Category Archives: Fiction

Sunday Photo Fiction – August 13th 2017- Memento

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction flash challenge for August 13th 2017– 200 words based on this image–

208-08-august-13th-2017

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“He needs to grow up,” Jason’s step-father said, finishing off his eggs.

“It’s only been six months, William,” Jason’s mother said.

“And he keeps carrying that stupid toy around, Amanda,” William said.

“His father gave it to him,” Amanda said.

“Still, sooner or later he needs to man-up.”  William said.  He stood, draped his suit jacket over his arm and picked up his briefcase.  “Shareholder briefing today, don’t wait dinner for me.”

“All right.”

Jason heard the front-door close behind William.  Neither of them had seen him.  He was getting good at not being seen.

He went upstairs.  September sunshine shone in his room—school would start soon.  He lay down on his bed.

He opened his hand and stared at the little blue TARDIS in his palm.  He remembered—a crisply cold winter’s night, the Milky Way an arch of diamonds stretching across the sky above them.

“There, son, there’s Pleiades, and next to it is Taurus the Bull—see the two horns?—and there, see those three stars in a row?  That’s the belt of Orion the Hunter.  Find Orion’s belt and you can find your way around the whole sky.”

Jason closed his hand on the TARDIS.

Sunday Photo Fiction – August 6th 2017- Shortcut

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for August 6th 2017— two hundred words based on this image–

12-j-hardy-carroll-06-august-2017
© J Hardy Carroll

Copyright 2017 Douglas A. Daniel

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“It’s temporary,” the cop said, standing in front of the sign.  “A technical difficulty in the lab.  Please cross to the other side of the street.”

“Damn it,” Underwood said.  “The office is just over there.”

“Still, we’d better listen,” Hancock said.  “Situations like this, cops don’t mess around….”

“It’s just some construction hold up,” Underwood said.  “The lab’s not even finished, and they have a technical problem?”

“Come on,” Hancock said.

He started across the street.  Underwood turned as if to follow, then dashed behind the cop and up the sidewalk.

“Jim!” Hancock said.

“Hey, you!” yelled the cop.

Underwood grinned over his shoulder, and walked on.  He’d be in the office before slow-coach Hancock got to the door.

Midway up the block he reached the lab’s delivery entrance.  Without thinking he glanced to his left.

Over the building shimmered a silver disk of light.  Underwood stared; it was as if he could glimpse a different sky through it.

The cop yelled again from behind him.  The disk of light pulsed; brilliance surrounded him.

He had time to take in a shocked breath of warm, moist air before he caught sight of the Tyrannosaurus Rex bearing down on him.

Sunday Photo Fiction – July 30th 2017- Talking Heads

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for July 30th 2017– two hundred words based on this image–

207-07-july-30th-2017
© A Mixed Bag 2009

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It is poorly preserved,” Dr. Angg said.  “The slackness of the jaw, the orange tinge of the skin— you’d think even a hundred years ago the curators could have done better.”

I said nothing.  Angg was the Imperium’s leading expert in xenobiology and off-world artifacts.  We had found the alien head in among old displays in the museum’s archive.  There were many relics of humanity’s early, freebooting days in interstellar space in the vaults.  There were alien weapons, and strange religious artifacts, and more than a few trophies of the vicious wars of that era.  Angg and I had already examined a collection of Te’measkini scalps, gathered by the members of the Fifth Punitive Expedition.  It was gruesome stuff, and offensive to modern sensibilities.  Inclusion of multitudinous species was now Imperial policy, and we had been charged with cleaning out the collection.

“How do you think it died?” I asked Angg.

“Probably a victim of the Rilhalan War,” Angg said.  “The species looks correct.  Huge beings, they were—doubtless the head was taken as a trophy, and the body left to rot.”

“A lot you know, buddy,” the head said, as it sprouted spidery legs and scuttled off.

Sunday Photo Fiction – March 12th 2017- The Suit

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for March 12th 2017— 200 words inspired by this image–

spacesuit
© A Mixed Bag 2012

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It’s all old junk,” Clark said.  “The museum stores it here.”

I saw shapes in the darkness— a LEM mockup, dead animatronic dinosaurs, empty helium cylinders, a spacesuit.

“They have to keep the exhibits fresh,” Clark said.  “Kids like flash and bang.  Their parents want to see something new, or they won’t spring for a membership.”

