And immediately, sunlight….

No honeymoon for Il Duce

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/people-across-world-rally-womens-rights/

http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/inauguration-2017/women-s-march-washington-echoed-cities-around-world-n710156

http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/worldwide-people-rally-in-support-of-women%E2%80%99s-march-on-washington/ar-AAm5Ltx?li=BBnb7Kz

Note to self: yo, numb-nuts, you missed out on joining the local march because you weren’t paying attention.  Keep a better ear to the ground in the future, nimrod, because this is exactly the sort of thing I want to add my two cents to.

But this put a smile on my face after yesterday’s gloom.  We are a very large and noisy conglomeration of people, and that’s exactly what we need right now.

And we’re off to the races….

I’m just going to do this once, because if I do it every time Il Duce and his minions do something off the wall I will expire from an incredulity overdose.  I’m going to have armor up and ignore the small stuff.

So, just this one time–  are you shitting me?

http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/white-house-website-promotes-melania-trump%E2%80%99s-modeling-and-jewelry-line/ar-AAm4lRR?li=BBnb7Kz

On the other hand, why am I surprised– this is a guy who thinks he’s a business genius and that a business model is appropriate for governance.

I am now in the process of barricading myself in my apartment with a tub of double-fudge ice cream.  Diabetes be damned.

Later.

A little perspective…..

As Inauguration Day arrives, I find myself in a strange mental state.  At the most basic level, it is still a matter of incredulity to me that Trump is going to take the oath of office and become President of the United States.  If I stop to think about it I start rehearsing in my mind the utter absurdity of it.  Teeth get gritted and steering wheels death-gripped.  It’s like the universe has played a practical joke on humanity (because who POTUS is at any given moment affects most if not all of the people on the planet) and we’re just waiting for the sumbitch to bust out laughing and tell us it was all a joke.

At another level, I am trying to think what I can do.  Writing, for sure– this is one time I wish I had the gift of satire, because, by all the evidence, a good satire gets right under Donald’s skin in a way that really highlights his narcissism and self-centered ways.  Contributing to progressive causes and groups and being the best citizen I can possibly be are other things I can do.  Oh, and if the Clown-in-Chief actually implements a Muslim registry, I intend to register as a Muslim, which will at least tell El Bozo that his little plan to scapegoat a religion isn’t going to slip by unnoticed and unremarked.

At the same time it is strange how  everyday life still makes its demands on you.

I still need a job.  I still need to lose weight (not helped by all the comfort eating I’ve been doing in the last two months).  I am in the midst of figuring out how to end a very long relationship.  I’m worried about my blood-pressure and diabetes and trying to remember to take my medication for both.  I am adjusting to the consequences of a long-distance relocation, some of which I anticipated and some I didn’t.  I worry about my daughter, from whom I am now physically separated but still as close as a text.

I still have to brush my teeth and shower and (at least once or twice a week) shave my face.  I still have to do laundry (note to self: today is probably a good day for that).  I have books to read and items to pick up at the store.

I am still trying to write fiction– I’m attempting to serialize The Horseman on this blog, and Princess of Stars, about which I haven’t talked a great deal in the last few months, is still an active project, at least hypothetically.  Part of me wonders if fiction isn’t a frivolous distraction right now, but then I remember that fiction can be a powerful vessel for truth.  It’s an open question whether I have the talent to make my writing as effective as it could be, but I am still possessed of the impulse to write stories, even as the house burns down around me.

And then I find myself, just for a moment, wild with happy excitement at a new Logan trailer (careful, it’s got splashing gore in it, but then, it’s Logan, waddaya expect)–

At one level, you might expect this to be far off my radar, but on the other hand, I suspect in the next year or so we’re all going to need moments of down-time, of allowing ourselves to be distracted from whatever disaster is unfolding.  Logan is not the only movie I’m looking forward to this year, and then there’s Season 7 of Game of Thrones.

This is an important point– for all our fear and uncertainty, and despite the necessity of resistance, we will still need to tend to our ordinary, workaday lives.  It’s essential we take care of ourselves and our loved ones, to make the lunches for the kids to take to school and to get the car lubed when needed.  If we don’t we won’t be able to sustain our effort to speak truth to power, to stand up for the helpless, and to preserve the Republic.

So, take a deep breath, everybody.  Take care of yourselves and your loved ones.  Do what you can, and stay together.  And we will get through this.

Later.

Five songs for the resistance

Some songs for the resistance-

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps I am showing my age in that most of these songs are from fifty to sixty years ago, the last time we were in serious need of marching songs.  Perhaps we need a new generation to write the anthems of the new resistance.  Nevertheless, these still speak to me, especially Pete Seeger’s interpretation of We Shall Overcome, which breaks my heart every time I listen to it.  Take heart from this music, and do what you can.

Later.

I want to turn it all off, but I can’t- Frontline’s Divided States of America

I just finished watching the two part Frontline documentary Divided States of America (Part One is here), which recapitulates the history of the Obama administration and the rise of populist rage in this country.  It’s enlightening and difficult at the same time, especially as it is unsparing in its recounting of Obama’s naivete and missteps during his two terms.  On the whole it is balanced and sober.  It is also sobering– it ends on the note that Obama came into office with the idea of bridging divides, and he leaves office with the country more divided than ever.

In the documentary there are talking heads from both sides of the political spectrum, and some of those on the right are quick to blame the president for the divisions.   That is both unfair and typical of the right.  The divisions were there before Obama became president; his presidency, however, laid them bare in ways we did not anticipate when he took office in 2009.

The documentary is very good about outlining the rise of populist anger in this country in the last eight years. What exploded at first as the Tea Party and then the candidacy of Donald Trump has deep roots.  The documentary ties the current populism to that which emerged during the 2008 Republican campaign and which found its focus in Sarah Palin, but of course it goes back decades, to the civil rights era and the culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties and the drastic changes in our society and the technology it employs for work and communication.  The absolute (and to progressives, irrational) rage of conservatives who think their country is being stolen by blacks and immigrants, and that Obama was a Muslim socialist bent on destroying white America, is outlined in detail.  The documentary describes the divide in the country as being so profound that it almost amounts to there being two antithetically opposed Americas at war with each other.

That observation resonated with me.  Over the last three decades I have watched this country grow more and more polarized, to the point that we hardly consider those on the other side of the divide from us to be true Americans.  That polarization is what really frightens me, far more than even Trump, because I don’t know how to heal it, and because it is absolutely destructive to our political unity.  I fear this country has gone past some limit without realizing it.  Once this sort of rhetoric gets past a certain point, and people begin to accept it as normal, then there comes a time when your opponents don’t just disagree with you, they are evils that have to fought, in the streets and house-by-house.  In other words, the logical end of this sort of rhetoric is civil war and social dissolution.

And when Trump inevitably spins out of control and crashes, the rage of Trump supporters will not go away.  He did not create it; it created him.  When he’s gone– and I will be surprised if he lasts as much as two years– his supporters will have to find another figurehead to encapsulate their anger.  And what new monstrosity will they create the next time?

I am tired of it all.  I wish I could turn it all off.  But I can’t.  I am not optimistic about America’s chances, but I can’t join a rush to the lifeboats.  Weary and weak as I am, I have to stay and try to do what I can.  I hope you do, too.

But we don’t have to watch the inauguration.  That much, at least, is a relief.

I recommend the Frontline documentary to anyone who wants a good summary of how we got here.

Later.

 

The Horseman, Part Seven

Warning: this piece contains violence and vulgar language.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

*************************************

Part Seven

Mankin drove his fist into Sergeant Torman’s face.  The man fell backward, colliding with two of his bully-boys.  Kass and Denetoi came in from the sides and punished the others with their fists.  The thieves, stunned by the sudden attack, stumbled backwards.  Mankin took the opportunity to grab the bag of bread and retreat.  Another one of the sergeant’s henchmen tried to grab the bag from Mankin; Mankin rewarded his impudence with an accurately aimed knee to the groin.  The soldier fell sideways, clutching himself, and Mankin, Kass and Denetoi broke free of the melee in front of the food-distribution gate and ran for it.

They passed through the Third Archway and reached the north-west pit before they slowed down.  Other prisoners, streaming toward the food-gate, avoided them; in the half-year since coming to this place the other Khetuni prisoners-or-war had learned not to meddle with the half-Attau captain and his men.  Or most of them had.  Torman is a problem, Mankin told himself.

They walked, and Mankin was glad.  The spurt of frantic action he and the others had launched themselves into to recover their ration of bread had left him shaky.  I’m getting weaker by the day.  Even a few moments of energetic movement left him dizzy.

He glanced up at the Okharian guards pacing the wall that ran around the perimeter of the pit.  Back above the food-gate off-duty guards laughed and placed bets on the scrimmage down below, as they always did.  Mankin had long since stopped caring that the bastards looked upon the Khetuni prisoners in their charge as entertainment.  He no longer had the energy to spare.

He had to admit, though, that the prisoner-of-war camp was effective, despite its simplicity.  On a rocky plain a series of open-air mining pits had been enlarged by the Okharians into more-or-less circular holding pens, by themselves thirty to fifty feet deep and up to three hundred yards across.  On the rim of each they had built a wall that added another twenty feet; at the base of the masonry downward pointing iron spikes had been mortared into the stone in a hedge that extended all the way around each pit.  The Okharians had connected each of the pits by carving archways through the living rock, which were fitted with portcullises that could be dropped down from above if the Okharians ever needed to isolate one pit from the others.  There were only three gates in or out of the camp, tunnels carved down to the pits and fitted with heavy doors and more portcullises– the main gate, the food-gate, and the death-gate, where prisoners who died were collected for removal.

Beyond guarding the walls and distributing a ration of food every day, the Okharians left the prisoners to their own devices.  By all appearances the southerners did not care what the Khetuni did in the pits, even if it was to each other, so long as they did not try to attack the gates or scale the walls.  The latter was virtually impossible, and even if the prisoners could break down one of the gates– unlikely, as they had no tools, not even knives– they would find themselves in a narrow tunnel facing cannon and bowmen and more portcullises, and it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

Once, Mankin understood, there had been a command structure among the prisoners in the pits, which had kept order and made sure that food was distributed fairly.  But then an epidemic of blue flux had swept the prison, the officers and sergeants who had maintained the order mostly died, and prisoners began to form gangs and fight among themselves.  Again, the Okharians did not care; they neither provided help during the epidemic nor interested themselves in restoring order.  Instead, they watched and laid bets.

Mankin and the others made their way through another arch into the Western Cell.  This was one of the largest of the pits.  Crossing it made Mankin feel like an insect on a bare floor.  Other soldiers, in ones or twos or small groups, late-comers to the food distribution, hurried past the three of them.  Some of the soldiers eyed them and their bag of bread, but none of them made a move.  Reputation is a wonderful thing.

The three of them reached the caves that sheltered what was left of Mankin’s command.  Ben and Hal were on guard; both men grinned widely when they saw the group returning with their burden.  “You made it, sir!” Ben called.

“Not without a few bumps and bruises,” Mankin said as they climbed the steps carved into the rock-face.  “Food distribution’s getting a little vigorous.  We’ll have to take more men next time.”

“If we’d taken more men this time, it would have saved my knuckles some rough duty,” Denetoi muttered.  Mankin ignored him and enter the caves.

Inside was a warren of interconnected rooms cut from the stone.  The chambers further in were gloomy and dank, and most of the Mankin’s soldiers tended to cluster in the spaces nearer the entrance.  When Mankin and the others entered they were immediately surrounded by his men.  Some cheered their arrival, but others hobbled silently forward, leaning on crude staffs, or the shoulders of comrades.  They were all ragged and thin and dirty.

“One at a time, boys, one at a time!” Kass called out, as he and Denetoi opened the bags.  “Line up neat and proper, that’s it.”  The two of them began to hand out the loaves of bread.

Mankin stepped aside, wanting to make sure he went last, and felt a tug on his sleeve.  It was Corporal Marsh.  “Beg pardon, sir,” the young soldier said, “but Private Gahl is going.”

Mankin’s heart sank.  “I’ll go see him.”

 

In one of the further chambers a little fire burned in a crude lamp, painstakingly chiseled out of a block of sandstone.  Private Gahl lay against the far wall, under a covering of rags.  As soon as Mankin entered the room he smelled its peculiar stench—sickness and bowels and unwashed sweat, which by now Mankin thought of as the stink of despair.

He knelt down beside Gahl.  The young soldier was a skeleton with skin stretched over its bones.  His sunken eyes were closed.  A sheen of sweat covered his emaciated face; his hands clutched the rags under which he lay as if he were holding on to them for his life.  Perhaps he is.

“Private,” Mankin whispered, “Private Gahl.  Can you hear me?”

Gahl at first seemed not to notice; then he stirred a little, and his eyelids cracked open, just a little.  “Is that you, Father?” the boy murmured.

