User:HMSVictory/The Armour of Contempt
'Evil claims the unwary or the incomplete.
A true man may flinch away its embrace,
If he is stalwart, and he grinds his soul
With the armour of contempt.'
- -Marneus Sturm
- The Spheres of Longing
RIP was an acronym, and it happened in the Basement. There were two hundred and forty three scalps in the detail, the majority of them there for the "P" part of the name. On the first day, Criid didn't know anybody, and stood alone, hands in pockets. That earned a few words of elucidation from the instructor, Driller Kexie.
'No bloody Imperial Legionary, not even a wet-fart scalp like you, parks their hands in their pockets!' Kexie opined. Kexie was two-twenty tall, and looked as if he had been woven out of minotaur flesh. He spoke in a slow measure, as if he had all the time in the world to wither and abuse, and the words came out of his dry, lipless mouth like fireballs: hot, bright and burning. If he shouted at night, you'd see his words stitch up in the dark like tears of magicka.
Driller Kexie had a stick. For reasons no one in the detail ever fathomed, he called it 'Saroo'. It was a thick spar of turned hardwood, forty centimetres long, and resembled both a Spellsword's hand-staff and the leg of a chair. Kexie liked to reinforce certain words and phrases with Saroo. At 'wet-fart scalp', Kexie stroked Saroo against Criid's left hand, which was still in its pocket. A flash flood of acute pain flared across the knuckles of Criid's fist. On 'like you', Saroo visited Criid's right hand. The words 'parks their hands' brought Saroo right up between Criid's legs. Criid dropped onto the stone decking, sucking air.
'Upright, hands at your sides. No other posture is acceptable to the Emperor, to me, or to Saroo. Are we clear?'
'Ech,' Kexie said, tilting his head on one side. He had, they would discover, a habit of punctuating his speech with that particular sound. 'Ech, call that a clean helmet?' 'Ech, what a shit-soft attempt!' 'That the best you offer, ech?'
'Ech,' he said, 'I don't believe that Saroo can hear you, scalp!'
'Yes, driller!' Criid barked. 'We are clear, driller!'
'Get up,' Kexie sniffed, and turned back to the others.
Some of the others were greatly amused. The first day was scarcely ten minutes old, and already one of their numbers was prone on the deck with pain-wet eyes.
They were an ugly lot, most of them the flotsam of various legions. Criid had already put a name to three or four of the most prominent. A nickname, at least. There was Fourbox, who was a tall, heavy-set joker from the Niben VIIIth. He was on RIP, he had proudly declared to them as they gathered, for being 'rubbish at everything'. Exigo was a female legionnaire from the Sons of Septims. She was on her third repeat of RIP. Though this was her first taste of Driller Kexie. 'I don't like orders,' she had replied when Fourbox asked her what her reason for being there was, and left it at that. Exigo had a real edge to her. Dark haired and tanned, she seemed as risky as an unsheathed dagger in a kitbag.
The name Boulder, as was often the case with Legion nicknames, belonged to a youth who didn't deserve it. Boulder was small and scrawny, a stick-thin go-nowhere, another of the Niben like Fourbox. Criid supposed the sledgehammer irony of the Legion had stuck Boulder with his handle. Though he was small, and looked picked-on, it was hard to empathize with him. He had a shrill cackle, and used it to signal his delight at the pain of others. Boulder had been sent on RIP by his commanding officer for 'fixing a dagger to a bow, haw-haw-haw.'
In Criid's opinion, less than ten minutes old, Wash was the real poison in the detail. Wash reminded Criid of Centurion Rawne: tall, dark, handsome and venomous. He knew he looked good, even in the faded RIP issue leathers, and he regarded all of them with a dismissive silence. When, as they first assembled, Fourbox had asked him 'what he was in for', Wash simply hooded his eyes and turned his back.
'Oooh, hard man, haw-haw-haw!' Boulder had sniggered, and Fourbox and some of the others had laughed along.
Wash had turned, extended the index finger of his left hand, and inserted it into Boulder's mouth, pushing the fingertip up over the front teeth until it wedged, painfully, in the roof of the gum, tenting the lip and philtrum against Boulder's nostrils. Boulder had snorted in distress but, like a fish on a hook, had been unable to pull free.
