Beside Cradus, a dumpy shape slumped down on the rock. He gave a halfhearted salute as he did so, but Cradus didn't much care. Sergeant Ignatius was half . . . something, with a weird wiry look and pointed ears that matched Cradus', but it was hard to work out exactly what his parents had been. The one time Cradus had asked, Ignatius had described himself as "half human, half elf, half dwarf, and maybe half gnome. I dunno, my mum was never that picky." Rather than argue mathematics with him, Cradus had just settled for "half-mad" and left it.
Around them, there were other souls in battered uniforms, picking their way among the bodies of the dead and occasionally taking a swipe at those crows too fat and slow to get out of the way. They squawked and moved, but only long enough for the cleanup crews to start moving the dead. Then they waddled along behind them like black, feathery footballs. Cradus surveyed the dead.
"You know how I once said that the only good goblin is a dead goblin?" he said to Ignatius, who grunted a response that might have been affirmative, or might just have been wind. "Well, I've changed my mind. At least when they're alive you don't have to drag them around. Why we've got to clear up after the battle . . . "
Cradus let the complaint tail off. After all, he knew why his unit was doing it. It was the same reason they'd been sent into battle against the hardest section of the Dark Lord's army, and pretty much the same reason their equipment requisitions always came back with whatever the logistics department had lying around, meaning that they'd had to do a fair portion of the fighting with a selection of inflatable rubber rings.
No one liked the 22nd Unit.
It was, after all, where the misfits ended up. The strays. The ones who were a little too different, too obviously non-human, or too inclined to disregard strange concepts such as "other people's property" to ever fit in with the proper units. That much was obvious. After all, any unit that could count Ignatius as one of its more normal members was in trouble. As for Cradus, getting "promoted" to command the thing was as good as an acknowledgement that the brass wanted him out of the way. He shrugged. It wasn't anything he didn't know.
"'S a terrible waste." Ignatius said beside him. Cradus nodded.
"It is that."
"I mean, no one's even lootin' the bodies."
Cradus didn't say anything. You got all sorts in the 22nd. One recruit had even started writing poetry before the battle about the ultimate futility of war. Cradus reckoned that on the whole he'd have been able to take it more seriously if he hadn't seen the same lad a couple of hours later, garrotting a dark-elf with a strip of rubber dinghy.
On the other hand, he'd got one thing right. The whole thing was an utter waste of time. When you thought about it, it was simple. The Dark Lord lost. That was what happened. What always happened. Occasionally it took a while, but eventually it came down to a last battle. And then? Ignominious defeat, the same as always. His armies scattered, his plans ruined. It was almost the point of Dark Lords.
It was enough to make you wonder why they bothered.
"You ever think about what you'll do next?" Cradus asked. Ignatius shrugged.
"There'll be other battles."
Actually, Cradus sort of doubted it. Oh, there would be a few skirmishes and sieges and things to eliminate the stragglers. A few negotiated surrenders of the Dark Lord's last commanders. But what then?
"When you think about it, Ignatius, who's left to fight?"
"There's that warlord out on the steppes," Ignatius offered. "One of Dragnar the Mad's sons. I hear he's going into the family business."
Cradus shook his head.
"It didn't work out. He tried calling himself "Rognar the Even Madder" and everybody laughed. Didn't do a lot for his chances, on the whole."
"Well what about that enchantress out in the dead hills? You know . . . "
"Ethelzia?" Cradus shook his head again. "She'd given that up, the last I heard. Reckoned the revealing robes were too demeaning."
"Akar the Slaughterer?"
"Went to business school. Apparently he now thinks that a country should stand on solid fiscal principles rather than the skulls of its enemies."
"What a waste." Ignatius seemed to think about it. "These outfits of Ethelzia's . . . "
"Never you mind." Cradus waited for a moment to let it sink in. Things often took a while to sink in, with Ignatius. "The point is that there's no one left to fight, Sergeant. The evil empires have been conquered. The crazed wizards are back on their medication. Even the barbarian hordes have been introduced to the idea of wearing more clothing than a fur loincloth. Mostly so we can sell them things."