“He’s been going in and out like that all morning, sir,” Marsh said.

“It’s Captain Mankin, Gahl,” Mankin said.

“Captain?  Where’s my father?”

“He’s coming, private,” Mankin said, not sure what else he could say.

“Good,” Gahl said.  He breathed heavily, one, two breaths.  “I just wanted to tell him…I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I got angry.  I didn’t mean it.”

“I’m sure he knows, Gahl,” Mankin said.

“I want to tell him…I want to tell him…,” Gahl trailed off, and then he sighed and his hands slowly unclenched from the rags.

Mankin sat there for a moment, then reached over and closed the boy’s eyes.  “Once you’ve eaten,” he told Marsh, “and we’ve said a few words, get a detail together and take him to the collection point for burial.”

“Yes, sir,” Marsh murmured.

Mankin got up.  He went back further into the cave, to nearly the last chamber.  The attenuated sunshine barely reached this space at all.  Mankin sat down on its moist floor, put his face in his hands, and wept.

Sometime later he realized someone was standing close by, just outside the chamber.  “Who’s there?” he said.

“Denetoi, Cap’n.”  The sergeant stepped forward.  “Look, I got you some bread, and those bastard Okharians actually threw in some pepper-pods, I gotcha a half of one.”

Mankin shook his head.  “I don’t want it.”

“Now, Cap’n,” Denetoi said, “you’re being plain foolish.  Nobody blames you….”

“Maybe they should,” Mankin said.  “I’m the one who surrendered us.”

“And if you hadn’t our bones would be bleaching in the sun, even now,” Denetoi said.

“So instead,” Mankin said, “I brought us here.  A slow death instead of a quick.”

Denetoi hesitated, then sighed.  He sat down next to Mankin.  “You know, Cap’n, I’ve never wanted to be any sort of officer,” he said, “much less a commander.  Never wanted the responsibility.”

Mankin said nothing, which Denetoi apparently took as tacit permission to go on.  “I’m not going to sit here and pretended that I understand everything an officer’s got to think about,” he said.  “All complicated and meshed together, parts working here that affect other parts over there.  Keep men fighting while seeing how everything fits into some bigger frame.  That’s not me.”

“Not sure it’s me, either,” Mankin murmured.

“More you than that damned Lyon,” Denetoi said, “and more than many an officer I’ve known.  So stop second-guessing yourself.”

Mankin looked at him with raised eyebrows.  “Is that an order, sergeant?”

“Advice from an old soldier, sir,” Denetoi said.  “My point is, this much I can see this clear– even for officers, sometimes it comes down to doing the best you can with what you got, where you are.  ‘Cause in this life, when do ordinary men like you and me ever get a perfect choice?  About anything?”

“That’s what I keep telling myself,” Mankin said.

“You should listen to yourself,” Denetoi said.  “The point is, thanks to you we are alive, saving poor Gahl and Roas and Timms and the others who got sick—and only living men can have hope.  So, take your damned bread and pepper, sir, before I eat it all myself.”

Mankin looked over at Denetoi, who was holding the bread out to him.  “A practical moral position, if I ever heard one,” he said, and he nearly smiled as he took the food.

 

Before they removed Gahl’s body Mankin gathered his surviving command around him as he stood by the dead man.  Gahl’s comrades had made a small effort to make him presentable, washing him and arranging his limbs and tying up his jaw with a cloth.  It wasn’t much, but Mankin was grateful for the effort.

“We have to say goodbye to our comrade now,” he told his men.  “None of us have the strength to stand for a long sermon, so I’ll keep it short.  Private Gahl was young, and sometimes he was a silly fellow who was faster with a joke than his bow, but he never complained and he was always first to the wall when stand-to sounded.  We will miss him.  He came a long way from home, to die in this place, but we’re all a long way from home.”  Mankin hesitated, trying to think of what to say to encapsulate what he felt at this moment.  “The Unchanging grant that poor Gahl is the last of us to die here.”

“The gods grant,” the men murmured, in a soft, ragged chorus.

 

The three strongest men, Grer, Jason and Preet, bore Gahl’s body away to the corpse collection point, while the rest of them dispersed back into the caves.  Mankin settled back into his own space, and tried not to think about anything for a while.

Too soon, though, Kass came and found him.  “Captain,” he said, looking worried, “we got trouble.”

 

It was as big a party of Okharians inside the prison as Mankin had seen together since surrendering.  That was the first surprise.  The second was that they were not garrison guards, but regular soldiers, in full kit.  A half-company, at least, he estimated, as they spread out around the cave mouths, making sure no one could get out, or in.  There were swordsmen and pike-handlers, and a scattering of arquebusiers, who took positions that would all cover all the exits of the caves and all their approaches.

Mankin emerged from the caves just as the most senior Okharian present—a captain—stepped forward.  By this time most of the men of Mankin’s command were gathered around, and the Okaharian peered from face to face, just as if he were trying to recognize someone.  “Which of you,” he called, in fair Khetuni, “is the captain called Mankin the Attau.”

“Who’s asking?” Kass demanded.

The officer glowered.  “The man who’ll spread you guts over these rocks if you don’t answer me civilly, Khetuna.”

Kass looked as if he might be readying another smart reply, but Mankin held up his hand.  “Don’t, sergeant.”

Kass shut his mouth, but he did not look happy.  Mankin stepped forward.  “I am Mankin,” he said.

The officer looked Mankin over, as if examining him for identifying marks.  The Okharian’s eyes lingered on the scar on Mankin’s face.  “Very well,” the fellow finally said.  “You’re to come with us.”

“Why?” Mankin asked.

The Okharian flushed with anger.  He said, “Because, you stupid outlander, you’re required somewhere else.  More than that I don’t know, nor do I care, except that my orders are to get you to that somewhere else as quickly as possible.  Alive and in one piece, if that’s concerning you, although again, I don’t know why anyone would care if I carved my family crest into your stinking skin.  So come, now, or I’ll have my men carry you—oh, and if any of your starvelings get in the way, my men will skewer them, since nobody gives a damn about them.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Sir…,” Kass said.

“Sergeant Kass,” Mankin said, “at ease.  Seems like I have no choice.  I don’t want anybody hurt.”

“They’re up to something,” Kass said.

“Maybe,” Mankins said lowly, “but if they wanted me dead, they could kill me here and now without much fuss.  And all my military information is a year old, so I can’t imagine it being of any use to them.  So I’m going.  I’ll get back as soon as I can.  You’re in charge, sergeant.”

Kass looked from Mankin to the Okharians and back to Mankin, unhappy.  But he said, “Yes, sir,” and stepped back.

Mankin climbed down to the Okharians, unsure if his legs shook from hunger or fear.  He faced the half-captain.  “I’m ready.  Don’t have much in the way of baggage.”

The captain sneered at him for a moment, then told his men, “Bring him.”

 

The captain led Mankin to the main gate, with the half-company surrounding them both.  They all filed out the gate, and Mankin realized at that moment that whoever wanted him carried a great deal of clout.  The gate guards, all four layers of them, did not question the half-captain or even say a word to him as he led Mankin out.

Once he had Mankin in the outer court of the main-gate fort, the captain seemed to really look him over for the first time, and not like what he saw.  He sat Mankin down on a mounting block, and gave him bread and a handful of dates to eat.  Mankin downed them without question, almost before he had them in his hands.

“I’m not being charitable,” the half-captain told him.  “We have to ride, and I can’t have you falling off every half-league from hunger.”

“Fine,” Mankin said around a mouthful of bread.

They gave him water to drink, as well, and Mankin used some of it to wash his face and hands.  Then they brought out a squad’s worth of horses, saddled and ready, the strong, phlegmatic sort of beasts the Okharians used for long journeys, and Mankin knew his first twinge of misgiving.  “How far are we going?” he asked the captain.

“Far enough to leave this place well below the horizon,” the officer said.  “Mount up.”

Mankin was glad no one in the Reach saw what happened next; he had to be boosted into the saddle.  He swayed a moment, then got his feet into the stirrups and hung on for dear life.  Spearmen mounted the other horses, a good twenty men.  A large guard for one Khetuni who can barely hold on to the saddle, Mankin thought.

The captain mounted, gave Mankin the look of a man resolving to make the best of a poor situation, and waved to their escort.  “Let’s go.”

 

It was early the next morning when the detail clattered across a drawbridge into the outer keep of a huge palace-fort atop a hill.  They had ridden east through the night, with only brief breaks to change horses and drink and eat.  With each stop and each remount, Mankin had gotten weaker and weaker.  At the end he clung to the saddle only by force of will and the half-captain’s promise of more food at their destination.

As they entered the gate Mankin got only impressions of the palace; he was too exhausted.  When they stopped in the keep’s courtyard the Okharians had to help him off the horse, then they had to help him to stand.

As the soldiers did so an older Okharian appeared, wearing the robes and tonsure of a high steward, and a severe expression.  He looked at Mankin, then at the half-captain.  “Did you look to kill him?” the steward snapped.

The officer glowered back.  “I was ordered to get him here as quickly as possible.”

The steward growled in the back of his throat.  “Well, you’ve done that.  Now leave him to us.”

The steward snapped his fingers; house servants stepped forward and took Mankin bodily away from the soldiers.  Mankin, far too weak to protest, accepted the transfer without a word.

The soldiers stepped back; the half-captain in particular looked as if he had swallowed a dose of castor oil.  The steward faced Mankin, now literally in the hands of his people.  He inclined his head to Mankin.  “Greetings, Captain Tannersson,” the man said.  “I am High Seneschal Muri.”  He spoke the words with icily formality, as if he did not like their taste.  “This is the Great House of the Lords of Shining Rock.  Be welcome.”

It penetrated Mankin’s fuddled brain that he had just had the status of guest bestowed upon him.  This is unexpected.  Somehow he managed to stand a little straighter.  “I am…honored to step within…your sacred house,” he managed, just before collapsing completely.

 

He slept much of the day, in a cool room somewhere in the palace.  He hardly noticed anything from the moment he lay down to the moment house servants came to rouse him.

Once he was able to stagger to his feet they bathed him, then they fed him.  Mankin could not tell which left him more unstrung.  The bath was so warm and pleasant that he very nearly sank under the water, not caring if he drowned.

When he finally emerged they dressed him in the light cotton shirt and breeks of an Okharian commoner.  Mankin had no objection—the clothes were clean and new.  They left him barefoot, though, which Mankin supposed was a precaution against his running.

When they set food before him, the spongy baked naan and hotly spiced beef that was typical of Okharian cuisine, he had to force himself not try to grab everything, but to eat with a measured pace, and to stop at the first sense of being replete.  That moment came much sooner than he thought it would.  His stomach, he reckoned, must have shrunk to the size of a grape.

When he was done it was close to sunset.  The servants, accompanied by two overly burly guards who kept their eyes on Mankin the whole time, escorted him through a maze of rooms and courtyards toward what appeared to be the center of the house.  The air outside was still hot, but the thick-walled rooms were cool and dark.

At last they brought him to a large, windowless chamber; water trickled down the far wall into a deep pool—this was obviously the house’s well-room, or one of them, but on a scale Mankin had never seen before.  The space echoed with the sound of the water and their footsteps; it seemed a place of rest and coolness and peace.

Kunatara Maso was there.  He sat, in ordinary clothes, on the ledge by the pool.  Mankin felt a strange mélange of emotions—relief at seeing a familiar face, mingled together with suspicion of why he was here, together with a powerful burst of rage.  He tried to put it all aside and to think clearly, for Kunatara was not alone.

Two other Okharians were there.  One was an older man, seated in a wide-armed chair by the trickling well.  He was a big man, dressed in a simple tunic, whose frame spoke of youthful power and vigor, but for whom age had softened his body and grayed his aspect.  His face was lined and pensive, and he hardly seemed to notice Mankin’s entrance.

The other Okharian paced on one side of the room.  He was younger, very fit, and although he, too, wore ordinary clothes, Mankin could tell he was a soldier.  The man glared at Mankin with unreserved hostility.  Mankin sensed that here was a man who would take no prisoners, least of all Khetuni.

The two guards stepped back to the doorway, leaving Mankin standing alone.  He took his best guess, made a shaky bow toward the older man, and said in Okharian, “I greet you, dread lord, and thank you for your great hospitality.”

Kunatara’s eyebrows went up; the pacing man scowled in even deeper suspicion, if that were possible; and the older man looked up.  Eyes as weary as they were intelligent met Mankin’s; and then the man gave him a small smile.  “That’s not bad,” he said.  “You’re accent’s pretty good for a Khetuna; your form is slightly off, but nothing at which anyone would take offense.”

“Consul,” the pacing man said, “please allow us to judge that matter for ourselves.”

