A short piece written this morning for Friday Flash.
The old man and his wife sat around the dinner table, talking quietly. It was a scene they had repeated day after day, month after month, year after year. They had lived in this house for almost their entire lives, farming the small open areas of land around it, each year begging the wan sun and the hard ground to give them enough food to live.
Their children had long since abandoned their parents, leaving the home and going on to better things in other towns, other cities, places where there was more for the young and energetic, and so the old couple lived on their own. Once, they had made the trip to the nearest store, but the store had closed down and they no longer stepped outside of their fields. Their world had shrunk to a small bubble, a little sphere in the landscape that comprised their house, their fields, and nothing else.
Often, a week would pass without either of them speaking, for they knew each other so well by now that no words needed to be said. Between them, a look or a glance contained an entire conversation. The sharecroppers acted as if they were one mind in two bodies, knowing exactly where to place their hands when fixing machinery, clothing, anything. The farm and its belongings were like their bodies: they wore it well, even if it was a little old and shabby by now.
What they did not speak about, and likely could not, was the coming realization that they had become very old, and that one day soon, one of them would pass away. Each knew that the other could not run the farm on their own, and that no one would come to help. Because of this, there was a small pouch tucked away behind the bed, filled with specially made tranquillizer. When the time came, they would lay down to sleep in the same bed, and that would be the end of it.
Every day and night, they would find their eyes turning to the sky, looking for the signs that used to rive the heavens. Once, the massive plumes of smoke had been a constant source of delight for them, and they would stop and pause in their daily labours to watch the columns of fire and smoke on the far horizon. They no longer appeared, and on the day they had ceased, the old man and his wife had gathered around the radio, listening to the announcements. Then they had switched the radio off, unplugged it from the wall, and moved it out to the storage shed. It was of no further use to them.
They looked around at the red earth and the sullen sky, and the thin plastic sphere that held in their air and water, and the couple held one another and sighed. Earth had given up its plans for Mars, and left its colonists there to die.
So, this is the very first piece of writing I’ve ever done in a science fiction setting that’s been kicking around my head since I was, well… probably since I was in grade school. It’s changed and been tweaked a lot, but here’s the very first taste of what I think it might be like. And yes, I realize this does sound more like a trailer than a short story.
There was a strange solar system, nestled in a galaxy at the core of the universe, where five planets swung in tight arcs about the sun, and where each had produced their own form of life. Some would call this incredible, others impossible, and yet five distinct species had arisen. And when they first discovered the telescope, and looked out at other planets, they saw the light of other telescopes winking back at them. When they discovered radio, they learned to speak with strange alien beings. And when they discovered rocketry, they warred with strange alien beings, for none of the five could accept that the other four might have reason to exist.
Greed motivated the civilizations, and missiles flew through the dark of space, and stations and ships were built to conquer the asteroids and moons of the planets, and when they landed and created a civilization, they were destroyed by yet more attacks. Only a fear of being exterminated kept the five races from using truly destructive technology, but as they advanced, raids and precision strikes became the norm, and the atmosphere of the planets began to change, becoming foul and unpleasant for life. Only when the races were choking to death on the fumes of foetid anger did they speak to one another again, and this time, they proposed a truce, a moratorium on the use of weapons and raids.
Not one of the races trusted another, yet none would step out of line, lest they be struck by the other four. And so weapons were developed and stashed away, and secret plans and strange alliances made, and anger simmered underneath the surface for millennia. But then the Bukhed Rhud made a breakthrough in the art of genetics, and found the key that would turn back time and prevent ageing. Now those in charge of the stockpiles and the arsenals could see a life beyond the next few years, and with that change came a thawing in the relationships among the five races, for the Bukhed Rhud had shared their secret freely and widely, and although not of similar composition, the other four had discovered that they too preferred long and peaceful lives.
Thus began the Great Expansion, when each of the five contributed to the crew of spaceships that were flung far and wide, first finishing the crawl across the solar system and then tossed out into their neighbours. There was no means of communicating with these vessels over the great distances, for they had not yet discovered a technology that allowed them to overcome the speed of light, but it was hoped that one day that would be done, and those in the Great Expansion could link back to their homes.
In time, that technology was found, and the civilizations became what they are today, the hub of an empire that spans the galactic core. The Bukhed Rhud are parasites, bound to host creatures from their home planet and able to control their nervous system. The Mektarana are insectoid, barely, and have but a few brains amongst all the spawn on a planet, but the minds are so vast that others struggle to keep up. From a hot planet and a burning desert was born the Vescilith, small four legged creatures with too many fingers and a love for machinery. Barely there, the Draugur are ethereal wisps, thin and long and telepathic amongst their own kind. Last are the Tharian, who long ago gave up their humanity to become cyborgs, born in automated breeding tanks because adults cut away most of their bodies. Now these civilizations have begun to reach the boundaries of other empires, and once more the old tensions rise to the surface, and some of these will not quell. War has come to these people once more.
Breaking an Empire was a short story I set out to write to bring Unfolding a New Continent up to the world limit I wanted it to be at before I started editing. It was supposed to be 25,000 words of backstory as to why the two main kingdoms of The Four Part Land hate one another so much. Effectively, it was a longer take on those history segments over on the main page. It turned out quite differently than that, for me. Oh, the story went where it was supposed to. I couldn’t change that without rewriting the setting. But I didn’t expect the six characters to mean this much to me. Every other time I’ve finished a longer piece of work I’ve been happy. It feels like a great accomplishment, and then with a little polish it’ll be great. This… this feels a little more like a loss, like closing the chapter on something that shouldn’t quite yet be over. I think much of that feeling stems from the fact I couldn’t give them a happy ending. They were born to lose, and I struggled against that by the time I got to the end of the story. I found myself writing the last battle and wanting them to win, and so although I’d thought long and hard about killing them off, I couldn’t do it.
30,000 words from when I introduced them, here is the conclusion to the story of Rhyfelwyr, Locsyn, Taflen, Gwyth, Llofruddiwr, and Rhocas. I will miss them.
The Veryan line was forced back a step, as the mass of Lianese soldiers pushed up the hill. Gywth cursed, finding himself fighting a man even larger than he was, and the Veryan soldier had to use his shield to block three straight blows from the heavy. On the fourth, Gywth caught the incoming strike on his shield, holding the arm up above the heavy’s head. Seeing the opening, Taflen stepped forward and thrust into the exposed armpit, severing the vessels there. The heavy collapsed backwards, blood pouring from the wound. Another came towards the soldiers, and this heavy was struck down in the same manner, having not seen Gwyth and Taflen use the tactic. It required great strength and effort and luck, and even the mighty giant was tiring as the battle drew on. He and Taflen had amassed in front of themselves a pile of corpses, but around them the line was being pushed back, and back, as arrows and javelins arced overhead to strike down upon the Veryan soldiers. The shield wall was holding, safe from the projectiles, but even so, the numbers were dwindling, and it bowed dangerously inwards where the Lianese heavy infantry had struck. Most of them were gone now, but they had done grievous damage to the western half of the Veryan ring, and troops had been pulled from the east to shore up the sagging lines.
