Tag Archives: short story

Wisdom for Three Emperors

Copyright 2019 Douglas Daniel.

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

On a certain summer’s day, in the fourth year of the War of the Kingdoms, Topaz drowsed on a bench before his cottage.  The sun shone through the cedars; it was good to sit there and soak up the warmth.  At his age, Topaz always appreciated a sunny day.

“Master!”  It was Orphan, running up the trail toward the cottage.  “Master!”

“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said, opening his eyes.  “I heard you coming minutes ago.  What’s the trouble?”

Orphan stopped, panting.  “General…Foxglove…he’s coming.  With a…lot of his…soldiers.”

“Of course,” Topaz said.  He sighed; he never seemed to get to enjoy the sunshine very long.  He stood, leaning on his cane, his knees creaking.  “Orphan, listen to me.  Go find Cassia– she’s out by the pond.  Take her up to the hut by the falls.  A young girl like her will be a temptation to soldiers.”  Especially, perhaps, these soldiers, but Topaz did not speak the thought aloud.  “Both of you hide until…well, until you’re sure it’s safe.”

Orphan stared at him.  “What about you, master?  Will you be safe?”

“Well, maybe,” Topaz said.  “I mean, I don’t think very many of the soldiers will be interested in me– I’m rather past my best days, you know….”

“Master!” Orphan sputtered, exasperated.

“We shall see,” Topaz said firmly.  “If I am wrong, well, death is always sitting by the hearth anyway, at my age.  But both you youngsters are in danger.  Get Cassia up to the falls.”  Topaz started to turn away, but stopped.  “You know,” he told Orphan, “it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name.  I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown.  Dahlia used to tell me it wasn’t proper and she was right.”

Orphan blinked in surprise.  “Is this the time, master…?”

“There might not be a chance later,” Topaz said.  He studied the younger man for a moment.  “I name you Arrow– for surely you are as swift and true as a good arrow.  Yes, you are Arrow.”

The younger man looked close to tears.  “Master, can’t you come with us?”

“Oh, no, no,” Topaz said.  “Someone has to greet our guests.  Now go.”

Arrow stared at Topaz for another moment, and then ran.

Topaz stepped forward a few yards, so no one coming into the clearing in front of his hut could miss him.  He leaned on his cane and waited.  The sun shifted and warmed him again and he was thankful.

The jingle of harness, the tread of boots– through the trees Topaz glimpsed the riders first and then the foot soldiers coming behind.  The company, perhaps fifty men all told, wound their way up the trail.  Topaz waited, despite his foot starting to ache.  He wished Dahlia were here.

The column entered the clearing.  The riders pulled up short at the sight of him.  At their head was a big man.  He wore armor and carried two swords, as if he had ridden to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage.  Suspicious eyes looked Topaz over, out of a scarred face.

Topaz bowed over his cane.  “I greet you, Lord Foxglove, General of the Five Lands, conqueror of Darran and Sarmania.  You do honor to my humble house.”

If anything, Foxglove looked all the more suspicious.  “Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” he asked, his voice rough.

Topaz bowed again.  “Some call me that.  My name is Topaz.”

“You know my name,” Foxglove said.  “So you probably know how I became Lord General of the Five Lands.”

“Indeed,” Topaz said.  “The fame, and dread, of your name has long preceded you, my lord.  But I greet you in peace, as a guest.  If it please you, there is tea and bread within.”

Foxglove squinted at Topaz.  One of the general’s officers, a thin, sharp man with a livid scar across his forehead, turned in his saddle and gestured.  Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried forward, past Topaz and into the cottage.  Topaz waited.

The two re-emerged in a moment.  “It’s empty, my Lord General,” one of them said.  “Just a poor hut.”

Foxglove grunted and dismounted.  So did his officers.  The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the house– a movement precisely executed, although no order had been given.  Topaz turned and led the way into the cottage.

He was thankful Arrow had built a fire this morning– the kettle was hot and the tea steeping.  Foxglove and his officers crowded in, but no one sat in the two chairs.  Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze immediately falling on the small silver casket on the table, close by the plate of bread.  The casket was old and battered, but it was easily the brightest object in the room.

“I heard you were a man of wisdom,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea for them into chipped cups.  Two of the officers took cups, but Foxglove did not.  Topaz thought that a shame; it was very good tea.  “I heard you live simply.  Yet you have that.”  He pointed to the casket.