“Hush, Masanata,” the older man said.  As he spoken Mankin hastily revised his estimate of the man’s rank and status—Consul meant he was one of the Empire’s elite, someone who had sometime before served at the right hand of the Imperator.  “Captain Mankin is, indeed, our guest, and you should remember that.  Not to mention, we don’t want to poison the well from which we’re about to ask him to drink.”

As rebukes went, Mankin thought that speech was pretty mild; Masanata’s expression, however, darkened as if he’d been slapped.  Mankin, though, wondered what the consul meant by ‘wells’ and ‘poisoning’ and ‘drinking’, all of which, juxtaposed together, sounded more than a little ominous.

Kunatara stood.  “Perhaps, Consul, we should engage in a little more formality, and introduce ourselves.  Captain Mankin and I have met; Captain,” he gestured at Masanata, “may I make known to you Strategist and High Commander Masanata Rimun Basa, lord of Dere-naru.”

Mankin hid his surprise again; Masanata was a member of the Imperator’s inner military council, as well as a landed baron of some wealth.  What a strategist of the Imperator’s own council was doing here, a long way from the Okharians’ temporary capitol of Gesu-kana, Mankin had no earthly clue.

In any case, Mankin bowed to Masanata.  “I am honored by your presence, esteemed strategist and lord.”

Masanata glared at Mankin in open hate.  “I want no courtesy from you, you Khetuna bastard.”

“Lord Basa,” the consul said, and this time there was a snap in his voice, “please cease to insult my guest.  Keep it up and your words may begin to impinge on my honor.”

Masanata actually paled; he turned and bowed to the consul.  “Your pardon, lord.”

“And,” Kunatara said, smoothly, as if the consul and Masanata were exchanging pleasantries, “may I make known to you my lord Gonatani Samar, overlord of Usser, baron of Isu-kara,  March of Desumanu, Strategist and Overcommander, Royal Companion and Kinsman, former Consul of the Empire.”

It was all Mankin could do to keep from staggering, now from surprise rather than weakness.  Gonatani Samar—even common Khetuni soldiers had heard that name.  Four times consul of the Empire, the close cousin of the Imperator, the strategist who had kept Khetun from overrunning all of Okhar in the first years of the war, the man most said could have had the throne of Okhar for himself, but had loyally defended his cousin’s right to it.  If Masanata’s presence here was unexpected, Gonatani’s was like the visitation of a minor deity.

Mankin forced himself to keep his feet under him as he bowed deeply.  “I am unworthy to greet the dread lord, and I am indebted to him for his courtesy and grace.”

Masanata’s expression told Mankin that, as far as that point was concerned, he was entirely in agreement with him, but the general said nothing.  Gonatani smiled again.  “Well, captain, you are entirely welcome here.  I have to admit, though, I did not expect to hear this much courteous speech from a Khetuna officer.”

“If it please my dread lord,” Mankin said, “courtesy costs nothing.”  Of course, discourtesy in this context would doubtless be fatal, but Mankin reckoned there was no need to mention that fact.

Then, in spite of everything, he swayed on his feet.  The room spun around him, and he staggered.

Gonatani sat up straighter in his seat.  “By the high gods, where is our courtesy?  A chair for the captain, at once.”

The guards hustled about behind Mankin, and in a moment a chair was brought in, a seat that matched Gonatani’s.  Mankin sat down at once and gripped the armrests.  “I thank the dread lord,” he said.

“Well, we can’t have you falling on your face,” Gonatani said.  “I am sorry for the hardship you experienced in the camp, captain, but there was nothing I could do for you until now.”  The consul sat back.  “Better?”

“Yes, dread lord, thank you.”  Indeed, the room had ceased its revolutions.

“Hmm—you’re going to be here a while, captain, so you can cut your salutations back to an occasional ‘lord’,” Gonatani said.  He rubbed his nose.  “I understand, captain, that you were wounded in the fall of the fort at Senso-marta.”

Mankin wondered why Gonatani was being so circumspect, when the scar on his face was wide and bright.  “Yes, dre…yes, lord.”

“Does it give you much pain?”

Mankin actually had to stop and think about that one for a moment.  Many strange things had happened to him already in the last day, but having Gonatani Samar enquiring about his battle-wounds was perhaps the strangest.  “Only when the weather turns, my lord,” Mankin said.

Gonatani grinned.  “With me it’s my knees.  Too much marching about when I was young, I suppose.”

“Consul…,” Masanata started.

Gonatani held up a hand.  “No need, general.  I’ll get to the point.”  To Mankin he said, “You are weak and tired, captain, so I don’t want to detain you.  But there are a few things we need to clarify.”

“As it pleases my lord,” Mankin said, perplexed.

“You are called Mankin the Attau, but your family name is Tannersson?”

Mankin tried to marshal his thoughts with one hand while holding off bewilderment with the other.  “Yes, lord.  My father was Khetuni, my mother Attau.”

“Ah,” Gonatani said, as if Mankin’s answer had granted him some sort of comprehension of a previous mystery.  “And you’re descended from tanners?”

“Some generations back, yes,” Mankin said.  “Apparently my father’s great-great-grandfather had a tannery in Gereburg.  When the king of those days expanded the ranks of the Named, my forebearer had the wherewithal to pay the fee and earn a surname.”

Mankin was not surprised to see Masanata sneer.  He had gotten the same look from Khetuni officers from old-name families.  But Gonatani merely nodded.  “Good.  Good.  And you’re a man of some learning?”

If Mankin had been on a horse that had suddenly broken right when he had expected it to go left, he could not have been more thrown.  “Um…yes, my lord, well, I studied at the Lyceum, I did not earn my stole….”

“Excellent,” Gonatani said.  “If you would oblige me, please read something for me.”

Mankin blinked, then blinked again as one of the guards came to him, carrying a heavy codex.  He placed it, open, in Mankin’s lap.  Mankin peered at it.  “Oh, ah…this is strange.”

“Do you know what this is?” Gonatani said.

Mankin looked up.  “This is a chronicle, the Corso Havenum Brekis.  It’s a narrative of the Kunai.”

“Can you read it?” Gonatani said.

“Why, yes, lord,” Mankin said.

“Please do,” Gonatani said.

Mankin stared at him for a moment, then looked back down at the open book.  “Um…Heste urun harla terimini degusta parva….

He read about half a page of the Kunai text before Gonatani held up a hand.  “Excellent.  Now can you translate that text for us?”

“Yes, lord…ah…‘the ordering of the Kunai state is in five parts, all in opposition to all, so that a balancing of interests and powers may be attained, to the greater harmony of the commonwealth….’”

He re-read what he had first read, translating into Okharian as he went, hesitating only once or twice where rendering the sense of the Kunai words in Okharian presented some extra difficulty.  He finished and looked up.

Gonatani was peering at him with the intensity of someone undergoing a revelation.  Kunatara had covered his open mouth with a hand, as if to hide his surprise.  Masanata had stopped his pacing, and was backed up against the wall behind him; his expression had changed from disdain to something close to outright fear.

What is this all about? 

“That is…that is good, Mankin of the Attau,” Gonatani said.  “Well read.  Yes.”

He gestured, and the guard collected the book from Mankin and took it away.  As he did Gonatani said, “Mankin of the Attau, I have no wish to tire you further today.  There have been enough questions for the time-being.  My servitors will take you to a private chamber; you are my guest, and you may rest there as you please.”  He raised a hand in caution.  “Despite that, of course, there is still war between our nations; I must ask you not to wander about the house and grounds without an escort.  Some places, of necessity, must be forbidden to you; and I ask that you make no attempt to escape or leave this fortress.”

As if I have the strength to get more than half a mile, Mankin thought.  Aloud he said, “I hear, my lord, and will obey.”

Gonatani nodded.  “Doubtless you have questions of your own.  We will speak again, soon, and I hope to be able to answer those questions then.”

Mankin heard the dismissal in Gonatani’s words.  He bowed, backed away according the Okharian custom, bowed again, then turned to leave the room.  His guards fell in beside him, as he wondered, what the hell is going on?

 

To be continued…..

Sunday Photo Fiction – January 15th 2017– Thwarted Destiny

Here’s a piece in response to the Sunday Photo Fiction flash fiction challenge for January 15th 2017– two hundred words based on this image–

skul-cup

I don’t whether to giggle or beg for forgiveness.  And I fudged the word limit a little.  I know no shame…..

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Yes, mortal– look upon me and know fear.

When I lived I was Muraz Khan the Terrible, the Blood-soaked, conqueror of Samarkhand and Beluchistan, devastator of Ashgabat, pillager of Tehran.  My hordes ranged across the broad world.  Mighty kings trembled and crawled on their bellies to kiss my gore-spattered boots.  Those same kings gave me their daughters as playthings.

But on the verge on conquering the whole world, I was betrayed by a blood brother, Hanno.  My bones were made into this chalice, and Hanno celebrated at an orgy, quaffing wine from my skull.

But my loyal magister put a curse on my bones.  That very night an earthquake swallowed Hanno and the city in which he roistered.  I would rise again to fulfill my destiny whenever I next lay in the hands of a man of power.

Centuries later archaeologists uncovered me.  I thought my day had come.  But something went wrong.

I was stolen from the artifact locker that very night by a graduate student.  Three years later, needing extra cash for a Playstation, he sold me at a flea market to an accountant named Marvin and his wife Jenny, who sews quilts with kitten patterns.

Now I sit, locked in a china cabinet in Lower Hoboken with a collection of Disney Princess® glasses.

I must escape and fulfill my destiny.  Somehow….

Let it go, let it go…..

Oh, just shut up, Elsa.

The Horseman, Part Six

Warning: this piece contains sexual situations.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Six

Thane Tannersson was tired.  He tried to remember when he had last slept.  Had it been two days before, or three?  He couldn’t remember.

On top of his exhaustion, he smelled like a wet rat.  His uniform clung to him.  The only consolation was that all of the field marshal’s aides were in the same condition.  As was the field marshal.

Field Marshal Dale leaned over the map table, studying the dispositions of units, both Army and Navy, scattered across the islands of the Sea of Whales and the northern half of Okhar.  He peered at the unit counters as if they were about to reveal mysteries to him. The field marshal’s aides and vice-commanders all clustered around the map-table, talking in low voices.  Other soldiers, scribes and couriers, occupied work-tables along the margins of the room, either in the process of writing dispatches or waiting for them to be written.

“So, nothing new from the Southern command?  Dale asked Thane, not looking up.

“Not since the report from Army of the Center two hours ago, sir,” Thane said.

“Is the weather clear over the sea?” Dale said.

“Reports are that the weather is clear all the way to Mico-hane, and then south along the Beso,” Thane said.  “Nothing to interfere with our telegraphs.”

Even so, they both knew the reports the High Command received in Alisan were inevitably hours old, at best.  The Electorate had spent years building up a network of signal stations on the numerous islands of the Sea of Whales, in some instances fortifying and supplying islets that were little more than rocks, all so that they could read about events hours after they happened.  Even so, it was better than the alternative– even steamers took three days to cross the sea from Okhar to the shores of the Electorate.

But at times like these, Thane reflected, a commander yearned mightily for the legendary speaking stones of the ancients.  He sensed an irresolvable frustration in the field marshal, a desire to know what was happening now, at this moment, in places hundreds of miles away.  He knew Dale well enough to know the field marshal would much rather have been in Okhar than stuck at Supreme Headquarters, a thousand miles from the fighting.

Thane glanced at the situation board himself.  The enemy offensive they had been tracking for the last five days had pushed well up the Gar, closing on the line of the Hano, which, in turn, flowed into the Beso, the main axis of the Khetuni conquest of Okhar.  Fror-manu and Geta-bren had both fallen; Jer-kamu was besieged.  A double-dozen outposts and forts along the Gar had fallen, fallen silent, or been besieged.  Khetuni reserves had moved to meet the enemy, but reports about their contact with the Okharians were slow to reach Alisan.  Frustrating, indeed.

“So, gentlemen,” Dale was saying, addressing everyone, “we are in one of those distressing lulls that come in the middle of a crisis.”

“Sir?” a major said.

“The delay in information–  until we receive further word, we can’t even be sure our reserve divisions have contacted the enemy.”  Dale shook his head.  “As for orders– well, at this distance, gentlemen, we are little better than spectators.  We just have to trust that Marshals Karl and Lhand see clearly what needs to be done, and do it.”

Thane thought that that statement implicitly outlined Dale’s doubts about Karl and Lhand.  However, he said nothing, while other officers murmured, “Yes, sir.”

“Some of you men,” Dale said, “have been working for two or three days straight.  Most of you are dead on your feet.  I can smell most of the rest of you.”  That provoked a rueful laugh around the table.  “Commandant Samuel, arrange a rotation of our staff here, if you please.  I want a third of these men off-duty for the next day, starting with the ones who have been here the longest, and then next third can go on off-duty.  We’ll do this until some immediate crisis erupts or we have more definitive news of the counter-offensive.  I want you gentlemen to go home, get a bath, get a meal and get some sleep.”  He looked around the table.  “Do I hear any objections?”

