There’s a running joke/metaphor in my RPG group: anytime the players are faced with a complex problem, somebody will quip “why don’t we just burn down the forest?” I know it isn’t funny at first glance and, indeed, it might not be funny at all, but I find myself thinking of this metaphor a lot lately. It’s origins date back to junior high school. I was DMing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for my friends and they were lost in a swampy rainforest infested with lizardmen who kept ambushing them (or it might have been a temperate forest and they were ambushed by hobgoblins – it hardly matters now). They couldn’t successfully track the lizardmen, so attacking their camp was impractical. Still, the lizardmen attacks needed to stop – they were running out of healing potions. Their solution?
“Hey guys,” one player said, “let’s burn down the whole forest!”
They had the magic and the equipment to do so, and flushing all the lizardmen out into the open seemed like a great idea, so they set about burning the place down. As you can imagine, it did not go well. In the first place, not only did it flush out the Lizardmen, but also everything else, meaning they had to fight hundreds of angry creatures all at once. It also rendered the forest impassable, and since their objective was to get through the forest, their plans were ruined. It also lost them a large number of allies – the elves that lived in the forest, the people of nearby towns, the ranger’s friends, the cleric’s god, and so on. Basically, the whole thing, while seemingly obvious and simple on its face, made everything much, much worse.
From then on “burning down the forest” was our term for a seemingly simple and elegant bad idea.
Beyond the gaming table, I feel this metaphor has relevance to the real world. A lot of relevance – too much, in fact. The world is constantly coming up with really simple, easy to understand wrong answers to complex problems (thanks, HL Menken!). All too often, these solutions come in the form of “throw more bombs at it” or “have more guns!” Then we have the audacity to be aghast as more people get blown up and shot.
Folks, this isn’t rocket science. The long term solution to violence is pretty much never “more violence” – it never has been and never will be. Violence is certainly easier, more satisfying, and a hell of a lot quicker. It even sometimes appears to work for a time (it sure settled WW1, right?) but later on it becomes evident that what you did was just create a new, bigger, and even more difficult problem (World War 2). This is not to say violence is not occasionally or even often necessary in self-defense, but we need to remember that such acts do not, in and of themselves, constitute a solution to anything. The Nazis weren’t destroyed because we blew them up; they were defeated in the long term because of the Marshall Plan, because of how badly they treated their own people, and because of how much those same people wanted to become something different than what Hitler had made them. The war was a big part of that, yeah, but it wasn’t the only factor and wouldn’t have been a lasting one save for what came after.
Now, here we are setting the forest on fire again, and apparently hoping that what grows there afterwards will like us. Call me a cynic, but I say we were better off staying out of the woods in the first place, regardless of how satisfying it might be to watch those hobgoblins burn.
How can a people who have so much always be trying to get things? Where are they going to put all the things that they want? If their house burns down or is washed away in a storm, how will they carry the things away? Why, if they have so many things, are they so upset when one of the things is taken or goes missing?
I have seen so many starving humans steal small things from rich humans and then get badly punished for it…by humans different than the humans who were stolen from. This makes no sense. Why do those humans care if the rich humans are robbed of the tiny things they shouldn’t need anyway? Why don’t the rich humans, if they are so mad, track down the poor humans and kill them? That would make much more sense. This way is stupid.
Humans always seem to be getting other things to do their jobs for them. They have ‘servants’ who are supposed to bring them food. They have ‘armies’ who are supposed to kill their enemies. They have ‘courts’ who solve their problems. In the Taqar, we solve our own problems. If I am hungry, I kill something and eat it. If there is a gnoll who has angered me, I hit his face until he admits I am in charge. If there is a dispute, I wrestle with the other one until I win or I lose, and that settles that. This way is simpler.
Perhaps the trouble is that there are so many humans and they all live in the same place. The human nomads who live on the Taqar are more like us than their sea-dwelling cousins, though even they are strangely obsessed with owning and controlling things. Perhaps if humans spread out more or had fewer pups, everything would be better. Then, though, a lot of humans would have to die. This usually upsets them. Not always though. Why they cannot leave their dead for the birds and rats is also very confusing. All that trouble to bury or burn perfectly good meat? If they did those things on the Taqar, they would probably starve.