'I am not "hard man",' Wash had said. 'I am not your bloody friend. You want me, you ask for Wash. And you never, ever want me'
With that, he let Boulder's lip go. Everyone was suitably respectful of Wash from that point.
'Skingrad takes a dive!' Fourbox chortled when Driller Kexie put Criid on the deck. 'First and only, they say. First and only to get a smack!'
'Skingrad's tearing up,' Boulder joined. 'Look, look! Like a little girl! Boo hoo! Haw-haw-haw!'
'Go home to mama, little Skingrad!' Fourbox sang out.
'She'll wipe your eyes and make it all nice again,' Exigo sniggered. 'Mwah! Mwah!' she added, pantomiming kisses. All better now!'
'My mother...' Criid began, getting up. 'My mother would gut you bastards...'
'Oh, I'm so bloody scared!' announced Boulder. 'So scared, I'll wet myself, haw-haw-haw!'
'I know your mama,' Fourbox called. 'She wriggled a bit, but she was all right. She still writes to me. "Oh, Boxy, when can we be together again? I long for-"'
'Enough!' Driller Kexie fire-balled. 'Staple your lips, you wet-farts. Ech, I've seen some details in my time, but you take the brass arse. Muscle up, in a line! Come on! Come on! Get up and get in it, Criid! Drill order. Is that a drill order, shit-wit? Get to it! Six lines, now! Come on!'
Kexie walked the lines, twirling Saroo in his calloused hands.
It was cold in the echoing vault of the Basement. Their breath made steam in the air. Like all bilge spaces, the Basement was unheated and raw. Its walls were a ferruginous stain of ancient wood and stone-like gangrene, and the air smelled of the stale urine and smoke that had leaked down-stairs. Apparently, the RIP detail wasn’t valuable enough to dedicate them a real barracks.
'All right, ladies and ladies,' said Kexie. 'I'm assuming that's the best you can do. Frig, I've seen foundees dress a better rank. You are shit, you hear me? The lowest of the low. You are RIP, and making your life a misery is my purpose, given to me expressly by Tiber Septim himself. Ech, I have to turn you into proper bloody Legionaries. You come to me as wet-farts, and I send you back as real soldiers. Or... you die.'
He paused and ran his gaze along their silent rank.
'Anyone got anything funny to say about that? Come on, now. Speak openly.'
'Well, you can try,' Exigo suggested.
Saroo struck her in the throat, and then across the back of the head as she went down.
Exigo lay on the hard stone, choking. Criid moved to help her.
'No one bloody move. No one! Let her soak it up. Anyone else got a comment? No? No?'
Kexie stopped pacing and stood facing them. 'Welcome, you sons and daughters of bitches, to RIP detail. Let us be sure we understand what those letters stand for. "R" is... I'm waiting?'
'Retraining, driller,' they murmured.
'Kexie smacked Saroo into his palm. 'I don't believe Saroo can hear you...'
'Retraining!' they yelled.
'And the "I" is for...?'
'Getting there. Good. And the "P"? You all know what that means?'
Kexie nodded. 'Good and good. Ech. So let me do a head count. I'm guessing most of you scalps are here for "P" purposes. Show of hands.'
Most of the detail, including Boulder, Wash and Exigo, raised their hands.
Kexie nodded again. 'And who's in for "R"?'
A handful, including Fourbox.
Kexie swung Saroo in his hands. 'Imagine my surprise if any of you is here for "I". Anyone?'
Eight hands rose. Criid was one of them.
'Shit,' said Kexie. 'Eight of you? All right, you eight. Front and centre.'
Criid came forward alongside the other seven. They looked like boys, all of them, with that long-limbed, round-shouldered, malnourished air of puberty.
'Look and learn, you wet-farts,' Kexie told the rest of them. 'These eight are virgins. Cherry bloody scalps. Never seen a day of hot war. Never struck in anger. You'd bloody well better make sure none of them do better than you, or I will personally take a mace to the sides of your heads and grin when I flick my wrist.'
Kexie regarded the eight "I" candidates.
'Deck-thrusts, fifty reps,' he said. 'Now.'
After an hour of reps, the detail ran ropes for three hours or so, and then ran circuit of the Basement with weight loads. By the time five hours were done, they were numb and mindless with fatigue.
