Category Archives: fantasy

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: RANDOM PHOTO EXERCISE — Memories by fire and moon

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words based on a random photo from Flickr.  After spinning through a considerable number of pictures, I found this one, by leogln7

Sea snake skeleton

It took me far, far away….

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“The dragons,” the guide said, “were foolish.  As powerful as they were, there were too few of them to rule humanity.  The last battle was fought here.”  He pointed at the vast skeleton, lying in the shallows of the placid lake.  “That’s old Thoronongrom, the king of the dragons.  He fell here with a thousand arrows in him, shredded by cannon, but it still took him three days to die.  The corpse was a generation decaying.”

“How horrible!” gasped the Marchioness of Tre.  She held her scented fan to her face.  “I can almost smell the rotting flesh!”

The dandy at her elbow laughed.  “Come, dearest, it’s been two centuries.”  His fingers fondled the hilt of the jeweled sword at his hip.  “These bones are bleached clean.”

“Roderick, must you spoil everything?” the Marchioness pouted.

The group stood on the lake shore, gawping at the skeleton, as the guide went on about the battle and its great slaughter.  The lords and ladies, with jewels and fine silks, had thought it diverting to come down to the shore for a while, before the evening’s feast and fireworks to celebrate the anniversary of the victory.  They whispered and laughed among themselves as the fellow went on.

“Probably expects tips in direct proportion to how loquacious he can be,” Jason, Baron of Rogen, whispered in Clara’s ear.  Clara wished he wouldn’t do that—she was trying to listen.

“In the end,” the guide said, “although not all the dragons fell here, their power was broken.  The Battle of Silent Lake ended their rule over humanity, and since we have ruled ourselves, to our own greater glory.”

“Hear, hear,” said Duke Coram, and the crowd applauded.

Clara did not join in.  Glory—she found it an ironic word.  Of course, this fellow, making a living off showing fancy folk the bones of legends, wasn’t going to suggest to any of them that their ‘glory’ came at a high price.

The crowd went back up to the mansion overlooking the lake, as the sun set.  There were aperitifs before the meal, and the high-born enjoyed them as they watched the sunset.  Then, by the light of huge lanterns the nobles danced to swiftly-played music, before sitting down to the meal, which was served by silent servants.

Clara, relegated to the outer tables, got up as the fireworks began.  Great balls of crimson and green fire burst high in the air, reflecting in the face of the lake, but she ignored them as she went down the steps to the lower terrace.  Her path was one she would follow to obey a call of nature.  Before she could reach the porticos, however, Jason intercepted her.  “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“My dear baron,” Clara said, “even ladies of the first rank have to relieve themselves from time-to-time, not to mention the daughters of country squires.”

Jason smiled and leaned against a balustrade.  “You are such a queer little thing.  You were really intent on what that fellow had to say this afternoon.”

“Why not?” Clara said.  “Have you no interest in history, my lord?”

“I’ve told you before, call me Jason.”

“I don’t wish to imply an intimacy to which I have no right,” Clara said.  Not yet—and, with any luck, never.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Jason said.  “But, to answer your question, not particularly.  It’s all dead and gone.  Particularly the dragons.  Ancient business that has no meaning now.”

“No?” Clara said.  “I think we are the children of history, and everything in the past lives in us.”  She hesitated.  “My lord, do you believe the tales that not all the dragons died?  That some took human form and that their descendants live among us?”

Jason’s insouciant smile faded.  “That’s not legend, little Clara,” he said.  “That’s dangerous.  The sort of loose talk that puts one in the company of the secret police.”

“Forgive me, then, my lord,” Clara said.  “I spoke out of turn, and foolishly.  Now, please excuse me—I do not wish to have an accident.”

He let her go.  She went through the porticos, but instead of going to the privies she went down to the beach again.  The fireworks continued, even as the Bone Moon rose above them.

She walked out into the water, careless of her shoes and gown, until she stood right under and within the skeleton of Thoronongrom.  She stood there and found it hard to catch her breath, as she tried to imagine what it had been like, on that day, when the old realm had been thrown down, and the new—a regime that needed secret police—was born.  She laid a hand on the giant, weathered rib beside her, and tried to imagine what Thoronongrom had been like, alive, and dealing out death and justice.

I have seen you in my dreams.

She waded to the skull.  The great jaws were agape, as they were in that final moment of death, two centuries before.  Clara tried to picture what sort of agony it was for this great creature to spend three days a-dying, and found she could not.  Her eyes filled with tears.

Music echoed from the terrace above, as the fireworks went on.  Clara was sure she could hear laughter.  The revelries would now move into their terminal, drunken phase, she supposed.

She reached up, to touch one of the great fangs in the upper jaw.  Almost without intending to, she broke off its tip.  It was easier than she thought—the skeleton was so weathered it was well on its way to becoming chalk.

She stared at the tip in her hand.  She closed her fist about it.  She gripped it hard, until the point bit into her palm, until blood flowed.

When the blood struck the water, it sizzled.

She looked up at the mansion, and knew that fire danced in the depths of her eyes.

Rest well, Grandfather, she thought.  They will pay yet.

The Horseman- Part Eight

A note to the discriminating reader– this part came out both a little short and a little too much “tell” rather than “show”.  This is a drawback of posting what is essentially a first draft.  Properly, now that I understand what information needs to be imparted, I should go back and rewrite some of the previous chapters to lay more revolvers on the mantel (so to speak).  That may happen in the future; for the moment, please forgive my clumsiness.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Eight

As it turned out, Mankin did not see Gonatani again for three days.

The first day, Mankin did hardly more than sleep and eat the food brought to him.  He saw mostly servants and his guards.  As far as communications went, the former were skittish, and the latter, Mankin thought at times, might not have even possessed the power of speech.

The second day he felt strong enough to think about going outside his room for a few minutes.  It was mid-morning, as near as he could figure.  It had to be a sign of returning strength that he felt some guilt about lying about when the sun was well up.

He pulled his chamber door open, and was instantly met by the glares of both of the hulking guards.  Their uniforms told him they were house guards, personally pledged to the lord of the manor.  In this case that was doubtless Gonatani.  Mankin had had a little experience with Okharian house-guards, mostly those who were pledged to Okharians who had come over and sworn allegiance to the Electorate.  Soldiers such as these tended to be humorless, fanatically loyal to their patron, rather direct in thought and action, and generally selected for size and strength rather than wits.

The two glowered at Mankin; he tried to smile back.  “Good morning,” he said in his best Okharian.

“What are you doing?” the left-hand guard growled.

“Thought I might take a walk,” Mankin said, trying to sound as inoffensive as possible.

“It’s not allowed,” Left-hand said.

“Yes, it is,” Right-hand said.

“No, it ain’t,” Left-hand said, “the master said he shouldn’t be allowed to escape.”

“But master said he could walk about the gardens and go to the library,” Right-hand said.

At the word ‘library’ Mankin’s ears pricked up like a cat’s.  He had an impulse to interject, but the guards were still arguing.

“I didn’t hear him say that,” Left-hand said.

“Well, your ears are full of wax, you know.”

“Well, your mouth is full of shit, you know.”

“Gentlemen….” Mankin said.

“You always say that and it’s always stupid….”

“You’re the stupid one!”

“Seriously, gentlemen, I’ll go back to my room,” Mankin said.  He would have done so on his own, except that the door was closed behind him and the two guards were now leaning in toward each other and threatening to crush him between them.

“I ought to pound you…..

“Just try it!”

“Silence!”

The word was like a cannon-shot.  Both guards stood up straight at once; Mankin sagged against the door, relieved.

The command came from Seneschal Muri.  He came down a short flight of steps into the anteroom before Mankin’s door.  His expression was like a wind off a glacier.  “What’s the meaning of this noise?”

“Garana says the prisoner can walk about,” Left-hand said.  “But master says he’s not to be allowed to escape.”

“Tikomuni has problems with his hearing,” Right-hand said….

“Enough!” the seneschal said.  “Captain Mankin is our guest, and while’s he’s not allowed to leave the palace, he may walk in the garden at his pleasure as long as he is escorted.”

“Told you,” Garana said.

“Oh,” Tikomuni said, abashed.

“So, you two lard-headed louts can stop your squabbling and escort the captain to the garden,” Muri said.  “If I hear you two arguing like that again, breaking the harmony of the house, I’ll have the master assign you duties more suited to your limited talents, like shoveling out the pig-sties.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Garana said.

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Tikomuni said.

“Very well,” Muri said.

“I thank the honorable seneschal,” Mankin said, sketching out a bow.

The look Muri turned on him was beyond freezing; it was like a breath out of a bleak winter’s night sky.  “I serve the master, Khetuna,” Muri said.  He turned on his heel and left.

 

So it was that Mankin took his first walk around Gonatani’s garden.  It was not a long walk—perhaps ten minutes of slow progress, broken by frequent stops to catch his breath.  Mankin definitely felt stronger than he had when he arrived, but he still far from any thought of escape, even if he had not given Gonatani his parole.

The compensation for his weakness was being able to see open sky, to smell fresh air, and to, for a few minutes, walk among growing things that rustled in the wind and smelled of life.  Mankin had not realized how much he need to these simple things to clear his mind.

He was not so weak that he could not appreciate the gardens themselves.  Well-paved paths wound, in what appeared to be random patterns, between pools of water fringed with ferns and tall stands of flowering shrubs.  Flower-beds of roses and lupines lined the paths in other places, which led to little circular plots in which stood orange and lemon trees.  Mankin could hear bees buzzing among the plants that were in flower—a great number, it seemed to him, considering how late in the season it was.  Of course, in Okhar’s climate far more plants flowered year-round than in Khetun.  In any event, it was pleasant to see and smell something other than wet stone or the rancid bodies of other prisoners.  It seemed strange that a place as peaceful as this could exist in the same world as the Pits.

After a while Mankin had to sit down.  He picked a bench beneath an orange tree.  This one was filled with fruit.  Mankin stared up at its branches as he caught his breath, and wondered how long it had been since he tasted an orange.

“Are you done, Khetuna?” Garana asked, sounding gruff and put out.

“I suppose,” Mankin said, puffing.  “Give me a minute and we’ll start back.”

“Hm,” Tikomuni said, with obvious impatience.

Mankin examined the two of them, comparing.  “Are you two brothers?”

They looked at each other; Tikomuni jerked a thumb at Garana and said, “He’s the older one.”

“Ah,” Mankin said, nodding.  “That explains it.”

To Mankin’s left a flight of steps led up to a door; at that moment a man in the robes of a scholar came out of the door and down the steps.   He was small, middle-aged and wore the look of someone thinking hard about something and not really paying attention to where he was going.  He wore that look right up the moment he walked right into Garana.  The guard turned as the scholar stumbled back, surprised.

“By the Truth!” the man said.  “When did they move this mountain here?”

“Very funny, magister,” Garana said.  “You really gotta watch where you’re going.”

“Such is my keen observation of the universe, I always know where I’m going,” the scholar said.  That statement elicited a derisive snort from Tikomuni.  The man did not seem to notice, for just then he caught sight of Mankin.  “Oh, ho!” the man said, his eyes brightening.  “So this is our northern guest!”

Mankin managed to get to his feet, to bow to the fellow properly.  “Captain Mankin Tannersson, of Brema, at your service, sir,” he said.  He struggled to process what he had just heard—‘magister’ indicated that Tipal was a scholar of the highest rank, charged with not merely scholarship, but explorations and experiment.  Mankin had never met a magister in the flesh, since in the Electorate they were licensed and had their own college separate from the Lyceum.  “You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid.”

“Oh! Tipal Kash, magister, researcher into the known and unknown, humble advisor to the Consul, my lord Gonatani,” the man said.  He inclined his head in a polite—although definitely social superior to inferior—response.

“Magister,” Tikomuni said, “I’m not sure you’re supposed to talk to this Khetuna….”

“Tush,” Tipal said, waving a hand.  “I know no military secrets, so there is no danger of me betraying anything.  Come, captain, may I sit by you?”

“Certainly,” Mankin said, hiding his surprise.

