The Battle Within – A Shadowed Horizons Short Story

22nd Sep 2023

Dan Mapleston

Morning – The Southern Ramparts

Livli drew her furs tighter around her shoulders and adjusted the scarf protecting her face. Though hardier than the Southern Kindred, the cold this far north still chilled the elven ice-kin. Looking around Livli noted she wasn’t alone in her attempts to stay warm atop the ramparts. Feet stamped, hands flexed in fingerless leather gloves, and resting kin huddled around glowing braziers. Similar scenes repeated themselves amongst all the defenders of Talannar’s great city of Chill. Only the half-elf berserkers and the iceblood naiads were unconcerned by the biting cold.

After a punishing march across the icy tundra to answer Prince Talannar’s urgent call for aid, Livli and her kin welcomed a posting to the ramparts of Chill. Now a constant vigil in the face of uncertainty saw tempers fray and morale waver. Patience was a hunter’s greatest weapon and waiting for the right moment to strike had always been second nature. Now the elf hunter re-considered this long-held view with grim amusement. A hollow laugh escaped her lips, causing her fellow hunters to glance over in concern.

Hours passed, and idle chatter gave way to heartfelt confessions, before settling into silent introspection. Even the Skalds had developed thousand-yard stares and grown silent. Needing to engage her mind, the ice-kin wandered over to the frost-encrusted embrasure. Exchanging greetings with the kin on watch duty, Livli leaned casually on the crenellations and stared out into the distance. As draining as it was to maintain their vigilance ahead of a battle, bitter experience had taught her not to wish these precious hours away. The enemy would be upon them soon enough, and then the killing and dying would begin.

Midday – The Inner Trenches

Snorii grunted as he swung his pick down into the permafrost. Prince Talannar had ordered a series of trenches and spike-encrusted embankments dug around the city to bolster the defences. How much of the plan was strategic, and how much was to maintain a sense of purpose among the increasingly fatalistic troops, Snorii really didn’t want to guess. Besides, it was hard to think straight when his arms ached from ceaselessly digging and hauling frozen dirt.

“Did you hear?’”, asked the dwarf next to him as they dug.

“Hear what Magnus?”, Snorri grunted, still swinging.

“Those few Frostclaws that returned from Ygrituul. They say some of the riders had dug their own eyes out.”

“Nonsense,” Snorii scoffed. “Probably just a bad case of snow blindness”, he said, casting a dark look at his fellow.

“I heard the Nightstalkers can do that to folk,” piped up a younger dwarf. “Old Joralann fought them back in the Abyssal incursions. Said half his troop took a long walk into a snowstorm rather than face the creatures.”

“Aye. But better that than what they do if they get hold of y-”

“Lads!”, Snorri snapped, fixing them both with a murderous look. “That…is enough.”

“Just saying. Just saying.”

Magnus leaned on his shovel and raised his hands in a gesture of reconciliation. Snorii ground his teeth, before sighing and letting the tension drop. Deflated, he hoisted his axe once more and half-heartedly swung at the ground. Magnus watched a moment before continuing his own work.

As they worked a plume of red smoke began to rise in the distance. Glancing at each other wordlessly, and despite their exhaustion, they dug faster and more desperately. The enemy had broken through the outer watch-line, and time was running out.

Afternoon – The Western Courtyard

Britta gripped her trident and crept silently around a stack of barrels, filled with salt fish and small beer. The supplies were meant to be stowed in the storehouses, but the space had been repurposed as barracks. That made guarding the limited foodstuff from thieves and vermin a hundred times more difficult. Fortunately, she was more than up to the task and even found a cruel pleasure in watching hapless criminals squirm in her net. Thieves just like the one she had been carefully following the last few minutes. Tucking in tight to the barrels, the naiad eased gently around the corner.

The thief was a slender human in ill-fitting furs, his hood failing to hide a shock of red hair. He held a dagger in one hand and was in the process of levering open a barrel. Britta wasted no time in hurling her net to ensnare the man. He yelped in surprise as it wrapped around his body and dragged him to the ground. Britta grinned in satisfaction and closed the distance in a heartbeat, levelling her trident to his face.

“Please!” sobbed the human. “Please, I’m so hungry. I just needed to eat. We’ll all be dead tomorrow anyway.”

Britta curled her lip in disgust and fought back the desire to lunge with her trident. Such weakness of character made the darkest parts of her being surge to the front. Pathetic, worthless wretch of a human…Britta closed her eyes and fought the rising spite within her. Her race was more than the petty creatures they were forged to be. How could she let the stress of their circumstance take that from her? Were they not all in dire straits? She would give her aid to this man.

“Come,” she sighed. “There’s food and shelter for you in the gaol.”

Twilight – The South-East Bastion

Night drew in and the approaching hordes came ever closer. Twisted giants shambled forward as spiked creatures cavorted around their feet. Insectoid beasts scuttled through snow drifts leaving trails of glowing ichor. Floating masses of tentacled flesh pulsed in unsettling rhythms and troll-like brutes lumbered along with immense, rusted blades. On the ramparts some defenders sobbed gently, others made peace with their past mistakes or simply stared outwards in grim resignation.

Lord Heandarak’s feet ached, and his eyes were bloodshot as he stood in sombre contemplation. He’d spent years trying to forget how grotesque the creatures of the void were. He wanted nothing more than to sit before a warming brazier and sip the fortifying brew in his water-skin. Instead, he was here in what would likely be his final stand, giving his life to protect Chill and the dream of an allied North. A dream he believed in with every fibre of his being.

He raised an arm, signalling the bolt throwers stationed in the bastion towers to make ready. Soon the enemy would be in range, clambering over each other to scale the walls, and beating into the gates as a single crushing mass. Could his warriors stand firm once wave upon wave of nightmares came crashing down on their shields? Could anyone?

Heandarak dismissed these thoughts with a shake of his head, and looked again at the enemy. Something was wrong. Something had changed. It took him another moment to realise the creatures had drawn to a stop, standing motionless in the gloom. The northern lord rubbed his eyes and looked again at the halted tide of flesh, claws, and teeth. Where moments ago, the air was filled with the deafening sound of the twisted horde there was now only a maddening, impossible silence.

What trickery was this? Heandarak watched open-mouthed as the Nightstalker horde finally twitched back into motion. Regaining pace, the frightening mass of life lurched, shambled, and scuttled west, away from the city. His hands flew to his head, his breath quickening, what had he missed? What weakness in the defences had the enemy seen? Had Prince Talannar been wrong about the incursion? He looked around for a sign, for anything that would answer his questions. No horns sounded from the keep, and no runner came bearing orders. Confused and tired beyond words, Heandarak finally let out days of frustration in a blood-curdling howl.

Author: Jess Townshend

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