'Switch ropes! Kexie yelled.
Fourbox, sweaty and flushed, could no longer haul himself up the knotted ropes to the Basement’s roof.
'Anyone fails, the whole detail repeats!' Kexie informed them.
'Spit on your palms,' Criid whispered across to Fourbox. 'Spit on your palms and you get a better grip.'
Fourbox did so, and began to ascend.
'Who taught you that?' he grunted.
'My father,' said Criid, several meters higher and going strong.
'What's his name?'
'Which one?' asked Criid.
Beyond the towers, that particular sector of the fortress of K'ethdrac'att Shet Magir was a wilderness of fire and rubble. The structure itself was so complex and expansive that it seemed to carry on forever. Kexie and Centurion Sobile gathered up the men and managed to link up with some of the legion from the second Advance Troop LVI carriage, whose horses had been killed just after entering the perimeter wall. There was no sign of the commander, Princep Brundel.
They were closer to some of the areas main catapult emplacements, and subjected to the side-effects of their bombardment.
The emplacements, mainly fire or shock-based, were releasing at full rate. Their huge projectiles tore through the sky overhead, and the ground shook continuously. It overcame the senses. It was too loud for the ears, too bright for the eyes and no voice could penetrate it. Criid tried to find cover. In the open, the bombardment was as crude a sensory experience as having a Spellsword's fire-stick pressed against each eye socket and then activated and deactivated rapidly. Even with his eyes closed, the flashes came through white and traced with capillary threads.
Criid half-jumped, half-fell into a stone drainage trench, a culvert running along the edge of the yard. Rubble littered its dry bed. He passed the body of a spearman, curled up in the culvert as if he was asleep, but not even the deepest sleep relaxed a body that much.
At the end of the culvert, he caught up with a cohort led by Ganiel, a veteran who Kexie had made Agent. Boulder was amongst the troops. They crossed a smoke-washed concourse and came up towards what Criid was certain were the rock-houses for two of the thundering catapults. Somewhere along the way, Kexie joined them. He took them as far as a low wall, and then got them down into cover.
Criid wasn't sure why at first. Then he saw dots of black lifting off the top of the wall, and realized that they were under ferocious arrow fire, the noise of it lost in the bombardment. Lip, a Breton man on RIP for arguing with a superior, was slow getting down. He walloped over onto the ground and lay there with his legs kicking furiously for a few seconds, and then his limbs went slack.
When the rain became sporadic, Kexie led them over the wall. He did this with a simple gesture and a certain look on his face. It seemed clear from both that ignoring him was a more dangerous proposition than breaking cover into a war zone.
Criid started to run, leading Boulder, Ganiel and another called Brickmaker. Criid felt the movement of air against his face as arrows tore past.
They reached the cover of an upturned slab of stone that a fireball had scooped out of the yard, got down, and the archers starting firing. It felt satisfying, somehow, to be returning fire at last. His first arrows were in anger, although he couldn't see where he was shooting.
Kexie got to the cover of a mangle of wooden debris five metres away. Socket, Thrask and Calgar slithered up behind him. Three others weren't so fortunate. Landslide was cut up mercilessly by arrows the moment he left cover. His broken body lay on the ground, with arrows protruding from it senselessly. Likely, a diligent little Imperial who had been, with Criid and Hamir, one of the few "I" candidates in RIP, had covered half the distance when he was hit in the knee and went sprawling. He rolled over, clutched his ruined knee, and was immediately shot in the same knee a second time. This arrow had to pass through his clutching left hand to do so and severed three fingers.
Likely screamed in pain, frantically trying to cover his entire shape with his shield. Bardene stopped and turned to help him, and was killed outright by a crossbow round to the base of the spine that left him spread-eagled on his face. A second later, a frostbolt put likely out of his torment. Criid pulled out another arrow. Stone particles and sawdust stung his eyes. A horn sounded, deep, long, and loud, like a shift hooter.
'Ech, look at that,' Kexie bawled.
Criid turned to look. Behind them, four other Legions were moving in.
He could smell magick-stuffs, and hot wood. They started to run, to the right, as Kexie had instructed. The sergeant was running too. Again, Criid felt the stinging breeze of arrows cutting the air beside him. He saw bolts soar and flicker past. A flying pebble hit him in the leg. He saw an archer running a few paces ahead twist and fall over. He got down in a smoking crater.
