“My lord!” The Liege Hand heard the call of his strike force leader and turned to watch his approach. “My lord, they have breached the outer defenses!” The strike leader bowed as he spoke. He was not out of breath, despite a long run.
The Liege Hand nodded. “Release the counterattack. They now learn the price of every soldier and every inch, measured in their blood.” His smile was cold. “From here on, they learn that it is too expensive to take us.”
The strike leader bowed again and sent runners. Tonight would be long, and tonight would be merciless, and tonight would be bloody.
“Strike Leader Norris. What do you project?” the Hand asked after the runners departed.
“I project that our troops will be ill-readied for tonight, and we will lose more ground, my lord.” The answer was given with a straight face.
“Send word to set up traps and fall back to the next line. We’ve made them fight for every line. This will make them suspicious.”
“My lord, if I may?”
“Might I suggest we implement some of the prepared punishments early? Specifically, those along the line we are abandoning. This will give them all the more to worry at, and may even send them back to regroup earlier than expected.” He kept his tone respectful and neutral.
His lord looked at him through the corner of his eye. “Very well. See it done, Norris.”
Norris bowed and ran off to inform a second set of runners of the change in plans, then accompanied them back with all the speed and grace of a man trained long in the arts of the body.
The Liege Hand smiled as he watched the other man’s rear for a moment, then turned away to plot more defenses, traps, and punishments to inflict on the invading force.
That night, the screams and agony of dying men covered the sounds of preparation, and by morning, the attacking force quickly found its way some distance from the breached defenses. Throughout the morning, several unknowingly ate poisoned food, and few were ready for combat.
Norris watched from a spyglass. The punishments were harsher than he recalled helping plan, but they certainly fulfilled their purpose. The filthy Neruans were organizing a withdraw. He took to his horse and rode hard to the main command. “They withdraw, my lord!” He cried in triumph.
“So soon?” The man looked surprised.
“The punishments took many more lives than projected, my lord.”
The man looked thoughtful. “Kill them all before they can get back to their borders. I don’t want even the baggage train to cross the border. If any of their border guards see anything, slay them.” He nodded. “Go. See it done.”
Norris bowed from the back of his horse and the beast leapt to carry him back to the defensive line. He stood his mount. He quickly mounted a party and led them through a narrow safe area before they took off after the departing enemies.
The slaughter was over before noon, and Norris sent a runner to fetch some scavengers to pick off weapons, armor, and other supplies. He gave specific orders to avoid all food and drink, as well as any other consumables.
The travel back was uneventful, save when a green soldier accidentally stepped off the safe path and stepped on a poison-dipped caltrop. They carried him back, but he died before they arrived.
It took a year to clean up all the traps and repair the walls.
It took three years to ensure the economy’s recover.
Five years saw uneasy peace along the border. None from the Neruan nation wished to simply disappear with no trace.
The tenth anniversary of the slaughter came, and Norris quietly stood at the top of the third wall, in the same place he stood the morning the Neruans tried to flee. In his mind, he saw them still. The dead clung to the flower-filled, grassy expanses between each wall. Blood glistened like rubies in the morning sunlight. He took a deep breath. What he saw was not the true beauty of the place, and he was well aware. He closed his eyes and tried to banish the visions. When he opened them again, as he had every year, he saw only the carnage left by traps and punishments. Each fallen soldier was nameless and faceless, save one– a Neruan soldier barely more than a child.
He watched as the soldier slowly approached the third wall. He moved cautiously and glanced upward often. He continued forward, however.
Norris paused. This never happened that morning. His mind flashed forward ten years to the present, and he watched the lone child, approach. There was no doubt he was truly Neruan. The yellow hair and dark skin were obvious. Slowly, Norris raised his arm, knife in hand. The boy below stopped short and stared up at him. The distance was great, but there was no doubt their eyes met.
Norris whipped his knife forward and released. The blade flew true, but the Neruan was too quick and saw it coming. He grinned up at the officer, then dashed forward, tapped the wall, tripped, rose, and began to run away as fast as his legs could carry him, whooping with glee.
The strike leader fumed, but let him go. The kid was just a brat, looking to get some giggles out of riling the guards, he was sure.
As the Neruan boy returned to his trade camp, he fell to one knee and grinned. His lifted knee was bloodied. “Oh.” He murmured. The flesh around was an angry red, and he felt dizzy. Perhaps, he wondered, going pased the cursed wall was not so wise. He hissed and looked around. Was there a cure?
His mother stared down at him with worry. “Gio, what is wrong?” she asked as he fell over. “Gio!” Her cry echoed off the lowest wall, and the Neruan traders hurried to rush to her aid. As they arrived, the boy began to thrash wildly as the poison destroyed his body. The boy’s scream dwarfed his mother’s, and he died much as his father had so long ago, when Gio was still clinging to his mother’s skirts.
From the wall, Norris started. Was the rumored curse real? He couldn’t see the caltrop from so high above, nor the wound on the boy.
He once more saw bloodied fields and dead soldiers as he sighed and walked away, to return to his family in time for the noon meal.