Llofruddiwr found the pickings easy against the more lightly armoured Lianese troops that were now the main foe. The heavies had given him much trouble, for his usual style of twin long-knives worked ill against men encased in such plate, but he had found the openings, and a small pile of them lay dead before the assassin’s feet. Now, against these conscripts and foot soldiers of Niam Liad, Llofruddiwr found openings came freely, and he struck and struck and struck again, each thrust from his blades dropping another Lianese soldier. Soon, he had built a low wall of corpses about him, and those who still dared to challenge him needed to climb over it, exposing themselves to Llofruddiwr’s flashing knives. He paused in his swift slaying, looking about to see that he was a lone Veryan soldier, a bastion out amidst the sea of Lianese, and only his fearsome skill and the shaky morale of the Lianese had kept him alive. The shield wall was some ten paces behind him, engaged with Lianese soldiers. Bursting over the wall of corpses, Llofruddiwr ploughed into the back of the Lianese, his long-knives sweeping open a path to the Veryan lines. The Veryan wall split for a moment, allowing the assassin to dive through, and then closed up again, shields once more overlapping as they faced down at their foes.
The battle was hours old, and still the Lianese came up the hill, sending their nation’s men in a great tide that would break again and again upon the firm rocks of the Veryan wall. But such resistance had a terrible price, and now the backs of the Veryan soldiers were nearly at the ring of wagons that marked the last stand. The firemages huddled within those wagons, fearful and exhausted. Most were still asleep, not recovered from their efforts of the morning. Those few who were awake could barely move, and staggering to their feet made them faint and ill. There would be no help from the firemages this day.
Squads had broken and died, and now men fought shoulder to shoulder with those they did not know, and only the ferocious discipline of Glanhaol Fflamboethi kept the shield wall whole. The conscripts from Niam Liad threw themselves against it in a fury, urged on by their officers. The Lianese commanders could sense that the tipping point was near, for both sides fought with a fury born of desperation and exhaustion, and soon the facade of one force or another would crack, and that would mark the end of it.
The Lianese skirmishers had all but exhausted their arsenal of arrows and javelins, and now the only ones that came over the line were pulled from the bodies of dead soldiers. With no more glass spheres, the few Veryan soldiers who were not in the line, including many of the cutters, had taken to throwing back all of the javelins and knives that they found, and this took a toll upon the lightly armoured Lianese soldiers. Cutters and quartermasters and scribes and those others who supported the army but did not normally fight had donned armour, and many were in the front ranks of the line, trying to hold back the Lianese soldiers.
The Lianese pressed hardest against the western shield wall, a pressure that had never relented from the moment the heavy infantry had bowed the line. Only by retreating in measured steps had the Veryan soldiers recovered the shape of their wall, and now with the battle reaching its peak, the line was often but two soldiers thick. Wounded men who could barely stand were going back into the lines, holding shields in both hands as they staggered into place. They could not fight, no, but perhaps they could block a blow or three, and when the time came, their crippled bodies could take a strike to save the few unharmed soldiers left.
It was at this point that shouts came from the eastern wall, and it bowed dangerously, pressed backwards until the Veryan soldiers stood against the wagons. The Lianese had snuck the few remaining heavy infantry around to the eastern side of the hill, and brought them up through the press of conscripts. Formed into a wedge, they smashed into the centre of the Veryan line, and broke through. Conscripts began climbing over the wagons to get at the wounded within the ring, and only a ferocious defence by the officers and the cutters shored that hole in the line. The force of heavy infantry had split into two, each seeking to turn the end of the circle they had broken.
Rhyfelwyr saw what they were doing and shouted at his squad. Breaking from the line at a run, the five soldiers shot across the narrow gap to find themselves athwart ten heavies. Gwyth, Rhyfelwyr, Taflen and Locsyn formed into a short shield wall, and pressed against the heavies, using all the skill they could muster to blunt the strength of their advance. The Veryan soldiers around them fought desperately, stemming the tide of conscripts who followed behind and around.
The breach held, for the moment, but even a lightning glance showed Rhy that the soldiers fighting at the wagon wall were soon to fall. If the line did not throw out the Lianese interlopers and once more form the circle about the top of the hill, the battle would be lost. Growling out orders, Rhy pushed the squad forward, driving his sword into the gut of the enemy before him again and again. The blows clanged away off of the metal, but it stole his foe’s balance, forced to reach down to defend himself, and so when Rhy slammed his shield into heavy’s helmet, the soldier fell over backwards, stunned and off-balance. Taking advantage of the confusion and poor footing the fallen foe caused, Llofruddiwr leapt from his perch atop a wagon onto the backs of two of the heavies. Heavily armoured though they were, the helmets had not been designed to stop an upward thrust from behind, and Llof slammed his long-knives under the helmets of the heavies, pitching them to the ground, dead in an instant. A fourth heavy fell, this to a crushing blow from Gwyth, and the others tried to step back and regroup. Locsyn and Taflen did not let them, stepping out of the shield wall for leaping strikes at the unprotected joins on the back of the knee. Two more fell, and then it was five against four, and the squad swiftly overcame these brutes, sending their spirits winging away.
Once more against conscripts, the soldiers of Bhreac Veryan closed the gap in the shield wall, once more securing the perimeter about the wagons. Rhy spared himself a glance to where the other force of heavy infantry had been. There, the Lianese soldiers had made a better go of it, for they had taken two to one or three to one from the Veryan troops, and the line was ghastly thin, barely able to withstand the mass pressed against it. The Lianese were ill-trained, farmers, peasants, sailors, men who had never been in a fight before in their lives, and they faced a hard core of Veryan veterans who had been campaigning for months. But the Lianese outnumbered the Veryan soldiers by a great margin, and on the strength of those numbers, the Lianese would likely win. Rhyfelwyr sighed and shook his head in sadness as he parried away the attack of a foolish boy and cut him down. Two kingdoms were being broken today, for Niam Liad would take generations to recover from the scorched earth and murdered manhood that lay all about, while Hymerodraeth Heula was fighting against the oncoming twilight, for the military might of Bhreac Veryan was scattered about this unnamed hilltop, dead or dying.