"'S a brave new world," Ignatius agreed.
It was. The trouble was, Cradus couldn't see how he and the rest of the 22nd fitted into it. He could guess how it would go. A brief spell spent cleaning up, maybe taking part in the purges that always followed whenever the Forces of Light won something. Then less and less to do. Guard duty. Reconstruction work. Finally, perhaps, a summons to the offices of his superiors to be told that the 22nd was being disbanded as non-essential to the needs of a peacetime army.
Or they could just decide that the 22nd needed purging. It wasn't like they would ever pass for normal, and the Inquisitors could be surprisingly picky about that sort of thing. Oh, he'd probably be all right, but Cradus could just imagine what they'd make of someone like Ignatius.
Quite small pieces, probably. Which was still almost preferable to the tiny pension, tin medal and suspicious looks from tavern keepers that Cradus would probably get as a reward for all his work. It was the sort of thing that might have a man weighing up his options, if he actually had any.
"You there!" A voice boomed above Cradus as a shadow fell over him. "What do you think you're doing man? Shirking your work! When I find your commanding officer there will be trouble!"
The voice was big, but not nearly as big as the man it belonged to. Six foot six of solid muscle stood encased in armour before him, ramrod straight, with the slight suggestion about the stance that anything less would be treated as insubordination. In deference to the fact that there wasn't actually a battle going on, the armour's occupant had left the helmet off, revealing a face that seemed to consist mostly of a carefully waxed moustache and the piercing eyes above it. He recognised the face.
"Is that any way to address an officer? Stand up when I'm talking to you!"
Cradus stood, with as much effort as he could be bothered with. It wasn't much. He didn't salute.
"What's your name man? I'll see you flogged when I find your captain."
"I am the captain, sir. Captain Cradus. You remember."
Actually, it took a second before any sort of recognition dawned. That was what happened, Cradus supposed, when you didn't get invited to many of the planning meetings. Still, at least now, as an officer, the general would stop bellowi—
"Is that any kind of example to set to your men, Cradus?" The general bristled. "Shirkers. I can't abide them. Why isn't this battlefield clear?"
"Well, there are rather a lot of bodies, sir."
"Answering back? And making excuses too? I tell you man, if this weren't the day after our great victory, I'd have you up on a charge!"
Cradus couldn't help himself.
"What charge would that be, sir? 'Stating the obvious to a superior officer'?'
The general slowly went a particularly bright shade of red.
"That does it," he said. "When we get back, I'm going to see to it that you and every other vagabond in this unit is drummed out of the army as a disgrace. Just you think about that, hmm?"
Cradus thought about it. Then he thought about it some more. He looked around at the other members of the 22nd trudging around moving bodies and thought about that too. He looked down at Ignatius and raised an eyebrow. Somehow he knew that the Sergeant understood what he was thinking.
"How many of them do you think would go along with it?" he asked.
"Oh, most of them, Captain. Like you said. It's the only way we'll get to enjoy ourselves from now on."
"Even though they always lose in the end?"
"Well, no one said the end had to be soon, and we can have a lot of fun up to that point. Besides, I reckon it can't be much worse than lugging corpses about, can it?"
"What?" the General demanded. "What are you talking about man?"
Cradus ignored him and thought a little more. Then a little more. Then, scooping up a sword from one of the fallen, he cut the General's head clean off. It was surprisingly good fun. Around him, the soldiers of the 22nd stopped their work. One by one, Cradus saw them grin. It occurred to him that there was something he ought to be doing.
As he thrust the blade to the sky, Ignatius yelled out.
"22nd! Hail the Dark Lord Cradus Half-Elven!" A ragged cheer followed. Rather more quietly, he added for Cradus' benefit. "You know boss, I've always wanted to be a henchman."
Stuart Sharp is a medieval historian and occasional writer living in East Yorkshire. His novel, Searching, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. According to Mr. Sharp, "this short story is my attempt to work out why people bother going into the 'evil overlording' trade in the first place, given what usually happens to them at the end of the trilogy."
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece
Poor Mojo's Tip Jar: