Category Archives: novel

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…..

 

 

 

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And now, on a completely different note, a few words about “The Horseman”

In case there’s anyone out there who cares, I missed last week’s installment of The Horseman, and I will probably miss this week’s.  The reason has to do with how I do first drafts.

I keep hearing about writers who outline everything about a story ahead of time, who know what’s going to happen to each character, who understand where each beat and turn of the the story will fall.  People for whom– allegedly– the writing of a story is merely a process of fleshing out the action.

That ain’t me.

My process is, quite simply, discovery of the story by writing it.  Usually, I have a general idea of the story’s action, some of the characters, and almost always how the story ends, but writing to get to that ending is typically a long process, often involving many doubts, much second-guessing, detours, re-routes and reboots.  Writer’s block is a familiar, if unwelcome, companion.  This is a major reason Princess of Stars has not progressed; I have been essentially stuck at one point in the narrative for about a year, until recently unable to understand how Kathy gets to a particular, but essential, change in attitude.  I may– may— have figured out in the last few days a way to finesse the problem.  We’ll see.

This is, frankly, not a particularly rational process.  I feel my way through an unlit cavern to discover the shape of my story, and wrong turns are common.  I have at times gone five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand words down a path, only to realize it’s not working– the action is wrong for the character, or it doesn’t make sense, or it negates something else I’ve already written, or intend to write and which feels essential.  I have novels for which I have thrown away nearly as much as I have kept.

This is where I am at with The Horseman.  In attempting to push on past Part Eight I realized that how I handled Parts Seven and Eight did not ring true.  If I were doing this first draft properly, in private far from the tender eyes of readers, I could quietly eighty-six the failed passages and redirect the narrative.  Since I am committing the sin of presenting raw story, the uglier aspects of the process are, of necessity, laid bare as well.  Basically, Parts Seven and Eight must be retconned.  I am working on the changes at this moment.  But it will be a little while before I can re-post the parts and resume my forward progress.  For the time-being, The Horseman is on hold.

The silver-lining on this, of course, is that out of all the problems facing the world at the moment, the delay of this story is just about Number 178,289,129,367.  It’s good to keep things in perspective.

Later.

 

The Horseman- Part Eight

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

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not allowed,” Left-hand said.

“Yes, it is,” Right-hand said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gentlemen….” Mankin said.

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

“You’re the stupid one!”

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

“I ought to pound you…..

“Just try it!”

“Silence!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Told you,” Garana said.

“Oh,” Tikomuni said, abashed.

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

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Garana said.

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Tikomuni said.

“Very well,” Muri said.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Tikomuni said, with obvious impatience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Certainly,” Mankin said, hiding his surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He knows things,” Garana said.

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

To be continued…..   

 

 

 

 

The Horseman, Part Seven

Warning: this piece contains violence and vulgar language.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain?  Where’s my father?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Marsh murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

“Who’s asking?” Kass demanded.

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Mankin asked.

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

“Sir…,” Kass said.

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

“They’re up to something,” Kass said.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it give you much pain?”

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

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

“Consul…,” Masanata started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you read it?” Gonatani said.

“Why, yes, lord,” Mankin said.

“Please do,” Gonatani said.

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

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

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

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

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

What is this all about? 

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

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

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

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

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

 

To be continued…..

The Horseman, Part Six

Warning: this piece contains sexual situations.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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

Part Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” a major said.

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

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

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

“No, sir,” was the general response.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s hard,” Janie said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But bad enough?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But not always happily,” Thane replied.

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

“You were happy with Mother,” Thane said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thane sighed.  “I’m sure we will.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Dala said.  “Hold me.”

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

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

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

“I know,” Dala said, resigned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Thane said.  “I am sorry.”

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

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

 

To be continued…..

The Horseman, Part Five

Warning: this piece has graphic violence and language

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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

Part Five

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

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

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

Her mind cleared.  She understood what had awakened her.

It’s begun.

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

We will give birth—or die trying.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” Goma said.

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

“Mortars!” Mankin yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The outpost would send no more messages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I saw,” Goma said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get back, Cap’n!” Denetoi said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Khetuna!  Give us your answer!”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did,” Kunatara said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To be continued….

The Horseman, Part Four

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

Copyright Douglas Daniel 2016

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Gero said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Damnation!” Ita said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, look!” Goma said, pointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir!” Goma said, with enthusiasm.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tah.  I’m sorry, sergeant.”