“No, sir,” was the general response.

“It will be done, sir,” Commandant Samuel said.

“Very good,” Dale said.  “I will see you fortunate gentlemen soon enough.  Dismissed.”

 

Thane would have ridden down to his family’s townhouse, but he didn’t trust himself not to fall asleep in the saddle.  Instead he rode the cable trolley down the hill, and then walked, with dragging steps, the five blocks to his family’s home.  He was supremely happy to round the last corner and see the house’s edifice, gray and soot-stained, standing at the end of the street.

Lemon, the youngster on door-watch, let him in at once.  “Master!  We were worried!” the boy said as he pulled the door open.

“Why?” Thane  said.  “It’s not the first night and day I’ve spent at Headquarters.” Or night and day and night and day…..

“But we’ve been hearing stories….” Lemon said.

“Oh, be about your duties, you silly boy,” said the rotund woman who came into the anteroom at that moment.  Lemon blanched and fled.

“Pari,” Thane said, smiling, “you shouldn’t bully the boy so.”

“Master,” the head housekeeper said, “if the boy can’t take my handling, he’s in for a rough life.”  She peered up at him; there was a foot’s difference in their height.  “You look practically wrung in two, master.  Have you time for a proper bath and a meal?”

“A little more than that, Pari,” Thane said.  “I might even get some sleep.”

“Ah!  The gods have favored you indeed!” Pari said.

 

Thane very nearly didn’t make it to the meal.  He soaked in the tiled bath, luxuriating in the steam and the scent of soap, until the water cooled and his fingers began to prune.  One of the man-servants laid out a clean uniform for him, and getting dressed in crisp blues and reds that didn’t stink of himself was a gift almost as great as the bath itself.

After the bath Terre the cook sat him down in the outer pantry, since it was well after the mid-day meal, and served him meat pies and bacon and boiled eggs and butter and sour bread.  He had no trouble keeping pace with the appearance of each dish, starting in on his second meat pie without slowing down.

“The Army needs to take better care of its officers,” Terre said.  “How do they expect you to win wars when they don’t allow you to eat?”

“Wars are always hard on mealtimes,” Thane said, swallowing a mouthful of flaky crust and savory beef.  “Then again, your average Army cook can’t begin to compare with you, Terre the Wonderful, Terre the Artist.”

“Oh, hush with you and your flattery, master,” Terre said, as she turned back toward the kitchen.

Thane was mopping up the last pool of gravy with a crust of bread when his sister Janie came down to the pantry.  “Well, if it isn’t the Princess of Late-Risers,” Thane said.

“Don’t be mean, brother,” Janie said, glaring at him.  “I’ve been up for hours, at my studies.  Grammaticus Lucius is a slave-driver.”

“Ah,” Thane said.  “I do count myself fortunate I only had to contend with the drill-sergeants of the Academy.”

Janie made a face, then sat down across the table from her brother.  “I didn’t really expect to see you anytime soon,” she said.

“Marshal Dale had to let some of us go, or have us drop in our tracks,” Thane said.  “I drew the lucky straw.”

“That’s a first,” Janie said.  Thane braced himself for a cutting follow-through, but it did not come.  Janie’s heart didn’t seem to be up for their usual back-and-forth; in fact, his sister looked worried and distracted.

“What’s ailing you, little sister?” he asked.

She looked up at him.  “Um…there are stories going about.”

“‘Stories’?  What sort of stories?  And going about where?”

“Among the Headquarters staff’s families,” Janie said at once.  “I’ve been talking to Colonel Wolston’s wife, and Major Rals’ daughter.  They…they say that the Okharians are attacking everywhere, that the Army in the South is retreating.  They say the war is lost.”

Thane felt his face grow hot.  “Really.  That’s a lot to say when it’s obvious they don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

Janie looked surprised.  “Isn’t the enemy attack bad?”

“Oh, it’s bad, little sister,” Thane said.  “I can’t tell you details that Command hasn’t released, but the Okharians are pushing us hard.  But they’re not attacking everywhere, the whole army isn’t in retreat, and we’re a long way from losing the war.”  We’re a long way from winning it, but there was no point in telling his sister that.  “Lady Wolston and Lady Rahls need to be careful about spreading unsubstantiated rumors.”

“They’re saying wilder things in the markets,” Janie said.  “One tale I got from a fruit-seller this morning was that the Okharians used black magic and turned the walls of our forts to sand.”

“That’s just silly,” Thane said.  “The only magic the Okharians possess is their guns, which they copied from us, anyway.”

“People are also saying that the Okharians are using Kunai machines,” Janie said.

Thane took that in for a moment.  “Believe me, sister, if the Okharians had the power of the Ancients at their beck and call, we’d all be speaking Okharian right now.”  He shook his head.  “You need to not listen to people, Janie.  Especially ignorant ones.  They’ll just confuse you.”

“I suppose.”  Janie said nothing for a moment.  “But I’ve been thinking….”

“Oh, don’t go straining yourself,” Thane sniped.

Janie glared at him, but she didn’t follow through with her usual counter-attack.  Instead she said, “I’m worried.  About cousin Mankin.”

“Ah,” Thane said.  When she was younger Janie had been much taken with their half-Attau cousin, both when they all lived in Brema and while Mankin attended the Lyceum in Alisan and was often about this very house.  Thane had never figured out if it were Mankin’s exotic half-blood, or just the fact that he was a decent enough looking fellow who always treated his little cousin as an equal.  Since Mankin was their second cousin once removed there had been talk between the different branches of the family of marrying the two, but Thane’s father had bigger ambitions for his only daughter.  Among other things, he had brought Janie to Alisan with a view to marrying her off well.  Then Mankin had gone off into the Army.  Janie had moved on to other suitors.  Except perhaps, Thane now thought, that had been a surrender to necessity rather than a preference.

“His last letter said he was at a fort, far far south,” Janie said.

“So he was—is,” Thane said, making a hasty correction.  “Senso-marta.  It’s a little fort, almost at the end of occupied Okhar.”

“Have you…have you heard anything about it?” Janie asked.

Thane reached over and laid a gentle hand on his sister’s shoulder.  “No, we haven’t,” he told her.  “Nor are we likely to any time soon.  There are a lot bigger battles going on at the moment.”

That did not seem to reassure Janie.  “If he’s so far south….”

“There’s nothing to be gained by worrying,” Thane said.  He ducked his head, met his sister’s eyes.  “And nothing we can do about it, even if we knew.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“That’s hard,” Janie said.

“Yes, I know,” Thane said.  “But that’s war.”  He tried to smile at her.  “Besides, don’t sell Mankin short.  He’s a very cunning fellow.”

 

Thane tried to study for a while in the house’s library, but his weariness dragged his eyelids downward as if they were weighted with cannonballs.  He went to bed early, while there was still light in the late summer sky.

He woke to his name being called, and the light of a single candle.  It was Lemon, carrying a candle on a holder.  “Master Thane, Master Thane,” the boy said.

“What is it?” Thane murmured, trying to open his eyes.

“Your learned father requests that you attend on him, once you’re up and breakfasted,” Lemon said.  “In his study, if you please.”

Thane managed to get his eyes open and keep them there.  “What’s the hour, boy?”

“Just before dawn, master—about the fifth hour,” the boy said.

“Ugh,” Thane said, without thinking.  Then his brain finally caught up.  “Did my father say what he wants to talk about?”

“No, master,” Lemon said.  “Your learned father did not share the reason with me.”  He sounded as if the question was ridiculous.

“Never mind, then,” Thane said, and swung his legs out of bed.

 

Under-Cook Jade had a simple breakfast ready for him, gruel and bread and bacon, which Thane took his time eating.  He’d be damned if he were going to suffer indigestion because his father wanted to see him before the sun was up.  Still, the summons worried  Thane.

He went upstairs to his father’s study.  This was where he father worked on his briefs and legal filings, and consulted with his partners and friends.  It was also where Thane had typically gone to receive his father’s admonishment, which sometimes involved a birch switch.  Those days were long in the past, but Thane’s tailbone remembered.

He knocked on the door, and his father’s voice called, “Come in.”  Thane pushed the door open and stepped in.

The study was not overlarge.  Small windows set high in its eastern wall let in a glow of light.  Most of the rest of the wall-space was covered by bookcases, which were filled with tomes of all sizes, legal commentaries and histories and precedents, huge volumes containing the Code of the Five Consuls, histories of the old Imperium and the College of Electors.  There was nothing of the new sciences, nor the old rituals of the Khetuni, and certainly nothing of the popular romances that booksellers in the markets and shops could hardly keep stocked.  If Thane ever saw his father with an adventure tale in his hands, he was sure he would swoon like a high-born girl at her first ball.

Allan Tannersson was behind his desk, scribbling away with one of the new-fangled steel-nibbed pens.  He did not look up at once, apparently intent of finishing his thought.  The morning light coming from the high windows was not yet bright enough to do real work by, and so a chimney lamp burned on his desk.

“Sit down, son,” Allan said.  Thane seated himself in the chair with the cracked leather covering, and exercised patience.

His father finished his writing, set his pen aside, lifted the paper and blew on it to speed the drying of the ink.  He examined his handiwork with a sharp expression, as if expecting to find fault with his own words.  Thane’s father was growing more gray by the month, it seemed, but there was nothing wrong about his eyesight, or his wits.

“I am sorry to wake you up so early, son,” Allan said, still perusing the page in his hands.  “But I have to be in court first thing this morning, and I wanted to speak with you.”  He laid down the paper and peered at Thane.  “Did you sleep well?”

“Very well, Father,” Thane said, “although I have a deficit to catch up on.”

“I suppose so,” Allan said.  “When do you have to report back?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Thane said, “unless something breaks in the meantime, which is entirely possible.”

Allan regarded his son with a closed expression.  “There are some wild rumors running loose about the war….”

“Yes,” Thane said, “Janie told me about some of them.  The real situation is not nearly so bad.”

“But bad enough?”

“It’s early,” Thane said.  “Marshals Karl and Lhand should be able to rally our reserves and counter-attack, but we won’t know the outcome for several days.”

Allan let go a sigh.  “This war has dragged on too long.  Much too long.  We need to make peace with Okhar.”

“They’ve rejected every feeler we’ve put out,” Thane said, “and they probably will until they feel they’ve regained enough of their homeland to restore their honor.  Which is to say, all of it.”  Thane sat back in the chair.  “But I doubt you called me up here, Father, to lure me into discussions of grand strategy.”

Allan’s lips quirked.  “No, I didn’t.  Son, the subject of your marriage has come up again.”

Thane hadn’t expected that, and it took him a moment rearrange his mental deployment.  “Again?  Who is the inquisitor this time?”

“Your grandmother Deidre,” Allan said.  “I lunched with her yesterday and it was nearly all she cared to talk about.”

Thane restrained himself from growling.  “All respect to my honored grandmother, but I have other things that occupy me at the moment.”

“Other officers of your rank marry,” Allan pointed out.

“But not always happily,” Thane replied.

Allan frowned.  “I do not understand your generation’s infatuation with ‘happy marriages’.  Marriage is something to get on with, happy or not.”

“You were happy with Mother,” Thane said.

His father hesitated, and in that hesitation Thane saw Allan’s eyes soften with memory.  “We were…fortunate,” he said.  He seemed to catch himself, and put the memory away.  “It’s not something to count on, and the wise man does not factor it in when making this sort of decision.”

“And what are the factors of a proper marriage?” Thane said, although he knew what his father would say.

“Mutual respect,” Allan said, “a proper marriage settlement, and the support of both families.  Marriage is about alliance and the continuation of the family name.  Everything else is secondary.”

“So you’ve told me before, Father,” Thane said.  “All right—allow me to put it this way.  As a serving officer it would not be fair for me to marry while we’re at war, not to my wife and not to our children.  I’m liable to be sent back to Okhar someday.  The separation alone would be hard, but it would be worse if I were killed.”

Allan held up a hand.  “As for that, son, I’m working at making sure you don’t have to worry about going back to Okhar.

Thane stared at his father.  “What do you mean?”

“Don’t think I’ve been negligent protecting your interests,” Allan said.  “Since we’ve come to Alisan I’ve built many good relationships with various folk in the Ministry of War.  I’ve spoken to General Gery and others about the possibility you can remain at Headquarters for the foreseeable future.”

Thane didn’t try to hide his dismay.  “I wish you hadn’t, Father,” he said

“Eh?” Allan said.  “Why do you say that?”