“An heirloom of only sentimental value,” Topaz said.  “Believe me, it contains nothing of worth.”

Foxglove loomed up.  A big man outside the house, he seemed even bigger inside.  “They say that no man becomes Emperor of the Five Lands without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”

“People do say that,” Topaz said.  “Considering there has been no Emperor in two hundred years, it’s not really been put to the test lately, has it?  Do you wish to be Emperor?”

Foxglove smiled.  Topaz shuddered.  “I shall be Emperor.  The throne is mine by right of conquest.  There is no other beside me.  I want the Empire and I will take it.  I take everything I want.”

“I have heard that,” Topaz said.

Foxglove stood even taller, drawing himself up.  Topaz began to wonder if they were going to run out of space in the little room.  “You heard right.  I conquered Cisman in a day and burned it to the ground.  I overran Karsara and all the nobility came crawling on their knees to beg for mercy.  I threw down and slew the steward of Venaland and took his rod of office from his bloody hand.  Yes, old man, I take what I want.”

“So it seems,” Topaz said, with a solemn face.

“So, old man,” Foxglove said.  “I am here, speaking to you.  What wisdom do you have that will make me Emperor?  I will reward you well.”

Topaz sighed.  “My lord, I am sorry, but if I have wisdom, it is merely the sort that comes from living a very long time.  I’ve seen folly and pain.  I’ve even caused some of both myself.  If I were to try to impart any wisdom to you, I would say be careful what you want– and to remember that just because we want something, doesn’t mean it is good to have.”

Foxglove glowered at him, half-angry, half-confused.  “What is this?  Why shouldn’t I take what I want?  If I’m strong enough….”

“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”

Foxglove said nothing for a moment.  His officers stirred uneasily.  Topaz merely watched the general and waited.

“This is a waste of my time,” Foxglove said.  “I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful.”

“I have no secrets that would aid conquest,” Topaz said.

“Is there a spell or enchantment…?” Foxglove said.

“None that will give a man that sort of power,” Topaz said.

Foxglove snorted, his face dark.  “You’re nothing but a weak, old man.”

“I am certainly weak and old,” Topaz said.  “Some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”

“Enough,” Foxglove said.  “I have a mind to gut you, hermit, but that would probably set the peasants down in the valley to revolt.  This has been a waste of my time.”  He glanced at the casket, then leaned over, scooped it up, and tucked it under one arm.  He sneered at Topaz.  “A little recompense.  You have anything to say about it, old man?”

Topaz spread his hands.  “You may take anything you want, my lord.  I am not attached enough to anything here to make much of a fuss.  I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace.  But,” he raised a finger, “while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”

“Opening it?” Foxglove said.  “Why shouldn’t I open it?”

“I don’t think you would be very pleased with the contents.”

Foxglove growled.  “I should kill you just for insolence.  Come, let’s leave this old fool.”

He and his officers stepped out, back into the sunshine. The soldiers, with precise movements, folded their perimeter back into a column for marching.  A soldier held the bridal of Foxglove’s horse; some of the officers mounted their own animals.

Topaz stayed where he was, waiting.  Through the open door he watched as Foxglove, still on the ground, stopped.  He fumbled with the latch of the casket and threw it open.

The sun disappeared; ink-thick blackness swirled all around.  Topaz could see nothing, but he could hear screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh.  He felt it— the ravening hunger.  The human screams faded.  Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.

He stood straight.  His walking stick glowed in the darkness, forcing the hunger back.  You have fed, he told it.  Now, back to your prison, thing.  Leave the world of the living to the living.

The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light.  The light grew and grew, while the hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.

The sun shone; the birds sang in the tops of the pines.  Topaz breathed a deep breath.  Leaning on his cane, he went outside.  He stooped, creaking, and picked up the casket.  He shut the lid against the swirling darkness constrained within and snapped the latch shut.  In the clearing there was no sign of Foxglove, nor of his men, nor of their horses, save their footprints.

“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said, sighing.  He went back inside to his tea.

 

Three years later, just days after Cassia and Arrow married– a quiet joining, with a few people come up from the village, at which Topaz had a little too much punch and a few too many almond-cakes– another party came riding up the trail.  These travellers were fifteen splendidly dressed men, splendidly mounted on strong, big horses.  The man who rode at their head was tall, proud and clear-eyed.  He wore a coronet on his brow and rode straight-backed, controlling his mount with nearly negligent movements of the reins.

