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This is part of Jane's series of "Twelve Days of Stories" for Xmas 2007/2008.

Eleven pipers piping, or the Howling Doomwind

This is part of the very early history of Hereward's Legion, the rather obscure Humakti warband that's the focus of the "Swords" campaign. Thanks to Gavain for suggestions, and Adrian for choosing the tune.

The plaintive, off-key wail sounded round the camp again, and Danwyr winced. "I know he's got to practice - the gods know he's got to practice! but couldn't he go out of earshot?"

"If only.... you can hear those things for miles. That's why we use them in battle, after all."

"Yes, why do we use bagpipes, anyway? Every other Humakti Thousand I've been with uses horns. But here, it's the pipes, and a piper for every cohort, too. What's the point?"

"I'm not sure how it got started." Harev shifted his stiff knee, getting comfortable by the fire. "Just one of those things that makes us different, at a guess. But I know there was a time when we were very glad we had our pipers, and maybe that's why we've kept them."

"What's this, another of your war stories? Go on, then, let's hear it."

"Not mine, this was long before my time. Way back in the Second Age, when we were fighting Arkat's Dark Empire. So long ago, we still had all ten cohorts. It may even have been when Jothan Righteous Wind was still Warleader."

"That's a long time ago. A full Thousand - that must have been a sight." Danwyr looked round at the two cohorts that remained of the Legion's former glory: perhaps fifty warriors, all told.

"Well, by the time this happened, we weren't quite at full strength. That was rather the point... see, we'd fought all the way through that war. We'd recruited, true, but we'd taken losses faster than we could replace them. You can't have just anyone joining the Legion, after all."

After the initiation tests only a few days earlier, Danwyr knew that all too well.

"So, this time was about as bad as any. We'd been fighting all the way through the swamps - an evil, disease-ridden place. By the time we got out of there, over half the Legion was dead, sick, or injured. So we left them with the healers, and carried on, still doing the duty of a full Thousand. We stormed the Soggy Citadel1 - yes, ironic name, isn't it? up the cliff-face, and lost more there. We held the Gateway of Fire2 until support came - by then there were maybe thirty or so left in each cohort. Then there was the stony ford3 , and that berserker.... and then the trolls called us out. One of their Dark Lords, sent a challenge, Thousand to Thousand. They probably did have a full thousand, still, even if most of them were trollkin. Us... well, we still had all ten cohorts - just. I reckon there'd been some recruitment, and some shuffling, to keep the numbers neat, 'cos there was less than eighty men left able to fight. You do the sums: for each cohort, that's the Hundred-thane, two ten-thanes, four troopers, the absolute mimimum to stay as a cohort, not just a rabble. And each cohort had its wyter, and the standard, and the piper. Eleven pipers, in all, with the Warlord's as well. So, the Legion accepted the challenge, of course. They must have known they didn't have a chance, not at those odds. They formed up, and with such small numbers, they didn't need the pipes to pass commands. So the Warlord gave the order for them to play tunes: something to march the men into battle. They struck up "Swords wha hae", and marched forward. Can you imagine it? Eleven of those things, all howling at once? One's bad enough. The trolls couldn't believe it: no-one would be mad enough to charge a thousand warriors with only seventy, and eleven of those playing, not fighting. They just stood there, stunned. I've heard from a sage that their hearing's sensitive, so the pipes must've been even worse for them than they are for us. Anyway, we crashed into them, right in the middle, and took out their warlord before they knew what was happening. He went down, his own warband went down, an' the rest of them ran. We withdrew, we'd won, no point in pursuing even if we'd had the numbers, and gradually, from then on, we built up our strength again.

"But since then, we've kept our pipers. They saved the Legion when we were at our lowest point. You never know, we might just need them again, someday, though I'd rather hear my own death-song than the full eleven pipers all piping at once."

1,2,3 Brownie points for anyone who can name the RW equivalents of any of those three battles.