The two of them sat down on the bench.  Tipal did so with an audible sigh of relief.  “I must tell you, captain,” he said, “it is a pleasure to be able to sit in the sun for a moment.  I’ve already had a day, and the day is only half-over.  The packing—oh, by the gods, the packing….”

“Do you, um, have a lot to pack?” Mankin prompted.  He did not know what Tipal was talking about.  Years in the Army, though, had taught Mankin that, even if he had no clue what a superior officer was going on about, listening with an attentive expression would often supply important clues.

“Oh, indeed- I did not bring my entire laboratory, you understand, just enough to continue my essential studies.  Still, that’s enough to fill seven or eight crates some mules are going to have to carry, and the packing itself—well, my retorts simply cannot be flung into boxes.  I had to supervise everything.”

“It sounds as if you had to take special care…,” Mankin said.

“Absolutely,” Tipal said.  “If any of the retorts are broken, it will set back my research many days.  Do you know that I have to heat some of the Kunai materials as hot as a blast furnace just to be able to detect their component elements?  Without a working retort that sort of thing is impossible.”

Mankin hoped no one noticed he was holding on the edge of the stone bench, in an effort to keep from falling over in shock.  “Indeed?”

“Yes,” Tipal said.  “But when I succeed- ha!  The mysteries I discover!”  The man paused, turning thoughtful.  “One must be careful, of course– if I were to heat a device that still possesses an energetic charge, the results– well, ‘catastrophe’ hardly covers it, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yes,” Mankin said, desperately trying to keep up.

“But,” Tipal said, smiling again, “once we’re back in Desumanu, and I am returned to my own laboratory, I should be able to wrap up my studies and be ready for the great journey.  I am glad you will be helping us, captain!  We are not natural enemies, the Khetuni and the Okharians, and it is proper that we all work together on this venture.”  Tipal stood, rather more spry than seem proper for a man his age.  Mankin rose more slowly.

“I have to be about,” Tipal said, “still much to be done.  It was a pleasure speaking with you, captain.  We shall see each other soon.”

“I look forward to it,” Mankin said, lying through his teeth.

Tipal nodded, smiled, and was off.  The three men were left standing in his wake; Mankin, for his part, definitely felt like a chip of wood in a whirlpool.

“So why does the master keep that daft fool around?” Tikomuni asked.

“He knows things,” Garana said.

“Does he know how make a girl lift her skirts for you?” Tikomuni said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then what use is he?”  Tikomuni looked at Mankin.  “You done with your tour of the gardens, outlander?”

“More than done,” Mankin whispered, struggling to comprehend what had just happened.

Mankin spent the rest of that day and most of the next mulling over what Tipal told him.  The magister, in apparent innocence of what Gonatani had told Mankin about why he was here, had said a great deal, but not nearly enough.  Mankin, puzzled after his first interview with the consul, was now worried.

‘…heat some of the Kunai materials…’.  Who in their right mind meddled with any of the artifacts of the Kunai?  The Ancients had left their ruins and debris scattered across the face of the world; occasionally, a discovered device revealed itself to be still energized.  Every nation on Ohon shared the stories of what happened then, tales of horror and mystery.  As far as Mankin was concerned, Tipal was either far braver than he was, or an incredible fool.  Based on their so-far brief acquaintance, Mankin leaned strongly toward the latter.

But Tipal was Gonatani’s magister, so in some way or another he labored at the consul’s command.  Gonatani’s interrogation of Mankin suddenly obtained a context.  What was Gonatani’s interest in the Kunai?  Mankin doubted it was simple intellectual curiosity.

Power.  People had tried to resurrect the technology of the Kunai before; the legends of the Ancients’ power and glory tempted many.  All such attempts had failed, horribly.  How did Gonatani think he would be able to succeed where others had not only failed, but been obliterated, or left raving, or transformed?  Mankin had no idea, but he was sure of one thing; Magister Tipal might be a fool, but Gonatani Samar was not.  He knows something…. 

A consul of the Okharian Empire looking to appropriate the power of the Kunai– Mankin shivered.  There could only be one reason– to win the war.  Perhaps win it in a manner that would leave Okhar master of the world.

And what are you going to do about it?  Mankin wasn’t even sure he could make it a day’s march in any direction.  He surely couldn ‘t assassinate Gonatani; besides, that left Masanata, and Kunatara , and Tipal, and who knew who else.  But his duty was clearly to frustrate the consul’s designs.

Play the fool yourself— or, at least, the innocent.  That seemed to be the only way ahead. Play along, find out what was afoot, find his opportunity.

Mankin just hoped the Unchanging would let him know when opportunity came knocking.

 

 

To be continued…..   

 

 

 

 

The Horseman, Part Seven

Warning: this piece contains violence and vulgar language.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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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.  “Your 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 some of 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….

The Horseman, Part Four

Warning: this story contains graphic violence, language and sexual situations.

Copyright Douglas Daniel 2016

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

In the mid-afternoon the sound of firing from the western bastions sent Mankin running for the western wall, but it was no new attack.  In the shimmering heat the gunners had spotted loose enemy formations exiting the woods and headed for the crossing.  Three volleys of round-shot sent the Okharians scurrying back to cover.  “If you see them stir again, call on the mortar section,” Mankin told the Bastion Six captain, Sergeant Gero.  “We’ll see how they like bombs coming down on their heads.”

“Yes, sir,” Gero said.

Going back down, Mankin pondered if it might not pay to have the mortars put harassing fire into the woods.  Certainly it would discourage the Okharians on that side, but the fort had a far from limitless supply of mortar bombs.  Wisdom would probably be to save them for when the mortars could fire at clear targets.

However, there was one target the mortars could take out without much effort at all– the bridge at the river-crossing.  If the Okharians were trying to infiltrate across the Gar, wasn’t Mankin’s duty to destroy the bridge?  He went down to the nearest water point, beneath Bastion Six, and drank deep while debating with himself.  It was important to keep the Okharians on this side of the river.

On the other hand, if the Khetuni destroyed the bridge the relief column would have a hard time getting to them– it would effectively lock the fort in a box with a half-legion of frustrated enemy soldiers.  Mankin wanted that relief force here as soon as possible, and he wanted to keep the enemy on this side of the river.  Those two goals were not wholly reconcilable.

The point of the outpost is to keep the bridge in Khetuni hands.  There was, in fact, no provision in the standing orders for the destruction of the bridge.  No plan had been made, and no explosives were designated for its removal.  It was an omission that now loomed large.

If Mankin could have been assured that the relief force would not be delayed even a tenth of an hour by the bridge’s destruction, he would be up on Bastion Seven giving the mortar section their orders right now.  But he couldn’t.  And to destroy the bridge would be to snatch hope away from his men.  He would not do that– not unless his hand was forced.

 

At about the tenth hour, with the sun angling down into the west, Mankin was walking across the yard toward the hold-fast, intending to send another message to Fort Hope.  He had just finished another turn about the walls.  The men were all at their posts, despite the jabhoon, and the fact that the stones of the parapets were so hot you hardly dared put a bare hand down on them.  The jabhoon was worse, though– to Mankin, facing into it as he walked, it seemed to be sucking the moisture from his very marrow.  The wind threatened to steal Mankin’s hat away, and stirred dust-devils in the sand of the yard.

A bugle call– commander to Bastion Three.  Mankin turned and sprinted for the eastern wall, the wind pushing him along.

He was panting from the heat when he reached the bastion.  He half-expected to see enemy formations advancing on the fort; instead he found Goma, Ita and Ganer staring through one of the telescopes.  Off to the east, perhaps a half-mile away, sunlight flashed continuously on armor and weapons.  Even at this distance Mankin could see formations massing, like some vast, insectile hoard gathering to ravage and lay waste.

Tah,” Mankin said.  “When did this happen?”

“Sir,” Goma said, “we didn’t get a good look until just minutes ago.  Apparently the bastards have had men marching back and forth, raising dust to mask the movement of these new units.”  He stood back from the telescope.  “Best you take a look, sir.”

Mankin bent his eye to the eyepiece of the telescope.  He adjusted the focus a little, and there they were– a great horde of Okharian infantry, moving through the scrub.  Mankin counted six, eight, ten cohort standards before giving up.  He stood.  “That’s a lot more than a half-legion.”

“We can handle them, sir, right?” Ganer said.

“Yes,” Mankin said aloud.  In his silent thoughts, though, he made calculations.  Whoever was in command out there was apparently no longer content with half-measures, or half-legions.  The Okharians would rush the main gate, expending lives to reach it.  If they brought forward petards– and there was little point to a new assault if they didn’t– then they could perhaps climb up to the main gate, blow it in, and force an entrance.  It would be a bloody slaughter, but Okharian commanders were often willing to shed rivers of their men’s blood to take positions.

The wind gusted; one of the gunners in the bastion cursed as his hat went flying off toward the enemy, as if it were deserting.  “This piss-bastard wind,” Goma said.  “It’s too bad it won’t fry the Okharians’ eyes in their sockets.”

Mankin looked at him, then sprang to the embrasure out of which Death’s Handmaiden lowered.  The first assault had trampled down much of the sagebrush, but much remained standing.  And the crushed brush would serve just as well….

“Master Gunner,” Mankin said, turning to Ita.  “How long would it take to heat fifteen or so iron round-shot to red-hot?”

Ita looked surprised by the question, but said,  “A third of an hour, if we stoke the ovens– but hot-shot will not do much to the Okharians at this range.”

“You won’t be firing at the Okharians,” Mankin said.  He pointed at the line where the brush ended and the killing ground began.  “You’re going to be firing there.”

Ita looked where Mankin was pointing.  Slowly, he smiled, and then he began to laugh.

 

Mankin could hear the heated cannon-ball sizzling against the soaked wads that separated it from the powder charge in Death’s Handmaiden.  The crew who had loaded the red-hot cannon-ball jumped out of the way, as if afraid the gun was going to go off at once.  Ita, far cooler, leaned in to sight down the barrel, then stepped aside and lowered his smoking linstock to the gun’s touchhole.  The cannon fired, the muzzle blast hammering every man in the bastion.

Mankin, standing to one side, saw the ball hit the hard ground just shy of the scrub and bounce in a long arc, to disappear into the brush a hundred yards further.  In the long light of the fading day he glimpsed the glowing red dot of the ball for a moment before it rolled out of sight in the sagebrush.

“Damnation!” Ita said.

The lead guns in the other east-facing bastions fired, as well.  Their balls landed fair within the first few yards of the scrub.  This provoked a further outburst of cussing from Ita.

“You hit the brush, Master Gunner,” Mankin said, hiding amusement.  “I didn’t ask anything more of you.”

“That’s kind of you, sir,” Ita snarled.  “But I’ll never live it down that Brava and Perma were both more accurate than me.  For once.”  He rounded on the gun crew.  “So what are you whoresons doing, just standing there with your mouths hanging open?  Get that next ball up here, now!”

The crew jumped to obey.  Mankin ignored Ita and his men and watched.  Goma joined him at the crenel.  The jabhoon still blew hard at their backs, like the breath of a furnace, swiftly carrying away the powder smoke from the guns toward the gathering Okharians.

For a long space, Mankin saw nothing.  He kept watching, but growing worried.  The gun crew reloaded Death’s Handmaiden; Ita re-sighted the gun, still muttering, touched his match to the touchhole, and fired again.  This time the ball went into the brush no more than ten yards from its edge.  Ita grunted with satisfaction as the other guns fired, as well.

Then Mankin saw a wisp of smoke, off to his left.  At first it was almost not there, a thin little twist of gray rising in the air.  As Mankin watched, though, it grew, darkened and spread, becoming something that would do a farmer’s chimney credit back in the Soher.

“Sir, look!” Goma said, pointing.

Further out in the brush another rising tongue of smoke– Ita’s first shot finding something dry and combustible.  Mankin’s heart lifted.

In another few moments more smoke appeared, apparently from the second volley.  Ita ordered his men to shift Death’s Handmaiden to fire more to the south, to expand the reach of what they were trying to do.  If this was going to work they needed to create as broad a front as possible.