The ground trembled with every impact, by artillery or magic. Down in the hole, small rocks and sand trickled down with each quiver.
A body fell into the hole on top of him. It was Boulder. He kicked and struggled to get the right way up and dropped his sword more than once.
'Criid?' he said, realizing whom he'd fallen in on. That made him laugh, although Criid couldn't hear it above the Legions' colossal horn. Haw-haw-haw, went Boulder's mouth. He had a cut over one eye, and his left cheek was covered with dirt. Criid signed to ask if he was all right, but Boulder didn't understand. Criid's father had taught him how to sign. It was a western thing, a Skingrad thing.
The reminder made Criid wince. There was nothing heroic or exciting about the situation he found himself in, nothing even remotely sensible or purposeful. It was a mad, ragged scramble, full of fear and shocking glimpses of mutilation, and with no clear purpose. He had dreamed of a Legionnaire's life, wanted a Legionnaire's life, and if this was it, it was wretched and idiotic. He felt cheated, as if father, and his ma and Varl and all the others had been lying to him all these years. No one would want this. No one would choose this.
Except, maybe, if he had been going through this as a Gauntlet trooper, instead of as a member of the arse-wipe detail AT LVI, maybe all those qualities would have been there… the excitement, the heroism, the purpose.
'What do we do?' Boulder was yelling, hid manner part whining, part sarcastic. 'What do we do? Can we go home now, haw-haw-haw?'
Criid took a look up out of the hole. He looked for Kexie, or the Champion. He saw Ganiel in a ditch nearby with Fourbox, Socket and Brickmaker. He saw a body, out in the open stone, half-turned on its back, leaking blood into the dust. Who was that? Did it matter?
A sudden explosion rocked the earth. Criid turned to see a wall, twenty or so meters behind him, disappear in a cloud of smoke and flame.
'See that?' Boulder pointed. Champion Sobile had reappeared, leading twenty members of the cohort in though the breach. There were more troops too. Several figures in red and grey battledress were clambering into the compound through the gap that the explosion had made in the outer wall.
The dozens became hundreds, the hundreds thousands. Criid blinked. He saw Legionary banners rise and bugles sound. Androman Regulars, he made out from the gilt thread of one banner, Sixth Legion. Imperial Legion at battalion strength, swarming in from the long marches. The tide of men and horses flooded the concourse and advanced behind the explosion like insects from a hive. Criid could see the silver glints of swords and dark streaks of arrows as they aimed up into the defences. Spellswords' fireballs whooped upwards on erratic arches of smoke.
'Get up,' Criid told Boulder. 'Get up, let's go.'
Their confidence temporarily lifted by the company of so many others, AT LVI moved forwards. Centurion Sobile hardly had to use his whip. They surged out onto a vast yard or parade ground beneath the network of catapult emplacements.
The enemy works were still throwing. All down the line, for leagues in either direction, the defences of K'ethdrac ripped onto the morning dew, pummelling the earth with concussion and echoes of concussion. A shroud of dust clung like sea fog.
Criid was caught in the surge for a moment and was carried along. Men in dark armour were all around him and he couldn't see another shape in the drab grey of his own unit.
'Keep going, boy!' one of the Androman Champions told him. He was a big fellow with shallow skin, as hirsute as the rest of his Legion. He grinned at Criid.
'Come on! The Empire protects you!'
Criid wasn't so sure. He was pretty certain he ought to be linked to his own cohort. He searched for his comrades, but his foot caught and a slab of rubble and he fell.
The soldiers charged past him. Some were yelling battle cries. He tried to get up again, but was knocked over twice by barging men. Some cursed him.
Criid got up and started to run. A series of shock-storms planted themselves into the ground not far from him and sprouted into cracks of lightning and grit. Two or three men were thrown bodily into the air and came down heavily like sacks full of rock. Their bodies were singed and blackened. Others were cut down as they turned back, morale broken, smacked into by sleek bolts and arrows. Each shot hissed for a second before it arrived and made the thwitch of impact that brought a man down in a mist of blood.
