Another volley of arrows flew over the wall, black feathered shafts finding their marks among the recruits. Men screamed in death, and those pierced somewhere less vital kept on screaming, turning the city walls into a choir of the damned. Outside, the Dranea shouted in time with their massive war drums. I could understand their black tongue, and I shuddered to think of what it meant.
It was madness to try and hold a city against this with only a hundred trainees, most of them too young to make a difference. I told the Imperial Council as much, but they didn't listen; their trust had evaporated like morning mist, and it had crossed my mind that they'd sent me here to die.
My newly commissioned second-in-command shambled over, an arrow protruding from his left leg. He was luckier than the previous holder of his office, who had taken an arrow in the neck. "Sir! The men-" he screamed then, having stumbled over a soldier's body and landing on his newly minted bad leg. His face contorted in pain, but he spat the words out. "Sir! The men are deserting."
"Tell them to hold," I replied, calmly.
"They'll not listen!"
I raised my voice to the volume and pitch I thought of as Command Voice, the one that skipped the thinking brain and drilled into the soft, scared part. It was a voice that had a man doing what you wanted before he was sure why. If I could have spoken to the Council like this, I would have had two elite battalions and a full complement of riders to face this horde. Instead, I was here watching boys die and trying to persuade the ones left that it was worth their while to do the same.
"Soldiers of the Harrowed Lands, hold! If you've a wish to keep your families safe, then hold! These beasts will spit your children and roast them alive! They will take your wives to their beds! Do you want that? Will you let it happen? Then hold!"
Every terrified face within the reach of my voice regarded me with something approaching awe. Before the threat of the Dranea could pour into the cracks of their weakened minds, I finished at full volume.
"My name is Earnest Sumner, I am the House Sergeant at Arms, and I say we will HOLD!"
It came like a sudden wind - first one soldier roared his defiance, and then another. Soon, a tidal wave of wounded but determined men was sweeping towards the ramparts, their booted feet a drumbeat of resistance. The war cry of the Dranea was drowned out by men who held their lives in cheaper regard than their families, their homes.
Did I hope then? For a moment, did I imagine that I might walk out of Kaagen's Run alive? I did. It's a feeling every soldier has to fight as bitterly as any enemy. It might be a spear that pierces your heart, or your guts leaking out onto the dirt, but it's hope in the middle of battle that kills you.
Nevertheless, it sent a tremulous jolt through me; my pulse quickened, my feet felt lighter, and I allowed myself a brief vision of another dawn.
That was when the black horde broke through the gate, and the charnel house began to run at full speed.