Anyway, the only thing I have is a human sword and a gnoll sling. The sling is more reliable, and I don’t need to worry about it rusting. The sword, though, is useful for killing humans, which I have to do a lot. I am frightening to them, which is the smartest thing about them, and it is useful to kill them from time to time so they know not to trouble me. I carry their skulls around, which is annoying, but I got tired of trying to explain about all the ears I had collected. The skulls do not need explanation. They still say I am a bloodthirsty monster, but they would say that anyway without the skulls, and at least this way they know that if they try and touch me, I will rip off their heads and wear them on my belt. This lets them know where they stand, which is good for all creatures to know.
In some ways, it is unfair that the humans fear me so much. They are far crueller than I am. I do not kill pups, or those bearing their tiny human litters. I do not kill those who have not harmed me. I do not steal from those who have little. I do not destroy things unless I have good reason. How am I the monster, then, when I have seen human armies torch poor farm villages and sell the survivors like they were things? This is cruelty.
I may be a bloodthirsty monster, but at least I am not cruel.
Violence, battle, and peril are a constant in RPGs. I’ve explored the why of this elsewhere on this blog in various places, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that such things are what make the genre tense and exciting in many ways. Few are the games that don’t involve some kind of man-eating monsters, bloodthirsty villains, perilous cliffs, and exploding doomsday devices. It stands to reason, then, that death and, particularly, the deaths of the occasional PC are bound to occur. When this happens, however, it can be a bit of a shock to the players. It can, if mismanaged, create bad feelings between the players and the GM. Of course, if the GM never allows it to happen, bad things also happen. So, how to manage this? Well, here’s my advice on the subject.
Why it Needs to Happen
At some point as GM, you probably need to step up and kill a PC. The reason you need to do this is the same reason that cliffhangers and adventure stories have a tendency to kill characters from time to time: it makes the danger more real. If every time a player gets his or her character in a fatal predicament they are allowed, somehow, to escape it (through the GM fudging the rules, through random deus ex machina, and so on), the party is going to catch on that they are, in essence, invincible. This is very bad, and for several reasons.
Firstly, the players will cease to feel threatened by the dangers that the GM places before them. Just like in a bad adventure novel, the GM has given the players ‘plot armor’ that they know to be impenetrable. This makes the game boring, suddenly. Obviously they’ll be able to jump over that chasm as the castle is collapsing around them. Clearly they can live through their death duel with that vampire lord. How do they know? Well, they know the GM hasn’t the guts to do anything about it.
Secondly, and derived from the first problem, the GM can suddenly become ‘bullied’ by their players. The players can have their characters do outlandish things in the utter confidence that, even if they don’t work, there is little risk their characters will suffer for it. This can begin to break the mood of the game (unless the *point* of the game is to be invincible and do outlandish things, like Toon and the like), and things rapidly become more and more absurd. The game begins to morph from a stylized, internally consistent story to a bad improv long-form show. As someone who has been in his share of bad improv long-form shows, they might be funny, but that’s about all they have going for them. The game goes from adventure to joke. I’ve played in campaigns like this in my time, and the novelty wears off quickly.
Of course, how often and why to allow PCs to die depends greatly on the style of the game. Gritty, violent, and noir settings obviously feature death around every corner, and PCs become much more cautious in their play and less attached to their characters. Heroic or swashbuckling settings feature death much less often, and when it happens it represents a serious dramatic event. Still, even with the most heroic settings, death should be possible and it should be clear that they are possible if things go wrong. Even if the GM doesn’t really want to kill the character if they do something stupid, they should seriously consider permanent disfigurement, maiming, or similar permanent consequences. Consequences are important to create tension; tension is essential for adventuring fun.
How to Manage It
As mentioned above, how to handle killing a PC depends greatly on the mood of the setting of the game. The likelihood and frequency of fatal situations should be made clear to the players prior to the beginning of the campaign. The GM shouldn’t be setting quotas or anything (i.e. I intend to kill one PC every three sessions! Mwa-ha-ha!), but she should say things akin to ‘there will be no holds barred in this game–if you screw up, you’re dead’ or ‘I don’t intend for characters to die for stupid reasons, but they will die if dramatically appropriate or compelling’. This gives everybody a good idea of how dangerous the campaign is, and this is very important for the players to know when constructing and playing their characters. It also should preempt some of the bad feelings that might develop otherwise should a player lose his or her favorite character.