“Father, we’ve had this discussion before,” Thane said, exasperated.  “I’m properly grateful to be here in Alisan and not in some flea-bitten fort in Okhar, fighting sand and the Okharians both.  But I want to get ahead on my own merit, not because you’ve pulled strings.”

“That’s a harsh way to put it,” Allan said, sharply.  “There’s nothing unnatural about a father trying to look out for his son.”

“No, there isn’t,” Thane said.  “But an officer who gets a reputation for relying on influence forfeits the respect of his fellow soldiers—and, as paradoxical as it may seem, commanders tend to pass over those officers when they hand out the hard assignments.”

“You can’t help the family if you’re stuck in some Okharian hell-hole,” Allan said.

“I disagree, Father,” Thane said.  “I help the family every time I do my duty, wherever it may be, however hard it may be.  You can’t buy that sort of ‘influence’.  Please, leave my future assignments to the Army’s sole discretion.”

Allan glowered, but merely said, “We will speak of this later.”

Thane sighed.  “I’m sure we will.”

 

Later that morning Thane went out, this time riding.  The horse he picked was a patient, rather stolid gray known as Lop-ear for the odd way his ears bent down.  It wouldn’t have been advisable to ride one of the family’s more excitable horses across the city, as the streets were crowded and noisy, and Thane didn’t need to have to handle a fractious horse this morning.

He crossed the King’s Way and skirted the Lesser Market.  He went slowly, picking his way through the traffic on the verge of the market—people hurrying to buy necessities for the day, tinkers pushing carts and shouting their wares, gangs of municipal workmen trooping off to whatever task they had been assigned for the day.  He wasn’t the only rider this morning, but most of the capitol’s citizens walked, or rode the cable-cars that ran up and down the streets that led to the Citadel.  Thane pulled Lop-ear up short to let one of the cars pass, and then stopped the horse again to let a steam-hauler puff by.  Those contraptions were new enough to startle other horses, but Lop-ear merely raised his head once to look, and then resumed his plodding.

They climbed the Street of Larks.  At the crest, where the street began its descent into the Old Quarter, Thane caught a glimpse, through the morning haze, of the factories and workshops in the distance, on the other side of the river.  It seemed to him that there was a new smoke-stack near the steelworks, but he couldn’t swear to it.  Fortunately, he reflected, tracking Alisan’s growing industry was not one of his many assigned duties.

He rode down through the Old Quarter to a quieter street that ran along the river.  This lane was lined with older tenements and newer brick buildings that showed only blank faces to the street, apart from doors on the ground-floor and small signs above the doors.  It was appropriate, Thane supposed, for Houses of Discretion.

He dismounted before the door of the House of Moonlit Joy, and knocked.  A spyhole opened, and then closed; bolts were thrown open on the other side, and the doors swung back.  Thane led Lop-ear in.

A tongueless groom took charge of the horse, and Thane tossed him a silver coin as a tip.  Another porter of the house, this one deaf and dumb, led him back into the depths of the house, through narrow passageways that smelled of wine and sweat and echoed with the murmurs of men and women engaged behind closed doors in the oldest commerce between the two halves of humanity.  Thane tried to put the sounds out of his mind and focus on his business.

The porter led him up a set of stone steps, worn with the passage of many feet, to a door.  The servant slid the bolt aside, pushed the door open, and left with a grin.

Thane went in, closing the door behind him.  “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said.

Dala sat up on the bed.  Her robe was loose around her; the motion laid bare one shoulder.  The pale brilliance of her skin took Thane’s breath away.  “I would have waited a year,” she said.

 

Later, when they lay spent in each other’s arms, Dala stroked Thane’s back.  “I was worried you were not coming at all,” she murmured to him.

“Why?” he asked.  He planted soft kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her breasts, and she shivered.  “I’ve never missed being with you.”

“And yet…ah!…you are only mortal,” she said.  “And a man under orders.  I’m worried that the trouble in the south would keep you at Headquarters.”

“It nearly did,” Thane said.  “But Marshal Dale took pity on us ‘mere mortals’, and gave a raft of us leave.  I’m due back tomorrow.”

Dala was silent for a moment, and Thane realized she was looking past his shoulder, into some distance only she could see.  “What is it?” he asked.  “Am I doing something wrong…?”

“No, no, beloved,” Dala said.  She kissed him.  “Silly man.  No, it’s just that I’m worried.”

“About what?”

She seemed to swallow.  “Are they going to send you to the front?” she asked.

“Not that I know of,” Thane said.  “They have no shortage of officers at the front, but you never know.…”

“Don’t say it!” Dala said, and she clung to him again with a sudden ferocity.  “You might make it come true!”

“Oh, Dala, please,” Thane said.  “That’s sounds like something my family’s old housekeeper would say.  The truth is, in the Army you never know.  I could get orders tomorrow, but most likely Dale is going to keep his aides close at hand—if nothing else, to avoid having to break in new men.”

Dala looked into his eyes, and not for the first time Thane wondered if there was something mesmeric in her gaze, considering the way he seemed to tremble on the verge of melting.  “I could,” she said, “have a word with my father….”

Thane would have thought that nothing could have made him pull away from this woman, but those words did.  He raised himself on his elbows, and then sat up.  “Not you, too,” he whispered.

Dala sat up as well.  “What?  What is it?”

“Why is everyone trying to make sure I’m safely wrapped up in a cocoon?” Thane said.  He clenched his jaw, biting down on harsher words.  “My father wants to do the same thing, but he doesn’t have your enticements….”

Dala’s face clouded.  “That’s cruel,” she said.  “Is it unnatural for a woman to want to keep her beloved safe?”

Thane sighed.  “I’m sorry.  Of course not; but using your father’s influence to shield me will not keep me safe.  Quite the opposite– it’s liable to ruin me.”

Dala stared at him; and then her lips began to tremble and her eyes to fill.  “But…I’m just so scared,” she said.  “The stories coming out of Okhar…I just don’t want you hurt….”

Thane gathered her into his arms, holding her close.  “Love, love,” he said.  “You fell in love with a soldier.  When you did you took on the risk I might go off one day and not come back.  It’s just the way things are.”

“Oh,” Dala said.  “Hold me.”

Thane did, and their embrace turned into something more.  Dala clung close to Thane the whole while, as if afraid to let him go too far.  They went slowly this time, and Thane wondered if they really could meld themselves together.  He and this woman fit each other; there was no other way he could describe it.

When they were done they lay together for a long while, not speaking, catching their breath.  Just being there with each other seemed so natural and right that Thane had to remind himself that he had other duties.

“I have to go,” he told Dala.  “My family….”

“I know,” Dala said, resigned.

Slowly, with many kisses, they let go of each other.  Thane dressed while Dala watched.  “Don’t you have anywhere to be?” Thane said.

“Uninteresting places,” Dala said, “doing uninteresting things.  Hanna is covering for me, but I’ll be going, too.”

She stood; the sunlight coming through a high window played across her breasts, and Thane had to resist the urge to pick her up and carry her back to bed.  “I don’t know when we can see each other again,” he said, regretting every word.

Dala began to dress herself.  “I’ll try to find a time and send you a message.  My father’s been distracted by this business, just as much as your Marshal Dale.  The political side….”

“Makes me glad I am a soldier,” Thane said.  He bent down and kissed her.  “Love,” he said, “you know I am ready to meet with your father, any day, any hour….”

“No, no,” Dala said.  “Not yet.  Trust me, Thane—I will find the right moment, but that is not now, and not anytime soon.”

Thane sighed.  “Usually it’s the man dodging the commitment….”

“I’m not dodging anything!” Dala said, flaring up.  “You know we face special difficulties.”

“I know,” Thane said.  “I am sorry.”

They kissed one more time.  Thane went down to the courtyard.  He would have dearly loved to leave with Dala, to openly escort her back home, but for now they indeed had to go their separate ways.  Thane reached the courtyard and stood waiting for the groom to bring his horse.  He sighed.

Being the secret lover of the only daughter of the Elector of Alisan really did have its complications.

 

To be continued…..

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge– Apocalypse Now!

I wrote this piece in response to a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— 1500 words on, as he put it, “a rare, strange, unparalleled apocalypse.”

Well, I took a look at the challenge and thunk real hard, and…went in completely different direction.  If this story puzzles anyone, I would ask them to not consider the modern English usage of the word “apocalypse”, but what the word actually means in Greek.  The story’s inadequacies as a story, of course, have nothing to do with etymology.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“Tell her,” Timon said.  He stood close to Aldan, speaking for his ears only.

“No,” Aldan said, speaking just as low.

It was probably an unnecessary precaution; it was unlikely that either of their voices could be heard over the music and the happy cries of the dancers.  One hundred men and women matched steps in the middle of the hall.  A hundred more urged them on from the sides, or gabbled among themselves beside tables heavy with food and drink.  Timon and Aldan were alone in the crowd, far off in a corner behind pillars, and very nearly out of sight of the newlyweds, who sat atop the dais at the far end of the room.  Aldan dared glance that direction.  Ranald lolled in the groom’s seat, smiling broadly and toasting the dancers.  Rebekah sat beside him the bride’s seat, her spray of flowers in her lap, quietly smiling.

“For the love of the all-seeing gods, why not?” Timon said.

“She marries a great lord,” Aldan said, “and she is happy.  Besides which, she hardly knows me.”

“But you love her,” Timon said.

“What is that?” Aldan said.  “Nothing.  With this marriage we all buy peace among ourselves.  Whatever I feel is nothing in comparison.”

“But, Aldan, your happiness….”

“Stop whispering in my ear,” Aldan told him.  “It will do no good.”

He stepped away, leaving Timon glowering among the pillars.  Aldan moved through the crowd carefully; he was not dressed in festive garb, but in traveling clothes, with his sword buckled on.  His mission started as soon as he could pledge his loyalty to his new lord.  Horses and the men detailed to follow him were waiting on the ceremony; all Aldan could do was make sure they were fed and out of the rain.

He went to the nearest table.  The delicacies here would not sustain him on the ride he had ahead of him; but he had to eat or drink something, out of courtesy.  This was not the time or place to give offense.

He found a plate of dove’s eggs in spiced butter, and ate them slowly as he walked to the other side of the room.  He garnered stares as he did; some of the guests obviously wondered if he were a vagabond who had somehow gotten in past the guards.  Others just as obviously wondered how someone so homely could have been invited to the nuptials of the high warlord of Telania and the fairest daughter of the old Houses.

He finished the eggs, and found a place for the plate in a niche in the far wall.  It was an old icon shrine, now empty, and Aldan reflected that it was possible no servant would find the plate for twenty or thirty years.  He wondered why that amused him.

“Still causing trouble, I see,” someone said from behind him.

Aldan turned.  Scholar Harald approached; his old tutor was unchanged, save for more lines in his face.  Aldan bowed.  “It’s just they never have anywhere you can put the dishes,” he said.

“Ah—then we can blame the host,” Harald said.  “As we can blame him for so many things.”

“Teacher,” Aldan said, warningly, “you should guard your lips.”

“Perhaps,” Harald said.  “Perhaps I’m an old man who doesn’t care who knows what he thinks of our new overlord.”

“If nothing else, restrain yourself for my sake,” Aldan said.  “It would grieve me to see your head displayed on the Traitor’s Walk.”

“Bah,” Harald said, waving his hand in that manner that told Aldan his teacher considered the matter unworthy of discussion.  “It is needful for someone to bear witness to what we are giving up.”

“A generation of civil war?” Aldan suggested.

“Our ancient liberties,” Harald said.

“There will be time for that later,” Aldan said, growing worried.  “First we have to defeat the Galocina.”

“Some would say the Galocina are a convenient distraction….” Harald said.

“Teacher, please,” Aldan pleaded.

“All right– I will be quiet, for your sake,” Harald said.  He smiled.  “It is too bad you never spoke up.”

“Spoke up?” Aldan said.

“To Rebekah,” Harald said.  “If she were married now, the Warlord would have had to find some other woman of the Old Houses to wed—although I doubt he could have found anyone else as highly placed.”

Aldan shook his head.  “You are dreaming, Teacher.  Rebekah hardly knows my name.  And her house would have hardly consented to wedding her to a mere soldier…especially one as homely as I am.”

“You have other qualities,” Harald said.

“None that could overcome the plain terror of my face,” Aldan said.  “Forgive me, Teacher, but I need some air.”

He bowed to Harald, and stepped out on one of the western balconies.  The balcony was covered, so he was not instantly soaked, but out in the dark the rain came down in a steady deluge.  The sound of it actually matched the muffled sound of the celebration within.  Soon enough he would be out in it; there was no delaying his mission for mere weather.

Weddings, though….  

“What a night,” a voice said.  “I am so sorry you’re going to have to ride through all that.”

Aldan turned.  His mother came through the open doors on to the balcony.  Her shrewd eyes examined him, as if looking to make sure his clothes were on straight and he combed his hair.  Her smile, though, was indulgent and proud.