It was then Mankin saw flames, again off to his left, a small flicker.  As he and Goma watched the flicker changed into a steady flame as high as a man, pale in the sun but solid.  “It’s working,” Mankin whispered.  “It’s working.”

In another few moments he saw more flames, both further out and closer at hand.  The fires leapt up under the lash of the wind.  It was surely just Mankin’s imagination that the flames danced with joy.

The three guns fired their third volley.  As they did, it was as if the brush exploded; in several places flames grew from man-sized to bonfires to sheets of flame the size of houses in the space of a few breaths.  The smoke rose thick, angling off eastward under the wind.  As Mankin watched the fires continue to grow, and then he saw the flames begin to leap from one clump of brush to another, and then to more, and then more.

“Hold your fire!” Mankin shouted, as the gun-crew started to load the fourth hot ball into the gun.  “It’s working!”

The crew heaved the cannon-ball over the edge of the bastion– no one wanted a heated ball rolling about underfoot– and as one man stood to the crenels to watch.  Ita stood among them, a broad smile reshaping his face.

In a few more seconds the ground immediately east of the fort was covered by a solid sheet of flame two hundred feet long and still expanding.  Mankin definitely could feel its heat, even at this distance.  For a moment he feared that the fire would come back toward the fort.

But the jabhoon wasn’t having any of that– the wind grabbed the fire and pushed it eastward, spreading it like a flood from a burst levee.  The smoke rose in one solid column now, and the fire roared, as if to warn the Okharians it was coming.

The gun crews in the bastion cheered lustily, to be joined by the men in the other bastions, and then those on the walls.  Men stood in the crenels to get a better view, some jumping up and down with excitement; Mankin saw sergeants order men to get down before they toppled off the wall.

Mankin, however, wanted a better view himself.  “Master Sergeant, come with me!” he told Goma.  “The hold-fast roof is the best place to watch this show.”

“Sir!” Goma said, with enthusiasm.

 

By the time they had crossed the yard and climbed up to the hold-fast roof, the fire had spread to cover what had to be twenty or thirty acres, and it was still growing and advancing eastward.  Sergeant Ros and the signal team on duty stared, open-mouthed, at the holocaust.  They stared at the conflagration so intently that no one seemed to notice their superior officer’s arrival.  Mankin did not call the lapse of military courtesy to their attention; instead he and Goma joined them at the roof’s edge.

Mankin immediately suffered a disappointment– the smoke from the fire was now so great that he could not get a clear view of the enemy lines, even with one of the larger telescopes.  The billowing smoke was so thick that he caught only occasional glimpses.  What he glimpsed was encouraging, though– an impression of milling confusion.

Rather more suggestive was what Mankin managed to hear over the roar of the flames– the calls of Okharian battalion horns.  The Okharians used the great horns that accompanied their legions in a different manner than the way Khetuni employed bugle calls, but it was still possible to discern separate calls.  Mankin heard assemble and retreat at the same time, combined with move by the flank and, oddly, officers’ call.  It seemed different units, or the different commanders of separate units, had conflicting ideas about what to do about the approaching flames.  Maybe, Mankin thought, just maybe there would be enough indecision among the commanders that the cohorts would not have the time to move out of harm’s way in an orderly fashion.  Okharian troops were very stolid facing danger and clung stubbornly to their formations, but no man could stand fast when a wall of flame loomed over him and began to singe his hair.

Just a little more time.  Unchanging, let them scatter so we have just a little more time. 

 

The Khetuni in the fort watched as the fire grew and grew and marched inexorably eastward.  As the sun set and the jahboon intensified, the fire became a moving wall that extended north and south nearly out of sight.  Acres, and then square miles, of scrubland were left blackened and smoking in its wake.  The smoke of the fire rose thousands of feet in the air, black in the red light of evening.

The troopers watched and slowly their jubilation faded.  It was as if they grew appalled at they had unleashed.  Mankin came down from the hold-fast and took another turn around the walls, quietly reminding everyone to mind their business, which was still to hold the fort.

An urgent query came via the telegraph from Fort Hope.  Mankin had to hurry back to the hold-fast to send a reassuring message in the last of the sunlight saying that the fort still stood, and to clarify what all that smoke signified.  He didn’t show it, but he was a little put out that Fort Hope’s response to the news was a mere Acknowledged.  Mankin sent a full official action report, and repeated his request for the position of the relief column, but only got another, irritating Acknowledged in reply.

Because of the set of the wind, the fire did not reach the scrubland to the north and south of the fort, nor the river woods.  Mankin warned the men on those portions of the walls to be especially alert; there were still Okharians close by, and doubtless they would look for any opportunity to repay the Khetuni in the outpost for their victory.

The sun went down.  The jahboon continued to blow, as usual.  As the sky darkened the fire became a source of light for the men in the fort.  At its peak Mankin could read the entries in the day log by its illumination.  Other than the smoke, the sky was clear, but they could not see very many stars because of the fire’s glow.

An hour after sundown the fire reached the former Okharian positions.  Mankin, no matter how much he strained, could no longer hear their horns.  No doubt they had finally overcome their uncertainty and fled, preferably in many directions at once, in as an incontinent fashion as possible.  Mankin calculated that, with a little luck, the enemy legion would not be able to reassemble in the vicinity of the fort until mid-day tomorrow.  At least, he hoped so.

The troopers, under Mankin and Goma’s direction, used the respite well.  Bastions were resupplied with ammunition and shot.  Mankin had the men fed their first full meal since breakfast, and then had Goma start rotating men down from the walls to get some sleep.  Mankin knew he needed sleep, as well, but there were things he had to do.  Most of all, of all things, paperwork.

Monthly payroll and uniform issues and ration allotments could wait; besides, they required the signature of the official post commander, and Mankin was merely the senior officer present.  Far more importantly, there were entries to be made in the battle log and the day log.  Mankin sat down in Lyon’s office to do them by lantern-light.  The mundane task struck him as odd, given the circumstances, but it had to be done– among other things, he needed to record the names of the men who had died– Private Fury, Private Hart, Lance Private Shinn, Sergeant Corum, and all of the other men, most of them more than names on a page for Mankin.  It was strange– you spent months with men, got to know them, and then suddenly they were just entries in a log.

The battle log was also where he recorded his commendations for the day’s action.  There were quite a number of them; Master Gunner Ita, Lieutenant Ganer, a dozen other men who had stood out, one way or another.  Corporal Sahs, for instance, quite on his own initiative, had heaved fused hand-bombs over the western wall during the second assault, causing huge casualties among the enemy and possibly discouraging them from turning their feint into a real attack.  Mankin listed Medicus Otho for his efforts to keep badly wounded men alive, or to ease the suffering of those he could not save.  And Mankin listed Scout Chure for his brave– and possibly above and beyond the call of duty– ride back to the fort to warn the garrison.  In the long run none of the entries would mean much, or would even be seen by anyone in authority, but Mankin felt an obligation to call out bravery and skill.  Who knew?  Perhaps some future antiquarian in a century or two would pull the logs off of a dusty shelf in the Electorate, read the entries, and find the bare history of this time fleshed out a little more fully.  The thought pleased him.

When he was done with the logs he turned to the last task he considered urgent– he composed a message to be sent up the chain of command at first light.  In the politest, most militarily correct terms, Mankin demanded a report on the status of the relief column.  He doubted it would do any good, but he had to try.

The minimum of paperwork done, Mankin went back out into the fire-lit night.

With the dying away of the jabhoon, the nightly desert chill had reasserted itself.  Mankin’s breath steamed in front of his face.  Soldiers not on wall-duty or taking their turn for sleep had built fires against the cold of the night and stood clustered around them.  Mankin greeted them and was greeted in return.  Here and there he stopped and talked with men who had been on the walls during the attacks, or in the yard when the Okharians had broken in.  The men seemed tired but confident; many talked excitedly about the hurt they had given the Okharians.  “We can keep on give it to them, right, sir?” one private said.

“Surely,” Mankin said, and he managed to smile.  “Just a matter of time before the relief force is here, and we can push all these sand-devils back to where they came from.”

The men seemed to appreciate Mankin’s words, even as Mankin harbored his own doubts.

He went up to the wall and walked among the men on guard.  All seemed to be alert and watchful.  Other men were on the wall, as well, not on the current guard shift but apparently wanting to stay close in case something happened.  Mankin found them in odd corners and on the steps of the bastions, talking or watching the distant line of the fire.  They greeted him as he moved among them, and he stopped here and there to talk.

In an angle between Bastion Three and the north gatehouse Mankin stumbled over the feet of a soldier seated against the wall.  “Ah, sorry,” Mankin said.

“Ain’t nothing, Cap’n,” the man said.  It was Denetoi.

Mankin caught a whiff of his breath, and glimpsed the small jug in Denetoi’s hand.  “Consoling yourself, Sergeant?”

“Just trying to ward off the cold, sir,” Denetoi said.  He held out the jug.  “Take a hit yourself.  Skinny fellow like you don’t have enough meat on your bones to keep warm as it is.”

Mankin took the jug.  “Your health, sergeant.”  He took a swig.

Fire raced down his throat.  He coughed, his eyes watering.  “Where…cough…where did you get that?”

Mankin glimpsed the sergeant’s white teeth grinning in the moonlight.  “It’s a little bit of my own brew, the stuff my boys and I been cooking down in the basement of Barracks Four.  You know, sir, the still that doesn’t exist?”

“Right,” Mankin said.  He took another nip, with the same results.  “Ha…save some of this stuff, sergeant, we could use it if we run low on gunpowder.”  He handed the jug back.

“Heh,” Denetoi said.  He lifted the jug in salute.  “Here’s to women who ain’t too choosy.”  He took a bigger drink than Mankin had dared.  “Ho, that’s good.”

Mankin squatted down.  “Don’t get too pie-eyed, sergeant,” he said.  “Tomorrow’s like to be as busy as today.”

“No worries, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.  He waved the jug.  “It takes more than the three little swallows this contains to affect me.”

“I suppose so.”  Mankin’s eyes were still watering.  “That reminds me of the Clan aquavit, back in the Reach.”

Denetoi peered at him.  “All due respect, sir, but I thought you were born in Brema?”

“I was,” Mankin said, “but I fostered with my mother’s folk in Tikili for three years when I was young.  I rode with the horse-herders and danced the greeting of spring around the Great Fire at Deilu-amere.”  The memory came tinged with regret.

“Ah,” Denetoi said.  He seemed suddenly sadder.  “I haven’t seen the Reach since my tenth summer.”

“Hm– I never asked how you came to the Electorate.”

“Well…blame my dad for that,” Denetoi said.  “My old man, he took us south when I was a kid.  He said he was going to look for work in the factories.  I heard the truth later– he was dodging the kin of a fellow he knifed in a dice game.”

“Oh,” Mankin said, not sure what more to say.

“That was my father,” Denetoi said.  “We fetched up in Alisan.  There was plenty of work to be had, but I don’t remember my dad doing a single day’s labor.  Instead he pimped out my mother and my sister to keep himself in wine.”

Tah.  I’m sorry, sergeant.”

“What for, Cap’n?  It was long before your time.  It all worked out to the good, anyway.”

“How so?”

“One day my old man went to sell me the same way he was selling Ma and Sis.  Instead I stuck a knife in him and run off.  I signed up with one of the Alisan foot regiments as a drummer-boy and never looked back.”

“I see,” Mankin said.  “Well, then, we’ve both come here by circuitous paths, it seems.”

“How did you, Cap’n, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Well, it’s not much of a tale.  My father was a trader.  Met my mother while on a caravan to the north, took her back to Brema.  I think she missed the Reach a lot, but that didn’t stop her from giving my father four children.  I’m the youngest.”

“But you went to the Lyceum in Alisan.”

Mankin nodded.  “My father had– has– ambitions for me.  The Tannerssons are like that, a bunch of folk looking to climb in the world.  My cousins in Brema…well, never mind.  My father had me tutored, then got me into the Lyceum.”

“Brr,” Denetoi said.  “Sitting and studying– not my idea of a happy life.”