They rode into the yard.  Sunlight sparkled off the leader’s coronet and the gold thread woven into his robes and those of his companions.  As the leader reined his horse to a stop, one of his followers leapt from his horse to hold the reins of the leader’s mount.  Another hastened to come forward and throw himself down on all fours.  Dismounting, the leader stepped down to the ground, using his follower as a stepstool.  Topaz watched from his doorway; the only change in his expression was his raised eyebrows.

“Old man,” the leader said, looking down his nose at Topaz, “where is the Hermit of Blackfalls?  I have come to receive his blessing, for I am Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands.”

“Oh, I see,” Topaz said.  He bowed.  “Your pardon, lord, for not greeting you with more ceremony.  I am the Hermit of Blackfalls.  Welcome to my home.”

“You?” Birch said, haughtily surprised.  “Surely not.”

Surely not?” Topaz echoed.  He considered this.  “Well, nobody’s ever said surely not.  I mean, I usually don’t call myself that, certainly, but everybody else does, so I just assumed everybody knew what they were talking about….”

“Are you Topaz the Wise?” Birch demanded, glaring.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Topaz said, “that’s what my mother always called me, and I suppose she would have known.  Maybe not the Wise part, but Topaz, yes, indeed.”

Birch looked as if he were restraining a gathering anger.  “I have come,” he said, measuring out his words with great precision, “to seek your blessing on my ascension.”

“Have you indeed?” Topaz said, looking impressed.  “That’s quite an honor.  But, since I am not a priest, and even less a god, I cannot bless you, my lord.”

Birch turned purple.  Topaz, in all his long life, had never seen anyone turn that particular shade.  He found it fascinating.

“They told me,” Birch snarled, “that no man becomes Emperor without the blessing of the Hermit of Blackfalls!”

Topaz sighed.  “‘Blessing’ is the wrong word, my lord.  It is tradition that the prospective Emperor of the Five Lands seek out the Hermit of Blackfalls—whoever that happens to be at the moment—but it is not for a blessing, or even less, validation of their rule.  You rule because you command hosts and the loyalty of powerful lords who bend the knee to you.  You earned that loyalty by winning battles in the War.  You don’t need the approval of some old fellow in the hills of Daran for that.”

If anything, Birch looked more haughtily offended.  “Then I’ve wasted my time!”

“I’m sorry if you think so, my lord,” Topaz said.  “The tradition is that the Emperor-to-be comes seeking the wisdom of the Hermit.  Such wisdom as I have is yours.”

“Wisdom?” Birch said, towering over Topaz.  “What sort of wisdom could you give me?”

“You might be surprised, my lord,” Topaz said.  He hesitated.  “If I may ask, do you usually dismount from your horse in that manner?”

“What do you…Sir Belfore?” Birch said.  He glanced back at the young noble, who stood beside Birch’s horse with a bowed head.  “Ah—his father dared offend me, earning my enmity.  As a lesson to others, I have degraded him and his family in every way and will do so until it pleases me to stop.”

“I see, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And degradation of another human being aids you, how?”

Birch started to turn purple again.  “I am the supreme lord of the Five Lands—I will not allow anyone to forget that!”

“There are better ways to remind people of who you are, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And an honor that touchy is often offended.”

“How dare you!” Birch snarled.

“It is my office to offer such advice to anyone who wishes to be Emperor,” Topaz said.  “You cannot sustain a state by assuaging your hurt feelings, my lord.”

“You dodderer!” Birch said.  “I’ve killed men for less!”.

“You may do as you please here, my lord,” Topaz said.  He waited.  The moment stretched.

“You’re not worth the effort,” Birch said at last, freezing the air between himself and Topaz with his disdain.  “This has been a fool’s errand.”

“I am sorry you feel that way, my lord,” Topaz said.  “But before you go,” he reached into his robes, “I would like to give you a parting gift.”

Birch, already turning away, stopped.  Topaz pulled his hand from his robes and held out to him a trinket— a small, red stone, intricately carved into the shape of a pomegranate, on a silver chain.  It gleamed in the sunshine.

“What is this?” Birch demanded.

“A small charm,” Topaz said.  “Its power is quite subtle, but it will help you to speak the truth and sway multitudes.”