“That’s a real spacesuit,” I said.

Clark looked.  “Yeah– we got a couple of those surplus.  Time for lunch.”

“Can I stay for a second?” I asked.

“Okay– just don’t mess with anything.”

He left.  I stepped closer to the suit.  Now or never.

The suit was on a standing rack.  I unzipped the main closure.  I wriggled my feet and butt inside, then angled my head into the helmet.  I slipped my arms into the sleeves.  I closed the zipper.

The inside of the suit smelled like a locker-room in need of disinfectant.  No matter.

I waited.  For a moment I thought I had miscalculated.

My stomach lurched.  I floated in blackness. I spun; stars and then Saturn came into view.  I looked down on the rings from about nine hundred thousand kilometers.

“Agent Fifteen-Q-zed,” I called.  “Ready for retrieval.”

PRINCESS OF STARS UPDATE #7

Yes, a progress report on Princess of Stars, something that hasn’t happened in over a year.  That’s because, effectively, there has been no progress.  To be precise, I have written, re-wrttten, cut, deleted, re-purposed, re-arranged, laid the story down in the despair, hovered on the edge of deleting everything and un-publishing the first four Divine Lotus novels, considered giving up writing entirely, written some more and deleted that– with the net effect being that I have been more-or-less cycling around the same point in the story for more than twelve months.  Throw in some clinical depression and about three major life-changes (which are still all working themselves out) and completing this novel has been a goal that has seemed far, far out of reach.

What has changed?  Nothing seismic. There’s been no epic epiphany, nor sea-change in my writing.  Just a couple of small things that seem to be helping me get unstuck.

Firstly, I think I have hit upon a means to finesse some of my inability to get past my blockage.  In my flibbertigibbet way of doing drafts, I normally write passages out-of-sequence, working on later or earlier passages in the narrative when I’m stuck somewhere.  Knitting it all together into a coherent story is what happens in the second draft.  This time around, however, I am doing something a little different; I am writing the story with the intention of not necessarily adhering to a linear timeline for the action– and, in the process, I am not worrying my pointy little noggin too much about connecting passages and such what.  It seems to be helping.  The finished product may look quite different from the other Divine Lotus novels, but the whole point of this is to get to a finished product, and I’m getting kinda ruthless in pursuit of that result.

Secondly, I think I’ve finally reached the acceptance stage of grief over my writing.

When I started, rather late in life, to write in a serious way I thought that I was pretty good.  The process since then has been a slow coming to terms with the fact that I will never be anything more than mediocre.  There’s a reason why no editors ever accepted any of my over-the-transom submissions, nor any agent ever took me on.  I’m just not that good.

It’s been hard for me to get to this place.  I spent a long, long time in the denial stage (ain’t just a river in Egypt, folks).  I think I passed through anger and bargaining pretty quickly, and then spent a very long time in depression.  It didn’t help that my depression wasn’t just about my writing, either.  The last twenty or so years have been hard in many ways, lightened here and there by friendships and the arrival of my daughter (make that the glorious and splendid arrival of my daughter, but I digress…..).

I may- may-be coming out of that stage.  As I mentioned, there have been some serious life-changes, and those may be helping.  The jury is still out.  But I believe I’m done with illusions about myself and my writing.

I will never have much of an audience; I will never make much money at this; and it’s very doubtful anyone will ever make a movie out of any of my works.  If any of this were to happen, I would be pleasantly surprised and give God the glory– but I have to stop holding my breath over it.  I’ve been getting dizzy….

Having said that, I’ve gotten to the point where I want to finish this story and the others still in my head, for my sake and for the story itself.  It’s not going to be great literature and it’s not going to wow the masses.  But I think the story is worth completing.

So– 49,000 words out of a projected 150,000, not quite one-third.  I am finally on the verge of getting Kathy on the road in pursuit of the Lady Rose Adamant– yes, the core action is a chase– and hopefully I will be able to report solid progress from here on out.  Not that there won’t be missteps and recalculations– knowing me, it’s pretty much guaranteed.  But I think I see a path forward, and that’s progress.

Later.

Oh, and PS– I got to use the word selbstgefällig today in the story.  I am so jazzed…..

 

 

 

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 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 of 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.

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 Two

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

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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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….