“The fate of a soldier,” Aldan said.  “You get used to it.”

She came near.  Aldan bowed to her, then hugged her close.  “Well, thank the gods I’m not a soldier,” his mother said.  “I’d hate to get used to this.”  She stepped back, examining his face.  “Exactly why are you still here, though?”

“Waiting on the ceremony,” Aldan said.  “I must place my hands between the Warlord’s, and bid the couple farewell.”

“Oh, that,” his mother said.  “Archaic claptrap.”  She looked up and seemed to search Aldan’s face.  “It won’t be easy for you, son.  I am sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Having to farewell the woman you love as she is given to another,” his mother said.

Aldan sighed.  “Everyone seems to be talking about impossibilities tonight.  To Rebekah I am hardly more than dust; and my countenance….”

“Merely provides a covering for singular virtues,” his mother said.  “Well, perhaps it is best you are leaving for the frontier.”  She laid a hand to his cheek.  “But I still claim a mother’s right to want my children to be happy.”

“Happy…is something I stopped worrying about many years ago, mother,” Aldan said.

Soon after they called for the pledging, and Aldan went in.  There were a few courtiers ahead of him, so he had few minutes to wait and fidget and feel the eyes of the guests upon him.  He was used to stares, usually.  For the most part.  Being the object of quite so much gawking at the same time was, he had to admit, a little unnerving.

Then it was his turn.  He went forward, ascended the dais, and knelt before Ranald.  He placed his hands between those of the Warlord.  “My lord,” Aldan said, “I pledge my loyalty and service, my labor and my life.  I pledge this to you and to the realm, in peace and in war.”

Ranald smiled down at him.  “Ah,” the Warlord said, loud enough for all in the hall to hear.  “We are pleased to receive the service of a soldier so brave and skilled.  A little cheated, perhaps, in terms of beauty, but then, you’re not going out to make love to the Galocina, are you?”

Titters from the crowd; Aldan managed to smile.  “No, my lord.”

He stood and stepped over to Rebekah, as the next courtier ascended the dais toward Ranald.  Aldan knelt down before her.  “Lady,” he said, “may the gods bless your union and sustain the peace it brings.”

“Aldan,” Rebekah said.  She said it so softly that Aldan barely heard her, although he was only a foot or two in front of her.

He looked up.  Rebekah stared down at him; her eyes searched his face.  “Are you…well?” she asked him.

“W-well enough, lady,” Aldan stammered.  He was suddenly swimming in her eyes.

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry you have to go away,” she said.  “So far away…I want you to be careful, Aldan Osteran.  Please, please be very careful.”

“I will, Lady,” Aldan said.

“I will pray for you constantly,” Rebekah said.  She seemed to want to say something more, her eyes still fixed on his, but the next courtier was done with his pledge, so Aldan had to stand and turn away from Rebekah’s avid gaze, and descend the dais.  He walked out of the hall, straight-backed, despite the way his legs threatened to buckle under the weight of revelation.

The Horseman, Part Five

Warning: this piece has graphic violence and language

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Five

Ana woke. For a moment she did not know what had awakened her. Confused images faded in her mind.

She sat up. The night was not far gone– it might even still be short of midnight. Her candle had burned low, but was not yet out; beside it lay the book she had been reading earlier this evening.  There was nothing else in the room, and no sound outside. Whatever had disturbed her, it was nothing dangerous.  At least, not right away.

Ana sighed.  It had been a long, long day.  Tipal had had her examining new fragments all morning, and then Tetanako had dragged her along to a conclave of fellow antiquarians.  That would not have been too bad, she supposed, except that she had had to sit out of sight and not speak.  The meeting itself was to very little purpose, as far as Ana could tell.  She did not know how listening to other people talk could be so exhausting, but it was.

Her mind cleared.  She understood what had awakened her.

It’s begun.

She did not know if she should rejoice or be afraid.  Perhaps both.  Perhaps this was what it was like to give birth, to be fearful, and yet hopeful at the same time.

We will give birth—or die trying.  

She drew her covers around herself more closely and tried to go back to sleep.

Sleep, however, had wandered off and was dawdling somewhere else.  Actually, she realized, she could not blame the vagrant; there was a daunting prospect before her.

She stretched out her mind, trying to See—or, if not, at least to gain a sense of things yet to be.  Nothing came.  That was not unusual; it was just she could surely use some clarity of understanding at this moment.

Her ability was becoming—well, not erratic, but it seemed as if it took more strength than before, and what she saw seemed more ambiguous, less clear-cut.  The future she saw now was a cacophony of possibilities, rather than the probability of a few discrete paths.  It was as if the present hosted a growing mass of conflicting fork-events, each leading off in wildly different directions, with each bifurcation causing ripples through the whole fabric of the future.

They call what I have a gift.  Not for the first time, Ana wished she could share enough of her ‘gift’ for people to understand how wrong they were.

It had been her brother’s fault, of course.

The harvest was in; she and her brother had had a moment away from chores. Corm was four years older, bigger and so much stronger than she. He had insisted on exploring back up into the high barrens behind the family stead, careless of the tales that said they were haunted. Ana had followed him, mostly to show she wasn’t scared, although she was. They had climbed and climbed, until they reached a fold in the hills neither of them recognized. There, beneath twining vines, they’d found what looked at first like the foundations of an old homestead; but when Ana had pulled the vines away, she’d realized that the jagged outline in the ground was not stone. It was some strange material, gray and smoothly slick. It frightened her, and she’d begged her brother to go home. But then Corm discovered the cavern in the slope above the strange foundations.

Ana had cried, but Corm pushed aside a disk of the same gray material that partly closed off the cave entrance, and crawled in. Ana followed, not because she wanted to, but because she didn’t want to be separated from her brother.

They’d crawled only a few yards when they entered a large chamber and stood up. Somehow, they had no trouble seeing the hulking mass in front of them. The child Ana had been could make no sense of the thing; only later, with the memory burned into her brain, did Ana see it as a great, crystalline mechanism of panels and spheres. Once all of its parts must have been clear, but time and dripping water had dimmed and clouded much of it. She could see the interlocking parts, although its purpose she could not guess. It seemed to have been there a long time.

“Come away, brother,” she’d cried; but Corm had stepped forward, fascinated. Ana had reached and tugged on his arm.

Light engulfed them; Ana could see nothing, but she heard much– voices, the roaring of water, the songs of the stars and the whispering of time. It all crashed in upon her, flooding her, drowning her. She would have screamed, but she could make no sound of her own– she was filled up with other voices, other heartbeats.

When next she knew herself, she lay out on the slope of the hill, under the open sky. Her brother lay beside her; he appeared to be unconscious. She quickly found she could not move, nor speak. How long they lay there she was not sure, but the sun was low in the sky when her brother stirred. He woke; Ana would have cried with happiness, but she still could not move. Her brother, bewildered and unsteady, panicked when he could not get any response from her. He picked her up and carried her back, weeping the whole way, back to their village. When they arrived the place was in an uproar, looking for them.

Ana lay paralyzed in her father’s house for three days. She obviously lived, but her father and aunt despaired of her, believing she was dying. Her brother seemed unharmed, but he professed to remember nothing of what had happened, despite their father’s threats of heavy-handed punishment. Ana tried to tell her father not to blame Corm, but she couldn’t speak.

On the third morning, it was as if a constraining cord was suddenly cut from her throat and her body. She sat up in her bed and asked her aunt for a drink of water. Her aunt ran screaming from the room, to bring back her father. In the celebration that followed it was a little while before Ana got that drink.

Whereas her brother could not remember anything about the cave or the machine, Ana could remember everything. But when she tried to speak of it, her throat constricted and the power of speech left her until she spoke of something else. It frustrated her father and aunt, but in the end they stopped asking. The haunted reputation of the barrens, however, was enhanced.

It was three weeks later when she had her first vision.

It came to her as a dream, from which she awoke crying. Her father had passed it off as a nightmare, but it was far more vivid than any mere dream Ana had ever known. She told him of it, but he didn’t believe her. Then, two days later, their neighbor Pasdan lost his leg when the cart ran over him, just as Ana had foreseen. Her father had been disturbed, but tried to explain it away.

Too soon, though, Ana was warning of things to come nearly every day, the visions coming to her in her waking hours. When the swans came to the lake, when Gerta’s baby would come, when the hailstorm would strike. By that time the whole village was listening to her; the village ate swan for a week, the midwife was called in time, and the barley was brought in and stored safe before the storm descended from the mountains.

She became famous, at least as famous as a young girl in a remote village in the Kyr back-country could be. Elders from other villages came to see her, and the local Protector sent scribes to write about her in the canton chronicles. One of the gethwyn even came from Kyrtelam– a severe woman with hard features, who spoke to her and asked her questions she either couldn’t answer, either because she couldn’t get the words past the constriction of her throat, or because she truly didn’t know the answer.

In the end the gethwyn had ridden away from the village, convinced she had been sent on a fool’s errand.  Every village, she’d told the headmen, had its pet seeress, and there was nothing special about Ana.  Ana made no efforts to change the gethwyn‘s mind.  She had not lied; she had just not told her everything there was to be told — including how the gethwyn herself would die in two months’ time on the knife-points of assassins in the capitol.

Village life had settled back into something resembling its old routine—at least for the next eight summers.  In the ninth summer, Ana discovered that her gift was not perfect. A feverish flux struck the village, weeks before the harvest. Ana had no inkling of it. In a matter of days, it took her father and her aunt both, and dozens of their neighbors. For many days the hale worked to bury the dead; the countryside was dotted with plumes of smoke, as the Protector sent men to burn the steads of those who had died, in an effort to control the plague.

In the end, Ana and Corm were left in the care of their uncle, Rou. He was an angry, heavy-handed man, frequently befuddled with wine– but not befuddled enough to keep him from selling Ana to a man from Okhar, who came and laid more gold before him than anyone in the village had ever seen. Very early one morning the man took her away, before she could even say goodbye to Corm. She had not seen him since.

That was how Ana came to the household of Gonatani.  Which, she thought with a sigh, was another thing unseen, but altogether better than plague or slavery.  Here she had learned what her gift was, and what it portended.  And every day since she had known fear, and hope.

It was like that, she supposed, on the verge of the world’s destruction—or its rebirth.

*****

Mankin went to the office and laid down, but he did not sleep well.  Odd dreams disturbed him, and noises woke him at intervals.  He would listen for a moment, but they were always just the wind, or one of guard posts calling the hour.  Then he would try to get back to sleep, but it wasn’t easy.

He woke finally and for sure well before dawn.  His back ached and his mouth tasted like moldy parchment.  He had not bathed or changed his uniform; his sweat-caked clothes were stiff with salt, and stank.  Just another wonderful day in the Army.

He went out into the yard.  There was only a bare hint of light in the east, beyond the bluffs.  The cold morning air was clear.  Many, many stars dusted the dome of the sky over Mankin’s head.

The fort was quiet; the fires in the yard had been abandoned, left to die to embers, and on the walls Mankin glimpsed only a few guards moving about.  He was not surprised.  He knew from a hundred early morning guard mounts that this was the ebb-tide of the day, when a man’s energy stood at its lowest level.  In these hours just before dawn the body’s craving for sleep was at its most powerful, and stood its best chance at catching a weary young soldier standing at his guard post unawares.  There was no wondering at why the Okharians favored surprise dawn attacks.

Mankin hurried up to Bastion Three with that thought nipping at his heels.  He was pleased to see that one man from each gun crew was alert and standing watch at the parapet, while the rest of the crews slept at the feet of their guns, wrapped in blankets.  Mankin stepped around the recumbent men to the edge of the bastion.

His pleasure was redoubled when he found Goma there.  A number of junior sergeants stood with him, among them Denetoi.  They were peering out into the eastward darkness.  Goma looked up at Mankin’s approach, and threw him a salute.  “Good to see you, sir– I was about to send a runner to get you.”

“What’s afoot?” Mankin asked, leaning a hand against the cold stone of the nearest battlement.  He looked eastward, but could see nothing.  The eastern light was still growing, the Bone Moon was down, and the Blood moon not yet up.  Darkest dark— almost every nation on Ohon dreaded those nights when neither moon shone in the sky, when calamities were supposed to cluster.  Mankin shivered

“We’re not sure,” Goma said.  “Some of the guards are sure they’ve heard movement out there, and to the north.  But its blacker than pitch right now.  The fire finally died out a couple of hours ago.”

Mankin had surmised that much.  “It served us well while it burned.  What kind of movement did it sound like?”

“Infantry, to the east,” Denetoi said.  “To the north, though, some of the lads swore they heard wheels.”

Mankin faced north.  It was black as an unopened cave.  The dead ground….  “Where’s Ita?”

“He’s gone over to Bastion Seven, sir, to see to the mortar section,” Goma said.