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

“But you went to the Lyceum in Alisan.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely, sir.”

 

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

“I agree, sir,” Goma said.

“You should get some rest,” Mankin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Goma said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mankin slowly smiled.  “I suppose not.”

 

To be continued….

 

The Horseman, Part Three

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

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Karu said, glum.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yet you are here, and killing us.”

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

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

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

“I know nothing of that,” Gerutana said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mankin took the scrap of paper–

To: Commander, First Senso-marta Outpost

From: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir!” Ganer called down.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To be continued…..

The Horseman, Part One

Well, here I go again.  My record for posting serial fiction on this blog has been mixed, at best, but I want to give it another whirl.  This is another iteration of the story of Mankin the horseman and swordsman, this time in a little different context that hopefully will be a little more engaging.  I will try to post parts weekly; the parts will not be chapters, strictly speaking, but good-sized sections of the narrative where the action seems to break naturally.  This will be a long story,  and at the moment I have only about 30,000 words down out of a guesstimate of about 150,000.  In other words, I will be scribbling as fast and as furiously as I can to keep ahead of my posting schedule.

Warning: this story contains military violence, sexual situations and coarse language.  It will also, of necessity, be essentially a first draft, so I beg the reader’s indulgence for errors and inconsistencies.

Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel

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Mankin stepped out of the blaze of the afternoon sun, into the comparative cool of the fort’s central holdfast.  Outside the parade square was empty and dusty; the walls of the outpost shimmered with the heat.  The guard-mounts on top of the walls all sheltered beneath awnings, and Mankin hardly blamed them.

He removed his hat and mopped his brow.  No one in the desert outposts wore the standard Khetuni Army cap; the close-fitting black wool made it feel as if you had an oven on your head.  Instead, they’d all adopted variations of Okharian head-gear, broad-brimmed to shade their eyes and face.  Mankin favored it for a personal reason; it reminded him of the head coverings of his mother’s homeland, the Attau Reach.  A place that seemed almost mystical here, whose mists and clouds and snow– snow— had to be legends concocted by men whose world was all sun and sand and heat.

His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the guard-room.  One soldier, the orderly, sat behind the desk, scratching away in a day-log.  Sergeant Kass– Mankin nodded as the sergeant stood and saluted.  “Hot enough for you, sir?” Kass asked, grinning.

“We left ‘hot enough’ behind three days ago,” Mankin said.  “All that’s lacking now is some seasoning before we’re all done to a turn.”  He pointed with his chin, down the corridor that led further into the holdfast.  “The Commandant in?”

“Yes, Cap’n,” Kass said.  “He’s in the well-room.”  The sergeant shuffled his feet, scratched his nose.  “Need to tell you, sir, he’s started his evening libations a little early.”

Damn it.  “All right, sergeant, thank you.  Best forewarned, as usual.”

“Better you than me,” Kass said.  “Sir.”

Commandant Lyon lay on a stone bench beside the tricking spring, a wet cloth spread across his face.  Beside him on the floor was an uncorked jug.  Mankin could smell the liquor from the doorway.

Mankin allowed himself a moment to stand there and soak up the cool.  Of necessity the forts the Khetuni had built along the frontier with the as-yet unconquered regions of Okhar had been largely designed according to Okharian standards– thick, white-washed walls, towers that collected and concentrated cooling breezes in building interiors, and a room in most houses where flowing water cooled the air further.  Otherwise, Mankin reckoned, the Khetuni could never have held the pacified portion of Okhar for as much as a single summer, much less ten years.

Even with those adaptations, Mankin wondered how much longer they could hold what they had taken.  But that was a question no one spoke aloud.

Mankin stepped into the room. “Commander,” he said.  When that produced no response, he said, more loudly, “Commander!”

Lyon started, waking.  He raised himself up on one elbow, and groaned.  “Damn it,” he muttered.  “I thought it was someone important.  What do you want, half-breed?”

Mankin breathed deep before replying.  “The scouts are back, sir.”

“So– what of it?” Lyon said.  He reached for the jug.

“Casen on says there’s sign to the east– heavy cavalry, and lots of it.  Tracking to the north.”

“So?” Lyon said.  He hefted the jug, took a swig.  “That’s nothing new.  We’ve got Okharian cavalry sniffing around most days.”

