The worst part of fighting ghouls was the smell. They stank of shit and decomposing flesh, but something else, too; a dusty, sour smell that got worse as their walking corpses aged, getting in your throat and making you cough and choke at the wrong moments, just as the undead nightmare in front of you lunged for your throat with its jagged teeth or swung its death-clutched weapon.
Sister Solace fought mechanically, unconscious of her burning muscles and faint pangs of hunger. The battle had begun before first light and the sun was now rising fast in the East, disadvantaging Sven’s men as it got in their eyes, but making no difference at all to the endless column of ghouls. The tug at her sleeve came as she hacked down a particularly small one, perhaps once a teenage girl. Its clothes were so filthy and torn she couldn’t tell what colors it had worn. Sister Solace knew what the summons was, and a prickling of bile rose momentarily before well-trained reflexes shoved it down. In war, you do what must be done.
Behind the frontlines, grievously injured men were sorted into two grisly piles. Those missing legs, sword-arms, or other crucial parts were taken to the battlefield infirmary; the rest were being placed in a square of space much too small for its current purpose. The veterans were stoic, some joking with clenched jaws and cold eyes; the greener men tended to beg or cry to be left as they were, to be allowed to rest and heal. But the ghouls would give none of them rest, and the battlefield needed bodies if they were to last even till sunrise.
The incense that she lit in its golden censor cloaked the reek of sweat and bloody vomit. It brought a fleeting note of cleanliness and hope to the gruesome scene as Sister Solace circled the men seven times, reciting the words of the Book of Dumal, the Warrior Saint.
I called on Mithriel to guide my hand in this baptism of fire and blood, grieving for those who would die in battle against me and under my command, even as I readied my men and rallied them against the enemy.
As she spoke, the men rose, new vigor in their limbs and the pained look gone from their eyes, though not the haunted terror. The wounds remained, but bleeding was staunched and moving did not cause hurt. On completing the ritual, they would once again be blessed and prepared to re-enter battle; such were the strains on their numbers that the ghouls put.
Sven entered from the battlefield like a hurricane, intercepting the group of no-longer limping men to shout orders and directions that they followed promptly as they watched their leader with adoring eyes. Her uncle passed her with quick, adrenaline-fueled strides, clapping a bloody mailed hand to her shoulder and leaving blunt, dripping red smudges on her white robe. Sister Solace caught his eyes for a moment, unable to read the expression in them, and wondered how she’d ever get the stains out.