Beyond this, I have a couple rules of thumb:
- The Good Death: Unless the game you are running is exceptionally dark, grim, or violent, PCs should never be killed due to silly accidents, random events, or simply poor luck. They should be killed by important villains, by exceptionally deadly traps (that they are aware of and attempting to evade), or while knowingly placing themselves at fatal risk due to their character’s traits or behavior. In short, they should die thanks to their decisions (good or bad), not due to their luck. Their death should be dramatic, motivating to the other characters, and serve as a significant plot point for the campaign. It should mean something.
- Get Them Back in the Game: Unless the death occurs at the very tail end of a campaign (where it would be silly to introduce a new character that would be played for 2-3 sessions tops), always allows the player to make a new character and introduce them into the game as soon as possible. Death should not be a punishment of the player.
- It Isn’t a Punishment: This bears repeating–PC death is never, never a punishment. If you are a GM forced to use it as a way to regain control of a campaign, you have done something wrong and haven’t correctly set up the expectations of danger in the campaign in the first place (leading to bullying by your players, necessitating death). This is bad news. Ideally, players should think their PCs’ deaths are cool–they get a cool death scene, and they should be allowed to play it up. Then, they get to play a new character (that is every bit as advanced and powerful as their last character, more or less).
- Make the Death Matter: This is the hardest of the rules to manage, but also very important. A PC should not die and be forgotten. Their death should have a major effect on the campaign and the other players; when they die, something new should be revealed, they should be contributing to the story somehow, and something interesting should happen. Don’t kill for no reason (unless you’re running one of those super-deadly games where life is cheap, and then everybody should be on board with that so it shouldn’t be a big deal).
Beyond this, if you find your players getting into circumstances where they really should die, but it wouldn’t fit with the campaign and wouldn’t make much sense, really consider simply maiming them or otherwise afflicting them with a kind of permanent consequence that makes the character interesting to play, but doesn’t allow them to get off scott-free.
Anyway, whatever the circumstances, one cannot run a campaign without the possibility of fatal consequences. If you are GM-ing such a game, it is your narrative responsibility to allow it to happen. You should do it, however, with caution and care to guard the player’s expectations and to maintain the fun they’re happening. If you’re a player, you should also understand that the death of your favorite character is as important as his life in contributing to the fun of the game. Don’t get upset, just roll with it; after all, it’s just a game.
For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.
Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.
Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are the real Klingons, here?
- Why the love affair with a violent death?
- What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?
Who are the Real Klingons, Here?
Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.
Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.
Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?
In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:
- You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
- You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
- You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)
Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.
(cue theme music to Fame)
What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?
Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.
But if you win…
There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.
Violence is ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy. The number of specfic tales that don’t include some kind of violence are few and far between. Indeed, the most attention and interest surrounding tales of the future or alternate worlds circle around the methods by which the people of that time or place fight one another. I think it’s worth asking the question why.
In the first place, we have to consider the audience. The majority of the audience in scifi and fantasy is male; men are more violent than women (if crime statistics are any indication) and have been raised in an environment where violence is romanticized. To say, however, that this is all there is to it is naive and, dare I say it, a bit sexist. Women may not commit violent crime as often, but to take up the mantra of ‘if women ran the world there would be no war’ is disingenuous towards men. I can point you towards plenty of female rulers who waged as many wars as their male counterparts (Elizabeth I, for instance, supported institutionalized piracy against the Spanish culminating in a massive naval battle; Catherine the Great didn’t conquer most of what is now modern Russia with smiles and handshakes alone). Certainly, men have been socialized for centuries to be the primary purveyors and consumers of violence, but women, I feel, have aided and abetted the process, if passively. The male/female controversy isn’t, however, my primary point here.
Albert Camus once wrote:
“The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. “
There is truth in this statement. The world is full of people we disagree with, often violently. We think them fools, monsters, or, most charitably, misled simpletons who ‘just don’t understand’. In our heart of hearts–our deepest, most animal self–we wish we could MAKE THEM LISTEN. Herein lies war and violence. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could bash in that jerk’s face and make him obey than take the long route round? That route involves compromise, engagement, patience, and humility. Why bother? We’re right, aren’t we? When we have cast down our enemy and toppled their proud works into the dust, we are the victor; we are admired, we are the future author of history. “Americans,” said George Patton, “hate a loser.” I don’t think Americans are necessarily alone in this.