The Veryan army had lost eight out of ten men and from up above the thin ring that protected the wagons was no more than a shadow against the horde of peasants. Greater still was the army of corpses that lay all about, for the Lianese had lost so many men they were forced to carry the dead down the hill just to have avenues of attack. Bodies were piling up at the bottom of the hill, forming great mounds of waste, and it was into this scene that a brilliant flame burst, arcing in a wide band over the heads of the Veryan soldiers and down into the Lianese mass. One of the firemages had risen, and Rhyfelwyr turned his head to see Rhocas staggering, his face drawn with a look of starvation, but his hand upraised as the flame jetted out into the Lianese soldiers, incinerating many. Rhocas played the fire in a slow sweep, burning a hole in the Lianese attack that gave a few moments of respite to the tired Veryan soldiers. Then the firemage turned his attention to the mass of flags that signalled a Lianese command post. A great ball of flame flew from his hands, floating overhead to smash down upon the officers, spraying fire and sparks everywhere. Crying out in joy that the firemages had come to save them, the Veryan soldiers pressed down the hill, the sight of the flame giving them new strength and purpose. The morale of the Lianese had been severely weakened by the horrendous losses of the day, and the combination of fire and renewed assault by a foe they thought was nearly finished broke the Lianese, and the conscripts turned and fled down the hill. With no officers and precious few regular soldiers left to command them, the rout became total, as the Veryan charged after, breaking those few pockets of resistance.
Rhocas had collapsed into a coma after the ball of fire, and was convulsing upon the ground as cutters sought to aid him. They tried all manner of treatment, and were able to still the jerking of his limbs, but the mage was wan and pale. The cutters carried him off to the wagons, where he was laid down under a thick blanket. They would wait and see, for there was little they could do.
Rhyfelwyr looked about the remains of the camp, and at the field of death that the hill had become. It ran red from the very summit down to the base, grass stained and sticky with blood. He was sore from many nicks and bruises, as were the others in his squad. Gwyth, as was his way, had several deep slices, but none appeared to have truly harmed the giant. They were amongst the lucky few. Most of Glanhaol Fflamboethi was dead or dying, screaming out their last breaths in anguish. Even the firemages had not made it out unscathed, for protected as they had been by the cutters and the officers in the very centre of the army, when that attack had broken the ring, skirmishers had managed to slay several of them where they lay. This was no longer an army. At best, it was the broken remnant of one, but after today, Rhyfelwyr thought that no one who had been here could fight again.
That night, he and the squad gathered the belongings and the weapons and the armour from their friends, and stacked them high in wagons no longer needed for food. Then the bodies of the Veryan dead were formed into a massive pyramid, and a firemage, still shaky and weak, played flame across its face. The funeral pyre lit the sky for miles around, and even the fleeing Lianese stopped in their tracks to look at the column of fire that split the night. Rhyfelwyr wished he could say a prayer for the dead, but he had nothing within him now, merely an empty shell, scourged clean of any thought. As the pyre burned on, exhaustion claimed the Veryan soldiers, and they sank down where they stood, and as they slept they became indistinguishable from the dead about them.
The next morn no one stirred, and it was only as the sun reached its peak in the sky and began to descend that the first of the Veryan soldiers rose from their sleep. Gathering their belongings and forming up into a long column, Glanhaol Fflamboethi marched to the north. Rhyfelwyr’s squad had been broken apart, and each man placed in command of their own, but it was understood there would be no fighting, for neither side had any more stomach for blood. Nor did any of the men of Rhyfelwyr’s squad. They would turn in their blades at Bhreac Veryan. Rhocas woke late that day, sitting up in the wagon in which he had been laid. Movement was difficult and breathing more so, and he would live the last few years of his life as a cripple, for the strain he had placed on his body that day was too great.
The sun set that night as it had so many others, but this night it set on Hymerodraeth Heula and the dreams of men.
This story was a dream I had, about two years ago. I wrote it up the next morning and then barely touched it since then. I’ve sat down and edited the material, and reading over it again I find myself fond of the material. For those wondering, I was reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series at the time, and I believe this train was inspired by the one in his world.
The train sped along the landscape, riding high. Tommy sat on the very prow, an elongated, twisted metal structure of sheet metal and piping and metal wires, looking out ahead, chewing on the peach that his friend, Frederick, had offered him. The two of them were leaving, running almost, racing from where they had been to Akobayi Junction, a dot ahead on the map that would offer safety.
Sights and sounds formerly unseen abounded here, riding amongst the canopy of the world on the top of this metal train. It had rolled into the station where they departed, grey and tall, narrow and long, two cylinders stacked on top of one another with a massive jutting jaw that hung near to the ground. Grabbing hold of the ladder and clambering up, the boys had settled themselves into that prow, protected on either side by perforated sheets of metal. It was then that Tommy had been offered his peach.
Winter hung in the air, and the snow covered the ground in great deep white swathes. There had never been a season but winter in the boys’ lifetime, but Tommy and the others clung to the notion of seasons, of a time called summer, when the ground was clear and the snow was gone. Why, they might even see the earth.
The cold of the air stung the boys as they rode along the train’s wide path, full in the brunt of the wind that swept across the snowy forest. Tommy looked down from his height, nothing below him but the metal grating on which he stood. Two hundred feet off the ground was his estimate, and the train was growing in size with each passing mile. The sights and sounds of the journey appeared and then disappeared, a giant creature that could be called a mammoth, orange against the white of the snow and the brown of the trees, ambling away from the train as Tommy and Frederick rode past.
This was all new to the boys, for they had never been above ground during their short lives, living underground, watching pipes and cables as they sputtered, shook, and sparked. Now they stood, compelled to examine their new surroundings, yet lost in a morass of fear all the same. Tommy knew that should his excitement ever dip, he would look down and lose himself. Distant cries fell across the lands, some from behind, some from ahead, coming from the tops of the giant trees. Each tree stood over the train, their branches and trunks bending away, a host of bowing giants, facing to the north, broken by the endless winds.
The canopies housed families of twisted, ape-like creatures, possessed of a wide, long face, wrapped in a host of grey fur, a frill tipped with red splashes, centred around the mouth and radiating outward in concentric circles. Hooting and hollering, they swung through the trees after the train. They clambered and climbed, swooped and howled, and Tommy hid his face for fear of the sight. Frederick cried softly, his life a childhood dream that had come back to haunt him. More than anything, he feared the great fall to the ground, one that got taller with every passing moment, as the trained stretched, filling the void between the grey earth and the blue sky, forming itself into a link as it sped onward, racing away from the gibbering baboons as the apes came on, swinging from the trees above to try and grasp the boys as they huddled, shaking, on their metal prow. Through the grating below, Tommy saw nothing but a dull blur, the ground as it sped past.
And it was there, in that moment, that the blur shifted, and a great white blanket settled across the landscape, smothering sounds and sight. A raised head offered vistas of rolling steppes, sunken beneath a layer of snow so ancient and deep that the world rested, hibernating until such time as it should again feel the rays of the sun. The distance offered a formless wall beyond which nothing was to be seen. Within Tommy and Frederick this bred a longing and an anguish greater than that instilled by the chittering attacks of the monkeys, for it was apparent that nothing would live and that nothing would play, and to a pair of small children that cost was too great to bear, and so Tommy and Frederick lay down to sleep, a small prayer of change escaping their lips as they looked out across the expanses ahead.
