Army of the Dead

To my dearest Tomas,

I have been your older brother these ten years of your life. I have always tried to show you the importance of honor, duty, and ideals. We are a noble family. Our father is a prosperous lord. A heavy weight rests on our shoulders. That weight now forces me to tell you certain things, and ask your forgiveness for others. I will not be returning home. I wish for you to understand why.

When you were only four, I sought and obtained a commission in the army. You are still young, and so you may not understand what this means yet. You have not seen the fighting forces used by our kingdom, and of all kingdoms in this world. I wish to explain completely what it means to join the army.

First, understand that our world goes through cycles of magic. Generations can pass before one sort of power gives way to the next. In this era, the power of necromancy is ascendant, and other forms of magic are weak or nonexistent. Necromancy is the power of communicating with the dead, controlling the dead, and  re-animating a dead body. I read your letter in which you told me how your pet ferret had died. I know that you have seen death and felt its sting. How you longed to reverse that loss!

Necromancy has the power to do that, after a fashion. It cannot bring the dead to life. It would not have restored your ferret. It would have merely re-animated it. The poor creature would be able to move and act, but never again would it be the soft and affectionate ball of fur which you remember. Oh Tomas, how I pray that you are forever spared the sight of the re-animated dead.

The business of war is an ugly one. In olden times, men fought and died. Soldiers by the thousands were slaughtered by magic, or slain by the weapons of their enemies. With the ascent of necromancy, all of that changed.

The kingdoms of the world began a process called “conscription”. Press gangs would visit town after town. They dug bodies from the graves. Necro-surgeons would use their magic to conjure life from the dead. The newly animated corpses became the soldiers of the kingdom. And then the gang would move to the next town. The gangs cared little about profession or even sex. Men and women, cobblers and beggars, old and young, all are fit to fill the carts as conscripts. Even those who were gravely wounded, or whose limbs were incomplete, have some use.

There are those who do not wish to serve. They conspire with their fellows to have themselves cremated on death. There are those who think it wrong to use the dead as soldiers, and cremate corpses to uphold their principles. There are also those who cannot bear the thought of a close friend or loved one serving on the fields of battle. Though I respect the feelings of such people, the living owe fealty to their lord and their king. In life, their rulers protect them. In death, they must serve in return.

Conscription is a thing which chills the soul, Tomas. Yet it is the thing which keeps our kingdom secure. Should you ever meet the men of the press gangs, do them honor, for theirs is a sad and lonely lot.

The long dead are mindless. They respond to command, but they have no speech of their own. The recent dead are scarcely better. Only those killed and quickly restored by the necro-surgeons retain any of the intelligence they possessed in life.

The lowest rank is the infantry. These undead are armed with basic weapons and given leather armor, both to protect their flesh and to hold their cadavers together as they fight. The armor is infused with herbs which the necro-surgeons cultivate at their camp sites. The herbs dampen the smell of the dead and aid in the preservation of the tissue. It is said that the living know when the dead march by the odor on the wind. The most skilled necro-surgeons and scouts can identify specific enemy units by the scent of the herbs they use.

The next rank is the knighthood. These are the bodies of the recently deceased, those who retain enough intelligence to act on the battlefield. They are encased for eternity in steel armor, welded or riveted shut, and given undead horses as mounts. They lead charges and flank the enemy.

The highest rank are living officers. These men and women are like you and father — drawn from the nobility or the learned sons of eminent families. They are trained in strategy and tactics. They spend time becoming accustomed to the dead. Theirs is the hardest part, because of anyone in the army, only they truly know fear.

As the second son of our father, I took it upon myself to find a suitable occupation upon attaining manhood. An officer’s commission seemed appropriate. The position demanded education, breeding, and character, which our father benevolently bestowed to his children in abundance. At first I found myself quite shocked at the realities of command — a realization, Tomas, that I pray you will never have to face — but I rallied, and in time gained command of my own small unit.

As the years passed, I commanded the undead in skirmishes with bandits on the border. Most of our time was spent in camps. The necro-surgeons would work their dark wonders on the bodies of the infantry. The knights would retreat to their quarters and hold whatever congress they saw fit, into which I was never welcomed. The living members of the unit would eat, train, and sleep. Then a call would come in. A magistrate from one of the villages in the region would send a messenger bird, or fire a signal flare. In the mountains, a series of bonfires could be lit to summon the army.

When such a call came, the company would strike camp. Everything was arranged such that half an hour’s time was all that was needed. In this I welcomed the army’s efficiency. In my time as a nobleman’s son, I have seen caravans waste hours on preparations to depart, and seen the sun move visibly across the sky while the living dragged their feet. The dead are many things, but they are never lazy.

We would send scouts ahead. Living woodsmen and rangers all, these are the hearty, if feral, dwellers on the outskirts of our kingdom. They serve the king in this manner in exchange for their liberty in other matters. Behind the scouts, the vanguard — knights and archers, who could clear the way for the rest of the company. Behind them, the main battle formation followed. Our heaviest equipment such as wagons or siege weapons would be found here. Lastly, the rearguard protected us from ambushes or pursuit. The officers would be split between these formations. Oftentimes, living officers would be lashed to their horses, or given padded berths in a wagon, to sleep during the night. The dead of the army would proceed without need to accommodate such frailties.

