Well, here I go again. My record for posting serial fiction on this blog has been mixed, at best, but I want to give it another whirl. This is another iteration of the story of Mankin the horseman and swordsman, this time in a little different context that hopefully will be a little more engaging. I will try to post parts weekly; the parts will not be chapters, strictly speaking, but good-sized sections of the narrative where the action seems to break naturally. This will be a long story, and at the moment I have only about 30,000 words down out of a guesstimate of about 150,000. In other words, I will be scribbling as fast and as furiously as I can to keep ahead of my posting schedule.
Warning: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language. It will also, of necessity, be essentially a first draft, so I beg the reader’s indulgence for errors and inconsistencies.
Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel
Mankin stepped out of the blaze of the afternoon sun, into the comparative cool of the fort’s central holdfast. Outside the parade square was empty and dusty; the walls of the outpost shimmered with the heat. The guard-mounts on top of the walls all sheltered beneath awnings, and Mankin hardly blamed them.
He removed his hat and mopped his brow. No one in the desert outposts wore the standard Khetuni Army cap; the close-fitting black wool made it feel as if you had an oven on your head. Instead, they’d all adopted variations of Okharian head-gear, broad-brimmed to shade their eyes and face. Mankin favored it for a personal reason; it reminded him of the head coverings of his mother’s homeland, the Attau Reach. A place that seemed almost mystical here, whose mists and clouds and snow– snow— had to be legends concocted by men whose world was all sun and sand and heat.
His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the guard-room. One soldier, the orderly, sat behind the desk, scratching away in a day-log. Sergeant Kass– Mankin nodded as the sergeant stood and saluted. “Hot enough for you, sir?” Kass asked, grinning.
“We left ‘hot enough’ behind three days ago,” Mankin said. “All that’s lacking now is some seasoning before we’re all done to a turn.” He pointed with his chin, down the corridor that led further into the holdfast. “The Commandant in?”
“Yes, Cap’n,” Kass said. “He’s in the well-room.” The sergeant shuffled his feet, scratched his nose. “Need to tell you, sir, he’s started his evening libations a little early.”
Damn it. “All right, sergeant, thank you. Best forewarned, as usual.”
“Better you than me,” Kass said. “Sir.”
Commandant Lyon lay on a stone bench beside the tricking spring, a wet cloth spread across his face. Beside him on the floor was an uncorked jug. Mankin could smell the liquor from the doorway.
Mankin allowed himself a moment to stand there and soak up the cool. Of necessity the forts the Khetuni had built along the frontier with the as-yet unconquered regions of Okhar had been largely designed according to Okharian standards– thick, white-washed walls, towers that collected and concentrated cooling breezes in building interiors, and a room in most houses where flowing water cooled the air further. Otherwise, Mankin reckoned, the Khetuni could never have held the pacified portion of Okhar for as much as a single summer, much less ten years.
Even with those adaptations, Mankin wondered how much longer they could hold what they had taken. But that was a question no one spoke aloud.
Mankin stepped into the room. “Commander,” he said. When that produced no response, he said, more loudly, “Commander!”
Lyon started, waking. He raised himself up on one elbow, and groaned. “Damn it,” he muttered. “I thought it was someone important. What do you want, half-breed?”
Mankin breathed deep before replying. “The scouts are back, sir.”
“So– what of it?” Lyon said. He reached for the jug.
“Casen on says there’s sign to the east– heavy cavalry, and lots of it. Tracking to the north.”
“So?” Lyon said. He hefted the jug, took a swig. “That’s nothing new. We’ve got Okharian cavalry sniffing around most days.”
“Casen says this looks like a lot more than the usual raiding party,” Mankin said. “Orgun says there’s heavy dust and smoke to the south. He pushed as far as the Tika and saw empty steads in the river-bottom.”
“Orgun is a useless Yetishi cunt,” Lyon said. “Nearly as useless as you, you Attau shit.”
Says the man who can’t wipe his own ass. Mankin sighed instead of saying it. He stepped closer. “Sir, I think there’s something afoot.”
“Who says I’m interested in what you think?” Lyon said, wiping his lip.
“Perhaps not, sir, but I think we need to take precautions,” Mankin said. “I’m requesting your approval to send out Deman and Chure for another round of scouting. We need to find out what’s happening.”
“It’s your imagination, or the sun has addled what passes for your brain.”
That certainly might be true. “Better to be on the safe side, sir,” Mankin said. “I also recommend the fort going on alert and putting fresh charges in the guns. If something is afoot we need to be ready.”
