He could feel the fear in the line of inexperienced Cadian troops. He could feel his own fears rising up from the pit of his stomach, then up his throat and into his mouth. He spat out a mouthful of bile into the thick glue-like mud. A trooper to his left sneered. Cassius glared at him, wild eyed, and the sneering troopers bulging, almost manic eyes, looked away quickly. Cassius was not a born leader. He wasn’t even a born fighter. His skills were in farming, nothing more and nothing less. It’s funny how life can turn out he thought to himself as he stared at the ominous horizon 500 yards in front of him. Any moment now a horde of unsightly green monsters would come charging over that horizon with one intention. Cut him into pieces and gnaw on his bones. The sense of foreboding had been building for the last few hours among the troops for they all knew they would be facing hell this cold dark morning.
Cassius jumped as the loud Thumps of their artillery fire tore open the still air. He watched as the tracers shot high over their heads and landed just behind the horizon line. Had the artillery observers seen the approaching horde or were they just taking precautions?Cassius had no clue. He gripped his M36 Lasrifle a little tighter. He closed his eyes and tried to see his wife’s face but couldn’t. This troubled him and his heart started to race. He needed to see the angelic soft white of his wife’s face before he saw nothing but blood. At that moment a single guttural roar rose up from the direction of the horizon. Cassius’s eyes darted open and, at first, he saw nothing. His eyes scanned along the dark line of the horizon and then he saw it. One solitary greenskin brute holding a twisted and ugly banner high above it’s large bone head. This Ork was big. Bigger than Cassius had expected. He had only ever seen Orks in the local paper and scriptures. Yes, they had looked fearsome but not like giants. Cassius was transfixed by the standard bearer Ork. Finally he tore his eyes away and looked down the line at the other troops. They too, all stared. Some gulped, some looked more intently, like they were sizing up their opponent. “READY ARMS!” An order barked out from the right. Even though he could not see him in the gloom, Cassius knew the order came from his unit Commander, Major Tunston. A firm but fair man who was only a few years older than Cassius but had served for nearly ten years but had aged twenty. He was well respected by all the men. A true hero of the Imperium. The complete opposite of what Cassius knew he himself would, could, never be.
Cassius thumbed the safety off his weapon. His right hand, shakily, went down to his battle blade strapped to his upper right thigh. He felt more confident with a blade. He had killed many lame creatures on his family farm with a blade and had not fired a weapon until his very, very basic military training two days before.
A gravelly voice whispered behind him. “I hope you’re ready to die for the beloved Emperor son.” The trooper who had been sneering at him a few moments before was mocking him again when he heard someone say that. At that precise moment the guttural roar they had heard before was suddenly amplified and strengthened by thousands of other roars and then it happened. The Ork horde came streaming over the horizon. The pace and ferocity of the charge took Cassius’s breath away but that is when he saw her. His wife’s perfect face appeared to him. Her beautiful face smiled at him and she nodded, then she was gone again. A smile slowly creased Cassius’s lips. Yes, he was ready to die but not for the Emperor and not before he took some greenskin scum with him first. He took aim and BAM an Orks head 100 yards away blew apart from a direct hit from his Lasrifle. Shocked at his own uncanny ability he did not hesitate to aim again and HIT. Aimed again miss, aimed again HIT. Aimed again HIT. He heard a blood curdling scream beside him. He turned to see the sneering trooper topple to the mud, his hands grasping at his own innards as they slipped from the open wound in his stomach. “HELP MEEeee…” The trooper cried. Cassius aimed HIT, putting the trooper out of his misery. Then WHACK something hard, heavy and cold struck the left side of his head. He fell into the mushy guts of the trooper he had just mercy killed. He dropped his Lasrifel when he fell. A greenskin leapt over him, thinking he was dead, to attack two other troopers. Cassius got to his feet quickly and withdrew his blade. Before he even knew what he was doing he gave a loud war cry and lunged onto the Orks back and jammed his blade deep into the base of the monsters neck. The Ork screeched and feebly tried to reach behind him to grab Cassius but Cassius saw the hands coming and swiped at one lobbing it off at the wrist. The Ork collapsed to the mud in a death spasm. Cassius got to his feet once again only to be picked up, high off the ground, by a huge Ork. The Ork roared and literally threw Cassius a good ten yards into a group of other warrior Orks. Luckily for him, he hit the mud unnoticed. Now covered in mud and blood, both human and alien, he was completely camouflaged. The closest Ork to him was swinging a mighty battle axe at several troops. Cassius crawled over to the brute and carefully unhitched a grenade dangling from the monsters belt. The grenade was the size of a pineapple. Cassius nodded at the troops who had spied him in the dirt. Cassius then ripped out the key to the grenade and shoved the bomb down the backside of the Orks tattered pants. The besieged troops and Cassius dove for cover. The confused Ork just stared blankly for a second before an almighty explosion reduced