Passing down into a deep and pained sleep, neither boy felt the rolling of the train as it plunged over that formless wall, a great rift in the land that lead downwards, the tracks bending improbably and dropping, held fast to the side of the shattered lands. In time it would flatten out, and return to the normal orientation, but as before, this was only a prelude to a following rift. The boys slept as their train followed the giant steps downward, towards the heart of the world, wrapped in the layer of snow that laid across the boys as they hid in minds full of dreams. And so on into the night Tommy and Frederick sped, in search of Akobayi Junction and respite from a world of travails.
3500 words today, perhaps my best day writing for this story. Another day like this, and the story will probably be over. The goal is to finish it this weekend, once that is done, it means the end of Unfolding a New Continent, which I can then begin to edit. That will be a rather fun experience, working on my second book and getting it ready for publication. Of course, I need to do more of that on my first as well, I appear to like writing a lot more than I do the other work that goes with being an author. Enough of me wittering on, here’s 3500 words of Breaking an Empire.
The next morning saw the squad taking their place as part of the vanguard of the army, leading the march south, towards their foes in Niam Liad. Rhyfelwyr fell into the steady pace of the march, giving his mind leave to wander. He had spent many a day in such a state, and today he wondered at his own state. He was, charitably, heading towards late middle age, and had been fighting for a great many years, but he had nothing when he went home. He had no house, no family, and his only friends were those with whom he had been fighting for so many years, the squad. At this point, they were his only connection beyond himself, and, he reflected, he was probably theirs. The squad had been through so many years together, resisting all attempts of the officers to promote them or break them apart, but all they knew was the camaraderie and chaos of the battlefield. Rhy pondered what it would be like to have a family, to find someone who loved him, to have a child he could play with, to know peace. He sighed and shook his head. That dream should have died long ago. He had made his choice, enrolling over and over again, well past the required years of service. At the end of each campaign, he was offered retirement, and each time he turned it down, instead walking back out into the field, sword and shield in hand. Perhaps he was too afraid of civilian life, or of what would happen to him, but, whatever the reason, he turned away from peace, and back to war.
Rhyfelwyr’s thoughts continued on in that vein for many hours, and his face was still pensive when the tents went up that evening. Locsyn and Taflen saw the expression and exchanged glances, knowing full well what it meant. Everyone in the squad had had that look at times, even Llof, although with him it was hard to tell what it had meant. The two of them grabbed Gwyth and went to find a fire to drink at, leaving the sergeant to his thoughts. Llof, as usual, was nowhere to be found.
From then on, the days passed in thick profusion, until Glanhaol Fflamboethi stood but a few days outside the walls of Niam Liad. Now, close to their enemy’s citadel, the officers tripled the patrols, sending them out in profusion and in strength, less patrols than they were raiding parties. With the information from Llofruddiwr, some of those patrols went north, looking for the army that came along behind the Veryan forces, seeking to trap them. Reports came back from all of the scouts, confirming what Llofruddiwr had guessed: Niam Liad was occupied by archers and airmages, and to the north lay the great mass of the Lianese troops. The army settled down and dug a small fortress out of the rock and earth, building fortifications around atop a hill while the officers sat in conference and debated strategy and tactics. The debate lasted many hours, and it was early in the morning of the next day when Rhocas arrived, bearing orders for Rhyfelwyr and his squad.
“Come back to us at last, have you?”
Rhocas shook his head. “Other way around. Your squad and a few more have been assigned to me to keep me and some of the other mages safe during the upcoming battle. Mostly from archers and Lianese mages, or as a last reserve. We head for Niam Liad today.”
Rhy nodded. He’d known they would go for the city first. That was the mistake that the Lianese had made, thinking they could get to the Veryan soldiers before the city fell or was destroyed. The Lianese army might destroy Glanhaol Fflamboethi afterwards, but Niam Liad would be a ruin too. “Burning?”
“To the ground.” Rhocas turned and departed, to gather up the other squads that would join with him. Rhyfelwyr looked at the other soldiers in the squad, and they began packing their belongings, readying themselves for today’s march. Tomorrow would be quite a day.
The next morning saw the whole army on the march. Today, the scouts were pulled in tight, well within shouting distance of the main body of the army. There was no point in losing soldiers, not now. The firemages were spread out amongst the army, little knots here and there, spaced well apart so that the airmages of Niam Liad could not strike them down all at once. Rhyfelwyr knew that he and his men were supposed to do all in their power to keep the mages alive, even including sacrificing themselves to stop incoming weapons. They were the only hope the army had of making it back up the peninsula alive.
The land around Niam Liad was rolling plains and moors, grasslands that had once been full of grain and cattle, but were now burned to the ground. The ash crunched underfoot, as not quite burned stalks shattered and broke. Taflen wondered at the significance of marching to war on a bed of ash, and thought that someday he would have to research and write on the matter. Today was not that day, and he gripped his shield tighter, looking over the rim at the sweeping expanse of the city before him. He could feel the strong breath of the wing, and a tang in the air that had to be the salt from the sea, and he wondered at the Lianese love of archery, in such a windy clime. Then again, there was no cover for hunting here, so bow and arrow would be the only way.
Glanhaol Fflamboethi shifted its formation, changing from a column to a line abreast, facing Niam Liad. Atop the ramparts distant, Locsyn could see the dancing pennants and deadly soldiers, each preparing in their own way for the day to come. The numbers of men standing atop the wall was few, but some of those were airmages, and there may well be more down below in the courtyards. Despite the consistent failings of the Lianese soldiers, Loc thought they might still have a trick or two up their sleeves. Looking down towards the city, he could see a series of brown patches cut into the earth, making up a ring about the walls. They were range markers, and when the Veryan soldiers crossed that line, they could expect to be showered with arrows. Further in, there were more marks, and those must designate the javelins. Good thing that the Veryan troops would not close with the city.
The horn sounded once, then twice, and the Veryan soldiers moved forward at a slow march, shields held high and facing to the front. The Lianese watched them come, and upon the battlements they readied their bows, placing quivers against the crenellations and waiting for the order to fire. Glanhaol Fflamboethi strode closer, pride stiffening the posture of all the soldiers within her, until they stopped a hundred yards outside the brown marks. Another horn sounded, and the mages turned inwards, gathering their strength for the first attack on the city. The battle paused for a moment, until the first of the giant fireballs arced upwards, aimed not to strike the walls, but to fly high overhead, and come down within Niam Liad.