“Hm!” Birch said.  “As if I cannot do that on my own!  Still…”  He turned and snatched the stone and chain from Topaz’s palm.  “A small enough reward for my trouble, old man.”

He turned and strode away.  Remounting his horse with the renewed aid of Sir Belfore, Birch rode away from Topaz’s cottage, with all his splendid followers in tow.  Topaz never saw him again.

Months later, however, Topaz did hear of Birch, one more time.  Apparently it came to pass that, after a victorious battle, Birch had cause to address the citizens of the city of White Cloud in their great square; and because he happened that day to be carrying the stone pomegranate in his purse, he told the citizens everything he actually thought about them, in the most honest and forthright terms.  He kept on telling them, despite trying to stuff his mouth with his own gloves and to choke off his voice with his own hands, until the citizens rose up in a mass and stormed the dais on which he stood.  When the mob receded, or so Topaz was told, all that was left of Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands, was a stain on the stone.

“Hm,” Topaz said to Arrow and Cassia.  “You have to be careful with the truth.  Should have mentioned that, I suppose.”

 

Four more years passed.  Even in the valley the people heard the tales of the wider world and how the War went on and on.  With each passing month the tales grew darker.  The distant suffering seemed to echo along the valley itself.

One sunny morning a man came riding up the hill.  He came unarmed, with but one companion, a young man with haunted eyes.  Neither wore armor– just old uniforms of the Venaland Guards.  The leader was as dark-haired as Foxglove had been, but lean and tall.

Topaz was seated beside the cottage’s front door when the man rode into the yard.  He had taken to dozing in the sun more and more lately; Arrow, who had built a hut for himself and Cassia behind Topaz’, had hired a hand from the village to help with the chores.  He and Cassia themselves kept busy with their own child.

Topaz woke with a start when the man’s horse clopped to a stop.  He looked up and met a gaze that seemed at once weary and curious and frightened.  It was so many emotions tied up in one bundle that Topaz was worried the fellow might split open.  “I’m sorry, grandfather, but– are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” the man asked.

“Well, people call me that,” Topaz said.  “Considering that I am the only hermit in the neighborhood of Blackfalls, I suppose that qualifies me.”

The man smiled.  “Oh, good.  I was worried.”

“You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid,” Topaz said, arching his eyebrows.

“Ah– your pardon.”  The man dismounted.  “I am Hart.  This is Galagan.”  The young man with the haunted eyes bowed, hesitantly, over his saddlebow.

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “I’ve been expecting you, my lord.  You are both welcome.”

He tried to stand, but had trouble getting up.  That was happening more and more these days.  Hart quickly stepped forward and took Topaz by the elbow and helped him stand.  “Oh, thank you,” Topaz said.  “Not quite as quick on my feet as I was seventy years ago, so it’s good to have a little help now and then.”

“Don’t you have anyone here to help you?” Hart asked

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “They’re around, but busy with other things, I suppose.”

He led them into the cottage.  Once again there was tea and bread ready.  Topaz and the two soldiers sat at the table.  Topaz served them with his own hands.  Galagan, at first, seemed suspicious and fearful.  He peered about, as if expecting to spy ambushers in every corner of the cottage.  “You needn’t worry, young fellow,” Topaz told him.  “You and your master are quite safe here.”

“Yes, please stop, Galagan,” Hart said, irritated.  “You’re embarrassing me and offending our host.”

Topaz held up a hand.  “I am not offended, my lord.  I understand the young man’s caution.  You have both been through some hard times.”

“It’s nothing,” Hart said, “to what the Five Lands have suffered.”

“Yes,” Topaz said, “although this valley is a sanctuary, even here we have heard of all the troubles.”

“Forgive me, grandfather,” Galagan said, “but it’s not just that.  We know what happened to Foxglove and Birch when they came calling.”

“Nothing happened to them they didn’t bring on themselves,” Topaz said.  He meant it as a reassurance, but Galagan turned pale, his eyes wide.

“Galagan,” Hart said, “please stop making faces, or I’ll have you go out and stand by the horses.”

“Sorry, my lord,” Galagan said, hanging his head.

“Forgive him,” Hart told Topaz.  “We have seen a lot.  We both have to learn to trust people again.”

Topaz studied Hart.  “If I were to ask you why it was important to trust people, what would you say?”

Hart gave him a sharp look.  “How else can you build a society, except on trust?  This war has gone on so long no one trusts anyone anymore.”