Criid saw the big Androman who had spoken to him. He was staggering about, sneezing, spitting and aspirating blood through a face that had lost its nose, top lip and upper teeth. The man flailed past him and Criid couldn't see what happened to him after that.
Criid ran across the concourse. It was littered with bodies. The Androman Legionnaires were now flooding off to the left, shrinking back from the killing ground.
Some parts of AT LVI had taken cover in a wooden gulley leading to a heavy stone door. The door, lined with metal, was shut and had resisted attempts to open it.
Sobile saw Criid approach along with other strangers, and cracked his whip at them agitatedly. 'Watch the unit and stay together, you worthless morons! How can we achieve our objectives if we don't have unit cohesion?'
Criid wanted to answer back. He wanted to ask how they were supposed to achieve their objectives if they didn't know what their objectives were. He wanted to ask if Sobile had a bloody clue what they were himself. Criid had a long list of questions.
One of Sobile's petulant whip cracks caught him across the right shoulder and the corner of his jaw and he forgot about his questions and his lists. His armour offered him little protection against the enchanted instrument. The corded leather sliced though his skin and drew blood across his collarbone. It felt like his jaw had been dislocated.
'Get up!' Sobile ordered, generally disinterested in Criid's plight. The pain was so sharp that Criid could barely move. Or was that the enchantment's effect? His eyes filled with hot tears.
'Get up!' Sobile snarled and then turned to the others. 'I'll damn well skin the next moron who forgets to focus. Are we clear?' He coiled his whip and glanced at Centurion Kexie, Kexie was rubbing a scratch on his gnarled cheek. The Legionnaires were all gathered in the shallow of the gulley, panting, trying to draw breath. Some were sobbing.
'Centurion?' Sobile said.
'Break into groups, advance that way across the yard,' Kexie said, indicating with his shortsword. Come at the nearest catapult from the side, see if we can't storm it and destroy it.'
'Instructions are clear, LVI,' Sobile thundered. 'Get into position!'
Beyond the gulley, the Androman Legion was massing for another attempt to get across the parade ground.
Criid got up. Blood was leaking from the split flesh at the corner of his jaw, and his shoulder throbbed. He could feel the tissue stiffening and swelling. The fingers of his right hand were numb. Getting into position was a joke. Of the two hundred and fifty individuals that made up AT LVI's cohort, about forty were gathered in that dank gulley. Criid didn't know if that meant the rest of them were dead, or were simply somewhere else, equally bewildered. Another question for his list. This chunk of AT LVI seemed to qualify as the "main section," because it happened to have both the Centurion and the Champion with it.
There were barely any surviving vestiges of predetermined combat groups or files. People just joined up with people they knew into assault teams that had roughly the right number of bodies. Criid got in with Ganiel's mob, along with Bugears, Socket, Trask and Fourbox. He saw Boulder in another gaggle with Agent Carvel. Boulder was looking confused and dazed. The cut over his eye had begun to bleed more freely.
'Where is your weapon? Where is your issued Gladius, trooper?' Sobile shouted.
Boulder suddenly realized that the Champion was speaking to him. He looked around and blinked. His sword-hand was empty, it had been empty for a long time, and he hadn't noticed. The last time Criid had seen Boulder's sword, he'd been busy dropping it in the crater. It was probably still there.
'I think I dropped it,' Boulder began. He tried to curl his lips into a smile, but the full, trademark laugh wouldn't come.
No, no, no, Criid thought. Boulder had no idea what he was heading for. He wasn't thinking.
You didn't drop your sword. Or your shield, for that matter. You didn't lose your weapon. A Legionnaire protected the equipment given to him with his life, and vice versa. It was basic and fundamental.
'Gross infringement of the Emperor's law,' Sobile said and sliced Boulder through the neck with his scimitar. Boulder jerked as if he'd been told surprising news. It obviously wasn't funny news. He pitched over, slack and heavy, and hit his sagging, now-loosened head against the gulley wall on his way down.
There was a moment when even the catapults' bombardment seemed silent. It was the first summary execution Criid had ever witnessed. He felt sick. In a day filled with waste and hopelessness, this was the most obscene thing yet.
And it was now that, with this emotionless act of insane majesty, Champion Sobile donned the armour of control, the armour of discipline, the armour of contempt.