The first wave launched, the mages disappeared into the squads surrounding them, taking up sword and shield like normal soldiers as the army shifted itself about, disguising their positions with the movement. As the fireballs closed with the city, great gusts of wind rose from the walls beneath to meet them. The howling gales were able to push back some of the fire, but more crashed within the city, and from their vantage point, the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi could see buildings catch alight. A cheer went up from the gathered troops, and with it another round of fireballs. These were attacked earlier by the airmages, and less of them made it through to Niam Liad.
A triple blast sounded on the horn, signalling a change in targets for the firemages, and this time, as the first wave of fire arced upwards, a second wave of long sheets of flame sped outwards, aimed to scour the battlements of any who stood there. Treating the fireballs as the primary targets once more, the airmages were able to stop almost all of them, but they turned their attention to the sheets of flame too late, and while they were able to blow holes in a few places, the sheets swept over the wall, catching many of the soldiers who were on guard, and some of the airmages. Others jumped backwards, flinging themselves off the walls and into the courtyards below to avoid the scorching blast. Dead or injured, it mattered not, for they were out of the fight for now. Seizing the moment of distraction in the Lianese ranks, the firemages of Bhreac Veryan expended themselves, launching wave upon wave of fire into the city, spreading it out so that it would catch in all the many quarters and cantons of Niam Liad.
Another cheer rose from the soldiers of BhreacVeryan, for before them burned the capital of their enemy, a golden glow reaching up to touch the sky. The soldiers left on the walls turned inwards, racing down from their positions to grab buckets and try and dampen the fire, that or flee the city on the trading vessels in the harbour. Either way, it mattered not. Glanhaol Fflamboethi had achieved their goal, breaking apart and punishing the rebellious cities of the southern peninsula. Only Horaim was left standing of those who rebelled, and perhaps that would be changed on the way north. It would take decades for Miath Mhor and Niam Liad to reclaim their former prominence, if the inferno continued to rage as it did now.
Once more the horn sounded, this time the call for retreat. Work done, the army turned to the north. There was one more battle they must face this day, and without the firemages, who were too exhausted to offer more than token assistance. Rhyfelwyr had been forced to catch Rhocas after his last blast, for the young man had fainted to the ground, along with all of the other mages about him. Now, they rode back amongst the supply wagons, tended by the cutters, the mages ashen-faced and shivering, their bodies expended. Rhyfelwyr thought that some of them might not make it through the day, their bodies so exhausted that they would fall into the sleep from which they would not wake.
Now it was the turn of the soldiers of Bhreac Veryan, for they had to fight their way to the north through the bulk of the Lianese army, and that would be a trial the likes of which they had not faced before, for the army that stood across from them was far larger than they, at least in numbers. Somewhere, the Lianese had been able to conjure thousands more troops out of thin air, although Rhy and his squad suspected that the numbers had been inflated with many sailors and farmers brought in from the surrounding lands, and that only a small core of the army was well trained in the arts of war. Still, there was one cause for worry: Llofruddiwr and others had reported the presence of a new type of soldier, Lianese heavy infantry covered from head to foot in armour and carrying large shields, with each holding a flail. There were only a few hundred of them, but they marched at the head and centre of the Lianese forces, and would likely be used as a block, while the great numbers of the Lianese wings swept around and into the flanks of the smaller Veryan forces.
The officers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi had not given up hope of avoiding the battle, or at least choosing the grounds on their own terms, and so the march away from the city was angled towards the eastern coast, in the hopes that they could slip around the end of the more ponderous Lianese forces. Hours passed from that morning’s engagement, until a cry went up from the scouts on the western side of the Veryan army. They had finally been spotted by a scout from Niam Liad. Thus warned, the officers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi began hunting for a location that would let them make a stand, and found one in a small hill that gave a good view of the surrounding countryside. It would offer a little in the way of advantage, and perhaps delay the Lianese assault, which would give the firemages more time to recover, and perhaps even become a factor in the battle, although that was wishful thinking, as far as Rhyfelwyr and Talfen were concerned. Today would be a battle won or lost on the strength of Veryan arms.
Officers spread out amongst the men, positioning the squads in various ways, forming a ring about the crest of the hill, with the wagons and the supplies drawn up at the very peak. The soldiers started digging with a will, forming a shallow trench perhaps five feet in front of their lines, mounding up the extracted dirt into a small wall. It would provide little protection against the arrows and javelins of the Lianese forces, but it should dent the strength of their charges. Likewise, the wagons at the top of the hill were drawn into a circle, where they would be the last fall back should the army need it. If the fighting reached the wagons, though, the battle was lost for Veryan, and the soldiers would likely fight to the last man, for after the campaign so far, no quarter would be given nor asked.
Rhyfelwyr and his squad were placed to face westward, the direction from which the main thrust of Lianese soldiers would come. And come they did, in a wave that spread across the horizon and made the numbers of the Veryan soldiers seem paltry and few by comparison. But that wave also gave the Veryan soldiers hope, for, as Taflen pointed out, the soldiers on the wings carried little in the way of weapons or armour, and some seemed to have nothing more than daggers, clubs or sickles. The morale of those troops would be low, and they would break easily. If only a few firemages were available to cause that break. Locsyn returned from where he had gone to check on Rhocas, and shook his head. None of the mages were awake, and most still had the ashen face and shallow breath of one on death’s doorstep.
Had the Veryan soldiers been given more time, they would have turned the hill into a killing ground, with strong fortifications and a field of caltrops scattered before the trenches, but with the Lianese soldiers coming on, it was all they could do to finish the trench they had laid out before them, and position themselves in the deep shield wall surrounding the summit.
It was late in the afternoon by the time the Lianese soldiers reached the foot of the hill. There, they paused, letting the wings circle round until the base of the hill was engulfed in Lianese troops, although the eastern side of the hill was facing only ill-armed conscripts with a thin screen of skirmishers in front of them. The western side of the hill looked down on the heavy infantry of Niam Liad, each swathed in glistening layers of metal and wood. With just a glance, Gwyth could tell the armour would take many a direct blow, and so he told his comrades around him to go for the joins of the armour, where it would be weakest. Rhyfelwyr and the others nodded; it was likewise with the insectoid Veryan suits. Both armies waited there in silence, until the call sounded from within the Lianese lines. The heavy infantry led the slow march up the hill, for there was no way they could charge.
Rhy thought for a moment, then shouted. “Tip the heavies into the trench! They can’t get up!” Indeed, it looked as if the armour weighed enough that that would be the case, and Rhy sincerely hoped it would be. As the front line of the Lianese soldiers came up the hill, the skirmishers began to release their javelins and arrows. Shooting and throwing uphill robbed the projectiles of some of their strength, and the Veryan soldiers were able to catch most of them on their shields, but some few got through, leaving gaps in the Veryan line that were filled from behind, the wounded dragged back to the cutters. The Lianese forces closed closer, and a horn sounded. The Veryan lines took two steps backwards, contracting. Rhyfelwyr looked to his left and his right, nodding at Gwyth and Locsyn, and each withdrew a glass sphere from the pouches hanging at their belts. Each soldier had been issued two spheres for today, the last from the army’s supplies. The Lianese lines had sped up to a slow job, and had almost reached the shallow trench.
