter the terror!

He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and jumped off his platform. He pulled his axe from his belt. It felt heavy.

“Forward!” he shouted, more to urge himself on than his men. Or rather, he wanted to urge his men on so he could move too. If they didn’t push him forward, he knew he could do nothing.

The bodyguards gave a shout and charged through the routing dwarves, and General Stoneaxe was swept up with them. Colonel Ironpole and the rest of the staff remained behind.

The dragon strode forward, its lizard face contorted with bestial fury, whether at the dwarf foes or goblin tormentors, General Stoneaxe could not tell. The goblin phalanx, bronze plate gleaming like rubies in the flame-light, marched around it. They were now mere metres from the dwarf leadership, and General Stoneaxe could make out each blood tipped spike on their hammers.

This is it. What I thought I wanted. Battle at last, after over a decade.

He brought up his shield to block an overhead blow from the first goblin to reach him. The impact knocked his arm down, but his shield did not break. The goblin pulled the hammer away to strike another blow. General Stoneaxe’s instincts were still there, but his body was old and unwieldy. He stepped one foot back to dodge the blow, but the goblin followed through and body slammed the old general.

His heel struck something, and he fell back, landing with a thud that took the wind from him. His armour weighed him down, and he could not stand. The goblin raised its hammer to swing down, and its head flew off from a bodyguard’s axe blow. Green blood fountained up from its neck to rain down onto General Stoneaxe’s face, and into his mouth.

The taste of goblin blood, sour and metallic, had not changed from thirty years past. The general’s memory conjured a goblin from decades past before him, spear levelled at his eye as he lay on the ground. Again the tremblings took him.

“Stand up General!” shouted the bodyguard. “Or you’ll be trampled!”

I must stand up!

He tightened his grip on the axe and slowly rose from the ground, shaking all the way. The din of battle clashed around him, his bodyguards desperately fending off goblin after goblin, and all the while the chained dragon drew closer.

I can’t let my men see me fall over again, or the day is lost. But more than just standing, I need to fight. I did it before and I will again! I will never lose a battle!

General Stoneaxe raised the axe over his head and, to drive the terror from him, screamed. Then he charged at the nearest goblin, one stumbling away from a bodyguard’s shield strike, and split its head in half through the bronze helmet. His bodyguards cried out in joy, and he took another goblin’s arm off. Vigour pumped through him, invigorating every aching muscle. He turned his eyes, shining with bloodlust, to the dragon, only thirty feet away, and beat his axe on his shield.

“Forward men! Win this battle! Kill the-”

A terrible heat passed over his head and ended his speech. It pushed him to the ground with its force, and from behind came terrible screams from more immolated dwarves, who must have just rallied. A group of goblins, neatly organised in a square, charged the general and his men.

One bodyguard was killed immediately, and the others sent stumbling back by the charge. More goblins rushed the flanks, and the bodyguards were pushed into their general. Squeezed on either side, General Stoneaxe could do nothing but hold his shield in front of him, unable even to lift his axe.

“Fight back!” he shouted. His bodyguards lashed out with a ferocity borne of terror, killing half a dozen goblins. The press loosened, and the general turned around to see what had become of the rest of his army.

In the smokey blue gloom of the cavern, he could see Colonel Ironpole urging the army away.

“Retreat!” screamed his nephew. “Run away! General Stoneaxe is dead!”

“I am not dead!” shouted the general, but no one heard him. The dragon roared again, more a physical force than a sound. It took every ounce of effort from General Stoneaxe to keep standing.

“We can’t hold them!” shouted one of the bodyguards. “The dragon’s upon us!”

The dragon bit the unfortunate dwarf in half, teeth shearing through steel armour like paper. The bodyguards between the general and the monster fell back.

General Stoneaxe was alone, the last dwarf in the front lines. The goblin in the black leather, riding the wooden platform on the dragon’s back, pointed the trident towards the general, and stared deep into the his eyes.

It was a gaze that spoke of hatred, an utter desire to kill every dwarf under the mountains. The same gaze that had terrified the general so much on his first battle, as the goblin’s spear had lanced towards his eye.

I am doomed.

General Stoneaxe remembered how he had split that goblin from shoulder to hip in a shower of blood.

I am not! General Stoneaxe will never die in battle!

The dragon lashed out snake-like with its mighty jaws. General Stoneaxe did not even flinch. He swung with his axe, and the stone edge bit deep into the monster’s snout. The impact reverberated through the general’s arm, and from the feel he could tell the dragon’s bone had split.

Liquid crimson flames poured from the wound. The great green monster reared back, and the goblins sitting on it fell off along with their platform. The dragon twisted back its head and gouted flame upwards and backwards, splashing the ceiling and bringing down great clumps of burning fungus onto the goblin ranks behind. An acrid stench filled the cavern, bringing tears to the general’s eyes.

The dragon turned and rampaged back through the goblin lines. Snaking sweeps of its tail sent goblins flying into the cavern walls. General Stoneaxe roared in victory.

This is our chance.

He turned around to address his bodyguards, who looked at the old general in shock and awe.

“You five, with me! We’re going to charge the goblins. You six, get the rest of the army to stop retreating. Tell them the dragon is defeated!”

The bodyguards banged their axes against their shields in affirmation.

“Understood!”

The general turned back and charged forwards without waiting to see if they followed.

They won’t retreat again. Now they know General Stoneaxe doesn’t lose battles! It’s just like back in the old days.

Stubby legs pumping, he ran through the cavern as fast as a young man. Immense vigour suffused every fibre of his being.

“Ah!” he shouted.

Agony shot through his legs, then spread through his body like fire. Every old man ache was multiplied by ten, and he fell to his knees. He tried to struggle up again.

I must go on!

But he couldn’t, and fainted.


*****



“General! Wake up General! We’ve won!”

General Stoneaxe opened his eyes slowly, eyelids aching. His whole body felt like it was not just encased in steel, but made of it, too heavy to even think about moving. And the dull ache that had troubled his knees now filled every joint and bled into his muscles.

The battle felt like it had happened to a different person.

“We’ve won?” he croaked. “What’s the army doing now?”

He focused on the speaker for the first time. He was a bodyguard, beard grey from the ash in it.

“About half is gathered here waiting for your orders, the other half is still retreating with Colonel Ironpole.”

General Stoneaxe turned his head to the side, and saw the crowd of soldiers standing around him, their once pristine armour stained with soot and blood.

“What about the goblins?”

“They ran away too fast for us to catch. But somehow I doubt they’ll be back. Not after fighting General Dragonslayer Stoneaxe!”

The general smiled faintly.

“I don’t doubt it. Now let me think about what to do next. A general needs time to plan.”

The bodyguard obliged him and stayed silent. General Stoneaxe remained lying on the cold cavern floor and thought long and hard.

Do we pursue? Strategically, it could be advantageous. The goblins are on the run and deprived of their most fearsome weapon.

But no. I’m too sore. Maybe Ironpole is right, and we should stop fighting... Yes, he is, as much as I hate to admit it. We should focus on construction, not dragon slaying.


“We will return to the capital. It’s time to end this war.”

The bodyguard sighed in what General Stoneaxe could only interpret as relief.

“Now pick me up, it’s time to go home.”

The bodyguard took the general by the shoulders and heaved him to his feet. He nearly crumpled back to the ground, but steadied himself, clenching his teeth to blot out the pain.

“The first thing I’m going to do when I get back is buy you all a drink!”

The loudest cheer yet erupted from the soldiers around him. General Stoneaxe smiled. He had nearly died today, but pulled victory from the jaws of an dragon, one that would never be forgotten.

Now it was time for peace, and an end to his career.



THE END


2019 Jack Mellanby

Bio: Jack Mellanby is a young writer from New Zealand, who has loved fantasy his whole life.

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