“Ah,” Topaz said.

A shriek; both soldiers sat up straight with surprise.  Galagan half rose from his chair, almost as if he were about to fling himself between Hart and whatever danger was about to appear.

Instead of a monster or a horde of assassins, however, what appeared was Cassia’s daughter, Cowslip, bursting into the cottage through the back door.  “No, no!” she cried, making Topaz’ ears ring, “I don’t wanna take a bath!”  She tried to flee through the front door, with her grubby shift, muddy feet and begrimed face all unaltered– but her mother, wise to her tricks, had circled around the cottage and caught her in the doorway. Cassia scooped the struggling child up in her arms.

“Nooo!” the child wailed, as if facing her ultimate doom.

Topaz glanced at Hart and Galagan.  The younger soldier looked relieved beyond words.  Hart, though, wore a smile, first of relief, but then of genuine pleasure.  Something in his look told Topaz Hart was more than a little sympathetic to the little girl’s plight.

Cassia, holding the squirming child, looked chagrined.  “Master, my lord, I am so sorry!” she exclaimed.  “We didn’t mean to interrupt!”

“It’s alright,” Hart said, still smiling.

Topaz looked from him to Cowslip.  “Cowslip,” he said, “listen to me.”

“Gran Topaz, I don’t wanna a bath!” the girl cried.

“Listen to me, sweetling,” Topaz persisted.

The little girl stopped struggling in her mother’s arms.  Instead, she regarded Topaz with suddenly solemn eyes, although her mouth was still threatening a pout.

“Be good for your mother,” he said, “and accept your bath without complaining.  Even I have to take baths.”

“But you’re old,” Cowslip said.

“Cowslip!” Cassia cried.

Topaz merely smiled; and, in the corner of his eye, he caught Hart’s smile broadening.  “Young or old, dear little girl,” he told Cowslip, “we all have to do things we don’t like sometimes.  Now, be good for your mother and we’ll see if there aren’t sparklies after dinner.”

“Yes, sparklies, yes!” Cowslip cried, her mood changed in a moment.  Cassia bowed to Hart and carried her mollified daughter away.

Topaz faced his guests with a bemused look.  “I probably shouldn’t bribe her like that,” he said.

“Sometimes,” Hart said, “you can’t avoid it.  It takes some coaxing to get my son Brand to do his lessons, at times.”

Topaz, pleased, hid his pleasure with a sip of tea.  “So, my lord,” he said, “you want to be Emperor?”

Hart looked startled.  “No,” he said at once.  “Who would?”

“You’d be surprised,” Topaz murmured.  “So why are you here?”

Hart did not answer immediately.  He seemed to be studying some internal map only he could see.  “Everyone tells me,” he said slowly, “that I’m the only hope for the Five Lands.  The one person who can unite all the factions and end the War.  I have the loyalty of the Army and I have the right blood, although I was raised the son of a glassblower, and had to earn everything.  It’s just…it’s so much, much more than leading an army.  Where do I begin?”

“Here,” Topaz said, “at the beginning.  Or a new beginning, perhaps.  As I told that little girl,” he smiled at Hart, “sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do.”

 

They talked through supper and into the night.  They talked after everyone else, even Galagan, had fallen asleep.  They talked of many things, of rulership and peace, of hunger and harvests, of fears and hopes.  By morning Topaz was satisfied.

“I have a parting gift for you, my lord,” Topaz told Hart, as he and Galagan prepared to leave in the middle morning.  “Three, in fact, if you will have them from my hand.”

“What are they, sir?” Hart asked.

Topaz stepped into the cottage and led Arrow, Cassia and Cowslip, in Cassia’s arms, out into the sunshine.  All three were dressed for traveling and Arrow carried a backpack.

Hart looked at them with interest, and then at Topaz.  “Gifts?”

Topaz placed his hand on Arrow’s shoulder.  “This is my apprentice, Arrow, who has studied under me for many years.  His knowledge and powers are yours to command.”

Topaz took Cassia’s hand.  “You’ve met his wife, Cassia.  She has made her own studies and is deep into the lore of the Maranonians.  This is only proper, as she descends directly from the ancient priestesses of that race.”

“Ah!” Hart said in surprise, for the Maranonians were widely supposed to be extinct.