him to a large cloud of fragmented bone and blood. The troops cheered but a second later all three men were then cut down by enemy fire. One of the bullets grazed Cassius’s left shoulder and completely destroyed his shoulder pad armour. He retreated a few yards to collect himself. He looked around and could only see Orks with the occasional trooper in the thick of battle. It was clear that they were heavily outnumbered. He wondered for a moment where the Major was. With his blade still clasped firmly in his hand he looked around for another weapon but all he saw were dead bodies and mud. Just then he saw the Majors face poking out from under a dead trooper. Cassius smiled at his commander, a little relieved. He heaved off the body of the fallen trooper only to fall back in horror for the face of Major Tunston was all that remained of the fearless leader. The rest of the body and in fact the head was nowhere to be seen. Just a grizzly, expressionless death mask lay in the mud. For reasons unknown, possibly the onset of battle madness, Cassius scooped up the death mask of Tunston and piled it into his utility pouch. More fire came at him and this time he was hit in the upper left leg. He managed to stay standing but was bleeding profusely. Someone called out to him from behind. “Over here son, over here.” Cassius turned to see a trooper with a grenade launcher taking cover in a large crater. Cassius limped over to the position and the man handed him a Lasrifle. “Are you ok?” he asked. “I’ll live.” Cassius replied. In the crater were two other troopers both of which looked far too young to be in battle. One had a nasty wound to his neck but was still aiming his Lasrifle out into the gloom. “If we can hold here, we can see this thing through.” The first man said. He was in his mid fifties and looked like he’d seen a few fights in his time. The young trooper with the neck wound started shooting. The other young man joined in. Cassius saw what they were shooting at. At least a dozen Orks were loping towards their position and all of them were swinging loud buzzing chainswords above their ugly heads. “Oh My Emperor!’ The older trooper declared and started shooting off grenades. BOOM…BOOM, two Orks dropped but the others soon reached the crater and a vicious hand to hand fight ensued. Cassius fired off a shot directly into the face of a large toothed Ork and blew his head clean off. He ducked in time as the angry teeth of a chainsword came at him. He struck upwards with the butt of his rifle and connected with the crotch of the attacking Ork. This stunned the brute for long enough to allow Cassius to ram his battle blade into the Orks face killing him. To his left Cassius saw the wounded trooper lunge forward with his bayoneted rifle at a small Ork only to be struck from behind by a second Ork. The young troopers back was torn open and his spine was torn away and thrown into the air. This enraged Cassius and he charged at the killer Ork and stuck his blade into it’s stomach. At that moment an artillery shell landed so close to the crater that all of it’s occupants were flung through the air and hit the mud hard. That’s when Cassius blacked out.
He saw his wife’s pretty face again. She was smiling at him, telling him everything was ok. He smiled back but immediately felt searing pain across his face and neck. It felt like someone had a blow torch against his flesh. His eyes darted open and he found himself in a medic cell. Beside him, on another stretcher, was the middle aged trooper. His eyes were closed which was a good thing because Cassius saw that all that remained of the poor mans body was his upper torso and half of his right arm. Cassius swallowed hard as he wondered what was left of his own body. He slowly looked down and saw that he was in one piece but the burning on his face and neck was almost unbearable.
For three months Cassius was in the Medic Cell. He had received third degree burns to his face and neck from the bomb blast but it would heal in time. Cassius had learned that only he and the older trooper had survived the battle. The Orks had won the day but a few days later a counter strike had annihilated the horde. Cassius was awarded “The Iron Skull” Medal for his bravery. The older trooper, who Cassius learnt was Private Folax who had fought the Tyranids at The Fall of Medusa, had been chosen to become a servitor.
Cassius walked slowly down the long path of his family farm. A lump came to his throat when he saw how unkempt the place was now. Since he had been gone there had been no one to tend to the crops or look after the cattle. He wondered if he should consider selling the property? He couldn’t wait to see his wife and tell her all he had seen and all he had done. He didn’t consider himself a hero, not at all, he considered himself lucky. Hanging from his left hand he held a small bag of gardening tools. In his right hand he held something else. Not his medal, not his units colours that had also been given to him. He held something much more valuable. He held the face of Major Tunston. He wanted to bring it home as a gift for his wife.
Cassius knelt down at his wife’s grave beneath the old walnut tree. It had been a favourite spot for them. They would sit and talk for hours about the farm and about their future together and about the kids they would never get to have. Cassius cleaned up the overgrown grave and planted some new seedlings around the outer edge. Then he laid the dried withered face of Major Tunston on the grave. “One day my love, I hope to be as good as this man. I know my true calling now. I am to fight. I am to lead. I am to protect all that the emperor holds dear.”