Lyon glared at him, took another drink. “All right, if it will get you to leave me alone. Do what you think is necessary. Just don’t stir the garrison up too much. It’s too damned hot.”
“That much, sir,” Mankin said, “we can agree on.”
He crossed the sun-blazed yard and entered the second barracks. The deep cool of the inner billet was a blessing. Most of the off-duty troopers from First Company were here, idling the time away with sleeping, talking, or working on their kits. In one far corner a rather low-key game of dice was in progress, with a blanket spread on the floor. Mankin pretended not to notice and the gamesters didn’t even look up.
Kasen and Orgun both sat on the edges of their bunks. They were still dirty and sweat-stained from their scout; both appeared to be merely reveling in being out of the sun, and too tired to think yet of washing up. Around them stood the other men of the scout section– Deman, Chure, Juken and Decarion Sur. Mankin had asked a lot of these men in the last few days; he was sorry he was about to ask even more.
“Captain,” Sur said. “What word?”
“I got Lyon’s approval to send Deman and Chure out on another scout,” Mankin said. “Sorry, lads, but you’ve got the duty now, and we have to find out what’s happening.”
“I’ll tell you what’s happening, sir,” Kasen said. “That was no partisan cavalry I tracked. It was regular heavy cavalry, well-shod, and lots of them.”
“I believe you,” Mankin said, “and once I’m done talking to you lot, I’m going up the telegraph and wig-wagging the news down the line. Okharian cavalry going around our northern flank has to be headed toward Fror-manu and the bridge over the Jade. Heavy raid or something worse, it’s bad news. All the more reason for another scout.”
“Well, I haven’t been getting enough sun,” Deman said. “Need to improve my tan.”
Mankin grinned. “You’ve got a smart-mouth, Deman, anybody ever tell you that?”
“Just my lady friends,” Deman said, grinning in turn.
“Actually, sir,” Chure said. “About when we start out….”
“What is it?”
“If Casen and Orgun are right….”
“You doubt it?” Casen said, scowling.
“…which I’m sure they are, we might be under observation right now. There’s half a dozen high places within five miles from which a man with a glass could watch us easily.”
“I know,” Mankin said. The placement of the fort had always worried him.
“Might be best to wait to set out until dusk, when the last of the sun will still be dazzling anybody watching from the east. We’ll lose some time, but we’ll cover more ground in the cool of the night, and the Bone Moon is up, anyway.” Chure nodded. “All due respect to my cousin’s love of the sun.”
Mankin considered it. “All right. But push hard once you’re away. If you run into anything, imitate lightning getting back here.”
Mankin went out to find the master sergeant, Goma. He found him at his own desk, working on his own daily reports. Mankin reflected that if Goma had been a drunken incompetent like Lyon, the fort would have fallen months before. Goma grumbled at forcing his men to work in the heat, but when Mankin told him the scouts’ reports he agreed at once to putting fresh charges in the guns, and having the garrison go on half-alert in their billets. As Mankin left Goma was putting on his own broad-brimmed hat to go out and speed the work along.
Mankin went out and watched the work, even helping lever one of the forty-eight-pounders back so the gunners could draw the shot and charge from it, and reload it afresh. The work took a good portion of the afternoon, and when it was done Mankin was glad to go down to drink deep from the barrack-well.
There was still plenty of daylight left, though, when he climbed up to the northern bastion to the telegraph station. He roused the signal corporal drowsing in the shade of the signal hut, then sat down in the shade himself to compose a message to be relayed up the line to Division. As he wrote the corporal sent prepare for message, the wooden signal arms clattering overhead. “Fort Hope reports they are ready to receive our message,” the corporal said.
“Almost finished,” Mankin said.
To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum
From: Commandant, First Senso-marta Outpost
Scouts report large body of regular Ohkarian cavalry passed due west of our position within the last day, apparently heading north. Possible enemy activity along the Gar. No contact at this hour, further scouting parties are being dispatched, garrison on alert. Will report any developments. Relay any orders.
Mankin knew how thin it sounded– no actual contact, tracks in the sand, ‘possible’ enemy action. He hoped the paucity of details wouldn’t cause Division to ignore the report as someone’s jittery nerves.
He passed the message to the corporal, who began wigwagging the telegraph arms. Mankin watched through the signal commander’s telescope. The air shivered with heat in the glass, but he could still make out Fort Hope, six miles away, or at least its signal tower. The brightly painted signaling arms of its own telegraph stood still– then, as the corporal finished the message, Mankin saw the fort’s signal arms move themselves. Even Mankin could read what they spelled out– message received.