“Casen says this looks like a lot more than the usual raiding party,” Mankin said.  “Orgun says there’s heavy dust and smoke to the south.  He pushed as far as the Tika and saw empty steads in the river-bottom.”

“Orgun is a useless Yetishi cunt,” Lyon said.  “Nearly as useless as you, you Attau shit.”

Says the man who can’t wipe his own ass.  Mankin sighed instead of saying it.  He stepped closer.  “Sir, I think there’s something afoot.”

“Who says I’m interested in what you think?” Lyon said, wiping his lip.

“Perhaps not, sir, but I think we need to take precautions,” Mankin said.  “I’m requesting your approval to send out Deman and Chure for another round of scouting.  We need to find out what’s happening.”

“It’s your imagination, or the sun has addled what passes for your brain.”

That certainly might be true.  “Better to be on the safe side, sir,” Mankin said.  “I also recommend the fort going on alert and putting fresh charges in the guns.  If something is afoot we need to be ready.”

Lyon glared at him, took another drink.  “All right, if it will get you to leave me alone.  Do what you think is necessary.  Just don’t stir the garrison up too much.  It’s too damned hot.”

“That much, sir,” Mankin said, “we can agree on.”

 

He crossed the sun-blazed yard and entered the second barracks.  The deep cool of the inner billet was a blessing.  Most of the off-duty troopers from First Company were here, idling the time away with sleeping, talking, or working on their kits.  In one far corner a rather low-key game of dice was in progress, with a blanket spread on the floor.  Mankin pretended not to notice and the gamesters didn’t even look up.

Kasen and Orgun both sat on the edges of their bunks.  They were still dirty and sweat-stained from their scout; both appeared to be merely reveling in being out of the sun, and too tired to think yet of washing up.  Around them stood the other men of the scout section– Deman, Chure, Juken and Decarion Sur.  Mankin had asked a lot of these men in the last few days; he was sorry he was about to ask even more.

“Captain,” Sur said.  “What word?”

“I got Lyon’s approval to send Deman and Chure out on another scout,” Mankin said.  “Sorry, lads, but you’ve got the duty now, and we have to find out what’s happening.”

“I’ll tell you what’s happening, sir,” Kasen said.  “That was no partisan cavalry I tracked.  It was regular heavy cavalry, well-shod, and lots of them.”

“I believe you,” Mankin said, “and once I’m done talking to you lot, I’m going up the telegraph and wig-wagging the news down the line.  Okharian cavalry going around our northern flank has to be headed toward Fror-manu and the bridge over the Jade.  Heavy raid or something worse, it’s bad news.  All the more reason for another scout.”

“Well, I haven’t been getting enough sun,” Deman said.  “Need to improve my tan.”

Mankin grinned.  “You’ve got a smart-mouth, Deman, anybody ever tell you that?”

“Just my lady friends,” Deman said, grinning in turn.

“Actually, sir,” Chure said.  “About when we start out….”

“What is it?”

“If Casen and Orgun are right….”

“You doubt it?” Casen said, scowling.

“…which I’m sure they are, we might be under observation right now.  There’s half a dozen high places within five miles from which a man with a glass could watch us easily.”

“I know,” Mankin said.  The placement of the fort had always worried him.

“Might be best to wait to set out until dusk, when the last of the sun will still be dazzling anybody watching from the east.  We’ll lose some time, but we’ll cover more ground in the cool of the night, and the Bone Moon is up, anyway.”  Chure nodded.  “All due respect to my cousin’s love of the sun.”

Mankin considered it.  “All right.  But push hard once you’re away.  If you run into anything, imitate lightning getting back here.”

 

Mankin went out to find the master sergeant, Goma.  He found him at his own desk, working on his own daily reports.  Mankin reflected that if Goma had been a drunken incompetent like Lyon, the fort would have fallen months before.  Goma grumbled at forcing his men to work in the heat, but when Mankin told him the scouts’ reports he agreed at once to putting fresh charges in the guns, and having the garrison go on half-alert in their billets.  As Mankin left Goma was putting on his own broad-brimmed hat to go out and speed the work along.

Mankin went out and watched the work, even helping lever one of the forty-eight-pounders back so the gunners could draw the shot and charge from it, and reload it afresh.  The work took a good portion of the afternoon, and when it was done Mankin was glad to go down to drink deep from the barrack-well.