Even more simply than this is the fact that we have desires–physical, emotional, material, etc.–and resources to supply these desires are seldom so abundant that we can have them without conflict. Wars are been fought over money, food, land, and political influence. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships; any given episode of Jerry Springer has shown us two people fighting over affection, heredity, ownership–desire, all by other names. Lao Tzu, in the Tao te Ching, advises us to practice ‘not wanting’ as a path to both spiritual and political peace and enlightenment. Simple enough, but easier said than done.
To come back to science fiction and fantasy, we must consider that the human condition is one defined by conflict. If the speculative genres exist to explore the human condition in a kind of fictional laboratory separated or made distinct from our own society, then conflict–violence–is going to be part of that discussion. I tried writing a story in college once for a writing workshop wherein the main character simply wanders off into the woods and comes to a personal epiphany with some local wood sprites. The story was fantasy in a fantastic world; my professor (one of those specfic haters) asked me ‘why not put it in the real world? Why bother with fantasy?” I rankled at the question then, but I’ve come to look at it differently now. If all I was doing in that story was exploring a young man’s understanding of his educational opportunities, then fantasy was too blunt an instrument. I was tapping in a thumb tack with a sledgehammer–no, fantasy is a bigger, heavier genre than simple literary fiction. It is for exploring those massive issues which litfic need not or does not. These large issues are things that lead us to the mighty cataclysms of our species–war, violence, murder, chaos, anarchy, deep evil, and gleaming good. If specfic errs on the side of violence, it is merely because it is doing what it should and can do better than other genres.
Of course, spaceships exploding and armies of goblins also sell books. Mustn’t forget that, either.
Kiril kacked a guy once with a riot gun. Guy specced-out in full body armor, armed to the teeth, and Kiril kacked him anyway with a gun spits rubber and plastic. Never scanned the protocols on how that was done, affirm? TRACI tells me you can’t do it; I rate her advice priority 1a when it comes to killing. Kiril, though, is different.
Kiril’s Rooskie, or was, anyway–none of us laid our courses much by the Powers that berthed us, affirm? Anyway, he was a lot older than he looked; spent decades on slowships during the last Big War, dreaming of chumps that needed killing. We never ping Kiril on his age. You don’t chat with Kiril, affirm? That’s like making nice with a tiger or something.
Kiril and TRACI have a special bond. Like, a covalent one, affirm? He and the bitch run the same protocols, plot the same courses, spec the same regs. Hard to tell where he stops and TRACI starts, sometimes. Whisper is Kiril’s a Battle-Gen gone loopy; Rooskie Big Shots made him disappear or something after, dunno, he ate a bus full of kid or blew up his mom or some shit.
Anyway, the riot gun. Riot gun is the mass of your thigh, affirm? Metal, ceramics, and plastic construction; pre-loaded, disposable. CAs’ll pass ’em out to their enforcers if the colonists get uppity. Any grade-zero chump with crossed eyes can shoot ’em so long as he’s got hands and a working index finger. They fire tight bunches of rubber shot and ceramic slivers at high intervals. Not specced to kill, affirm? Make you wish you were, though.
We’re on an Op–standard smash and grab, low mortality protocols, dusty little bunker complex on some sandbox sphere. It’s a Chinese facility. We EMP their snoopers from orbit as the pod is inbound, drop a flak on their heads to keep them inside, then hit ’em before they’ve got the perimeter running green. Runs clean. Viper rails the hardpoints to let ’em know where their smooth course lies. Nobody gets shot. My kinda action, affirm?
Kiril, though, is shit-top pissed. Doesn’t cast anything except to ask “These fucks know kung fu?” He asks it six times. You can see what he’s thinking, like it were on beacon.
Kiril’s on what Viv calls ‘The Ride’. It starts when TRACI makes you her bitch; it ends in a pile of corpses. Seen it happen before, but not from the beginning. Just the end, when a guy named Mugoni ran through an airlock with a grenade and a bulkhead cutter. By the time we caught up, there was nobody left in that can in less than ten pieces. You couldn’t float down a single corridor without inhaling some chump’s blood.
Kiril finds his chump. Officer, probably–flat sniffer, peepers like black rocks. He’s running red, affirm? A buncha convicts and social outcasts have pissed on his country’s honor. He’s ready to throw down and Kiril clears him for action, affirm?