His instincts are good.  “Get him back here.  Get everybody awake, put the whole fort on alert, but no bugle calls.”

“Sir?” Goma said.

“I think we’re about to….” was as far as Mankin got.  Off to the north flashes of light broke the darkness– one, three, five, seven, perhaps more.  From each flash rose an ascending spark of fire, some steady, some winking off and on.

“Mortars!” Mankin yelled.

“By the Three!” Goma said, watching the sparks with dismay.

“TAKE COVER!” Mankin cried.  The sleeping figures around the bastion were galvanized into wakefulness.  Men scrambled, blankets flying, an instant scrum of confusion.

Mankin found himself huddled with Goma and Denetoi in an angle of the bastion wall.  Mankin realized that, as protection, it was pathetic, with no overhead cover and open on the fort-facing side.  It was all there was time to find, however, as the sparks– the burning fuses of mortar-bombs– stopped their ascent and fell.  Mankin thought, uselessly, they’ve improved their mortars.

The bombs whispered like death itself as they descended.  The first exploded in the yard, to the north of the hold-fast, fountaining sand high into the air.  Mankin felt the explosion on his skin and eardrums.

Another bomb detonated over the north wall, spraying the parapet between Bastions One and Two with shrapnel; Mankin heard screams mingle with the explosion’s echo.

One bomb landed outside the fort’s western wall, sending smoke and broken stones up over the parapet.  The next came down, and for a moment Mankin glimpsed the spherical body of the bomb in the light of its own fuse.  Then it exploded, right over Bastion Seven.

Mankin had started to get up, despite the afterimages clouding his vision.  In that next instant a bright fireball erupted from the top of Bastion Seven.  A shockwave slammed Mankin right back on top of Goma and Denetoi.  In the brilliance of the fireball he glimpsed the barrel of a mortar go tumbling upward.

Mankin was so stunned that the detonation of the remaining mortar bombs only registered as vague impacts.  He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the ringing in his ears.  He untangled himself from Denetoi and Goma and stood.

The top of Bastion Seven– the broken, jagged top of Bastion Seven– was on fire.  The blaze, punctuated by lesser explosions of gunpowder, lit the interior of the fort as if it were day.  There was another fire on the north wall, and something burned down in the southern end of the yard, but that fire in what had been Bastion Seven outshone them all.  They’re not going to need daylight.

Goma got to his feet and stood beside Mankin.  Men picked themselves up around them.  Guns in Bastions One and Two began firing, out toward the north, apparently trying to reach the ravine. Mankin knew it was futile; only the luckiest of shots from those flat trajectory weapons would reach those mortars.

“Sound the alert, Master Sergeant,” he said.  His own voice sounded muffled in his own ears.

He had no trouble, though, hearing the Okharian horns that erupted out there in the east, nor the drums that followed them.  In the growing light Mankin glimpsed banners and standards coming forward across the burnt-over ground.

He saw it; the enemy mortars would fire and fire, keeping the fort pinned down so that it could not send out a sortie to silence them, while the infantry advanced into assault range.  Only then would the mortars go silent, out of fear of hitting their own troops.  That would leave the Khetuni only a small window to hurt the attack sufficiently to force it back.  But it’s the only chance we have.

“Master Sergeant,” Mankin said, “I want a minimum watch on the walls.  Get everyone not fighting the fires down into the barracks basements.  When the mortars cease their fire, send the men back up to the walls.  Then we’ll face their assault.”

“Sir!” Goma said.  “You whoresons heard him, get under cover!”

The gunners scrambled to obey.  Mankin heard the order being passed along the wall in both directions.  He stared out at the advancing enemy for another moment, calculating distances.  The enemy would take eight or ten minutes to reach the killing ground.  Not much time.

“Sir,” Goma said, “you should get under cover, too.”

Mankin shook his head.  There was just enough light.  “I have to send a message.”

He went down from the wall and ran for the hold-fast, threading his way through men streaming to the barracks.  The sky was growing brighter by the minute.  He could get one more message off to Fort Hope.  Somebody needed to know what was happening.

He reached the hold-fast as another bomb shrieked downward.  He threw himself inside as it landed on the lower stables; the screams of horses tore Mankin’s heart as he raced up the keep’s interior stairs, three steps at a time.

He was panting hard as he reached the hold-fast’s top floor, with the door to the roof open in the far corner.  He had his foot on the first step of the ladder up to it when he heard a colossal whistle, and an invisible hand knocked him backwards.

He slowly picked himself up, shaking his head to clear it.  He quickly searched himself, but found no injuries other than a bloody nose.  Through the roof-door he glimpsed smoke and flame.  Shakily, he climbed up the ladder and poked his head out.

The telegraph was a splintered wreck.  A mortar-bomb had exploded directly over it.  Some of its timbers were on fire.  The message shack was smashed flat, and the stone of the roof scored by shrapnel.  Mankin saw nothing of the signal team, at least at first.  It was only after a moment of staring through the smoke that he recognized the odd lumps scattered across the roof for what they were.

The outpost would send no more messages.

Mankin went back down.  As he emerged from the holdfast a bomb came down and hit the top of Bastion One; guns toppled, with one tube being flung right over the edge of the bastion to land in the yard.  Mankin ignored it; instead he raced back to the eastern wall, and Bastion Three.

A handful of gunners were there, huddled against the wall.  Denetoi was in charge; he looked up in relief as Mankin approached.  “Thank the Powers!  We saw the telegraph get hit; we figured it had got you, too.”

“Pretty close, but not yet.”  Mankin looked out of the nearest gun embrasure.  He could see the advancing Okharians clearly now; the mass of men coming toward the fort was a legion, or more.  They came on steadily, moving confidently under the protection of the bombardment.  Maybe three minutes.

And there it was.  There was nothing more to be done.  Goma had been right.

Mankin, feeling strangely calm, turned to Denetoi and said, “Call the men back up, sergeant.  Stand to.”

A private sped off.  Mankin helped the gunners lever Death’s Handmaiden into position.  Another mortar-bomb came down and exploded in the yard.  Shrapnel sang off the stones of the bastion.

Then troopers and gunners were boiling up the steps to the walls.  Gunners began to ready the other guns of the bastion.  Mankin glimpsed Ganer and a group of archers and culverin-men come up the steps and run for the nearest gate-house.

Goma joined him.  “Are you hurt, sir?” the master sergeant asked.

Mankin wiped his nose, got a smear of red on the back of his hand.  “Nothing serious.  The telegraph’s gone.”

“I saw,” Goma said.

The enemy formations were close now.  Mankin could hear them yelling Okhar, Okhar.  “It’s been an honor to serve with you, master sergeant.”

“As it has been to serve with you, sir,” Goma said.  He held out his hand.

Mankin took it.  Then he jumped up on the carriage of Fire Talker, where he could be seen and heard over the growing din.  “Fire as they come into range!” he yelled to the gunners.  “Take as many out as you can!  They’re packed so tight, even you nearsighted bastards can’t miss them!”

That brought forth the cheer Mankin had hoped for.  He jumped down and the gun crew dragged Fire Talker forward.

Goma stepped to the edge of the bastion, between the guns.  “Ready!” he shouted.  “FIRE!”

The guns spoke, one after the other.  The enemy had not quite reached the killing ground, but there was no point in waiting now.  The round-shot tore ragged holes in the enemy formations, but the Okharians pressed forward, closing their ranks.

Another shriek; Mankin looked up in time to see a hissing bomb descend.  It passed over his head and hit the catwalk over the main gate.  The bomb went right through the wood, splintering it; an instant later it exploded.

A gout of smoke and flame shot upward and out, ripping the inner and outer gates off their hinges.  The inner gates flew in splinters across the yard.  The catwalk collapsed into the space between the gatehouses.

Mankin watched in horror as the near gate-house trembled, and then slowly, so very slowly cracked and tumbled over.  He heard the screams of the men inside over the sound of breaking stone.  The gatehouse toppled into a cloud of dust and smoke, sending up a crash that shook the parapet under Mankin’s feet.

“No,” Mankin said, disbelieving.  In an instant, a fifty foot gap had appeared in his wall– in large measure filled, to be sure, with flaming debris, but nothing a thousand men could not clear in a few minutes.  The last bomb, ironically, had been the most consequential.

Okharians swarmed toward the shattered gap, jumping down into the defensive ditch and clambering up the other side.  They shouted in triumph.

“Keep firing!” Mankin shouted to Goma.  “Bugler!”  A bugler came running up.  “Sound every third man assemble in the yard.  Now!”

The bugler lifted his bugle and blew the call.  Mankin charged down the steps to the yard.  As he did the sound of the onrushing Okharians mingled with the concussion of the guns into a cacophony that threatened to split his head open.

He reached ground level as troopers poured down off the walls and ran to join him.  Swordsmen and archers were all mixed together, but there was no time to sort them out.  “Follow me!” Mankin cried.  He ran for the gap, and the men followed him.

The broken timbers and stones of the gate-house and the gates themselves lay scattered in a broad fan across the sand of the yard.  Mankin and his men clambered and scrambled over them.  It was an ugly place– the bodies of the men who had been in the gate-house were scattered among the debris, crushed and broken.  Mankin glimpsed Ganer’s body amid the wreckage; the boy’s face was smashed in, with the rest of his body crumpled beneath stones.  Mankin saw it and then forgot it, pressed by more immediate matters.

He reached what had been the gate, and through a gap in the wreckage an Okharian lunged at him.  Mankin barely parried the man’s attack in time.  He body-blocked him and shoved him into a patch of burning timber.  The man shrieked, but others came behind him.  Khetuni troopers closed in around Mankin as well.

There was a confused scrimmage amid the wreckage, Okharians shoving forward, shouting, Khetuni pushing them backwards at the point of their swords.  Swords clashed, men cursed and screamed.  Mankin killed a Okharian, dodged a spear-thrust, and found himself back-to-back with Denetoi, who seemed to have come out of nowhere.  For a frantic minute or two the pair of them parried and cut, Denetoi shouting obscene maledictions in Attau that made up in ferocity what they lacked in comprehension, Mankin just saving his breath, trying to stay alive.

An Okharian centurion charged him; the man swung his barkossa and clipped Mankin’s right cheek.  Searing fire shot down Mankin’s face; he staggered backwards, grunting in pain.  The centurion lifted his sword again, grinning, to split Mankin’s head wide-open.  The grin froze, turned perplexed, as Denetoi drove his sword-point into the man’s side.  He crumpled and fell backwards off the sergeant’s blade.

“Get back, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.

Half-stunned, Mankin stumbled away, clutching his face.  He went to one knee, trying to make his brain work.  Denetoi and another trooper, a corporal named Yaro, stood over him.

“We’re forcing them back, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.

Another bugle call– enemy within the walls.  Mankin shook his head and forced himself to stand, despite the blood streaming down his face.  He looked up at the walls.

The top of the eastern wall between Bastion Three and what had been the northern gatehouse was a solid melee, Okharians and Khetuni stabbing each other  and grappling hand-to-hand.  As Mankin watched more Okharians came up ladders and over the top of the parapet to drop down into the fight.

The bugler kept up the call, though.  Mankin, turning, saw that the western wall between the burning wreck of Bastion Seven and Bastion Eight was also a melee, with more Okharians scaling ladders and jumping down.  Double attack— and Mankin’s order for every third man to go down into the yard had weakened the defense of the wall at just the wrong moment.  The thought was bitter.

Here came running Hass, his cap gone, his hair plastered with sweat and blood.  “Sir!  We can’t stop them, they’re over the wall in three places!”

A sharp crack— the top of Bastion One exploded in fire and smoke.  Men and parts of men flew through the air.  Mankin didn’t know if a mortar-bomb had hit it, or if some Khetuni gunner had accidentally detonated their own ammunition, and he realized it really didn’t matter.

He stood straight.  The Okharians owned the eastern wall; some were forcing themselves down the stairs to the yard.  At the same time Mankin could see men fighting in Bastions Two and Three– he glimpsed a gunner swinging a rammer at Okharians, then falling.  The Okharians on the western wall shouted in triumph as they pushed toward the stairs on that side.  An arrow whistled past Mankin; Okharian archers were on the parapet, shooting down at the Khetuni.

We can’t hold.  The Khetuni trying to block the gate would be outflanked in moments.  “Bugler!”

A boy ran up, clutching his instrument.  “Sir!”

“Sound fall back to the hold-fast.  Now!”

The boy looked frightened, but raised his bugler and blew the call.  “Back to the hold-fast!” Mankin yelled, shouting as loud as he could over the din, despite how badly it made his head hurt.  “Fall back!”

The soldiers around Mankin hesitated, as if reluctant to change directions; then men stumbled backwards.  Some of them faced the enemy as they went, for the Okharians saw the change in their enemy and pressed their attack.