There was still plenty of daylight left, though, when he climbed up to the northern bastion to the telegraph station.  He roused the signal corporal drowsing in the shade of the signal hut, then sat down in the shade himself to compose a message to be relayed up the line to Division.  As he wrote the corporal sent prepare for message, the wooden signal arms clattering overhead.  “Fort Hope reports they are ready to receive our message,” the corporal said.

“Almost finished,” Mankin said.

He wrote–

 

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: Commandant, First Senso-marta Outpost

Scouts report large body of regular Ohkarian cavalry passed due west of our position within the last day, apparently heading north.  Possible enemy activity along the Gar.  No contact at this hour, further scouting parties are being dispatched, garrison on alert.  Will report any developments.  Relay any orders.

 

Mankin knew how thin it sounded– no actual contact, tracks in the sand, ‘possible’ enemy action.  He hoped the paucity of details wouldn’t cause Division to ignore the report as someone’s jittery nerves.

He passed the message to the corporal, who began wigwagging the telegraph arms.  Mankin watched through the signal commander’s telescope.  The air shivered with heat in the glass, but he could still make out Fort Hope, six miles away, or at least its signal tower.  The brightly painted signaling arms of its own telegraph stood still– then, as the corporal finished the message, Mankin saw the fort’s signal arms move themselves.  Even Mankin could read what they spelled out– message received.

“Well, that’s done,” Mankin sighed.

 

At sundown he saw the two horsemen out the gate, giving them last minute instructions.  Then he climbed up to the parapet to watch them vanish in the distance, Deman northwest and Chure toward the south.  He found himself wishing he could go with them, so he could see firsthand what they found.  It was impossible, of course– with Lyon drunk in his room, he was the senior officer on duty, and he couldn’t surrender that responsibility for a moon-lit ride.  But he envied the two scouts their freedom.

He lingered on the wall as a bugler sounded the evening retreat.  In some ways this was Mankin’s favorite time of day, at least here in Okhar.  The air was already cooling, and now a man could stand out on the wall for an hour to catch a breath of air without frying.

He had to admit that this country had a severe kind of beauty.  Just then the Bone Moon was rising over the distant bluffs, the ones that worried him on the level of tactics.  At the moment, however, they reflected the last glow of the sun and seemed like the wall of the world.

The land between the bluffs and the river behind Mankin was a stony red waste, scrubland with mesquite and cactus.  It was barren, but open and clean.  Mankin pitied the Khetuni garrisons that had to hold the line to the west, across the Gar.  The Dune Kingdom was a place far more stark and forsaken than Senso-marta, with the added affliction of constant sand in your food and water.

Mankin turned.  The course of the Gar, a quarter-mile to the west of the fort, was the only green growth in sight, and that was a narrow serpent thatt wound out of sight to the north.  It flowed toward the Hano, and the Beso and, eventually, the Okharian cities under Khetuni occupation.  Rivers were the chief sources of life and civilization in Okhar, and the Khetuni invasion had wisely focused on taking the riverlands and the agriculture and cities they fed.

Mankin leaned on the fort’s battlement and frowned.  The war, and the occupation, had dragged on for nearly ten years.  The Khetuni invasion, which had begun with such high hopes, had stumbled to a halt here and a hundred other remote garrisons in the country’s far south.  Khetun occupied only about half of Okhar.  Rumors filtered down along the telegraph lines, or the train of visiting senior officers, of a renewed offensive in the fall, when the land cooled to temperatures that would not drop men and horses in their tracks, or in the spring after the winter rains.  Mankin doubted all rumors; even to him, a lowly captain in a remote outpost, it was clear Khetun had bitten off all of Okhar its could hold in its mouth, and perhaps a bit more.

Mankin had heard all the rationales for the war– the ancient rivalry between Khetun and Okhar across the Sea of Whales demanded a final resolution, the Okharians had burned and robbed Khetuni trading ships long enough, their oppression of Khetuni traders and expatriates had to end, and so on.  Mankin had heard them all, and discounted them all.  It was obvious to anyone but a fanatic– and there were a number of those in the army– that the real reason for the war was the desire of the noble Electors of Khetun for a greater empire.  It was, however, an observation Mankin kept to himself.

He’d had a lot of time, out here on the front line, to think about it.  If he’d had any choice he would never have come to Okhar at all.  The Royal Lyceum in Aliasan had been far more congenial.  In three years he had come close to completing the examinations for the first level of licensed scholar.  But then the Electors had decided to comb out extra bodies for the army from the Lyceum and the trade guilds.  Only his education and his father’s influence, in the form of gold solars, had managed to secure Mankin a warrant officer’s slot; then in combat he had won a commission, which allowed him the privilege of cleaning up after Lyon in this overheated little fort.