“You’ve also met Cowslip,” Topaz said.  He laid a hand on the little girl’s head and she giggled.  “It is yet to be revealed what her skills may be, except in the accumulation of mud on her feet.”  Cowslip giggled again.  “But I sense in her great potentialities.”  He faced Hart.  “They stand ready to serve you, my lord, in your great labor.”

“They…they are welcome, if they wish to serve,” Hart said.  He sounded a little overwhelmed.  “But…”

“What troubles my lord?” Topaz said.

“I had thought…I mean, to come here from time to time….”

Topaz stepped close.  “My lord,” he whispered to Hart, “I am nearly a hundred years old.  My time is very short.  I waited a long time for a new Emperor and had to go through some notable scrubs to get to you.  Please the gods, may the years be long before your son needs the wisdom of the Hermit of Blackfalls, but, long or short as the time may be, I will not be here.  There will doubtless be some other hermit by then.  In the interim, my lord,” Topaz took a breath, “you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

 

Topaz said farewell to Arrow and Cassia and kissed Cowslip goodbye.  He bowed to Hart and watched them all go down the trail.  Somehow, leaning on his walking stick, he managed the trick of feeling all at once the loss of his young friends and the consolation of having completed an important task.  It was an odd sensation.

“I think he’ll do,” said the elderly woman beside him.

“I think so, too,” Topaz said.  He turned toward her, smiling.  “I was hoping you would come, Dahlia.”

“Beloved, how could I not?” Dahlia said.  “Are you ready?”

“Almost,” Topaz said.  “One good cup of tea for the journey and we can be off.”

They took one another’s hand and walked to the cottage.

 

 

Story Fragment – The Golem

I get story ideas from just about everywhere– my fiction reading, movies, history, news. However, only some of these ideas are fully formed. Many are just images, characters, scenes and snatches of dialogue. There is, in that confused and untidy place known as my mind, a space in which these bits and pieces float, unattached to a narrative. Sometimes these fragments bump into each other and combine in new ways, but others just drift around. Some of them have been there for decades.

Here’s a scene that’s been stuck in my head for a while. It’s more-or-less in the same universe as my novelette Diggers, and represents a different take on an incident from that story. I’m not sure if this is a story fragment, an incomplete short story, or the opening for a longer tale. It’s just a scene that has come back to me over and over again, and writing it out and giving it some form seemed to be a good idea.

Warning: this piece contains graphic military violence and bloodshed.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
*****************************************
“They’re coming,” the lieutenant said. Rain beaded on the lenses of his binoculars as he studied the enemy attack. I wondered how he could see anything.

I had the gun’s targeting scope. Through the misting rain I could see the Elha Death Brigades pushing forward through the scrub and shell-holes between the lines. They were coming in battalion, maybe regimental, strength. Fire teams of black-clad infantry moved from cover to cover ahead of the main units.

There’s too many.

“Load shrapnel,” the lieutenant said. “Set the fuse to a half-second.”

The loader slammed a round into the gun’s breach. “Wait for the order, you stupid bastard,” Sergeant Hode said.

That was addressed to me. Being the only half-blood in the battery usually left no question who Sergeant Hode was talking to. Half-breed, bastard, green-eye— no one else fit the description. By now I was used to it.

It bothered me far more how those pale faces out there, which I could just pick out in the scope, reminded me of my mother.

The big artillery, the ones firing from ten miles back, started talking. Shells whistled overhead. Out there in the killing ground they began to land, bursting with flame and smoke, throwing up fountains of earth.

Too long. The shells were bursting half a mile away, almost at the enemy trench-line. They were nowhere near the battalions already in the open.

“Damn it,” the lieutenant said. He took the binoculars down from his eyes, revealing the worried look on his face. Without the glasses, I was struck by how young he looked. Younger than me….

“Another cock-up,” Sergeant Hode said, bitter, and wholly un-surprised.

The machine-guns in the main line below us opened up. I saw Elha go down, dozens of them, but there were still too many.

The lieutenant lifted his binoculars again. “Range– eight hundred yards– standby– fire!

I pulled the trigger. The gun barked and bucked with the recoil. I heard the breech open and the empty casing tumble out with a metallic clang, but I was watching the enemy. Half a breath, and the shell burst over the lead enemy battalion, fifty feet up. The brush and muddy ground around the Elha were lashed by thousands of steel flechettes, as if a giant had thrown down double-handfuls of gravel. The shrapnel ripped into the lead Elha. Some went down as if flattened by an unseen hand; other were shredded in mid-step, disintegrated in clouds of blood and torn flesh. I saw others, less lucky, lying in the mud, screaming screams I could not hear.