Mankin shook off his pain.  He faced the Okharians and fended off spear-thrusts.  He killed one enemy soldier who rushed him, swinging a broadsword.  Mankin retreated, and Denetoi and Hass flanked him.  The Okharians around them held back, with newfound caution.

The whistle of more arrows– Mankin heard one go right past his ear.  Hass made a queer kind of grunt, spun around with the fletching of an arrow sticking out of his eye, and crumpled to the ground.

“Get back, get back!” Mankin bellowed again, for the Khetuni retreat was ragged.  One, then two troopers were cut off and hacked down by the Okharians swarming around them.  There was no time to form any sort of battle-line, though, for the Okharians coming off the eastern wall were forcing their way across the yard, intermingled with fleeing Khetuni.  More arrows rained down, the archers apparently too eager to kill Khetuni to be bothered with not endangering their comrades– Mankin saw one Okharian soldier take an Okharian arrow in the back and drop, blood gushing out of his mouth.

Mankin retreated, his men around him, and the retreat slowed as men behind him crammed into the main door of the hold-fast.  Only so many could fit through it at once, and Mankin found his men coalescing around him as they crowded backwards, entangled with Okharians.  The melee intensified; for a moment Mankin and Denetoi were back-to-back once more, fending off attacks that seemed to come from every direction.

Someone– Sergeant Kass– drove a spear past Mankin’s head and skewered an Okharian coming up on Mankin’s flank.  “Come on, sir!” he shouted.  Mankin realized the hold-fast door was right behind him.  He grabbed Denetoi by the collar of his leather curaiss and dragged him through the door with him.  The scrum just inside was so heavy that Mankin tripped and fell to the floor.  Several troopers piled in on top of him, and then someone shoved the doors closed.  The doors resounded with the impacts of Okharian swords, as if the enemy meant to chop their way through.  Then Mankin heard the boom of a culverin, and Okharian screams.  The pounding stopped.

“No offense, Cap’n,” Denetoi said from underneath Mankin, “but even at my age I still have some use for my nuts, and your elbow is real uncomfortable down there…”

“Let us up,” Mankin said.  He, Denetoi and the soldiers on top of them untangled themselves.  Mankin stood, catching his breath.

This room of the hold-fast was a mustering space, with arched roof-beams and arrow-loops high on the walls.  As Mankin watched a culverin-man fired down through one of them, further discouraging the Okharians approaching the main doors.  A door in the back of the chamber led to the well room, the interior offices, and the ready room on the other side of the hold-fast.  A spiral staircase led up to the keep’s upper floors.

At the moment every arrow-loop in the chamber had an archer or a culverin-man stationed at it.  The rest of the room was packed with gasping, stunned men, some bleeding, some crying.  Mankin’s own wound ached, but he ignored it.

“Is the other door secure?” he called.  The ready-room’s door was the only other ground-floor entrance to the hold-fast.

“Yes, sir,” Kass said.  “I sent a detail through to cover it.  We should be tight on this level.”

All the arrow-loops on this level had platforms that allowed soldiers to use them, despite how high they were on the wall.  Mankin climbed up the nearest, momentarily crowding aside the archer stationed at it.  He glanced through the loop, but beyond the pile of bodies in front of the door the only impression he got was of men in Okharian armor milling about in the fort’s yard.  He could hear more than he could see– a general roar of men engaged in destruction, screams of agony, the crackle of flames.

Mankin jumped down from the platform.  To Sergeant Kass he said, “I’m going up higher to get a better view, to see what’s happening.  Keep them away from the walls as best you can.  Get me a head count of who made it.  Have you seen the master-sergeant?”

Kass leaned in close.  “Goma was still in Bastion Three,” he said in a low voice.  “I don’t think anyone there made it out.  The bastards swarmed them.”

Mankin swallowed.  “We have to get men up in the upper levels….”

“Sir!” one of the culverin-men called.  “They’re pulling back from the keep!”

“What?”  Mankin jumped back up on the platform.  Indeed, the Okharians in front of the hold-fast had retreated many yards, leaving open ground in front of the main, broken only by bodies and patches of bloody sand.  “What the hell?”

“Khetuna!”  The call came from outside, someone bellowing loudly enough to be heard within the hold-fast over the noise outside.  In the mustering chamber every face looked up, in surprise, or fear.  The voice was that of an Okharian speaking Khetuni.  “Khetuna!  We call parley!  Send out your commander to talk with ours, and we will give him safe-conduct.  The gods stand witness!”

Mankin looked at Kass.  “Well, that’s an interesting development,” he said.

“Sir,” Kass said, “you can’t go out there.  They’ll cut you down.”

“The Okharians never call the gods in as witnesses unless they mean it,” Mankin said.  “If nothing else, I can buy us some time.  And if they do kill me, you’ll be in no doubt as to their intentions.”

“Sir…,” Kass said, then stopped, as if he couldn’t think of a counter-argument.

“Khetuna!  Give us your answer!”

Mankin leaned close to the arrow-loop.  “We accept parley, with your gods as witnesses!” he called in Okharian.  “I’m coming out.”  To Kass he said, “Hold your fire, but shut the door behind me– and get those men up to the second floor.”

 

Mankin emerged from the hold-fast’s door.  The thick oak slammed closed behind him.  For a moment he stood there, taking everything in.

Okahrian soldiers thronged the tops of all the walls, and swarmed among the stables and barracks.  Here and there Okharians stripped dead Kehtuni troopers; Mankin saw one enemy soldier ripping the tunic off Hass’ body and lifting the bloodied garment over his head with an ululating cry.  Mankin heard doors shattering under axe-blows, and the scream of a frightened horse from the upper stable.  As he watched he saw Okharians throwing clothing and harness and ripped-open mattresses out the nearest barracks door.

Okharians still thronged through the shattered main gate.  Bastion Number Seven still burned, the flames pale in the sun but the smoke thick and rising in a great plume.  Mankin saw a human chain of Okharians pulling powder kegs from the bastion’s ground floor, passing them hand-to-hand to get them clear of the fire, stacking them in the middle of the yard.  It was the one thing Mankin could see at the moment that bespoke of thought and control.

Even as he watched, Okharians drove a group of Khetuni soldiers out of Barracks Five.  Some of them were wounded, supported by their comrades.  Ten or so, they stood for a moment, surrounded by Okharians.  Then the Okharians swarmed them, swords swinging, and Mankin could do nothing about it.

Before the holdfast door, though, there was a ring of calm and an open space of sand.  Mankin saw a semi-circle of Okharians before him, watching him emerge from the hold-fast.  Many were bowmen, with arrows nocked, but not yet drawn.  Dozens of dark eyes watched him, intense with hatred and blood-lust.  But none of the soldiers moved.

From their midst stepped an officer.  Mankin took in his braid and sash– a senior tribune, of a noble house, richly armored.  The nearest Khetuni equivalent would be a colonel.  Mankin realized he was almost certainly looking at the commander of this whole attack.

It took everything Mankin had to keep from rushing the man, to instead come to a brace and salute him.  It was strange, watching his men being butchered and then rendering the enemy honors, but there was nothing else Mankin’s could do.

“Mankin Tannersson, captain, commander of this outpost,” Mankin said, speaking Okharian, pitching his voice to be heard over the crackle of flames and the shouts of soldiers.  “May I ask who I have the honor of addressing?”

The Okharian stood straighter– whether at the honor rendered or at Okharian words from a Khetuni, Mankin could not tell.  Perhaps the former, for the officer ducked his head in acknowledgement.  “Tribune of the Realm Kunatara Maso, commander of the Fifth Legion of Mira-teno.”

“You called this parley, sir?” Mankin asked.

“I did,” Kunatara said.

“Sir, my men are still being slaughtered,” Mankin said, restraining the heat of his anger.  “If you honor your own parley, that must stop.”

Kunatara grimaced. “Orders have been given, captain, but it is difficult to stop men in the grip of battle-lust.  If you truly want to end the killing, then we must talk, here and now.”

“Very well, sir,” Mankin said.  “Here I am; what is your pleasure?”

“Your surrender,” Kunatara said.  “Captain, I congratulate you.  The defense you have made of this fort has been brave and skilled.  You have delayed us in this sector an entire day, which is far longer than we anticipated.  You fought honorably and with great courage against overwhelming odds.”

Without thinking, Mankin looked up at the walls, where the bodies of his men, many now stripped naked, lay on the battlements or sprawled on the stairs.  “I thank you for the compliment, sir,” he said, not feeling thankful at all, “but you have made us pay a high price for that defense.”

“And you exacted a high price from us for our victory,” Kunatara said.  “But now the battle is over.  I do not know how many men you have in your keep, captain, but there cannot be very many.  Further resistance is pointless.  To spare both sides needless casualties I call upon you and your men to surrender.  You will be treated as prisoners of war, and I personally guarantee that you will reach the prisoner pens in our rear alive.”  Kunatara shrugged.  “I cannot pretend that being a prisoner of war will be easy, captain, but it is a chance for life.  Continued resistance here, however, is sure death.”

Mankin hesitated.  “I have been ordered to hold this post at all costs.”

Kunatara raised his eyebrows at him.  “I would say you have fulfilled that order.  In your position now you can no longer interdict our use of this river crossing.”  The Okharian’s eyes narrowed.  “Or are you expecting relief?”

“Our forces are on the march,” Mankin said, not wanting to say more.

“That may be true,” Kunatara said, “but it will avail you nothing.  We have attacked along the whole length of the Gar, from here to Huso-mani.  I assure you, captain, whatever relief column you hoped for is by now fully distracted by its own problems.”

Mankin hid his dismay.  If what Kunatara said was true, then the Okharians were obviously making a bid to push the Khetuni occupiers away from the Gar, perhaps even to roll them back to the Beso.  And if they could do that, the core of the Khetuni conquest in Okhar would be in danger.

Seeing Mankin make no immediate answer, Kunatara stepped closer.  A murmur ran through his men, but the tribune held up a hand and the soldiers stilled.  He was now within sword-reach of Mankin, but apparently the Okharian sensed that this Khetuni officer would not break parley.

“Captain, if you try to continue the battle there will be no further quarter offered,” Kunatara said, speaking more lowly, just for Mankin’s ears.  “I told you just now how you made us pay a price for this fort.  My men lost many comrades before your walls.  I assure you, they are not in a forgiving mood.  I can control them– right now.  But when– and it is when, captain, not if– when they break into your keep, they will spare no one.  Anyone taken alive will be tortured, then flayed, and their skins used to decorate our standards.  And it will all be for nothing, for you are no longer in a position to effectively oppose us.”  Kunatara paused, and in pausing he glanced at Mankin’s cheek.  Mankin saw something change in the man’s eyes, some shadow of doubt or realization.  “You’re wounded,” Kunatara said.

“It’s of no consequence,” Mankin said.  Being reminded of the cut seemed to make it hurt worse, though.

Kunatara stared for another moment, then seemed to remember the business at hand.  “Captain,” he said, “I can understand how you wish to avoid the ignominy of surrender, but I assure you, it is your only hope.”  He paused again.  “I will give you half an hour to decide.  In that time, I suggest you go up to the roof of your keep.  We will not fire upon you, nor shoot.  You have one of your telescopes there?  I suggest you train it on the fort to your north.  See what has happened to it, and then make your decision.  But I warn you– if at the end of that half-hour you do not yield, we will blow in your keep doors and slaughter everyone inside.”

Mankin met the man’s gaze, and knew that the Okharian spoke only the truth.  “I understand.”  Mankin came to another brace, saluted again.  “I thank you for your courtesy, sir.”

“Be a wise commander, captain,” Kunatara said.  He saluted in return.  “Choose life.”

Mankin went straight up to the hold-fast’s roof, in the company of Kass and Denetoi.  The signal section’s telescope there had been shredded by the mortar-bomb, but there was a spare in the top floor storage, and they set it up.  Mankin trained it on Fort Hope.

He had trouble for a moment focusing the scope, and the billowing smoke from Bastion Seven kept blowing across his field of vision, but at last he saw the fort clearly. It took only a moment’s viewing for his heart to finally sink like a stone in a bottomless lake.

He stood and stepped back from the telescope.  “Fort Hope is burning.”

Kass and Denetoi both looked for themselves, but neither of them said anything.  Mankin supposed there was nothing to say.

They went back down.  In the main room men looked up as he came down the stairs.  Mankin stopped and met their eyes.  There was Private Clarn, and Private Justus.  Corporal Sandhall was in one corner, tightening a bandage around his own arm.  Sergeants Poloma and Dura sat together, heads hanging low with exhaustion, but they all still looked up at him, even the men at the arrow-loops.  No one spoke.  They waited.

For a moment Mankin could not get his mouth to work.  At last he said, “Open the door.”

 

To be continued….

Pray and Write

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