“Maybe not for you, sergeant, but I loved it.”  Mankin sighed.  “Almost had my scholar’s stole, but then they closed the Lyceum to half-bloods.  Still, it could have been worse– at least my education got me into an officer’s uniform.”

“Well, you know what they say, sir,” Denetoi said.  “It’s an ill wind that lifts no girl’s skirt.”

Mankin laughed.  “I suppose so.”  He stood.  “Do get some rest, sergeant– we both have to uphold the reputation of the Attau.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

 

Mankin went down from the wall.  Just as he expected, he found Master Sergeant Goma doing his own paperwork lantern-light in the hold-fast.  “I think we’re about sewn up as tight as we can be for the night.”

“I agree, sir,” Goma said.

“You should get some rest,” Mankin said.

“With all due respect, sir,” Goma said, “it’s you who should try to sleep.”

“No, Master Sergeant, I think you should.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” Goma persisted, “if there’s anyone in this fort who needs their mind clear of cobwebs, it’s you.  Me, I know my routine so well I shout it in my sleep anyway.  You need to be able to stay ahead of the enemy’s moves.  A few hours of sleep will go a long way toward that.”

Mankin shook his head.  “You know as well as I do that a clear head is not a requirement for an officer of the Electorate.  I mean, look Commandant Lyon.”

“I wouldn’t want to stumble into insubordination by agreeing with you too readily, sir,” Goma said, but he smiled.  “Still, my point holds.  The commander should get as much rest as possible.”

Mankin thought to argue further with the master sergeant, but then he smiled.  The heaviness of his own eyelids worked against him.  “All right, all right,” he said.  “You’ve twisted my arm.  I’ll bed down in the outer office; send a runner for me at once if anything stirs outside the walls.”

“Yes, sir,” Goma said.

Mankin turned, stopped.  “Oh– I left a message with the signal section.  A firm inquiry about the timetable of the relief column.  If I should be so fortunate as to sleep until dawn, could you make sure Signal sends it at very first light?”

Goma gave him a long look.  “Captain,” he said quietly, “you know they’re not coming.”

Mankin said nothing for a moment.  He was having some trouble finding the words.  At last he said, “I have to give the men some hope.”

“Of course you do,” Goma said.  “You’d be derelict if you didn’t.  But we both know we’re just not that important– and I know you well enough to know you’re not the sort to lie to yourself.”

“Maybe,” Mankin said.  “Perhaps you can just call it wishful thinking.  You seem pretty calm about it, Master Sergeant.”

Goma shrugged.  “Captain, I’ve been a soldier since I was a boy.  Near on to forty years.  I’ve seen more than my share of war.  When you’re an old soldier like me you always know a day may come when you find yourself in a spot you can’t get out of.  It’s just the nature of the business.”  He smiled.  “At least I can look back on a busy life– good men I’ve served with, places I’ve seen, pretty girls I’ve shagged.  I don’t have any regrets.  It’s hard for you youngsters, though, and I’m sorry for that.”

Mankin looked up into the dark corners of the room.  “I should have ordered an evacuation the moment we saw those dust clouds.  I should have….”

“Captain,” Goma said, “don’t.  Don’t do that to yourself.  Another part of being a soldier is duty, and we can’t easily abandon that.  Besides, running would have been no guarantee of safety, not with that piss-fire cavalry scampering about.  A bunch of gunners out in the open, with no guns?  Doesn’t bear thinking about.  Here we have a chance.”

“The chance of a hare in a den of foxes,” Mankin said.

“Perhaps,” Goma said.  “But hares– they’re tricky fellows.  You never know.”

Mankin slowly smiled.  “I suppose not.”

 

To be continued….

 

The Horseman, Part Three

Note: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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

Mankin took a few moments to drink deep from the hold-fast well, then did a turn around the walls and the bastions.  All the guns were primed and ready, the bowmen resupplied with arrows, the culverin-men loaded and standing by their loops, swordsmen in their positions, despite the heat.  The men were all quiet, waiting, but they greeted Mankin with cheer and smiles.  “We served them up good, didn’t we, captain?” one private in Bastion Five said.

“We sure did,” Mankin said.  He knew the soldier’s whole gun crew was listening.  “All we have to do is hold them off like that for a while longer, and the relief column will get here and send them packing.”

He walked on, hoping he hadn’t lied to the boy.

After his inspection he went down to the infirmary.  In the moments right after the assault this had been a scene of frantic activity, but now there was something approaching calm.  Medical aides knelt beside the pallets where wounded men lay, wrapped in bandages.  The worst cases had been given poppy-seed and were silent; the less-severely wounded seemed to endure their injuries with a good deal of aplomb.  There was a smell of drying blood and tincture of mercury in the air, but that was how a hospital was supposed to smell.  It was almost reassuring.

Mankin knelt down beside Corporal Karu, whose arm was in a sling, and who sported a nasty abrasion on his forehead.  “Did you lead with your head again, Karu?”

“Ah, captain, it ain’t fair,” Karu said.  “Right after they get over the wall one of the bastards nicks my arm, and I stumble right off the wall and land on the stable roof.  Had two or three of them lined up, too, could have really quick-marched them to hell, but I had to come over all clumsy.”

“Well, that was just lucky for the Okharians,” Mankin said.  “But don’t fret about it.  We cleaned them out pretty good, and we’ll do it again if they come back.”

“I don’t suppose you could talk to the medicus, could you, captain?” Karu said, hopefully.

“No, no,” Mankin said.  “This is your duty station for the moment.  You rest.  That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” Karu said, glum.

The medicus was washing blood from his hands as Mankin entered the back room.  “How are we doing?” he asked.

The medicus, a lean man named Otho, shook his head.  “Lost one of the amputees– Sergeant Tor.  Loss of blood, most likely.  Private Sereno is not likely to live out the night.  All the others should pull through.”  Otho rubbed his eyes.  “Of course, the best prescription is to drive those sand-rats off for good, but that depends on the relief column, doesn’t it?”

“They’re coming,” Mankin said.  “Don’t worry about that.”

 

There was one more room Mankin visited in the barracks– a darkened cubicle that had been Sergeant Tor’s space, as a matter of fact.  As he would not be needing it, this was where the Khetuni had laid the one living Okharian still in the fort.

Here there was a stink of blood and bowels; the man on the pallet breathed heavily, slowly, struggling with his pain.  Otho had dosed him with poppy, but the man’s wounds were so severe that the drug could not mute their agony.  Mankin looked them over, but even he, who was no medicus, could tell there was nothing to be done.

He knelt down beside the man.  The Okharian looked up at him, defiant despite his pain.

“What is your name, soldier?” Mankin asked in Okharian.

The man sucked in a shaking breath.  “What is it to you, Khetuna?”

“I want to know who I’m talking to,” Mankin said.  “Who is not a soldier anymore.  Your war is over, friend.  You’ll not see the sunset.  I’m sorry.”

“I know it,” the Okharian said.  “It is the will of Hasor and Faror.  They weave the fate of each man and woman.  It is well.  My life is only one spark among millions.  Together, though, we will set a fire that will drive you invaders back into the sea and cleanse the land.”

“Perhaps,” Mankin said.  “But that’s a question I’m not asking at the moment.  Is there anything you want?”

The man hesitated.  “Some water?” he said, warily.

Mankin stood and poked his head out the cubicle’s door.  “Hey!  Some water here.”

One of the aides brought a jug.  Mankin knelt again by the Okharian.  He helped the man lift his head.  The Okharian drank deep.  Mankin would not have normally given so much water to a man with a belly wound, but in this case there was no point in refusing it.

“I never thought to owe a Khetuna anything,” the Okharian said, settling back.

“Well,” Mankin said, “I’m only half Khetuni.  Maybe that makes a difference.”  He set the jug down by the Okahrian’s head.  “We could give you more poppy, if you want it.”

“No,” the Okharian said.  “It is my fate to endure with courage whatever the gods ordain.”  He grimaced.  “Also, if I were drugged I might talk too freely.”

“That could be,” Mankin said.  He smiled.  “I will tell you what– I will start.  I am Captain Mankin Tannersson, of Brema, commander of this post.”

The Okharian looked him up and down.  “I am Gerutana Keruhar, of Mira-teno, decarion of the Seventh Cohort of the Legion of Mira-teno.”

“Well, we knew we faced at least a half-legion,” Mankin said.  “It helps to put a name to it.  Is Mira-teno far away?”

Gerutana closed his eyes.  “It is in the foothills of the Crystal Mountains.  A valley, up in the folds of the hills.” Gerutana opened his eyes.  Mankin saw regret.  “That’s home.”

“It sounds beautiful,” Mankin said.  “I wish we were both home.”

Gerutana looked at Mankin in suspicion.  “You say this?”

“Yes,” Mankin said.  “I’m not here by my own will.”

“Yet you are here, and killing us.”

“True enough,” Mankin said.  “War is a strange business.”  He hesitated.  “I have to ask– is there more than one legion coming against us?”

Gerutana shook his head.  “I will not tell you anything about that.”

“I really didn’t expect you to,” Mankin said.  “It’s just my job to ask.  Just as it’s my job to ask if there are there guns coming here.”

“I know nothing of that,” Gerutana said.

“All right,” Mankin said.  “I’ll leave it be.”

Gerutana peered at Mankin.  “You just ask, and do not try to compel an answer?”

“What, from a man who is dying anyway?  I doubt it would work, and I’d have to live with it afterwards.”  Mankin sighed.  “I’ll leave you in peace.”

Suddenly Gerutana grabbed Mankin’s sleeve.  Mankin was surprised at the man’s strength.  “What is it?” he asked.

“Captain,” Gerutana said, “I ask a favor.  From one soldier to another.”

Mankin hid his surprise.  “If it’s within my power.  What is it?”

“If…if you live,” Gerutana said, “I ask…I have a woman, back in Mira-teno.  Mara.  Mara’s her name.  We have a son.  If you live, could you get word to her?”

“If I can, I will,” Mankin said.  He was surprised all over again– since the Okharians traced their inheritance through the mother’s line, fathers often did not have very close relationships with their own children.  “What should I tell her?”

“That I died bravely,” Gerutana said.  “It’s not much to ask, captain.  It will be something for my son to hold on to.”

“If I live,” Mankin said, “I will do it.”  He smiled and shrugged.  “Whether I live is, of course, in the hands of the Unchanging.”

“In that, captain,” Gerutana said, “there is no difference between us.”

 

When he came out of the barracks Mankin found a runner from the Signals section waiting for him.  The private held out a scrap of scribbled-over paper.  “Message from Division, sir, relayed by Fort Hope.”

Mankin took the scrap of paper–

To: Commander, First Senso-marta Outpost

From: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

Relief column consisting of three brigades of Tenth Inan enroute.  Cavalry from Corps reserve screening ahead of column.  Report all further enemy action and movements.  Hold outpost at all costs—repeat, at all costs.

“That’s encouraging,” he murmured.  He crumpled the paper in his hand.  Now they just need to get here.  

Mankin found Goma and the officers and shared the message.  Ganer said, “How long will it take them to get to us?”

“There’s no way of knowing, lieutenant,” Mankin said.  “We do not know when they left, or from where, or what they might meet on the way.”

Ganer looked disappointed.  “You’d think they’d have given us more information.”

Mankin’s eyebrows went up; from the obliging Lieutenant Ganer, this speech very nearly amounted to open rebellion.  Mankin was spared from having to say anything, however, as Goma said, “When you’ve been in the army a bit longer, sir, you’ll learn that details are reserved to higher echelons.  Down here we have to make do.”

They fed the troops a late midday meal of cold meat and hardtack.  Mankin went up to the roof of the hold-fast again, this time carrying one of the spotting telescopes.  The signal telescope was more powerful, but it was reserved for watching Fort Hope for signals.  Mankin set up the spotting telescope and scanned the whole circle of the horizon around the outpost.