“Reload shrapnel!” the lieutenant yelled. “Quarter-second!”

The loader slammed another round in. The breech-block clanged shut.

“Fire!”

The gun bucked; I pulled the trigger before the word was fully out of the lieutenant’s mouth. I watched as the shell exploded above the Elha, right over the main body. More enemy fell or disappeared.

More shrapnel shells burst over the enemy– the other guns in the battery talking. I wondered if they had been silent all this time. I couldn’t remember if any of them had fired before.

Still watching through the view-finder, I saw the Elha out there waver. It was a strange sight, almost a physical wave of hesitation that passed through the enemy groups– and then they were falling back, scrambling through the brush, some running, some limping, some crawling.

There came the sound of cheering from the main line below us. “Hold your fire!” the lieutenant said, even though the loader hadn’t loaded another shell.

“I can’t believe we pushed them back,” Sergeant Hode said.

“We didn’t,” the lieutenant said. He was looking through his binoculars again. “They’re going to ground in that stretch of defilade midway. Something’s afoot.” He lowered the glasses. “Sergeant Hode, load HE– we’ll try to drop a few rounds into them and keep them off-balance.”

“Sir!” Hode said. “You maggots heard him– load HE.”

The loader obeyed. I put my eye back to the gun’s target scope. I saw the Elha disappearing into the cover of the dead ground. The range-card said the defilade was nine hundred yards away; I set my sights to that range, and a gnat’s hair. We would adjust as needed….

“GOLEM!”

The shriek came right up to us from the main line. I cranked the scope up. The shape emerged from the mist of rain, still behind the enemy’s trench line, but already huge. It came on with lumbering steps, slow but eating yards with each stride.

The lieutenant said, “Tior and Dena!” Someone– Sergeant Hode or the loader– made an inarticulate noise. “Target the golem!”

I increased elevation and zeroed in on the construct. It was becoming clearer and clearer with each step. I targeted the thing’s blank face. “Ready!”

“Fire!”

I pulled the trigger. The gun cracked. I actually saw the shell cut through the mist, leaving a trail of cleared air.

The shell detonated square on the golem’s face. I would been proud of that shot on any firing range on a clear day; on a day of rain and mist, with my heart pounding so hard my hands rested unsteady on the gun’s controls, it was nearly a miracle.

The shell exploded, and the golem did not miss a step. As far as I could tell its skin was wholly unmarred by the detonation.

“An iron golem,” the lieutenant said, his dismay open.

Other shells exploded on the golem, the other guns of the battery firing, but all of them together did not make a scratch on it. It lumbered on, clearing the enemy line and advancing into the no-man’s land.

“Sergeant Hode,” the lieutenant said, “get back to the ammo train. Tell them we need etheric shells, now!”

“Sir!” Sergeant Hode scrambled up out of the gun-pit, dashed for the rear.

“Give it another HE,” the lieutenant said.

We did. The shell hit square in the thing’s midriff, and it had as much effect as my first shot. The machine-guns in the main line opened up on the golem. A complete act of futility– I could see bullet strikes all over the golem’s body, but it was obvious there were no penetrations. The construct was close enough now for me to see its details– its rivets, the size of my head, the seams of its body. The huge feet, coming down on the soaked earth, sank a yard deep with each step, but that didn’t slow it down.

It reached the midway defilade. Golems were sometimes known not to discriminate too carefully between friendlies and hostiles, but this one stepped right over the low ground and kept coming. The Elha emerged from cover and followed it, shouting.

Sergeant Hode slid down into the gun-pit. In his arms he carried a cardboard cylinder. “One shell?” the lieutenant said, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“It’s all they had, sir,” Hode said. “And it’s not even a proper HE or AP shell– it’s a translator.”

The lieutenant grimaced. “It’ll have to….”

A shriek from the sky– an unholy crack that I felt rather than heard– the gun-shield in front of me rang as if hit by a hammer.

Suddenly the lieutenant had no head. His body stood for a moment, with blood fountaining out his neck; then it collapsed in the mud.

Sergeant Hode screamed; not at the sight of the lieutenant’s corpse, but because his own face was gone. He dropped the shell into the muck underfoot and clasped his hands to the ruin. Blood streamed from between his fingers.