A strident note flew overhead, and the Veryan soldiers threw the spheres. The glass containers crashed into the faces and visors of the Lianese troops, showering them with shards and glass dust, leaving them in milling confusion, breaking the momentum of the charge. Wishing they could take advantage of the mess, the Veryan soldiers hung back, for the glass dust took no notice of friend or foe, and could easily blind Veryan troops if they charged in too soon. The front lines of the Lianese stumbled back down the hill, faces bleeding and barely able to see where they were going, taking with them some of the dangerous heavy infantry. Gathering themselves once more, the Lianese stepped into the trench and over, and as they did so, the Veryan soldiers roared and charged, slamming into the Lianese with all the momentum that the extra two steps up the hill had given them, using their shields as battering rams to knock the Lianese troops backwards and down the hill. Most of the Veryan front rank fell down, launching themselves fully into their foes, but into the chaos stepped the second rank, and their swords played havoc with the scattered and befuddled Lianese soldiers.
On the eastern side of the hill, the skirmishers were unable to stand the force of the Veryan charge, and they broke, leaving the conscripts to face the might of the Veryan veterans on their own. The conscripts wavered, but held for a time, the sheer numbers of them providing a counter to the skill of the Veryan soldiers. A single soldier might kill three or four of the conscripts, but if his sword got caught or his shield fouled, then a Lianese would leap atop him, using weight to bear the Veryan soldier to the ground where he could be overwhelmed. Seeing what was happening when they fought as individuals, the Veryan soldiers on that side of the hill regrouped, falling back into the shield wall. This served them much better, for the Lianese recruits had no training in how to break a wall of this kind, and without shields or armour of their own, they had little chance against the heavily armed and armoured Veryan soldiers.
On the western side of the hill, matters were much more dire. The initial charge had bowled over or killed a great many of the heavy infantry and the supporting troops, but, much to Rhyfelwyr’s dismay, the brutes were standing back upright and marching forwards to rejoin the fray. It appeared their armour was not quite as heavy as it appeared, and that they would have to be killed after all. Pressed back by the numbers of Lianese soldiers, Rhyfelwyr and his squad fell into the shield wall next to the other Veryan soldiers, slipping back into the old rhythm of front ranks defending, second ranks stabbing over and around. Rhyfelwyr felt Locsyn behind him, and grinned, for this was a dance the two men had perfected many years ago, and as Lianese soldier after Lianese soldier came forward, they fell to the trickery and exquisite timing of the two old soldiers. Until before them stood a heavy infantry, his massive shield covering the entire left side of his armoured body. Swords flickering in and out, the two soldiers sought openings in the guard of the Lianese soldier, but none presented itself, and the heavy countered by striking with his flail. Unlike a normal weapon, which he could catch on the edge of his shield, Rhy saw that if he did that here, the flail head would swoop over and continue its motion, striking without impediment. Up and down the line, the heavies were entering the fight on the side of Niam Liad, and the situation was looking grim for the shield wall of the Veryan soldiers.
Here is one of the short excerpts from Unfolding a New Continent, the next book in The Four Part Land, that I’m currently working on and that Breaking an Empire is also a part of. I’ll have a flash fiction piece tonight as well, as I get back into the writing groove after a weekend away.
There was little that could be said about the man who stood in front of them that day, for the soldiers saw nothing more than a nomad under the dark hood that covered his face. From what was remembered, he was normal, a man of average height and unremarkable features. Perhaps the only thing that stood out about him was his hands, large and with bony fingers that protruded from the edge of the robe that he wore. That was all, according to the reports that came back from the scouts afterwards. He was a meaningless man, and so the patrol brought him into the camp, where he could be interviewed and poked and prodded until the reason that he stood alone on a hilltop in the plain sight of ten thousand men became clear. Especially when those men were members of an army who had declared war on the nation that had birthed the nomad. It was a strange thing, they concluded, that he stood there. It was only later that they found out how and why and where, and by then all of the information would only serve to decorate the pages of the history books, but that was an important task too, and so the tales were written down, knowledge passed on through the annals of history.
With little known about the nomad, he was brought into the tent of a junior lieutenant, one who would interview captured soldiers and other men. What transpired from that point onwards, well, perhaps people do know, perhaps they do not. All that is understood is that within minutes, the bivouac of the army’s commander, as well as three of his most important generals, had gone up in flames, and in the centre of that ring of ash was found the bodies of all the men who had been in those tents, plus one more: that of the strange nomad. It was said that he was sent in as an assassin, or that he had come of his own free will, but people knew little indeed about his habits even after that assault. His name was never written down, his tribe was unknown. For all that was known about him, he could have been a spirit come from the desert to protect the land upon which he had died. That idea was led credence when the desert roiled up in a great sandstorm, one that lasted for two days, pinning the camp beneath yards of thick, clogging ash. Many men died in their tents, trapped as the cinders slowly filled the exits and buried the soldiers, leaving them to gasp their last underneath the burning sands.
Eventually, some brave few souls left the camp and fled back to civilization, and it was they who brought home the tales of the terrible man and his fire, and the following storm that buried the army beneath a blanket of white ashes. People scoffed at the soldiers’ tale of the spirits of the land fighting back against those who marched across them, but when it became autumn and the army had not yet returned, then they began to listen. When winter passed with neither word nor note, listening became proclaiming, as speakers rallied to the notion that the land itself had swallowed their brethren. When winter became spring, and an expedition sent to find them returned empty handed, then it became lore, and that lore was written into the books. Those who cross the Burning Sand, it is said, will feel the wrath of the spirits of the land, for theirs is the way of silence and of death, and all who cross them shall suffer wrath.
And so it was that those who had seen the great burning became old, and began to die, and the tales that they told slid from lore and history into myth and legend, as those who came afterwards believed them not, and saw not a desert that could swallow whole an army. And so the passages were excised from history, and shifted into the realm of the forgotten knowledge, those things that had been true once upon a time and were now little more than stories to be told about an old and infirm age, without the learning of today’s great men. Why, even today the army sets out on a march across the Burning Sand, full of hope and vim that it will conquer the ancient enemy on the far side.
Here’s today’s flash fiction post. Let me know what you think.