Yes, the dust-clouds and flash of light on armor and spear-points were still out there, but despite the added height he could still not make much sense of what the Okharians were doing.  There were formations still to the immediate east of the fort, moving about as if reordering their ranks, but other enemy units were now both to the north and south.  Mankin could not tell if they were merely moving to cut off the outpost, or marching away to easier targets.

The enemy movements to the north worried Mankin.  About eight hundred yards north of the fort there was a long ravine running from the southeast to the northwest.  It was dead ground to anyone in the fort.  At that range it was difficult to hit with the fort’s main guns; only the mortar section, in Bastion Seven, could hope to drop shells into it with any accuracy.  Mankin took a little comfort in the thought that the Okharians did not themselves possess reliable mortars that could cover that range.  But it was still a concern.

He checked with the Signals section.  No further messages had been received from Fort Hope.  Mankin studied the distant fortress; as far as he could tell the fort was not under attack, and the large marker flag still fluttered over it.  That was as reassuring as the fort’s silence was frustrating.

Mankin went down again.  He would take another turn around the bastions, and then check with Goma about the rotation of the men on the walls.  He wondered if the Okharians would hold off making another attack until dark.

The blare of Okharian horns assaulted his ears as he stepped out of the hold-fast’s main door.  At first he could not tell their direction; the walls seemed to reflect and diffuse the sound, so that it seemed to becoming from every direction.  Then a bugle sounded– enemy to the northwest.

Bastion Eight— the closest to the crossing, and the woods along the river.  Mankin ran for the bastion.

The screams of the Okharians reverberated in Mankin’s ears as he raced up the stairs to the bastion.  Its guns began to fire, and then the guns the other bastions on the western wall that could bear opened up.  Mankin reached the gun deck of the bastion just in time for the concussion of Man Reaper firing to slap him in the face and flatten his uniform against his body.

He jumped up on the battlement beside the gun as its crew jumped to reload.  A mass of Okharians was boiling up out of the woodland, a crowd without any discernible formation.  The enemy screamed and ran hard toward the northwest corner of the fort.  The faster soldiers had already covered half the distance to the fort.

We missed them.  Mankin cursed himself.  The Okharians had done exactly what he had feared they would do, used the woods as cover to close on the fort.

As he watched, though, he could not see how it had advantaged them.  The open ground on the west side of the fort was still a killing ground, and the guns were cutting great, bloody swaths through the charging enemy.  The defensive ditch was not as deep on this side of the fort, but the Okharians still faced the glacis and the wall.  Bowmen on the wall and the lower level of the bastion were exacting a price, as well, picking off men in full stride.

“Get ready for scaling ladders!” Mankin called.  He saw Okharian teams carrying the ladders forward.  Soldiers carried repelling poles up to the parapet and began to hand them out.

Mankin jumped down as Man Reaper’s crew hauled her back into position.  He ran out on to the wall just as the first Okharians reached the ditch and began to cross it.  Mankin dared to peek out a crenel and saw men climb up to the glacis and stop, panting, now out of reach of the guns, but not the rain of arrows from above.

The first of the scaling ladders reached the ditch, and the Khetuni archers played havoc with the teams carrying them as they slowed to cross the ditch.  As many as the bowmen dropped, however, twice as many crowded in to pick the ladders up and carry them forward.

Something’s not right.  Mankin could count only four or five ladders in the mass of men below.  That seemed far too few.  And yet the Okharians came on and kept crowding in against the wall; within a minute or so there were a hundred or more men milling at the base of the glacis, with yet more coming in.

Mankin pulled his head in as the ladders reached the base of the wall.  “Get ready to receive visitors!” he called out.  The men along the wall cheered and waved their poles.

Mankin moved to one side, to get another vantage point from the far crenel that abutted Bastion Eight.  From here he could look down on the enemy without presenting himself as an easy target of Okharian bowmen.  He saw the ladders going up.  Men fell at their foot as Khetuni archers shot them, but others leapt to replace them.  The tops of the ladders fell against the top of the walls– and nothing else happened.  Mankin watched one, two, three heartbeats, and not a single Okharian started up any of the ladders.

“What the hell?” he said.

He dared lean out further, risking enemy arrows, desperate to comprehend what was going on.  He saw, amid the surging crowd of infantrymen below, a line of soldiers threading their way through.  They seemed focused and determined, and each of them carried a large backpack.  They appeared to be working their way around the Bastion Eight, headed for the northern wall of the fort.

“Dammit!” Mankin cried.  He pulled his head in just in time, as enemy arrows clattered off the stones around him.  “It’s a feint!” he shouted to the men on the wall.  “Those bastards have found the postern gate.  They’ve got petards, they’re going to blow it in!”

Mankin turned and ran past startled faces, threw himself down the closest steps.  “Bugler!” he shouted.  Private Ren, the Fifth Section bugler, came running to meet him at the foot of the stairs.  “Sound ‘assemble, every third’.”

Ren put his bugle to his lips and sounded the call.  Swordsmen detached themselves from the walls, crowded down the stairs.  Mankin drew his sword and ran for the north side of the fort.

He’d gone three yards when there came a harsh crack.  Smoke and flame shot out of the inner gate, along with wooden fragments and pieces of stone.  Mankin instinctively went to one knee, ducking his head as debris bounced and whistled around him.  He lifted his eyes only when broken bits of the postern and the wall stopped flying.

There was a smoking hole where the entrance of the pastern had stood moments before; and out of that smoke surged Okharian soldiers screaming “Okhar gershan!”  Mankin yelled himself and charged.  From behind him a bugle called enemy within the walls.

The nearest Okharian thrust a spear at Mankin’s belly.  Mankin parried the spear-point, spun and slashed the soldier with a sweeping cut.  The man fell, blood spurting from his bisected throat.  Another Okharian came at Mankin.  Mankin parried the man’s sword-thrust, the swords ringing, beat his sword aside and thrust him through.

There were Okharians all around him.  Mankin knew a moment’s doubt that perhaps he had killed himself by charging into the mass of them.  He knocked another enemy soldier off his feet, turned and cut the sword-hand off another.  The Okharian screamed and fell backward, but there were many, many Okharians behind him.

Then Khetuni troops were around Mankin, shouting “Khetun!”  The collision of the two groups of soldiers was like two waves crashing into each other, some troopers running full-tilt into opponents.  The Okharian war-cries turned to screams of pain and rage.

In the midst of the melee an Okharian officer appeared before Mankin.  Mankin glimpsed a tabard of red, and gold braid– a half-cohort commander– before the man swung his sword.  Mankin parried, counter-attacked, and was forced back by the man’s counter-parry.  Their swords spoke loudly together amid the chaos and noise.

Within moments Mankin knew he faced a well-trained swordsman.  The officer’s attacks were fast, precise and deceptive; Mankin barely countered two attacks that changed direction at the last moment.  The Okharian seemed to have wrists of granite, and his blade, a double-edged krahjana, flashed and turned like a willow stick in his hand.

But this was no fencing floor, and Mankin had learned his swordsmanship in a very practical school.  He parried, stepped in close and slammed the Okharian with his shoulder.  The officer grunted and stumbled backwards.  Mankin beat the krahjana aside and the point of his sword transfixed the Okharian through the heart.  The Okharian looked surprised; then he crumbled, sliding off Mankin’s blade.

Just yards in front of Mankin another group of Okharians burst out of the open wound of the postern gate.  A sharp report, then two more, and the Okharians went down in screaming heaps, suddenly bloodied and torn.  On the wall behind them Ganer and several other Khetuni were firing down into the mass of Okharians with culverins.  Ganer fired one of the hand-cannon into the crowd, snatched a newly loaded weapon from a soldier and fired again, all the while screaming curses Mankin could not hear over the din.

The blasts of scrap metal and stones tore the Okharians in front of Mankin apart, and the survivors wavered.  “Push them back!” Mankin yelled.  The Khetuni around him shouted and charged.  The Okharians still within the walls went down under their rush, or turned and fled the way they came.

Someone grabbed Mankin’s arm.  He turned, intending to kill them, but it was Master Sergeant Goma.  “Sir!  Don’t go out there!”

Mankin saw that the opening in the wall was clear of Okharians; he could look, over wreckage and piled bodies, right out into the defensive ditch.  “I have no intention of being that stupid, master sergeant,” he said, gasping.  “Get the men together, seal this hole up!  Stone blocks, head high, three deep.  Move fast, before they regroup!”

“You heard the captain– move!” Goma shouted to the men around them.

“Ganer!” Mankin shouted to the lieutenant.  “Keep them away from the wall while we get it blocked up!”

“Yes, sir!” Ganer called down.

Mankin stood, panting, and looked around as the troopers in the yard worked to seal the breach, or dealt with scattered enemy soldiers trapped in the fort.  Two or three Okharians threw down their weapons and surrendered; Mankin was pleased to see his men drag them away, disarmed but alive.  Other troopers moved among the piled enemy bodies to dispatch the wounded.

Goma came back, as troopers relayed stone blocks and began to fill in the breach.  “Sir,” he said, shaking his head, “I want you to understand I say this with all due respect, but you are flat crazy.”

Mankin tried to laugh, but it just came out as a shaky gasp.  “I won’t argue with you.”

 

The troopers sealed the breach much more quickly than Mankin would have thought possible.  In minutes, while Ganer and his culverins kept the Okharians at bay, the soldiers had a solid wall across the gap, with just enough space at the top to shoot through.  Mankin stationed culverin-men there– they could fire right down the passage and instantly turn it into an abattoir if the Okharians tried it again.  Mankin found it ironic– the passageway was more strongly protected now than it had been before.

Perhaps a whole section of Okharians, a hundred fifty men or more, had made it inside the fort.  Few had made it back out; a thick fan of dead and badly wounded Okharians covered the sand of the yard.  The troopers took a few more of the lightly wounded prisoner, but most they dispatched.  It was better that way, Mankin thought– most of the wounded had suffered ghastly injuries, particularly those hit by the culverins.  With the sun beating down he detailed men to haul the bodies up to the wall and toss them over.

He went down to the basement of Barracks Three and interrogated the new prisoners.  They were in the basement of Barracks Five, which was the fort’s brig in ordinary times and served well enough as a prisoner of war holding pen.  The Okharians were mostly sullen, as if resenting the Khetuni for letting them live.  Mankin tried to question them, particularly as to whether any guns were coming, but the prisoners either did not know anything about them or were supremely tight-lipped.

Leaving the prisoners, Mankin spoke with Otho.  There were ten more wounded Khetuni, one or two just clinging to life. Six men had died outright pushing the Okharians out of the fort.  Mankin chalked up the difference between the Okharian casualty total and the Khetuni to Ganer’s timely intervention with his hand-cannons.  He made a note to mention the boy’s initiative in the fort’s battle-log; that sort of enterprise needed to be rewarded.

Mankin took a turn around the wall and inspected the bastions.  The troopers had resupplied the guns and the bowmen; they sheltered as best they could from the sun but seemed pleased with how they had stood off the Okharians again.  Mankin greeted the men, particularly complimenting the culverin-men who had stood by Ganer to break the attack, reassuring anyone who asked that the relief column was truly on its way.

In part to confirm that for himself Mankin went up to the telegraph and sent Fort Hope another message, updating them, and Division, about the latest attack.  In minutes they got back a response that boiled down to relief enroute, hold at all costs.  Mankin swallowed a growing frustration; he possessed no practical means of shaking the answers he wanted out of Division, so he had to settle for what he could get.

With the failure of their attempt against the postern gate, the Okharians had pulled back from the western and northern walls and returned to the shelter of the riverside woodland.  A strange quiet fell over the fort, punctuated only by the screams and moaning of the enemy wounded outside the walls, and the sound of the of wind.  It had picked up, and shifted direction; Mankin recognized the change as heralding the jabhoon, the hot, dry evening wind that came out of the Dune Kingdom, which blew every third night or so in this season, and which brought added misery in its wake.  It would make the afternoon and night even more wretched, until it died away about midnight.  Mankin filed it away as one more thing he could do nothing about.

With the Okharians’ retreat to the woodland, Mankin found himself once more guessing at their movements.  More dust, and more glints of sun off of armor, but Mankin again couldn’t make much sense out of it all.  It did seem that formations were reforming out there, particularly to the northeast of the fort, but Mankin could not tell how many or in what strength.

Further afield, more dust clouds continued to march toward Fort Hope and Fror.  Mankin studied those clouds through a telescope set up in Bastion One.  It seemed if the entire Okharian army was being concentrated in this one corner of the kingdom, to gain a local advantage.  Logically, he doubted it, but looking at that dust it was hard to be logical.

He leaned against a crenel, trying to think.  Sixteen men was a comparatively small price to pay to keep the fort from being overrun, but it still stung.  It left two hundred and ninety-one men, and at least a third of those were gunners who would not leave their guns except in the last extremity.  Mankin redid the numbers in his head and worried about holding the walls.  Twice now Okharians had made it inside the fort, if only briefly.  If they continued their assaults, if they kept whittling away at the garrison, sooner or later they would make a breach and Mankin would not have enough men to contain them.

Relief column, relief column…if Mankin made it into a chant and burned incense, would it make the column march faster?  The faith Mankin had inherited from his mother had taught him to disdain outward rituals aimed at manipulating the divine, but, at the moment, he was willing to try anything.

 

To be continued…..

The Horseman, Part Two

Note to the reader: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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

They went up to the eastern wall.  The gunnery division had set up one of their bigger telescopes there, and some of the men from Bastion Three were clustered around, staring through it.  They hastily stood aside as Mankin and the others came up the stairs.

“You can see them, Cap’n,” Sergeant Denetoi said.

Mankin bent to look through the eyepiece.  With the sun up the land was warming rapidly, and the image in the lens wavered in the heat, but Mankin could still see the columns of infantry, with bright colored ensigns and battle-standards at the head of each cohort, coming down the roads from the eastern heights.  There were Okharian troops on the Cactus Road and the Scorpion Track, with a mile between them.  Sunlight glinted on spear-points, burnished helmets and armor.  Mankin knew Okharians were used to the heat, but he still imagined scale armor had to be torment.  Most Khetuni soldiers favored lighter leather and quilted armor, which were stifling enough.

Mankin counted the standards of twelve cohorts before giving up.  He stood back from the telescope and studied the horizon.  Yet more dust-clouds marred the eastern sky, many which seemed to angle off toward the northwest.  Fort Hope— and probably Fror-manu, as well.  If the Okharians took the city, they would cut off half the Khetuni Division of the Gar.  Holding Senso-marta would make little sense then, but it wasn’t a decision Mankin could make.

“There’s a deal of them, no doubt about it,” Master Sergeant Goma said.

Mankin turned to face the officers and the senior sergeants.  The two junior officers looked scared, the old sergeants resigned.  “They’ll be here in four to five hours,” he said.  “Cavalry sooner.  Artillery, if they have any, will be following behind.”  When the war had started the Okharians had barely any guns at all, but they had quickly caught up.  “If they’re anxious to take us they may try an infantry assault.  Otherwise it will be a waiting game.  The longer we hold them, the closer the relief column will get.”

“If there’s enough of them,” Goma said, “they might just swarm us.”

Lieutenant Ganer looked green; Hass looked as if he were about to cry.  “Maybe,” Mankin said.  “But they’ll pay a price getting across the fort’s killing ground, if we work the guns right.  Too high and we might just hold them off.”

Until their guns come up.  Mankin put the thought away.

This was the moment, he supposed, when he should something inspiring.  Nothing came.  Finally he said, “Everybody just do your job.  That’s the only way to hold this fort– and holding out for the relief force is our main hope right now.”  He paused, resisting the urge to wipe his hands on his trousers.  “Let’s get ready.”

 

He wrote out a report and had the signal team send it.  While he did the senior sergeants rearranged the guard on the wall, sending half down to rest in the barracks, and making sure fresh water was brought up the bastions. Mankin took a turn of the bastions, inspecting the guns one more time.  Then there was nothing to do but wait.

Mankin took himself to the hold-fast.  He sat down in the commandant’s office, in one of the messenger chairs, but not at the commandant’s desk.  He sat, soaking up the cool of the room, and tried to think.

Okharian cavalry, when they appeared, would not worry Mankin.  The fort’s guns would decimate any force attempting to approach the crossing, and cavalry could not assault a fortified position.  It was the infantry following on that were the first danger to the outpost.

Would they come prepared for an assault, with scaling ladders and petards?  Mankin had to assume they would– what was coming down from those eastern heights was no mere raiding party, but a coordinated offensive, obviously aimed at pushing the Khetuni right out of this province.  They would come fully prepared to scale the walls and blow in the gates.

There was a killing ground four hundred yards wide around the fort, except on the river side, where the trees lining the waterway came within two hundred yards.  Mankin was still confident that the bastions on that side would riddle any force taking shelter the woods, especially if the mortars lobbed bombs into the trees.  On the other side, the guns utterly dominated the open ground.  Even at a dead run enemy infantry would take two minutes to cross that space, and heavily armored Okharian regulars were not fast runners.

Mankin closed his eyes and pictured the assault from the viewpoint of a foot-soldier crossing that ground from the east.  Three bastions could bear on that ground.  With four guns a piece, each of which could land aimed shots on targets up to half-a-mile away, each firing three rounds a minute…the image didn’t bear thinking on.  From the limit of the guns’ range to the open ground, the Khetuni could rain down round shot and maybe a few mortar bombs at will.  The enemy’s formations would suffer cruel punishment before they even got close to the fort– but when they emerged out on the killing ground the guns would switch to grape, and the real slaughter would begin.  Any attack that tried to press to the walls of the fort would be bled white.

But if they come in enough numbers….  The Okharians had never been shy about using numbers to overcome Khetuni firepower.  If more than a few of those legions Mankin had glimpsed coming down from the eastern heights were sent against the outpost, they might just soak up everything the fort’s guns could hand out.  They might just be able to clamber over the dead and reach the outpost’s walls.  If that happened Mankin did not know if the garrison could repulse them.

But if the Okharians had guns, all his calculations might be amiss.  The Okharians were still integrating guns into their army.  Not all units could call upon artillery for support, and the quality of Okharian guns and the skill of their gunners varied greatly– Mankin had seen Okharian guns blow up and kill more Okharian soldiers than Khetuni.  But if enemy guns appeared outside the outpost, and if they were wielded with any amount of skill, they might well silence the fort’s own guns, knock the walls down and allow their infantry in.

It all depended, Mankin reasoned, on how badly the Okharians wanted this crossing.  The next crossing to the south was fifty miles away, and there the western side of the river was all difficult badlands.  Taking the Senso-marta crossing would allow the Okharians to move troops quickly up the Gar’s left bank and invest Khetuni positions on that side of the river, as well as cutting supply routes to the desert outposts.  Without it, they would have to fight their way past Fort Hope and Fror-manu, which were much tougher propositions than Senso-marta.  Mankin rather hoped the Okharians did not know that.  It wasn’t that he wished the Khetuni soldiers stationed there ill– far from it.  But being the target of too many Okharians at once was a fate Mankin fervently hoped to avoid.

The sound of guns interrupted his thoughts.  He grabbed his sword and ran for the door.

 

Bastions One and Three were firing as Mankin took the steps up the north wall three at a time.  He got to the top of the wall just in time to see Okharian cavalry, three hundred or so yards away, wheel away amid clouds of dust raised by the roundshot falling among them to ride back off to the northeast.  One, two more guns fired; the shot dropped among the horsemen.  Mankin saw one man and his mount go down in a spray of blood and torn flesh.

Then the horsemen were spurring hard away.  One more gun fired, but the shot tore the ground short of the enemy.  The Okharians sped away, raising a screen of dust behind them.

“Cease fire!” Mankin shouted, just as the crew of the third gun in Bastion Three cleared to fire.  “Cease fire!  They’re going.”

A moment’s silence fell over the north wall, and the gun crews were cheering.  Men thumped each other on the back and shook fists at the retreating Okharians.  “We sent ‘em packing!” someone shouted.

“How’d you like the taste of Khetuni iron, you bastards?” a private shouted after the riders.

“At ease!” Mankin shouted.  “They were just seeing if there was anyone at home.  They’ll be back soon enough, with infantry.  Reload and prepare the guns for the next round.”

The men stopped cheering and fell to work.  Ita came up to the top of the wall and urged his crews to their work with words far more emphatic and pungent than Mankin’s.  Mankin left the work in his hands, and watched the horsemen dwindle in the distance.  Just the opening act.  He went back down.

 

An hour later they saw the dust of marching men on the flat ground to their east.

Mankin used the telescope to study the approaching infantry.  He counted at least four cohort standards– a minimum of three thousand men, all aimed at the outpost.  As bad as that was, there was the possibility that the dust obscured yet more cohorts behind the lead units.  Worst case, Mankin reasoned, there was perhaps a half legion headed his way.  Despite the growing heat, it was as if he carried a lump of ice in his gut.

Goma rotated the men on the walls.  Mankin took one last turn around the bastions.  The men were solemn, quietly watching, speaking in low voices and only about the business at hand.  Goma went around the bastions on his own, briefing each gun crew on what to expect, how to wait the order to fire, telling them to work their guns steadily, by the count, and to stay focused on what they were doing and disregard any distractions.  Mankin hoped that last piece of advice wasn’t just wishful thinking; not all the men here were veterans who understood that the best chance anyone had to make it through a fight was to keep doing what needed to be done.

Soon enough they caught the notes of Okharian pipes and drums.  The steady beat of the drums particularly grew louder and louder, a rising throb of sound that seemed to hover over the fort like an ominous cloud.  The men listened, and Mankin thought that they steadied down even more.

“Rider!  There’s a rider coming!”

Mankin looked up at the shout, which came from Bastion One.  He ran up to the eastern wall close by the main gate and looked.  Yes, a small plume of dust, well ahead of the enemy infantry, marked a rider coming fast.  A larger cloud of dust followed the first.

“What does that fool think he’s doing, riding right at us?” one of the soldiers nearby said.

Mankin turned away from the parapet.  “Open the main gate!  It’s one of our scouts.”

Soldiers in the yard sprang to the gate.  They got it open just as Chure emerged from the scrub.  He flogged his horse without mercy across the open ground and stormed through the gate.  “Shut it!” he yelled.  “They’re close on my ass!”

Soldiers strained and shoved the gate shut, even as enemy horsemen appeared out of the scrub.  The Khetuni shoved the bars closed as a gun in Bastion Two fired.

Mankin didn’t wait to see if the shot scored any hits; he was dashing down the steps to the yard.  He reached the ground as Chure flung himself off his horse.  It was dismount, or have the horse roll on him, because the animal staggered and collapsed in utter exhaustion.

Chure staggered himself; Mankin caught him by the shoulders.  Chure was covered in dust, his aspect wild-eyed.  “Water, water, for the love of the gods,” he croaked.  His legs buckled and he sat down unceremoniously in the sand.

“Get him water!” Mankin ordered, as more guns fired.  A soldier ran and got a dipperful from the nearest barrel.  Chure drained it very nearly in one swallow, and another after that.

“Ease up,” Mankin said, “you’ll make yourself sick.”

“I’m all right now,” Chure said.  “It was just that last sprint– I had the entire Okharian army around me, and I don’t really know how I made it through.”  He coughed, wiped his blood-shot eyes with his hand.  “Pretty sure they caught Deman.”

“Tell me everything,” Mankin said.  “But make it quick.”

Chure shuddered, with exhaustion or fear or both.  “I made it up on the plateau before midnight.  That’s when my troubles started.  I dodged Okharian cavalry all night, and then I had to stay ahead of their infantry.  There’s a half-legion coming against us here, captain, I counted, but that’s just patch on what’s out there.  Full legions, Guards brigades, thousands and thousands of infantry, battalions of cavalry, batteries of guns.  Most are aimed right at Fror-manu, captain, they obviously mean to take the city.”

“I understand,” Mankin said.  “Does this half-legion have guns?”

“I didn’t see any, captain,” Chure said, “but that don’t prove nothing….”

Horns blared outside the fort’s walls.  The sound shivered down Mankin’s spine– it was the Okharian call to the attack.  It’s started.

Mankin stood.  “Sound stand-to!  Everyone to the walls!”

He went up the steps to the eastern wall, Chure forgotten.  Goma was there with Ganer and Hass.  The kids looked green, Goma grim.  “They’re deploying out in the scrub,” the master sergeant said. “Five hundred yards.  Looks like they’re going to try this side first.”

He spoke over the bugle call.  Troopers boiled out of the barracks below and up to the walls.  Swordsmen found their positions at the battlements, bowmen in the corners of the bastions, ready to enfilade advancing infantry with a cross-fire.  We’re as ready as we can be.  There was little comfort in the thought.

“Hass,” Mankin said, “go to each bastion, remind everyone to mind their sectors, no matter what happens over here.  This could be a feint, or they could be getting ready to hit us from two directions at the same time.  Go!”

The boy took off, dodging soldiers.  “Ganer,” Mankin said.  “You take command of the gate-houses.  Keep the bastards away from the gate.”

“Sir,” Ganer said.  He remembered to salute before sprinting away.

“Hold this section of the wall, Master Sergeant,” Mankin said.  “I will be in Bastion Three.”

“Sir,” Goma said.

Mankin dashed the thirty yards to the bastion.  Within it the gunners stood by their guns, ready; one additional gun was being run forward to the bastion’s front angle, to bolster the fire that would directly oppose the Okharian advance.  Ita, cussing and chiding, was directing the work.  Mankin stood on the battlement as the gunners levered the cannon into position and peered toward the Okharian formations, out in the scrub.  As Mankin watched the standards of four cohorts appeared above the brush, in a line that spanned two hundred feet.  The scrub was high enough that at this distance Mankin could only glimpse occasional flashes of sun off helmets and spear points.  It didn’t matter; he could see enough.  It’s a column assault.

“I need two runners!” he yelled.  He jumped down from the battlement, nearly stepping on the two junior privates who came running.  “You,” he said, pointing at one, “go to Bastion Two.  You,” he pointed to the other, “go to Bastion Four.  Tell the bastion captains to open fire on the Okharians at four hundred yards with round shot.  Aim for the standards– that will be the center of their formations.  When they reach the open ground switch to grape.  Spread the word along the walls– archers find and take out section and half-cohort commanders.  Everyone to stand by for an assault on the walls.  Go!”

The privates sprinted away.  Mankin found Ita at his elbow.  “Any better suggestions, Master Gunner?”

“No, sir,” the older man said, grinning, “I couldn’t have laid it out better myself.  Gunnery is really a simple business, sir– the enemy shows themselves, we blow them to pieces.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

The horns stopped.  Into the moment of ringing silence that followed flooded in the sound of hundreds of men’s voices crying “Okhar!”  Then the enemy drums thundered again, and the standards advanced.

“Here they come!” Ita shouted.  “Stand ready, wait the word!”

Mankin stepped back, out of the way of the guns and their crews, but still watching.  The gun crews were silent, waiting, tense.  The gunners’ matches on their linstocks smouldered; the rising smoke was nearly the only motion in the bastion.  The fort was a pool of silence compared to the noisy attack.

Mankin did numbers in his head.  At a steady walk it would take the Okharians more than a minute to cross one hundred yards.  In the thick scrub the enemy would be even slower.  Once they reached the open ground they would doubtless break into a run, but they would still be long seconds crossing those three hundred yards.  Once they reached the fort they would have to cross the outer ditch– not as deep as Mankin had wanted it to be– and then face the glacis– not as complete as Mankin would have liked.  Still, the enemy who reached the wall would have twenty-five feet of glacis and wall to ascend, with enfilading fire coming down on them.  Mankin sent a prayer to the Unchanging that it would be enough.

“Ready!” Ita cried, raising his arm, as the standards came on.  Mankin could see the brush being trampled down by hundreds of marching feet, a steady line trampling through the scrub.  He began to discern the forms of hundreds of individual men coming toward him, melded into a glinting line of iron.

“FIRE!” Ita shouted.

The first gun, Death’s Handmaiden, fired, a harsh crack! that compressed the air around Mankin and set his ears to ringing.  Serpent’s Kiss and Iron Reaper followed, each gun speaking with authority.  The wind bore the smoke to one side and Mankin saw the balls as they arced outward.  Handmaiden’s ball shot across the open ground and dived into the scrub, short of the enemy.  For a sliver of a heartbeat Mankin thought it was a miss; but the ball skipped off the ground, tore through the brush, and struck the enemy formation.  One of the standards wavered and fell; Mankin was sure he saw a man flung skyward.  Screams echoed across the ground.

Bastions Two and Four were firing, as well.  Shot tore into the enemy along their front.  Another standard toppled; a third was tossed in pieces into the air.  Dust and pieces of brush hurtled through the air; here and there bodies in armor followed.  Cries of agony and fear echoed between the roar of the cannon.

Ita was already lashing his crews with curses, urging them to greater speed as they swabbed out the guns, reloaded, and levered them back into firing position.  Mankin spared a second to admire that first shot– no miss at all, but skillful gunnery that maximized the damage to the enemy– before jumping in and helping haul Handmaiden back into position.

When he stepped back, he saw the enemy still coming on, closing the gaps in their ranks.  He had no trouble seeing the enemy formations now, despite the dust the shots had raised.  The two fallen standards had been once more lifted up, and for just a moment Mankin had to admire the courage of the men who had done so.  They knew full well that picking up the standards would make them targets of the Khetuni guns, but they did it anyway.

The gun captains spun the elevating screws of their weapons, depressing the barrels to track the closing enemy.  The captains each sighted along the barrels, raised a hand to indicate they were ready.

“Fire!” Ita yelled.

The guns fired again; with the other bastions firing there was a ragged rhythm to the speech of the cannons.  Shot fell now on the enemy without pause, and Mankin could see the shots tearing holes in the enemy lines, knocking men over or tearing them to pieces.  Screams of agony mingled with screams of “Okhar!” and still the Okharians came on.

“Load grape!” Ita yelled, and Mankin realized the Okharians would surely reach the open killing ground in the next few seconds.  He stepped to a fenestration to watch.  The enemy line, coalescing around the three remaining standards, came on with the steady pace that told Mankin they were regulars and veterans.  The enemy chanted as they came, “Okhar gershan!”– Okhar Victorious.  Mankin regretted what was about to happen.

“Ready!” the gun-captains yelled, in sequence.

“Stand by!” Ita said, his hand raised.  He watched the enemy advance, waiting for the precise moment.  His hand came down.  “Fire!”

The guns fired, one after the other.  The blasts, hurling hundreds of pebble-sized iron balls, struck the enemy line as it emerged from the brush.  In an instant the grapeshot ripped swaths in the enemy formations, tearing men apart by the dozens, wounding and kill many more.  The balls threw dust and blood both into the air.  It was shocking, even though Mankin had known what was coming, to see men converted into torn meat in a moment.  More screams, agonized, despairing.

Over the din Mankin heard a command shouted among the Okharians.  With wild yells, shrieking rage and bloodlust, the Okharians still on their feet all broke into a run.  In a moment the formations dissolved into a rushing mass of humanity, all seemingly aimed directly for Mankin.  He glimpsed one man, in the midst of the press, trying to get to his feet to follow, but falling over because his legs were gone from the knees down.

Other guns fired, tearing more gaps in the enemy mass.  The gun crews around Mankin worked to reload.  They’ll only get one more volley off— after that the Okharians would be too close.  The guns’ could not be depressed far enough to hit anything closer than seventy or so yards from the wall.

Then Mankin saw, in the midst of the crowd of running men, teams of soldiers carrying scaling ladders.

“Master Gunner!” Mankin called.  “I’m going down to the wall to make sure we’re ready to receive them properly.  Enfilade the bastards as best you can.”

“Take care, Captain!” Ita said.  To his men he bellowed, “Come on, you whoresons, get those guns into position.  You bastards got nothing but weak piss in your veins.  Pull so your grandchildren feel it!”

Mankin drew his sword.  He ran out of the bastion and down steps to the wall.  He passed bowmen shooting, taking aim and loosing, calling out targets to one another.  Swordsmen, huddled behind the palisade, waiting, got out of his way.

The guns behind him fired.  Mankin glimpsed fresh destruction among the Okharians, but already many of the enemy were at the counterscarp and scrambling down into the defensive ditch.  Their battle-cries, cursing and screams mingled and rose up to make his ears ring.

He’d thought to join Ganer in the near-gatehouse, but a knot of soldiers on the parapet blocked his way.  Sergeant Denetoi was among them, leaning over the inner edge of the wall, shouting, “Get those poles up here, now!”  Straightening up, he nodded to Mankin.  “How do, Cap’n!  Busy enough for you?”

“We’re about get even busier,” Mankin said.  Two privates came running up the near steps, carrying between them a long bundle wrapped in canvas.  They dropped it at Denetoi’s feet, and it clattered on the stone.  The sergeant whipped the canvas away and out rolled a bundle of long poles with metal forks on one end.

“Good!” Mankin said.  “Get these passed out along the wall.”

“Such was my thinking, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.  He flashed a crooked-toothed grin at Mankin.  “Think that’s worth a bump in pay?”

“Talk to me after we get through this.”  Mankin stepped to the battlement, peeked his head out a crenel and looked down.

Below him was a milling mass of Okharian soldiers, many pressed hard against the foot of the glacis.  Some were trying to scramble up it.  Many more enemy were still clambering over the counterscarp and trying to get through the ditch.  Teams carrying ladders struggled to bring them forward through the press.

A sharp crack— a steel-tipped arrow struck the stone by Mankin’s head and ricocheted into the air.  He hastily pulled his head back in, his skin tingling.  “Get ready, sergeant,” he told Denetoi.  “I need to get to the gatehouse.”

“Way for the cap’n!” Denetoi bellowed.  “Way, there!”

Mankin sidled past the troopers, ran up the steps of the near gate-house.  Inside the first level archers plied their trade through the narrow arrow-loops.  Mankin ran past them and up the circular steps to the upper level.

As he reached it there was a sharp bang that made his ears ring.  Ganer and a trooper pulled a smoking culverin back an open window.  The trooper swabbed it out with a wet rag and proceeded to reload it with powder and a odd assortment of junk– nails, pebbles, scraps of metal.  Ganer looked up at Mankin’s approach, grinning.  “Captain!  We’re killing them in bunches!”  The youngster wasn’t green anymore.  Another culverin went off, firing from a window in the front of the tower.  The men on this level seemed to be either handling culverins or shooting down on the enemy with bows.

“Keep it up,” Mankin said.  “Especially deal with the ladders.  They’ll be going up any second.  Have we cut the outer bridge?”

“Come see, sir.”  Ganer pointed to a window at the corner of the tower, overlooking the gate itself.  Mankin edged up to it and looked down.  The wooden bridge spanning the defensive ditch and leading to the outer gate lay in splintered ruins, with Okharians struggling amid the broken timbers.  Without that bridge it was an eight foot climb up to the outer gate, and at the moment Mankin couldn’t see anyone attempting it.  He looked out cautiously.  The enemy was now all along the eastern wall, with still more men coming, a great, crowded mass of men.

A bowman beside him loosed, and Mankin saw his target, a section-leader, sprawl backward, dead.

“Good shot!” Mankin said, and the bowman grinned.  To Ganer Mankin said, “Keep at it, lieutenant.  Tear those ladders apart!  I’m going to the other side of the gate.”

“Yes, sir!” Ganer said.  “Good luck.”

Mankin hurried through the tower and out on to the walkway that ran over the gate complex and connected with the south tower.  He had to steel himself to cross over it; the walkway was wooden, with only a shoulder-high parapet, so that Mankin had to run crouched over.  Arrows thudded into the boards beneath his feet as he ran, with others whistling overhead.

He reached the south tower and, entering, very nearly blundered into Sergeant Ven.  “Easy, sir, easy!” the sergeant said, almost laughing.

“Sorry, sergeant,” Mankin said.  “How are you faring?”

“We’re dealing out some hurt, sir,” Ven said.

The scene in the south tower was much the same as in the north; as Mankin turned away from Ven a trooper fired a culverin out a window, while other men loaded other guns, or shot arrows down at the enemy.  But here one bowman lay on the wooden floor, a pool of blood around him, the shaft of an arrow protruding from his eye.

Ven saw the direction of Mankin’s gaze.  “Yeah, Private Keru,” the sergeant said.  “Poor bastard always did have the worst luck.”

“Here come the ladders!” someone yelled.

“Keep your fire on them,” Mankin said.  He ran down the stairs to the lower level and out on to the wall south of the gate.

Emerging from the tower the noise of the assault stunned him; the cacophony of men screaming, yelling in rage, the banging of culverins from the gatehouse, the guns in the outlying bastions still firing, all combined into a din that was almost a physical thing.  As he dashed out on the parapet he saw troopers standing ready with forked poles.  Mankin stopped and risked another peek out a crenel.  He pulled his head back at once; there were Okharian archers, behind wicker shields, positioned on the far side of the ditch, and the brief appearance of his head drew a half dozen arrows that clattered and broke against the stones.  It had been enough, though; among the mass of men crammed up against the fort’s glacis, four or five ladders were in place, each being raised by dozens of hands.

“Here they come!” he said.

“We’re ready for them, sir,” the nearest sergeant said.  He and three other men hefted one of the forked poles.  Mankin sheathed his sword and joined them; the shaft of the pole was smooth and cool in his hands.

The top of a ladder appeared before them.  It wavered, as if the men raising it staggered under its weight, and then it came down against the open crenel with a sharp sound.  Mankin thought it strange that such an ordinary object should be so threatenting.

The soldiers holding the forked pole started to move forward with it, but the sergeant said, “No, no!  Wait until the bastards are on it!”

They all paused, with the sound of the battle washing over them.  Mankin had never waited for anything in greater agony.  It was worse because he could see the ladder flexing as it took the weight of the men climbing it.  He liked his lips and gripped the pole harder.

The ladder flexed once more, and then Mankin saw the burnished dome of an Okharian helmet coming into view.  It came up the ladder, and below it followed a brown, bearded face.  The Okharian looked right at Mankin, blinking in surprise.

“Now!” the sergeant yelled.  The Khetuni all pushed forward; the fork caught the ladder’s top rung, right below the Okharian’s chin.  They all shoved hard, and the ladder went back and back and back.  The Okharian made one, scrabbling grab at the stone of the crenel, and then he disappeared.  Screams, from dozen men falling backward, cut above the din.

Cheers erupted all along the wall; Mankin looked down its length and saw only Khetuni soldiers.  He puffed out a breath in relief; not a single Okharian had gotten over the wall.

“Well done!” Mankin told the men with him.

A bugle call.  It took Mankin a moment to recognize it– enemy within the walls.  “Dammit!”  It had to be on the northern side of the gate.  He turned and ran.

He tore up through the south tower, crossed the walkway as arrows flew, and practically flew down the steps of the north tower.  The bowmen and culverin-men there were shooting like mad as he passed them; Ganer didn’t look up from the window through which he was firing to even acknowledge Mankin’s passage.

Mankin came out on the wall and was confronted with chaos.  Khetuni and Okharians struggled and stabbed at one another at close quarters on the parapet, literally hand-to-hand and face-to-face.  Some grappled as if wrestling for a prize, rather than their lives.  More Okharians were coming up two ladders, close together in the middle of the section of wall.

Attau!” Mankin yelled, without thinking.  He parried an Okharian’s sword, beat it aside, killed the man.  Another Okharian had a Khetuni soldier down on the parapets stone, a dagger poised to stab.  Mankin kicked the Okharian in the side of the head, and the Khetuni private got his hand free and stabbed the fellow in the ribs.

For the next minute or so the world was nothing but a blur of faces, some friendly, some not, and the ring of steel on steel.  Mankin killed two more men before he reached the nearest ladder.  An Okharian decarion was coming up it, had his foot on the stone of the crenel.  Mankin stabbed him in the groin, and the man fell backward with a shriek and disappeared.

Attau!” Mankin yelled.  This time the cry was answered, “Tinu!” and there was Denetoi, bellowing, wielding a two-handed blade like a willow-wand, in a space Mankin would have sworn would not have let anyone get a good swing started.  An Okharian turned to face Mankin, and Denetoi took the man’s head off, the blade striking sparks on the battlement behind him.

“Help me!” Mankin said.  Together they used their swords, pushing at the ladder.  At first Mankin thought they didn’t have enough leverage, but then it started to move, and then it was falling backward.

“Look out!” Mankin yelled.  Denetoi ducked and Mankin reached over the sergeant’s head and stabbed the Okharian coming up behind him.

“Thankee, Cap’n!” Denetoi gasped.  He was blood-spattered but unhurt.

There was still one more ladder.  Mankin stepped past Denetoi, but from the other side of the parapet came Master Sergeant Goma.  He yelled, swinging one of the forked poles.  He brained one Okharian, pushed another off the parapet, and reached the ladder.  Mankin took two steps and grabbed the pole as well as Goma set the fork against the top rung.  The master sergeant was grinning, and that rendered his face wild and frightening, splashed as it was with blood.  “Always best to do it yourself, right, captain?”

“Push!” Mankin said, having no breath to spare for a clever rejoinder.  He and Goma pushed, grunting– Mankin wondered if the Okharians on this were particularly heavy– and then the ladder was going backward.  It teetered and disappeared.

There was cheering along the parapet, as Mankin leaned against a battlement to catch his breath.  Other Khetuni pressed in, and the few Okharians still on the wall were hemmed in and cut down, one after the other.  Khetuni swordsmen kicked the bodies off the wall, leaving only their bloodstains.

The roar of an explosion– for a moment Mankin thought the Okharians had exploded a petard on the base of the wall, for the blast seemed to go right past his face.  In the next moment, though, he realized it had come from Bastion Three.

“What the hell?” he said.

“Look, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.  He was leaning perilously out of one of the crenels, looking out and down.  “Old Ita’s served them up good!”

His stomach jumping, Mankin dared to do as much as Denetoi was doing.  As he did he suddenly understood what had happened.

The Okharians below were fleeing, with no hint of order or formation.  Men scrambled out of the ditch and ran away, some carrying wounded comrades, as Khetuni bowmen shot arrows and jeers after them.  At the foot of the wall lay a tangled mass of torn and broken bodies, along with the shattered remains of the scaling ladders.  The pile of bodies, lying all along the glacis, heaved and stirred as Mankin watched– wounded men trying to extricate themselves from the heap.  Other wounded crawled or dragged themselves out of the ditch to follow their retreating brothers, or tried to.  Mankin saw one Okharian drag himself out of the ditch, his back obviously broken, only to collapse in the dust and not move again.

As he watched the Okharians on the south side of the gate appeared as well, retreating in somewhat better order than those on the north side, but retreating nevertheless.  Arrows from the towers and the wall pursued them.  And all along the wall the Khetuni soldiers cheered.

Mankin looked to his left.  On the southern face of Bastion Three a gun’s muzzle smoked.  It was aimed sharply downward, pointing at the foot of the eastern wall.  Firing, it had raked the whole length of the glacis to the north gate tower, and broken the Okharians.

“I’ll be damned,” Mankin said.

 

“One of the lads had the idea,” Ita told Mankin.  They were both standing beside the gun, looking out over the slaughter below.  “It took us a while to horse Fire Talker around and get her arranged.  We had to cut out part of the lower gun carriage to allow her enough depression.”  The master gunner sighed.  “Altogether too long.”

“Don’t fault yourself,” Mankin said.  “If you hadn’t figured it out when you did, they might have tried their ladders again, or figured out how to blow in the main gate.”

“Well, it’s not an experiment we can repeat,” Ita said, with obvious regret.  “She wasn’t meant to take the recoil that way; the mounts are busted at the trunnions.”  Indeed, the gun’s barrel was lying askew within the frame of its carriage.  Ita shook his head.  “We don’t have that many guns.”

One of the cannons in the bastion fired.  The shot whispered away and dropped six hundred yards out, kicking up a pall of dust.  It was harassing fire, designed to keep the Okharians at a distance, particularly their archers.  The battery commander, at that moment, was watching the fall of the shot and calling corrections to the next gun being prepared for firing.  A gun in bastion Four fired, added its endorsement to Bastion Three’s opinion.

“Well, the Okharians don’t know that,” Mankin said.  “They won’t risk being served up the same way again.  They’ll try something different next time.”

It was obvious that the Okharians had not left, despite the repulse of their first attack.  Men and formations were in movement out there, outside the effective range of the fort’s guns.  Mankin, even with a telescope, could not make much sense of it all through the dust and the shimmering heat, but it was plain that the Okharians were working on some other approach to the fort.

But still no guns.  Mankin took some comfort from that fact.

“As may be, captain,” Ita was saying.  “But, with all due respect, that’s your worry.  Me, I’ll make the rounds of the bastions and make sure the lads are all ready and watching.”

“Good,” Mankin said.  “I’ll be in the hold-fast.  Time to send some more telegraphs.”

Mankin went down into the yard.  The interior of the fort was as busy as for a general inspection.  Guns were reloaded and repositioned, powder resupplied, arrow supplies replenished.  Troopers worked to throw Okharian bodies within the fort out over the wall, and to carry away their own dead.  Fifteen Khetuni were dead, twice that number wounded.  The lower barracks had been made into the fort’s infirmary; the medicus and his assistants were there now, extracting arrowheads and suturing sword-cuts.

That number of casualties worried Mankin.  This morning there had been three hundred and fifty-two men ready for duty in the outpost, once Lyon and his minions had departed for regions unknown.  Forty-five dead and wounded was more than one in ten men out of action, at the very start.  The outpost could not sustain that rate of loss for very long.

At least Mankin could treat his wounded in the cool of the barracks.  Outside the eastern wall dozens of wounded and maimed Okharians lay out under the ferocious sun now scorching the sand and rock.  The injured men screamed, or begged for help.  It didn’t really make a difference that they cried in Okharian– you didn’t need a translation to understand what they were saying.  Some were still trying to crawl away; at intervals Khetuni bowmen keep watch on the wall and in the bastions would shoot them– now not out of cruelty or even cold military calculation, but out of mercy.

Some of the men had asked permission to go out and either put the enemy wounded out of their misery or to bring them in as prisoners.  Mankin had refused; he did not want to open the gates for even a moment as long as the Okharians lingered in the neighborhood, and he certainly didn’t want any of his men outside the protection of the walls.  He told himself it was the best decision he could make, but that self-assurance didn’t stop the cries from outside the walls.

The sun hammered Mankin as he walked to the hold-fast.  At least two of the wounded had been brought down, not by enemy action, but by the heat.  Mankin had made sure that the water points on the wall had been replenished, and that Goma was rotating a third of the men down out of the sun for a half-hour at a time.  That would end the moment the Okharians attacked again, but in the meantime it would help keep the men refreshed and ready.

He entered the hold-fast and went up to the telegraph.  He sat in the shade of the hut and composed a new message–

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: First Officer, First Senso-marta Outpost

Besieged by at least one half-legion of enemy infantry.  First assault has been repulsed, garrison casualties one-in-ten at this hour.  Fort is unbreached but expect second assault at any time.  No enemy forces have yet crossed the Gar.  Report from scout indicates large enemy forces on the march toward Fort Hope and Faro-marsa.  Request information regarding relief column.  Please relay further orders as needed.

Mankin didn’t find the message very satisfying– it didn’t seem to adequately convey just how tight a crack the outpost was in.  On the other hand, it was strictly factual, and the Army frowned on hysterics in communications to higher command.  Mankin would have been willing to engage in hysterics if that would speed the relief column to them, but he doubted it would have made any difference.

The signal team wigwagged the message.  When they finished Sergeant Bors bent his eye to the telescope.  “Fort Hope acknowledges receipt, captain.”

Mankin sighed.  “Very well.”

 

To be continued….