“Well, that’s done,” Mankin sighed.
At sundown he saw the two horsemen out the gate, giving them last minute instructions. Then he climbed up to the parapet to watch them vanish in the distance, Deman northwest and Chure toward the south. He found himself wishing he could go with them, so he could see firsthand what they found. It was impossible, of course– with Lyon drunk in his room, he was the senior officer on duty, and he couldn’t surrender that responsibility for a moon-lit ride. But he envied the two scouts their freedom.
He lingered on the wall as a bugler sounded the evening retreat. In some ways this was Mankin’s favorite time of day, at least here in Okhar. The air was already cooling, and now a man could stand out on the wall for an hour to catch a breath of air without frying.
He had to admit that this country had a severe kind of beauty. Just then the Bone Moon was rising over the distant bluffs, the ones that worried him on the level of tactics. At the moment, however, they reflected the last glow of the sun and seemed like the wall of the world.
The land between the bluffs and the river behind Mankin was a stony red waste, scrubland with mesquite and cactus. It was barren, but open and clean. Mankin pitied the Khetuni garrisons that had to hold the line to the west, across the Gar. The Dune Kingdom was a place far more stark and forsaken than Senso-marta, with the added affliction of constant sand in your food and water.
Mankin turned. The course of the Gar, a quarter-mile to the west of the fort, was the only green growth in sight, and that was a narrow serpent thatt wound out of sight to the north. It flowed toward the Hano, and the Beso and, eventually, the Okharian cities under Khetuni occupation. Rivers were the chief sources of life and civilization in Okhar, and the Khetuni invasion had wisely focused on taking the riverlands and the agriculture and cities they fed.
Mankin leaned on the fort’s battlement and frowned. The war, and the occupation, had dragged on for nearly ten years. The Khetuni invasion, which had begun with such high hopes, had stumbled to a halt here and a hundred other remote garrisons in the country’s far south. Khetun occupied only about half of Okhar. Rumors filtered down along the telegraph lines, or the train of visiting senior officers, of a renewed offensive in the fall, when the land cooled to temperatures that would not drop men and horses in their tracks, or in the spring after the winter rains. Mankin doubted all rumors; even to him, a lowly captain in a remote outpost, it was clear Khetun had bitten off all of Okhar its could hold in its mouth, and perhaps a bit more.
Mankin had heard all the rationales for the war– the ancient rivalry between Khetun and Okhar across the Sea of Whales demanded a final resolution, the Okharians had burned and robbed Khetuni trading ships long enough, their oppression of Khetuni traders and expatriates had to end, and so on. Mankin had heard them all, and discounted them all. It was obvious to anyone but a fanatic– and there were a number of those in the army– that the real reason for the war was the desire of the noble Electors of Khetun for a greater empire. It was, however, an observation Mankin kept to himself.
He’d had a lot of time, out here on the front line, to think about it. If he’d had any choice he would never have come to Okhar at all. The Royal Lyceum in Aliasan had been far more congenial. In three years he had come close to completing the examinations for the first level of licensed scholar. But then the Electors had decided to comb out extra bodies for the army from the Lyceum and the trade guilds. Only his education and his father’s influence, in the form of gold solars, had managed to secure Mankin a warrant officer’s slot; then in combat he had won a commission, which allowed him the privilege of cleaning up after Lyon in this overheated little fort.
Next year, though– by spring next year he would have two years in grade. At that point he could request promotion, assuming he had enough money and influence to purchase the rank, or…he could resign and go home. He had been thinking about that possibility more and more in the last weeks. He wasn’t sure what he would do back in Khetun– the Lyceum was closed to anyone not of full Khetuni blood for the duration– but it would be nice to be someplace where each day wasn’t a race between heat-stroke and dark-eyed foreigners to see which killed him first.
On the other hand, he had a standing invitation to return to the Reach, to his grandfather’s holding. That had its temptations, too– taking up the life of an Attau rider would be a clean and straight path for anyone. And the Attau folk could use even an incomplete scholar in Khetuni learning. He might even start his own school….
But either way you would have to leave the men. It was a detail he came back to over and over again. It complicated the calculation. Mankin hadn’t quite yet been able to find a satisfactory answer.
The bugle sounded the evening mess call. Mankin’s own stomach complained of its hollowness. Sighing, he turned from the battlement and went down to supper.
There was a light in his eyes, and someone shaking him. “Captain, captain,” the someone said.
“What? What’s happening?” Mankin said. He instinctively shielded his eyes from the light and tried to throw off the dregs of sleep.
The light came from a lantern, in the hand of Sergeant Denetoi. He was a grizzled veteran, the only other Attau in the half-battalion. Mankin had always been curious how an Attau had ended up in an Alisanian regiment overwhelmingly composed of Khetuni, but somehow he had never gotten around to asking. Mankin wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
“We got trouble, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.
Mankin had slept in his uniform; dressing was a matter of pulling on his boots and strapping on his sword-belt. “Show me.”
Mankin’s breath steamed in the cold morning air. He and Denetoi climbed to the eastern battlements. A clot of soldiers stood on the parapet there, looking east and talking among themselves. They sounded worried.
It was close to dawn; the sky was lightening, with the east aglow and the bluffs outlined sharply against it. And above those bluffs rose three, four, five, more columns of what Mankin first took to be smoke. After a moment, though, he realized there were not smoke at all. They were dust clouds.
“What the hell?” he said, leaning on a crenellation and studying the dust.
“That’s what we thought, sir,” Hass said. He was a subaltern in First Company. “What does it mean?”
“It means,” Mankin said, “that we’re in deep shit.”
It was still too dark for the telegraph, and the fort had no light-semaphore. Mankin sent an orderly to awaken Lyon, then told Master Sergeant Goma to turn out the garrison, but quietly, with no bugle-call. Then, while Sur saddled the fastest horse in the stables, Mankin penned a quick report.
Sur had the horse and Corporal Cal waiting at the main gate when Mankin came out. Cal was the fastest-riding horseman in the garrison, surpassing even the scouts. He was glad of it as he handed the young soldier the sealed message cylinder. Cal looped its strap over his shoulder and tied the base-cord to his belt.
“Get on the other side of the river,” Mankin told Cal, “and ride like hell for Fort Hope. With any luck the Okharians won’t reach it or the river before you do. It’s all in the report, but tell them anyway what we’re seeing. I need you make sure they understand.”
“I’ll do it, captain,” Cal said.
“Get going,” Mankin said.
Cal mounted as soldiers pulled open the gates. All around them the garrison turned out in near-silence, with only a low murmur among the men. They all climbed up to the parapet and the gun positions.
The gate opened. Cal put his heels to the horse’s flanks and yelled, “Haa!” The animal leapt forward and the two of them shot through the gate.
Mankin threw himself up the nearest stairs, three steps at a time, soldiers crouching out of his way. He reached the parapet and looked out, but Cal was already on the road to the crossing, leaving only dust hanging in his wake.
“The Unchanging keep you safe,” Mankin murmured.
Mankin spent the next several minutes inspecting the batteries and gun positions. In the growing light the men could see the dust columns as well as he could. Silence lay over the positions, no banter or laughter, the men speaking only occasional, necessary words.
It was here that Lyon found Mankin. The commandant did not look well; Mankin wondered exactly how late he had stayed up drinking. He staggered up the steps to the parapet, red-eyed and gray-faced, half-dressed with his tunic unbuttoned and his belt askew. “Captain!” Lyon croaked. “What’s the meaning of this? Why have you turned out the garrison without my authority?”
“Look for yourself, sir,” Mankin said. The dust columns stood out stark against the bright eastern sky.
Lyon stood and looked. Mankin would have sworn that it was impossible, but the commandant grew even more pale. “No,” Lyon said.
“I’ve dispatched a rider to Fort Hope,” Mankin said, “and we should be able to semaphore in a few minutes. Sir, it’s imperative we reinforce the main gate, and block the postern.”
“No,” Lyon said, still staring at the dust.
“Sir…” Mankin said.
“Damn you, you half-breed, I said no!” Lyon said. He turned on Mankin. Mankin stood his ground, although the commandant’s aspect was wild, his eyes wide. They were so red Mankin’s ached in sympathy. “Do not block the gate– not yet…We need orders….”
“Sir, if we wait for orders, there might not be any need to defend to defend this post at all,” Mankin said.
“Get the semaphore working,” Lyon said. “And give me…give me a few minutes.” He staggered back down the stairs.
“Damn it,” Mankin muttered. “Master Sergeant!”
Mankin set Goma to finish preparations in the bastions, while he went to the telegraph. Signal-Sergeant Der and Corporal Pol were there, rigging out the mechanism. “Another minute or two, captain,” Der said. “We’ll have her ready and then there will be enough light.”
“I’ll take that minute to get the message ready,” Mankin said. As he had the night before, he sat down in the hut and wrote out a report–
To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum
From: Commandant, First Senso-marta Outpost
Numerous dust-clouds indicating enemy infantry movement seen at first light on heights to our east. No report from scouts dispatched last night. No contact at this time, but we anticipate enemy in our vicinity about noon. A messenger has been dispatched to Fort Hope with all information as of this moment. Garrison has been put in readiness to defend outpost. Further reports will follow as needed. Request immediate orders repeat immediate orders.
The telegraph arms clattered and spun overhead. “We’ve got their attention, captain,” Der said, poking his head into the signal hut.
“Send this,” Mankin said, handing him the message.
There came the sound of a commotion down in the fort’s yard. “What the hell?” Mankin said. He stepped past Der to the edge of the parapet.
He got there just in time to see the main gate swing open and three riders whip their mounts though it. Lyon was in the lead; behind him rode Captain Fajar and Lieutenant Saur. They were particular cronies of the commandant, and they rode hard on his heels.
“What the hell?” Mankin said. He turned and ran to the northernmost bastion.
He climbed up beside the gun nicknamed Iron Thrower in time to see the three men disappear in a cloud of dust, headed toward the river crossing. “Who was that?” the corporal commanding the gun-crew said.
“It was Commandant Lyon,” Mankin said, nearly breathless with disbelief. Of all the things he could have pictured Lyon doing at this moment– and he could have imagined Lyon doing many things– abandoning his post was the last.
“The commandant’s gone?” one of the privates said, looking as surprised as Mankin felt.
“He’s run away!” the corporal said. “He left us!”
“What are we going to do?” another private said.
Mankin heard the incipient panic in the man’s voice. “What are you going to do?” he snapped, turning on him. “Stand by your gun, by the Unchanging, that’s what you’re going to do. Lyon will be dealt with by Division when they catch him. We’ve got a job to do.”
Mankin questioned the guards on the gate, who were trembling. “He ordered us to open the gate, captain,” the leading private said. “Cussed us out and ordered us. What were we supposed to do?”
Shout for me, Mankin thought, but he did not say it. Even if they had, there was nothing Mankin could have really done to stop Lyon. In theory Army regulations should have allowed Mankin, as executive officer, to arrest the commandant. To actually do so, however, Mankin would almost certainly have had to use physical force, and he wasn’t sure he could have counted on any of the private soldiers to back him up against their commander.
He called an officer’s conference in the holdfast. Since the only other officers left in the outpost were Lieutenant Gander and Subaltern Hass, Mankin included Master Sergeant Goma and Master Gunner Ita. “Maybe it ain’t proper military discipline for me to say this, sir,” Ita said, “but I hope the gods blind Lyon.”
“The gods will be the least of Lyon’s problems, if either the Okharians or Division get hold of him,” Mankin said. Indeed, Mankin didn’t know which fate would be the worst. Okharians loved to flay captured Khetuni commanders alive, but the wrath of Division at a senior commander’s desertion might put Okharian tortures in the shade. “But forget him– we’ve got our own troubles. I’m waiting to hear from higher authority, but in the meantime we have to assume we’re holding the fort against Okharians. If they concentrate against Fort Hope we can hold out; but if they want to get across the Gar quickly they’ll come here. Barring orders to the contrary, we have to hold them off. Master Sergeant, I want you to rotate a third of the men off the walls at a time, send them down to breakfast in shifts. We’re going to need all the strength we have with the push comes. When the sun is well up, rotate half the men off the wall for an hour at a time, to allow them to cool off and get some rest. Once we’re in contact, though, we’ll need every mother’s son on the wall, no matter how hot.”
“Yes, sir,” Goma said.
“Master Gunner, how do we stand with powder and the guns?” Mankin said.
Ita grunted. “We’re well-supplied with powder and shot, but how long it will last will depend on how hard they hit us. I have to tell you the truth, though, captain– I’m not perfectly happy with how well some of the crews have worked up….”
“I know.” Several of the gun-sections had been added to the half-battalion two Bone Moons before, seconded from another battalion in which, Mankin gathered, training had been dangerously lax. Ita had worked, and worked hard, to bring them up to snuff, but two Bone moons was not a long time. “We will do the best we can….”
The scuff of a boot– the signal corporal was at the door, a scrap of paper in his hand. “Signal from Fort Hope, captain.”
Mankin took it. “Orders from Division,” he read aloud. “‘Corps alerted and orders that all river-line strong-points and crossings be held. Hold Outpost Senso-marta at all costs until relieved. Division reserves ordered out and will be on the road within the hour. Repeat, hold at all costs until relieved.”
There was silence in the barracks. Every man seemed to take a deep breath. Mankin folded the paper. “Well,” he said, “at least that settles one question.”
To be continued….