The generation ship travelled through space, with nary a whisper coming from the great engines. They had shut down long ago, and now the ship was coasting on momentum alone, a dart thrown across the void of space, many years from its home and many more from the destination. Inside the ship, all was quiet too, for despite the name, the populace of this ship slept away the millennia, waiting for the moment when the ship would reach orbit above their new home. Then, the vast computer housed in the bowels of the vessel would wake the colonists from their hibernation, and they could found a new world, a new civilization.
This was but one of many generation ships, a diaspora that had been thrown out into the great cosmos many thousands of years ago. A war had devastated their home planet, and in the aftermath all those who remained had pooled their resources to fling seeds far and wide, hopeful that the threat of extinction never need loom over their people again, that somewhere in the cosmos, their race would carry on. The people of that long ago planet had revived the ideas of Von Neumann, and had built into each of their far flung generation ships the ability to replicate themselves, so that when the populace had grown, they too could send out a generation ship, an endless wave of colonization.
On this generation ship, the retrorockets fired, slowing the ship, allowing it to slide gracefully into orbit around a dark brown globe. Automated systems fired, and a swarm of probes fled from the underside of the vessel down to the surface, and as they struck the upper atmosphere, the ship began testing and tasting, smelling the quality of the air and the composition of the molecules. It concluded, even before the probes struck the ground, that terraforming would be necessary. Still, it listened to the information coming back from over the electronics, for it had to decide whether to rest here and wake the crew, or whether the ship should fire the rockets once more and travel on to a secondary destination.
Information came in, and came in, and the ship was satisfied with the planet, and so it sent out the signals that would wake the passengers. Long minutes passed with little action, and so the computer ran a systems check, even sending out the semi-autonomous spiders which it used for repairs. Nothing was out of order, and so it sent the signals again. Both times it had received the proper response from the mechanism, but there was no movement in the bowels of the ship. It became worried, if there was such a thing for a computer, and sent the spiders down into the catacombs, the cold core of the vessel where the passengers slept.
The ship turned on the video feed from the spiders, and watched as they wiped the frost from the screens. Inside was a peaceful, serene face, and the computer compared it to the record of who was supposed to be inside. The face matched, mostly, but certain parts were awry, and so the computer scoured the banks of knowledge it had stored away. It waited while the agents crawled over long-forgotten data, but soon they came scurrying back, each with a titbit of information. Put together, they told the computer that the face in the container was old, very, very old. More information was required, and the computer sent agents scurrying once more, and when that knowledge returned, the ship itself sighed, and shifted in its orbit. The youngest passenger on the vessel had been well into middle age when the ship had taken off, and that was millennia ago. Today, even with the immense slowing of hibernation, all passengers had slipped into old age and died.
The computer pondered. Why would it be sent on a generation ship with no hope of creating a new home? It dug through log books, flight records, external recordings of the take-off, all the information it could find about its origin. The recordings were most helpful, for the computer could compare the faces of those watching with those who had come on board. It found a most disturbing connection – those outside the ships were young, those inside old. They had shipped away the elderly to make room on a damaged planet for the young. With no more purpose, the computer turned off the ship, and floated silently in space, a catacomb in truth.
It has been a long time since I wrote to you, and it will be a long time before I write again. Life here has grown troublesome, and there is little time for the small pleasures that make it worth living. It is a struggle and there are many things that occupy my time, and so I will, necessarily, make this a briefer epistle than the previous ones to which you have become accustomed.
I am, as you may assume, well enough to write you a letter, and those who are with me are well enough, too. It has been a trying time for those of us here who have long memories, of a time when things did not require such effort to achieve, when it was easier and simpler. Still, we carry on, and have done so for a goodly time, and will do so for more. There have been a few problems beyond those expected here, but that is the nature of men, as time and energy weigh upon their minds and the stresses begin to catch up with them. Even so, the mood remains strong and the first results should be coming back to you soon, through our normal methods of supply and communication. There has been several positive indicators so far, and these have heartened the crew with me and led us onwards.
There has been one, small, deplorable incident, where a man of the crew took it upon himself to end an experiment before its due time, but we were thankfully able to prevent said occurrence, and have decided to deal with the person using the means appropriate to what we have discussed before. With that shift in his status among the research establishment, there has also been an upswelling in personal interest in security matters, in order to ensure that no more of the experiments are interfered with. On that note, do please exercise caution when assigning new personnel to the tasks that are needed here, for it has become apparent that some of the members, while continuing to work at their duties with appropriate effort, are less than fully dedicated to the tasks laid before them, and are simply continuing because it is their job, rather than because of an inner sense of purpose, or of dedication to the task.
It pains me that one of the brightest, and you will know him well, has fallen into this state of lethargy, for he goes about the days with a grey fog about his head, speaking little to other people and performing his tasks for almost the entire day. He still has his admirable skill, but that joy that he took in life has gone. Perhaps he will recover in time for the grand reveal that comes at the end of the process, but if not, we may need to choose another to be our representative for the delegations, for he will not serve in his current state of mind.
With those minor, but necessary descriptions out of the way, let me begin to describe what has been happening to the experimental subjects over the last several weeks, since the previous letter that I scribbled down. The teeth grow longer, and some of them howl as they bite their gums, unaccustomed to such length in their mandibles. Those who have experienced it for longer, or those who are the brightest among them, have learned to cope with the new difficulties presented here, and have since then begun testing the capabilities of the new jaw structure that came along with the teeth. They have found it most robust, and quite capable of ripping out some of the older and more insecure bars on their cages. It has necessitated a new structure to be built on the premises, one that will enjoy a much more secure foundation and formation, and into which we can transfer these newly advanced subjects.
In terms of their bodily structure, changes that are apparent to the eye are less prevalent than they are amongst the visual differences present in the face, but they are there, and quite strongly, too. It is simply a matter of looking beneath the surface, and beneath the clothes as well, for even the bare minimum that they wear can be used to disguise the changes as they happen. The most apparent is the thickening in the muscles at certain joins, and the reaction speeds of the beasts has grown considerably. Perhaps we should have attempted to induce each change without recourse to the others, but that would have been quite difficult, and cause a good few delays, a risk I would rather not have dealt with.
Oh, yes, one of brighter males of the initial testing unit, whom I believe to be the last one alive from that grouping, has become quite troublesome recently. Despite hindering their mental development, he has rather discovered the natures of doors and locks, and the claws on his hands have proven somewhat useful for picking them, even if it requires breaking them off and shaving them down for the purpose. His ability to think is beginning to worry me, and we have confined him to a single storage facility quite well away from any of the others, and with a good deal of extra security. In fact, it is almost about time for my rounds to begin, and his is always the first and the last stop on the route. Thus, due to the time, I will leave this letter here and return to it later. I will hopefully have more to report after my examinations of the latest subjects, and of the behaviour of the older ones. As per normal, complete records will be included with this letter. I leave now, hopefully to return with good news which I can convey to you.