“You know kung-fu?” Kiril asks. His console translates into Choppo for the chump. Chump eases himself into some kinda stance. Looks menacing. Looks like the vids.
Kiril puts up his mitts. They fight, but the chump isn’t reading this action top-down, affirm? He thinks they’re having themselves a duel. He thinks this is the vids. They throw for a second or two, lock, then officer chump is thrown down. He rolls to his feet like the ground is rubber, faces Kiril, and that’s when Kiril stuffs the riot gun in the guy’s face and pulls.
Chump ain’t dead, affirm? Riot gun is kinda like a rubber eraser dragged across his face at mach 1–loses his eyes, nose, lips, most of his skin. He’s got plastic splinters stuck in his skull like darts in a board. He starts to scream, that’s when I turn away. I hear Kiril empty all three of the other barrels into the chump. He belays the screams, downgrading to a kind a bubble-bubble.
Kiril crouches over him and whispers. “All those years for kung-fu. What a waste of your fucking time.” We can hear it, clear as day; the comlinks are still live.
When we left, Viv wrote up the report for Barry and left out Kiril’s part. They registered that action anyway (they always do). Action rated Kiril two black marks–violation of mission parameters, misuse of corporate property. Like I cast you before, riot guns aren’t for killing.
How can you ask this question? How can you not know, slug? How can you not see how you deserve this?
When your people came across the Great Mountains, we, the Children of Xarn, the proud arahk, were the sole inhabitants of these plains. We roamed and fought and feasted on the backs of the wooly manticore, the wolves and wargs heralding the approach of our tribes. There was enough for all of us–we grew large and strong off the fat of the land.
You changed this. We fought you, but you were cosseted by your foul sorcery, protected by your cowardly armor, aided by your fiendish steel. We died or were driven before your thrice-damned knights. The herds were slaughtered, the wolves–our allies–put to the sword. What holy places we had, you burned. Deny it–I expect you to–but it is all true.
Our refuge now lies across the feezing, sucking bogs of Roon. We live in a narrow valley ringed by mountains that spit fire and ash, choking our children and stunting our growth. Most die young, and their sires lay a curse upon your heads with every infant found dead–frozen or poisoned or starved. Then we eat it–we let its young flesh feed our hatred. We embrace the abominations you have made us, you miserable wretch. Know this before I kill you–I will wear your flesh as a skirt, I will whittle your bones into knives and spikes and arrows by which I can injure and maim and kill more of your cursed people.
You call us monsters? Yes, we are. We are the monsters you made. If you say we love war, it is because we had a good tutor. If you say we are merciless, it is because we have never experienced it. If you say we are hateful, you know nothing–hate is not a strong enough word. You are the Enemy, forever and always. Those of us who grow strong enough to venture into our old lands and see how you have filled them with your hard castles and endless farms will never tire of doing you harm. Every farm I burn, every village I loot, every corpse I eat and tool I steal means that my children grow closer to a day where they will know the color of the sun and taste the sweetness of a breeze untained by sulphur and ash.
That you claim to be innocent only makes me hate you more. It is a hatred that feeds me, nourishes me, drives me onwards. I have defined my life by the anticipation of your people’s death. Not only those that bear weapons, but all of you–the young the old, female and male, rich or poor. If my race must all suffer as one, so shall yours.
You ask why I hate you?
I hate you because you do not know.
Death would come in the form of a thousand screaming Kalsaari slave-soldiers. They were close enough now that Ortega could see them through the clouds of dust kicked up by their march–short men, wiry like cats, their brass helmets and brass shields made dull and orange by the dirt and grime of a hundred league march.
They charged at the open gate with a kind of breathless urgency that meant they expected archers to be manning the walls. There had been, but they had all fled that night when they saw the cookfires of the enemy, counted the columns on their fingers and toes, and then eyed the flimsy arrows in their quivers. Ortega had not been surprised to find them gone. Levies were seldom reliable. Had Ortega a mind for irony or politics, he might have snorted at the idea that men would fight less fiercely to keep their freedom than those who had never tasted it.