The loader, unhurt, stared in horror at both of them. Crabbing backwards, he clawed out of the gun-pit and ran.

“Come back!” I shouted, but as I turned hot fire seared my left arm. My sleeve was torn and blood ran down my arm. A piece of shrapnel had pierced the gun-shield and hit me. The hole in the metal seemed to wink at me.

I managed to lever myself out of the gunner’s seat. I stumbled over to where Hode lay dying and picked the shell container up out of the mud. My left arm still worked, but every movement shot agony through it. Somehow I got the top of the container off, slid the shell out into my hands.

HE shells were painted black; armor-piercing, red. This shell was a brilliant orange. A blue timing ring encircled the base of the projectile.

I clawed the arming wench from its mount-point on the gun’s train. I glanced up as I did; the golem was closer than ever, still four hundred yards away, but looming higher and higher with each step.

Too close.

I attached the arming wrench to the timing ring. The moment I did a sharp keee! that was not a sound ran through my head. It hurt but was over in a moment.

Out in no-man’s land the golem stopped. It seemed to hesitate, even as machine-gun bullets continued to spark all over it. Then, with a metallic creak and groan, it turned and resumed its advance. The difference was, now it was headed straight toward me.

On my first attempt with the wrench I missed the timing mark; I had to turn the ring in a full circle and try again. “Come on, come on.” I wasn’t sure if I was talking to myself or the shell.

I hit the mark on the second try. I dropped the wrench in the mud. Normally it took two hands to manually open the gun’s breach; I managed it with one, with the shell cradled in the other arm. The pain was blinding; I screamed as the breech-block locked open. I screamed again as I shoved the shell in to the breech one-handed.

The ground vibrated– the golem’s footsteps. Rain water shivered in the pit’s low spots.

I refused myself permission to faint. I clambered back into the gunner’s seat. I didn’t need the targeting scope to aim the gun. The golem was still coming for me, drawn by the energy in the translator shell. Two hundred yards, less…but I would have to let it get closer.

All at once there were men all around the gun-pit, soldiers, running for the rear. The main-line had broken. Some of the men carried their weapons, but others simply ran in blind panic, throwing away their gear, slipping in the mud, colliding with one another. “Hey, gunner,” one of them yelled at me as he ran past the pit, “run for it, if you don’t want to be a stain in the mud!”

I ignored him. I wasn’t sure I could have run if I wanted to. I cranked the gun up to maximum elevation, which allowed me to target the golem’s midsection. It loomed over me, so close. “Come on,” I said again, my breath short with pain and terror– but this time I was, of a surety, talking to the golem. Closer. I had only one chance to get this right.

The thing was fifty yards in front of me, a tower of animate metal. One more step, two– bullets spanged off the gun-shield– the Elha were close behind the golem.

But not as close as me.

I fired. I’d set the shell for muzzle-action; there was no perceptible gap between the crack of the gun and the eruption of blue fire around the golem. The thing froze in mid-step as the fire crawled all over it. The energy discharge was bright, and grew brighter. I heard cries of dismay from the Elha. The fire became a sphere of light, expanding outward. I held up a hand to shield my eyes as it swept over me.

There was a concussion I felt in my gut, but which was utterly soundless. The gun tilted sideways and I tumbled out of the seat– down into tall, dry grass. I landed on my arm. I screamed.

I turned on my back, sick with pain. The golem still stood in front of the toppled gun, but something was wrong. The thing teetered, its metal groaning.

With a crash of rending iron, the golem shivered and fell apart. Head, torso, arms, legs, all came unhinged and crashed to the ground in a cacophonous rain of metal. I had heard that individual parts of broken golems would still move, still try to carry out their last imperative. These sections, though, lay inert, mere pieces of iron. The etheric core of the golem was gone.

Panting, weeping with pain, I looked around. Before it had been mid-day, although gloomy and rain-filled. Now it was dry; the sky was clear, and it was night. A warm breeze stirred the leaves of trees that stood where our main-line should have been.

In the distance lights glowed– towers and spires of light. They looked like nothing I had ever seen.

Beyond the trees a single, huge moon rose. It’s mottled surface was strange to me.

It worked. I hoped the brigade would rally. But I would never know for sure. I lay back in the tall grass and contemplated the alien stars overhead.