Day 3

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They were drunk, and I didn’t blame them.

The short trip from the wreckage to the house being used as headquarters had been educational. I’d seen such devastation in the war of the rebellion after Sherman had marched through the South.

Similar, but not the same.

This was worse.

Sherman and his men hadn’t eaten horses or people.

Carcasses were strewn about the roads, houses shattered, and more than a few heads had been mounted on poles.

Death had been brutal, and fear had been the order of business.

From the equipment I saw scattered around, I gathered that at least a battalion had been destroyed trying to defend the place.

At the rough headquarters, I found the remnants of the battalion’s officer corps.

They sat around a table, drinking and smoking and eating food that should have been tossed to dogs days before. But given their situation, it didn’t appear they had much choice. They hid their fear and desperation behind loud talk and brazen laughter.

I stood off to one side and lit my pipe as Marius went to the commanding officer and reported my presence. The laughter stopped, and the officers took notice of me.

Marius leaned close to a man smoking a long Jäger pipe and said, “His name is Duncan, and the one-eyed god sent him.”

The officer stood up, wavering on his feet.

“What is your last name, sir?” the officer inquired.

“Duncan Blood,” I answered.

The officer stood his ground, but his companions stepped back.

“Blood?” the officer asked.

“Aye.”

He tried to draw on his pipe, choked on the smoke and coughed for a moment. When he regained control, he said, “I am Oberst Mikkelson, the ranking officer at this time.”

I nodded and waited to see what else the man had to say.

Mikkelson took a breath. “We offered up sacrifice last night. More to the point, Generalmajor Hendriks offered himself to the one-eyed god for a hunter. And he sent a Blood.”

“Aye. He sent a Blood. How many trolls?”

“Ten, we think,” Mikkelson answered. “Three of them came from the ocean, the others from the barrows on the outskirts of town.”

“How many did you kill?” I asked.

“Four.”

“Damn.” I drew on my pipe and asked, “Have you brought the troops back in?”

He nodded. “Those few we have in the area, they are gathering supplies, so we might make an effort to return to Fort Jäger and possibly defend ourselves long enough to form some plan of escape.”

I gazed up at the sky, judged the time and nodded. “I’d start calling your men back now, Oberst. Gather up whatever bells you can find, too.”

The men stared at me.

“Blood,” Mikkelson said, “why enrage them further?”

“The damage here,” I gestured around us, “this was not done by mindless trolls, Oberst. This was planned. They may return tonight with more of their kin, and if they do, it won’t be pretty. Not for any of us. Bells will make them forget their plans. Bells will make them little more than maddened beasts. I’d sure as hell rather fight trolls who are mad than those who are figuring the best way in.”

Mikkleson turned to Marius. “Find three horses and send out riders. I want everyone on their way back in the hour.”

To another man, Mikkelson commanded, “Take a squad, search every building and look at every church. Find the bells. Petersen,” Mikkelsen called, and a man holding a pair of bottles stepped forward.

“Sir?” Petersen inquired.

“Find the best walls and focus our work there.” Mikkelson looked at me. “I take it a smaller area with the bells would be best?”

I smiled. “Aye, that it would be. The trolls may throw a few boulders or two at us, but we’ll gun the bastards down.”

“That we will,” Mikkelsen agreed. “Petersen, show the Blood what we have for walls. I’m sure he’ll know best. The rest of you, with me. We will gather the wounded and prepare to move them to our refuge, wherever that might happen to be.”

I watched the Oberst leave with the men, and I turned to Petersen. He looked at me, and I saw the wisdom of old soldiers in his eyes.

The man chuckled, stepped forward and handed me a bottle. “I’ve not heard of a Blood who doesn’t drink.”

“And you won’t.” I opened the bottle and took a drink. “So, where are the best walls?”

“They’re rubble,” he shrugged. “But I’ll show you.”

“Fair enough. Lead on, Pedersen.”

“Straight to hell, if I must,” he sighed, and with a rolling, limping stride, he led the way.

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Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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