Next year, though– by spring next year he would have two years in grade.  At that point he could request promotion, assuming he had enough money and influence to purchase the rank, or…he could resign and go home.  He had been thinking about that possibility more and more in the last weeks.  He wasn’t sure what he would do back in Khetun– the Lyceum was closed to anyone not of full Khetuni blood for the duration– but it would be nice to be someplace where each day wasn’t a race between heat-stroke and dark-eyed foreigners to see which killed him first.

On the other hand, he had a standing invitation to return to the Reach, to his grandfather’s holding.  That had its temptations, too– taking up the life of an Attau rider would be a clean and straight path for anyone.  And the Attau folk could use even an incomplete scholar in Khetuni learning.  He might even start his own school….

But either way you would have to leave the men.  It was a detail he came back to over and over again.  It complicated the calculation.  Mankin hadn’t quite yet been able to find a satisfactory answer.

The bugle sounded the evening mess call.  Mankin’s own stomach complained of its hollowness.  Sighing, he turned from the battlement and went down to supper.

 

There was a light in his eyes, and someone shaking him.  “Captain, captain,” the someone said.

“What?  What’s happening?” Mankin said.  He instinctively shielded his eyes from the light and tried to throw off the dregs of sleep.

The light came from a lantern, in the hand of Sergeant Denetoi.  He was a grizzled veteran, the only other Attau in the half-battalion.  Mankin had always been curious how an Attau had ended up in an Alisanian regiment overwhelmingly composed of Khetuni, but somehow he had never gotten around to asking.  Mankin wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

“We got trouble, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.

Mankin had slept in his uniform; dressing was a matter of pulling on his boots and strapping on his sword-belt.  “Show me.”

 

Mankin’s breath steamed in the cold morning air.  He and Denetoi climbed to the eastern battlements.  A clot of soldiers stood on the parapet there, looking east and talking among themselves.  They sounded worried.

It was close to dawn; the sky was lightening, with the east aglow and the bluffs outlined sharply against it.  And above those bluffs rose three, four, five, more columns of what Mankin first took to be smoke.  After a moment, though, he realized there were not smoke at all.  They were dust clouds.

“What the hell?” he said, leaning on a crenellation and studying the dust.

“That’s what we thought, sir,” Hass said.  He was a subaltern in First Company.  “What does it mean?”

“It means,” Mankin said, “that we’re in deep shit.”

 

It was still too dark for the telegraph, and the fort had no light-semaphore.  Mankin sent an orderly to awaken Lyon, then told Master Sergeant Goma to turn out the garrison, but quietly, with no bugle-call.  Then, while Sur saddled the fastest horse in the stables, Mankin penned a quick report.

Sur had the horse and Corporal Cal waiting at the main gate when Mankin came out.  Cal was the fastest-riding horseman in the garrison, surpassing even the scouts.  He was glad of it as he handed the young soldier the sealed message cylinder.  Cal looped its strap over his shoulder and tied the base-cord to his belt.

“Get on the other side of the river,” Mankin told Cal, “and ride like hell for Fort Hope.  With any luck the Okharians won’t reach it or the river before you do.  It’s all in the report, but tell them anyway what we’re seeing.  I need you make sure they understand.”

“I’ll do it, captain,” Cal said.

“Get going,” Mankin said.

Cal mounted as soldiers pulled open the gates.  All around them the garrison turned out in near-silence, with only a low murmur among the men.  They all climbed up to the parapet and the gun positions.

The gate opened.  Cal put his heels to the horse’s flanks and yelled, “Haa!”  The animal leapt forward and the two of them shot through the gate.

Mankin threw himself up the nearest stairs, three steps at a time, soldiers crouching out of his way.  He reached the parapet and looked out, but Cal was already on the road to the crossing, leaving only dust hanging in his wake.

“The Unchanging keep you safe,” Mankin murmured.

 

Mankin spent the next several minutes inspecting the batteries and gun positions.  In the growing light the men could see the dust columns as well as he could.  Silence lay over the positions, no banter or laughter, the men speaking only occasional, necessary words.

It was here that Lyon found Mankin.  The commandant did not look well; Mankin wondered exactly how late he had stayed up drinking.  He staggered up the steps to the parapet, red-eyed and gray-faced, half-dressed with his tunic unbuttoned and his belt askew.  “Captain!” Lyon croaked.  “What’s the meaning of this?  Why have you turned out the garrison without my authority?”

“Look for yourself, sir,” Mankin said.  The dust columns stood out stark against the bright eastern sky.

Lyon stood and looked.  Mankin would have sworn that it was impossible, but the commandant grew even more pale.  “No,” Lyon said.

“I’ve dispatched a rider to Fort Hope,” Mankin said, “and we should be able to semaphore in a few minutes.  Sir, it’s imperative we reinforce the main gate, and block the postern.”

“No,” Lyon said, still staring at the dust.

“Sir…” Mankin said.

“Damn you, you half-breed, I said no!” Lyon said.  He turned on Mankin.  Mankin stood his ground, although the commandant’s aspect was wild, his eyes wide.  They were so red Mankin’s ached in sympathy.  “Do not block the gate– not yet…We need orders….”

“Sir, if we wait for orders, there might not be any need to defend to defend this post at all,” Mankin said.

“Get the semaphore working,” Lyon said.  “And give me…give me a few minutes.”  He staggered back down the stairs.

“Damn it,” Mankin muttered.  “Master Sergeant!”

 

Mankin set Goma to finish preparations in the bastions, while he went to the telegraph.  Signal-Sergeant Der and Corporal Pol were there, rigging out the mechanism.  “Another minute or two, captain,” Der said.  “We’ll have her ready and then there will be enough light.”

“I’ll take that minute to get the message ready,” Mankin said.  As he had the night before, he sat down in the hut and wrote out a report–

 

To: Division Headquarters, Fifth Division of Enum

From: Commandant, First Senso-marta Outpost

Numerous dust-clouds indicating enemy infantry movement seen at first light on heights to our east.  No report from scouts dispatched last night.  No contact at this time, but we anticipate enemy in our vicinity about noon.  A messenger has been dispatched to Fort Hope with all information as of this moment.  Garrison has been put in readiness to defend outpost.  Further reports will follow as needed.  Request immediate orders repeat immediate orders.

 

The telegraph arms clattered and spun overhead.  “We’ve got their attention, captain,” Der said, poking his head into the signal hut.

“Send this,” Mankin said, handing him the message.

There came the sound of a commotion down in the fort’s yard.  “What the hell?” Mankin said.  He stepped past Der to the edge of the parapet.

He got there just in time to see the main gate swing open and three riders whip their mounts though it.  Lyon was in the lead; behind him rode Captain Fajar and Lieutenant Saur.  They were particular cronies of the commandant, and they rode hard on his heels.

“What the hell?” Mankin said.  He turned and ran to the northernmost bastion.

He climbed up beside the gun nicknamed Iron Thrower in time to see the three men disappear in a cloud of dust, headed toward the river crossing.  “Who was that?” the corporal commanding the gun-crew said.

“It was Commandant Lyon,” Mankin said, nearly breathless with disbelief.  Of all the things he could have pictured Lyon doing at this moment– and he could have imagined Lyon doing many things– abandoning his post was the last.

“The commandant’s gone?” one of the privates said, looking as surprised as Mankin felt.

“He’s run away!” the corporal said.  “He left us!”

“What are we going to do?” another private said.

Mankin heard the incipient panic in the man’s voice.  “What are you going to do?” he snapped, turning on him.  “Stand by your gun, by the Unchanging, that’s what you’re going to do.  Lyon will be dealt with by Division when they catch him.  We’ve got a job to do.”

 

Mankin questioned the guards on the gate, who were trembling.  “He ordered us to open the gate, captain,” the leading private said.  “Cussed us out and ordered us.  What were we supposed to do?”

Shout for me, Mankin thought, but he did not say it.  Even if they had, there was nothing Mankin could have really done to stop Lyon.  In theory Army regulations should have allowed Mankin, as executive officer, to arrest the commandant.  To actually do so, however, Mankin would almost certainly have had to use physical force, and he wasn’t sure he could have counted on any of the private soldiers to back him up against their commander.

He called an officer’s conference in the holdfast.  Since the only other officers left in the outpost were Lieutenant Gander and Subaltern Hass, Mankin included Master Sergeant Goma and Master Gunner Ita.  “Maybe it ain’t proper military discipline for me to say this, sir,” Ita said, “but I hope the gods blind Lyon.”

“The gods will be the least of Lyon’s problems, if either the Okharians or Division get hold of him,” Mankin said.  Indeed, Mankin didn’t know which fate would be the worst.  Okharians loved to flay captured Khetuni commanders alive, but the wrath of Division at a senior commander’s desertion might put Okharian tortures in the shade.  “But forget him– we’ve got our own troubles.  I’m waiting to hear from higher authority, but in the meantime we have to assume we’re holding the fort against Okharians.  If they concentrate against Fort Hope we can hold out; but if they want to get across the Gar quickly they’ll come here.  Barring orders to the contrary, we have to hold them off.  Master Sergeant, I want you to rotate a third of the men off the walls at a time, send them down to breakfast in shifts.  We’re going to need all the strength we have with the push comes.  When the sun is well up, rotate half the men off the wall for an hour at a time, to allow them to cool off and get some rest.  Once we’re in contact, though, we’ll need every mother’s son on the wall, no matter how hot.”

“Yes, sir,” Goma said.

“Master Gunner, how do we stand with powder and the guns?” Mankin said.

Ita grunted.  “We’re well-supplied with powder and shot, but how long it will last will depend on how hard they hit us.  I have to tell you the truth, though, captain– I’m not perfectly happy with how well some of the crews have worked up….”

“I know.”  Several of the gun-sections had been added to the half-battalion two Bone Moons before, seconded from another battalion in which, Mankin gathered, training had been dangerously lax.  Ita had worked, and worked hard, to bring them up to snuff, but two Bone moons was not a long time.  “We will do the best we can….”

The scuff of a boot– the signal corporal was at the door, a scrap of paper in his hand.  “Signal from Fort Hope, captain.”

Mankin took it.  “Orders from Division,” he read aloud.  “‘Corps alerted and orders that all river-line strong-points and crossings be held.  Hold Outpost Senso-marta at all costs until relieved.  Division reserves ordered out and will be on the road within the hour.  Repeat, hold at all costs until relieved.”

There was silence in the barracks.  Every man seemed to take a deep breath.  Mankin folded the paper.  “Well,” he said, “at least that settles one question.”

 

To be continued….

Princess of Stars Update #6– Crawling back into the sunshine….

Princess of Stars is now at 30,000 words, one-fifth of my rough estimate of 150,000 words. In the unlikely event anyone has noticed, it has been about six weeks since my last update, largely because I spent most of that time not writing Princess of Stars. Kinda logical, when you think about it….

Why I wasn’t writing is complex. Chiefly I was going through one of my periodic funks in which I find it hard to exercise the daily discipline of getting my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. Usually I get through it, but this spell took a little longer than normal to run its course.

Why was I finding it hard to write? That’s where the complexity comes in. A new, physically demanding temp job, personal life issues, and financial worries all contributed. The biggest factor, though, was an emotional certainty that my writing really doesn’t matter. I’ve blogged about this before, and it’s something with which I have often struggled. Sometimes it becomes overwhelming, at least for a while, and I just grind to a halt. It becomes a deal easier to play a computer game or watch a movie than it is to get words down.

In a way, writing is a bit like faith. Sometimes, you just have to practice it, no matter how you’re feeling at the moment. Yes, it is a discipline, and being disciplined about it is usually the hallmark of a professional. By that standard, it’s pretty obvious that I still have things to learn about the craft. No surprise there….

Along with that, I think it’s helpful to pay heed to the work of others you find inspiring. Personally I can hardly watch any halfway decent production of Shakespeare without feeling inspired and motivated about my own work. In this particular case, I think it was a movie that helped recharge my batteries– sadly, not Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two. That, and listening to James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for the picture. Music has always been an important aid to my writing, sometimes helping me (I think) to a higher level. The soundtrack for Mockingjay Part Two captures its epic proportions, and reflects something of what I’m trying to do with Princess of Stars. That sort of resonance is priceless.

It is also helped when I remembered that I am, at bottom, doing this for myself– not an audience (which I don’t have) and certainly not for any critics. I’m not looking for the approval of editors or literary gatekeepers. I want this story told, and only I can tell it. However imperfect or inconsequential it may be, I still want to complete it.

So, once again, back to work. Like faith, the writing process has its mountain-top moments and its long trudges through the dark valleys. Bring your persistence, and your favorite music.

Later.