THEY HAD COME upon the body by chance. Buried in frozen mud, it had been found by two Guardsmen as they hurried to resurrect the fallen wall of a firing trench in the lull between ork attacks. But for the man whose remains now lay at their feet there would be no such resurrection, only reburial in some less vigorously contested section of the city, with just a battered set of dog-tags to give name to the dead.
‘It’s Rakale, sergeant,’ Trooper Davir had said, standing over the body that was still half-concealed in the mud of the trench floor. ‘Or that’s what his tags say at least. Now his own mother wouldn’t recognise him.’
Even from the lip of the trench wall above them, Chelkar could see what Davir meant. Rakale’s face was only a memory now, his features reduced to a gruesome flattened smear marked with the striated imprint of the thing that had killed him.
‘It could only have been an ork tank,’ ventured the
hulking Guardsman to Davir’s side. ‘An ork battle truck. Look, you can see the marks of its tracks on his face. Or what’s left of it. It must have rolled over the trench while Rakale lay underneath. Then the trench wall collapsed and the poor bastard was crushed. He would have seen it coming, too. A bad way to die.’
‘Bad way to die, my arse,’ Davir spat, flat ugly features alive with sudden anger. ‘You know a good way, Bulaven? We’re all poor bastards. And whether we die with throats cut, heads blown off, or crushed like Rakale here is beside the point. It’s all the same in the end.’
‘Phh. If you feel that way about it, why don’t you end it all now, you stunted idiot?’ Bulaven rumbled back. ‘Put yourself out of all our miseries.’
‘Because, my fat friend, it is a well-known fact that the average ork couldn’t hit its own arse with both hands and a guided missile. While I – as you so charmingly put it – am a ”stunted idiot”, a small target. One who confidently expects to outlive you all, I might add. Especially you, Bulaven. A blind man with a thrown rock and the palsy would be hard-pressed to miss your broad and capacious backside.’
‘Enough,’ Chelkar said, with just enough quiet force to let the squabbling pair know he meant it. ‘I want a four-man detail to move the body and bury it by the old plasteel works. Davir, Bulaven: you have both just volunteered. You may choose the others yourselves. And before I hear anyone complain about how hard the ground is, I want you to remember something: Rakale was one of our own.’
Without another word, two more Guardsmen jumped into the trench to join those already there. Then, with as much reverence as was practicable given the conditions, all four set about the delicate task of extricating Rakale’s remains from the mud. Occasionally a spade-head would strike a particularly hard-packed knot of earth, the impact shivering painfully up the handle to the hands of the digger. Then there might come a muffled curse, but for the most part they worked in silence. Four men, mindful of their duty to a fallen comrade and the code between all the defenders of this battle-scarred city: We bury our dead.
But by then Chelkar had already turned away to supervise repairs to another part of the company’s defences. The last attack had been a bad one. Twelve men dead – thirteen counting Rakale. And, with the remorseless logic of this place, Chelkar fully expected the next attack to be harder and more ferocious still. It was the way of things here. In the city of Broucheroc a man could rely on one thing at least: each new day would be worse than the last.