I used to think that there wasn’t anything worse than the terrifying nightmare of battle.
Not all battle – leading a thunderous cavalry charge into an inferiorly positioned foe, destined to slaughter them quickly and brutally is actually kind of fun, once you get over the pure gore of it.
I mean the other kind of battle, the one where the outcome is uncertain, at best, and your hope of survival is purely a matter of luck, skill, and the fickle whims of the gods. The press of flesh and metal and hair and blood, the screams of the wounded, the dying, the calls to mothers in the speech of infants, coming from the mouths of men grown, the curses and prayers and pleas for mercy, the drums and horns and war-cries by strangers who want to kill you all combine into one ghastly symphony from hell that assaults your ears and your mind all at once.
Mix that with the stench of fear and vomit and bile and piss and shit and mud and horse and steel and sweat, fire and ash . . . battle has a nauseating perfume all its own. It haunts your nostrils for days afterwards, and there’s no passage of years that can dim the memory of that harsh aroma.
That’s on top of the confusion and shock of being faced with death not once – like when a cart almost ran over you and you narrowly escaped – but again and again and again. Death from the foemen in front of you, death from a fated arrow from the sky, death from behind by someone you didn’t even see was there, death from your tent-mate who mistook you for the foe, trampled by horses or bashed by maces, sliced by swords or punctured by javelins, from any direction at any time – not once, as I said, but over and over and over within the space of a hundred heartbeats.
Where every time you blink a new foe could reveal himself, a new danger could manifest, and you are helpless in preventing or avoiding it. Where every step you take seems foreordained to inch you closer and closer to your own grisly death. Where the surge of terror compels you to fight madly, or to retreat madly, or to scream madly into the chaos in defiance not of the foe, but of death, itself.
Where comrades and friends, men you diced and drank and whored with, lie gasping at your feet, their hot blood pouring from their bodies and pooling at your heels, their terror-filled eyes turned towards you in pleading despair, begging you to save them from their grim fate while knowing – as you do – that there is nothing that you can do to save them from the abyss, and that you will stand their helplessly while they die – or worse, forget about them in an instant as you dodge the next volley, next charge, next slash.
Where blood becomes as common as rain and screams are as normal as breezes, where rank and position and class have no meaning, and the basic commonality of struggling just to survive the man-made madness puts you and the greatest Duke on level. Where retreat into drunkenness, madness, or impervious detachment is the only remedy to the stain of the assault on your memory. Where the subtlest reminder of some far-away battlefield a lifetime away turns your blood to ice in your veins and makes old men wake up in the middle of the night, bawling like babies or screaming like terrified little girls at the memory.
I used to think there was nothing worse than that.
I was wrong. Kitsal Hamlet was worse than that.
OK, a little florid maybe . . .