Ortega, though, was born for war. It was all that occupied his thoughts as he waited for his killers, standing calmly in the open gate of Porto Nessum, his mageglass longsword point down, his gauntleted hands resting on the pommel. Feather light and sharp as broken glass, he knew the sword would serve him well today. He would not die alone.
The shields were what would do it, eventually. The leather jerkins they wore would barely slow down Ortega’s sword; their sabers were not equal to the plate-and-mail he wore as easily as a tunic and hose. The shields, though–it only took for his blade to get stuck once, and it would be over. Then he would be knocked off his feet, tackled to the earth, and their blades would find the places where he could be cut–his groin, his armpits, his face, his elbows, his knees. It would be a grisly death, slow and bloody. Part of Ortega relished it, wanted it to come. He knew suddenly that he had been waiting for this day for a long time, though it was seldom spoken of among the paladins of Rhond. He thanked the Great Shepherd, Hann, for bringing him to this place, this time. For bringing him this death.
Ortega did not know how many remained in the little town behind him. Many or most had fled with the levies the night before, despite his warnings. They would soon be run down by Kalsaari outriders, trussed up like cattle, and dragged back as slaves for market. None of them would get more than five leagues and the nearest fort was twenty distant. The Kalsaaris would not want word to spread of their attack, and they would see to it that it would not.
Not long now–perhaps two hundred yards. Ortega could hear them, shrieking in their foreign tongue. They could see him now for certain, and no arrows were falling from the wall. Some of the slave-soldiers slowed their pace, perhaps expecting a trap, perhaps willing to let their fellows get the first crack at the knight in the gleaming mail that stood blocking their way. The gate, barely wide enough to admit two carts side-by-side, would mean Ortega would face them no more than four or five at a time, anyway. There was no rush; they had all day to wear him down.
One hundred yards. Ortega took several long, deep breaths. The world narrowed into a sliver–himself, the gate, his sword, his enemies. The hot, dry air and the slow, idling breeze was like a balm to his racing heart. Was this fear? He had expected to be afriad at this moment. Most men would be afraid.
Fifty yards. It was not fear, it was excitement. Ortega assumed a ready position, his legs spread just beyond shoulder width, sinking into a half-couch. The sharply-tapered blade of his sword snapped up, pointing towards the first of the slave-soldiers. His hands wrapped around the hilt, holding it loosely enough to give him flexibility, but tightly enough that it could not be slapped from his hand. He took another breath.
Ten yards. The first man he would kill was no more than seventeen, a whispy beard clinging to his cheeks like moss. His dark eyes were wide; he saw his freedom in Ortega’s death. Such was the reward for good soldiers in the Kalsaari army. Ortega let the thought of it fill him with hate. A cold, dark feeling sank to the bottom of his stomach. He was ready.
A cut in fourth position, the boy’s saber held out too far, his shield away from his body–sloppy. Step left a half pace, beat the blade away, return stroke up along the same line as the boy’s arm to his neck. Ortega barely felt his sword pass through the boy’s neck. He heard the head hit the flagstones beneath his feet with a ‘clop’.
There are two of them now. Efficiency of movement–this is not a sprint. Ortega lets the one on the left strike down at his sword arm and merely pivots to let the blade glance off his shoulder pauldron. The second strikes low, a cut in eighth position, aimed at the shin. Ortega pulls his leg back, retreating a half pace. The second man is over-extended, but the first is ready to take another strike. A half-lunge and a short kick to man number two, right in the knee; he stumbles back. Hard cut at number one in sixth position. The shield comes up to block–the mageglass cuts through it like a down pillow. Severs the man’s arm–more blood. Ortega doesn’t hear the scream. Man number two holds his shield up as Ortega feints a high cut, but then swings low. His stomach is cut open, practically to the spine. His innards spill out.
Neither man dead, but neither left fighting. They fall back, dying in the dirt just before the gate. Three more replace them. How many seconds has it been? Five? Eight? Two? The three men advance as one, shields out (the damned shields!), sabers held at the ready. Ortega’s move, or he is boxed in. He advances, throws his shoulder into one shield–the man tries to meet him, but falls back. The other two strike at him–one, two, three blows. All hit his pauldron or breastplate. Their flurry of blows makes them sloppy with the shield again–it’s held out too low or too high. Step within the first man’s reach, bring the hilt into his face. The quillion takes him in the cheek, breaking bone and shattering teeth. Bring the sword down through the shield arm, backswing towards the second man–he retreats, but collides with his fellows. Men fall, swear, curse.
