We retreated today.
It wasn’t our call. Lord Helmond—the closest thing we have to a commander on this side of the wound—ordered us back to the third ring to regroup and resupply. When we protested, he informed us that our position was being abandoned with our without our consent. All of Helmond’s orders arrive via courier, I’ve actually never actually met the guy. But whoever he is, I know I hate him.
Over the last month we had pushed down into the wound as far as we could, down to a place marked on the map as ‘The Fallen Gatehouse’. It wasn’t easy, but Herodes showed the way, both for me and our men. We passed two of the inner rings with minor losses, using our forward movement to surprise the demons we came across. On the third day the sky was thick with ash, so thick we had to put scraps of cloth over our mouths to keep breathing. We came to a sharp cliff and followed it to the west.
There, standing astride what had once been a road, was a half-ruined fortification whose older stones had scattered like the bones of some great creature. Herodes told us that the ruins lay on one of the oldest paths up out of the wound, one laid by some of the earliest crusaders against the demons. In times long past, the gatehouse had kept the unwary and unwanted from going too far in, rather than keeping the demons from coming out. Herodes said that it had been nearly two centuries since the ruins had last been in human hands.
Holding the gatehouse meant that any demons coming up from the southern end of the wound had to get by us. Our men, bedraggled as they were, helped shift the fallen stones to block the path, then joined us on the battlements before night fell. We had few supplies and little hope of holding out, but we knew we were making a difference. Every day we held the gatehouse was a day longer the others had on the rim to rebuild our defenses.
Ten days we stayed on that wall, under near constant siege, surviving on Herodes’s magic and what few supply trains were brave enough to come to meet us. I ran out of bolts on the second day, I ran out of arrows on the third. But we still had swords and shields, and the demons hadn’t finished coming. By the end of the first week we had lost half our men, but somehow we held the gate. We didn’t back down.
I gather there were two more days of fighting and bloodshed, neither of which I remember too well. The next thing I remember clearly is Herodes showing me an order with Lord Helmond’s seal on it. “You are over extending our lines,” his letter said, “Fall back to the third wall.”
The Third Wall—the wall we held for six months to no avail. While we had been there, the demons had chosen the fights for us. At the Gatehouse, we had the upper hand. They couldn’t surprise us, they couldn’t get close. And by then we learned too many of their tricks to be easy prey. We were saving lives…and Helmond made us pull back.
Now we are back where we began, only our company is a hundred and fifty souls lighter. New reinforcements roll in everyday. We feed them dutifully into the meat grinder.
Helmond made the right strategic decision. We were too far forward, and by being so we were putting other lives at risk. We thought ourselves heroic, but really it was just foolish pride. We lost a hundred and fifty at the Gatehouse, but that wasn’t the real cost. I hate to think how many Helmond lost trying to keep our escape route open. That doesn’t mean I don’t hate him. It’s not easy giving up land won with your friends’ blood.
It’s now less than two months before we will return home. Herodes and I are already planning our return journey, studying maps and readying supplies. But strangely, the more I try to think of home, the more I am distracted by the battle here. When I close my eyes, it’s all I can see. Such is the way of war I suppose.
Helmond has sent word today that he award medals to Herodes and myself for our valor on the battlefield. I for one hope he doesn’t plan to deliver them in person, because I’m not sure I could control myself. Taking a swing at him might not bring back my friends…but it might make me feel a little better.