A junior officer, riding with the vanguard, would make contact with whoever had sent the signal, such as the magistrate of a village. This officer would dispatch a messenger to the main, and we would proceed to make camp, or set out immediately, as the tactics of the situation warranted. Sometimes the unit’s commander would meet personally with villagers, scouts, or other people who had something important to explain.

On one such mission, I was called as the commander of my unit to do just this. I spoke with the magistrate in the village of Bretollen. If you look at Father’s map in the library, you can find it in the bottom left hand corner, near the mountains. They are called the Thastians, or the Thas mountain range. In those mountains, the magistrate said, was a small army of brigands and bandits. These outlaws had filtered through our borders with Kaster, pillaging as they went.

The bandits had holed up in the Thas mountains and were unassailable due to the strength of their archers, firing from the high ground. I spoke with my fellow officers, Mija and Advila, and we produced a satisfactory plan of attack. We would chop wood from the nearby forests to make mantlets, which is a type of large shield used to stop arrows. The mantlets were necessary to protect our undead, for though they are less vulnerable to arrows, it is common knowledge that a flaming arrowhead will ignite the armor or flesh of the undead and disorient them.

A detachment of infantry would proceed under cover to the high ground via a route which our scouts discovered. While we advanced toward the bandits’ camp, they would deal with the archers. We thought at that time that the high ground would offer us the ability to attack the bandits’ own camp, and so the infantry which remained on the ground would simply serve to keep them contained in the trap. Once the bandits were dealt with, they would be punished with conscription into our unit.

We advanced during the night, our scouts serving as our eyes and ears. Half a day’s ride from the bandits’ camp, we began construction of our mantlets. The dead work best when they can work methodically, and they never tire. Once instructed by the knights on how to proceed, the infantry performed the task very neatly. By the next day we were ready.

The attack was to begin at night, as is normal for the military. My fellow officers and I spent part of the day in a blackened leather tent, drinking purified water, to sharpen our night vision. We sometimes envied the dead for their keen vision. Even a soldier without eyes is sometimes able to see. We do not ask them how, and they do not say. When the time came, our knights informed us, and we saddled up and dispatched our orders. Each knight commanded a squad of infantry and rode with them, while we would remain in the center to guide and direct the action. Whistles, horns, and drum-beats are typically used for signaling new commands, as flares can interfere with our night vision.

The attack then began. The horn sounded the signal to advance, and the infantry did so. Our detachment began their ascent of the defiles located by the scouts. The signal-men sighted the distant flash of light which indicated their readiness to attack the archers, and we so ordered it.

What we found was that the archers’ positions were dummies. They had left weapons and armor behind, stuffed with straw, and taken a higher ground. Their arrows were loosed upon us before we knew what happened! Clearly there was a tactician among these desperate men, one who had foreseen an attack and so disciplined his men for this contingency that they were able to move without arousing the suspicion of our own scouts. Yet this was the eventuality for which the mantlets had been prepared, and we pressed forward.

The detachment signaled again. They had found the paths to the archers’ new positions, but it would take time. We were forced into a pitched battle with the bandits, all armed, all prepared. Yet they were men, and we were the army.

Tomas, I cannot tell you what it is like. Fighting another army is almost more welcome than fighting the living, when one’s soldiers are undead. When two armies clash, it is curiously silent. The ringing of weapon on weapon, the sound of clashing steel, the sickening thud of weapon on shield or flesh or bone, are the only noise. The fighters move in their way, uncaring, unheeding, knowing only duty. They do not fear, or hate, or long to live beyond the battle. They exist in the moment. But Tomas, when the living are the targets of the dead, there is screaming. Oh, the screams that night. We could not see clearly — extinguishing sources of light is one of the first goals of any infantry advance. And so the noise seemed to come from everywhere at once.

The living know what awaits them. They see the faceless leather masks worn by the soldiers of the grave. They know they will join the ranks of their enemy should they fail. It must have been desperation indeed which drove these men. I shudder to imagine what conditions in Kaster must have driven them across our border to face what they faced that night.

At the height of the battle I felt a sudden sharpness, and nearly pitched from my saddle. A stray arrow had caught me. I looked along the path it had flown. There, a dark-haired man, wearing a circlet of beaten gold, drew back a powerful bow for another shot. There, I thought, was the man who had led the bandits. He had the mien of a leader, and he had known just who to target. He saw me through my armor as one of the living. I saw his arrow fly just as one of our knights charged his position. And then I was struck again, and consciousness fled.

I was told of the results later. Our unit was victorious. The bandits were indeed routed, and the village was saved. The bandit leader was recovered by the necro-surgeons in time. He would become a knight, and a worthy addition to our kingdom’s armies. Our citizens were saved, our armed forces strengthened, our honor upheld.

And so, Tomas, perhaps now you understand more of the army. And perhaps you do not yet understand the price of our kingdom’s safety. This is the essence of duty: to pay the price, always and forever, on behalf of those who cannot.

My dear younger brother Tomas, I love you. It pains me to write these words, but this will be my last letter to you. Do not seek me out. Do not join the army unless honor demands it, or obligation requires it. But should that come to pass, stand strong, and remember your brother’s words.

I go now to see the state of my armor. When I am pronounced ready, they will seal me away inside it. Because of that enemy leader and his skill at archery, I am no longer the living leader of my unit. I have been demoted to the knighthood.

Tell Father for me. He will understand.

All my love,