Ortega whirls, slashing out at another man, cutting his throat through, but not taking his whole head. Blood in his eyes. The world smells like blood.
They are on him now, too many to count. Ortega is a machine, every step and every cut an extension of his years of training. He hears his old master, Bolto, known as ‘Molto Bolto’, barking in his ear. Advance, cut, retreat, pivot, guard, again! Blade up! Watch the shields! Watch the damned shields, boy!
It is difficult work, slaughtering men. Ortega is sweating beneath his armor, his heart pounds like a marching drum. He hears the horns of the troopmasters now. The whip is cracking at his enemy’s rear. Step within guard, strike to instep with forward foot, cut in four, guard in six, pivot, retreat, beat in eight, return in five. The shields, boy!
Molto Bolto had one eye, lost in a crusade in some war Ortega could not now remember. It did not seem to have dulled his senses, though–he sparred without reserve or remose. The heavy wooden practice blades rained on Ortega’s hands and head and body for hours on end. Pain is the path to greatness, boy. No one ever became great in comfort.
Another head cut free from its moorings. The bodies have become and obstacle to his foes. They trip over the dead, they are clutched at by the wounded and dying. Some try to flee from him, and Ortega lets them. It is chaos at the gate. He keeps them to his front and flanks as much as possible, but still men get behind him. He whirls and cuts, keeping himself in control, but he is frantic. The bloody shields! His grip in the hilt is sticky with blood and sweat. His armor is dented, spattered crimson. Not long now. Guard in four, short kick, pommel to brow, pivot, advance, cut to three, watch behind you!
Would they build a statue to him? Ortega didn’t know. These things were decided by priests and merchants, not paladins. Anyway, he wouldn’t be there to see it. Watch behind! Your cape, boy! Keep it on! It guards your back, makes the enemy uncertain where to strike. Drop it now and it will tangle your legs. Guard in six, riposte to four, pivot, pommel to brow, repeat! Again!
The first wound is to his calf–a weak cut, not deep enough to sever tendons, but painful. The hot blood runs down into his boot. Footing is already slick. The man who struck it dies with Ortega’s sword thrust through his spine. A man from behind siezes his cape–Ortega slips the clasp and lets it go. The man who took it lost his shield–he dies easily. More blows rain on him; they are pressed in close now, corps-a-corps. Not long now.
The slave who tackles him is a giant of a man, a full foot and at least sixty pounds heavier than Ortega. The paladin’s helmet strikes the flagstones hard enough to make his teeth sing. The big slave, though, is already dead–Ortega’s sword thrust through him to the hilt. Stuck. Gone. It was almost over.
Ortega rolled, remembering the wrestling lessons Molto Bolto had given him. He had hated wrestling. Bite, gouge, spit, pinch, twist–there is no honor in wrestling, so have none. No, boy! Make it hurt! THIS is how you bite! THIS is how you gouge!
The helmet spared the slaves his bites, but his gauntleted thumbs gouged the eyes out of some as he rolled and kicked. He did not scream or swear–he hadn’t the breath. He needed to fight, to keep fighting. He reached for his dagger–his arm was pinned. A blade cut into his elbow, slipped beneath his ribs. The pain was weirdly dull beneath the pounding of blood in his head and the stampede of his heart.
He thought of his sister. He hadn’t expected to, and it stunned him. Would she be married to a good man? Who would pay her dowry now? Would his death ruin her? He had never thought of that. The last moments of his life, and these were his thoughts? He tried to think of Hann as a snarling Kalsaari slave shoved a dagger through his helmet, cutting his cheek open. Blood filled his mouth–he put his fingers in the slave’s eyes and squeezed. They screamed together.
Hann’s face did not appear. There was only his sister, sitting beneath the olive tree in the garden, smiling at him beneath a wide, white hat. He could hear her laughing, see her opening her arms to embrace him, but there was Molto Bolto, hissing in his ear. Bite, gouge, roll, kick, spit, use the blood in your mouth to blind them boy! Make a name for yourself! Growl your last breath!
Ortega pushed him away. He instead spread his arms for his sister’s embrace. “I’m sorry.” he said through bloodstained teeth. “This was selfish of me.”
The Death came, in the form of a dagger through the eye.