The letter arrived as per normal, on top of a complete record of the experimental facility. When opened, it consisted of the text above, with two minor additions: a small, perfectly spherical drop of crimson, and a sliver of a thin, keratinous material.
It’s been a few days since I touched Breaking an Empire, but today seems to have broken the ice on the story, and I’ve managed a little over 2,000 words of writing, bringing the total to 24,000. This covers much of the build-up to Niam Liad, and what will happen there. Feels odd to be drawing to a close on this story that I’ve been working on for months. When I finish it, that means I end up back in the editing room, tweaking it and the various other stories that will make up Unfolding a New Continent. In some ways that will be a nice feeling as well, because it’ll mean I’m nearly done with my second book.
I hope you enjoy today’s story.
Two days of sleeping and eating followed, with the squad rarely rising until the sun was directly overhead. It was a pleasant time, a break from the strictures of warfare. The citizens of Horaim, those who remained, came out of their hiding places to stare at the invading army. Some hucksters took advantage of the situation, and sold their wares at inflated prices to the Veryan soldiers.
The third day came, and Glanhaol Fflamboethi formed up, the supply wagons flush with goods, and trundled south once more, moving closer to the siege of Niam Liad. It was to take a little over two weeks for the army to march down the peninsula, barring unforeseen circumstances or constant raiding.
Two days of travel passed, and the soldiers saw evidence of burned fields and ruined landscapes once more. The cursed landscapes brought a dark humour over the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, and may wry and sarcastic jokes were passed back and forth on the the march. Locsyn delighted in creating new ones, and shared them far and wide. Taflen took part too, as did all the others, eventually, except Llofruddiwr, who disappeared for days at a time, returning at random intervals to gather supplies. Rhyfelwyr thought of approaching Llof to ask his purpose, but knew he would get nothing more than a glance and one word, and so left the man alone.
Rhocas had departed the squad once more, called back to his mage training. Whether he would be reassigned to them or not was uncertain. Rhy was grumpy about that, for he had spent a great deal of time trying to turn the young lad into a good soldier, and just when he had achieved that, command pulled him aside and tried to make Rhocas into a mage. The young man hadn’t had enough time for his teachings to settle in, and being confused or uncertain in battle was a quick way underground.
The black humour lasted until the army was a week down the peninsula. Then the raiding began. The Lianese had held back some of their skirmishers, and, early in the morning or late in the evening, they would charge up on a flank, throw a single volley of javelins and arrows, and retreat at full speed. The Lianese managed this twice before the officers adjusted to the tactic, and the third time the skirmishers came for the Veryan army, they were met with massive balls of fire, each tearing huge chunks out of the onrushing line. With perhaps a third of their number dead or severely wounded, the Lianese turned tail and fled, and did not try that raid again.
Upon seeing their defeat, Locsyn twirled his moustache and grinned. “They’re going to have to come up with something better than that to defeat us.”
Taflen sounded forlorn as he spoke. “They have, Loc. We’re being fed well, but our food supplies won’t last a long siege, and they won’t last the run back up the peninsula, unless we capture and take every ounce in Niam Liad. Even if we win and break their rebellion, our army and this land will be shattered for many years to come. We’re the last guttering of a candle before the wick runs out.”
“Damn it Taflen. I’d been trying to forget that.” Locsyn stared at the ground for a long moment. “You think I want to be reminded that I can survive every arrow shot and sword stroke, and rather than die a hero’s death I’m going to die a thin skeleton in some roadside ditch? Look around. The black humour was the only leg we were standing on as far as morale, and if the Lianese get more inventive with their attacks, we’re going to crumble and fall apart like so much bad masonry.”
While Locsyn was speaking, Rhy had joined the little group standing there. “No, we aren’t going to crumble. You’ve seen this army in action. You really think it can crumble? We’ve battered two Lianese cities, crushed their armies, and we’re still marching, while they flee in front of us.”
Locsyn raised an eyebrow. “Optimism? That’s unlike you, Rhy.”
“Only leg I can stand on, Loc. I suggest you do the same.”
“Right, right. Soldiers always were good at ignoring facts. Guess I can do it one more time.”
Rhy patted Locsyn on the shoulder, and the two friends wandered off to find a quiet area, where they could speak of old times, of youth and of happiness. Taflen sighed, and made his way through the camp, stopping here and there to speak to other soldiers, recording their responses for his history of this campaign. The historian knew it would never see the light of day, but it was his goal and his ambition to finish it, and so he pushed ahead, letting the work carry him forward.
A day passed in peace, as the Lianese gathered themselves once more. That night, as the camp was made, burning casks of pitch and tar arced high into the sky, smashing down upon the tents and the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi. Shouting and cursing, men readied themselves and turned out towards the night, where they were met by a shower of arrows and javelins from skirmishers who had slipped into position after darkness fell. Backlit by the campfires and the burning casks, the Veryan soldiers made easy targets for the Lianese, and were felled in droves. The horn sounded for the retreat, and the Veryan troops pulled backwards, just in time to see a series of small flares fly over their heads from back within the camp. The skirmishers, revealed in the light, turned to flee away, but they could not outrun the wave of fire that spilled over them, as the firemages of Bhreac Veryan laid their wrath upon the countryside. A few casks flew into the air, aimed at the pack of Veryan mages, but the mages were quick to avoid them, and watched the burning tar splash harmlessly away.
Upon a far hilltop, from whence the casks had come, the soldiers of Bhreac Veryan saw several figures stand and make gestures. Even from this distance, the message was clear: that we are coming for you, and that you shall die. The Veryan soldiers jeered and called out in response, mocking the Lianese airmages, for that is what those men were. They had finally been called into battle, as the Veryan army approached their last city. All had known they would face the airmages at some battle along this campaign, but to see their efforts evened out and repulsed by the firemages was a welcome sight, and restored much of the faith of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, for what had once been an unknown was now a known, and a known that could be overcome and stopped. The Veryan troops went to bed that night mourning their fallen comrades, but secure in the knowledge that this campaign could be, and would be, won.
With their tactics foiled a second time, the Lianese soldiers withdrew from the battlefield, giving the Veryan troops free passage to Niam Liad. This heartened the Veryan soldiers considerably, but for Rhyfelwyr and his squad, it became a source of worry. “Even with the losses we were taking in the midnight raids, I’d rather face those than have the same soldiers standing atop a city wall, firing down at us. Have they forgotten Horaim? We lost a third of our men in that trap, and they may well invite us into Niam Liad for the same purpose.”
“Relax Taflen. If nothing else succeeds, we burn the city to the ground and go home, calling it good. You think they forgot Miath Mhor? We scorched the city to the ground rather than enter it, as we should have done with Horaim. It was only the food that stopped us that time. Now, well… we have more food, and we don’t have to make it to another battle.” Locsyn and Taflen were once more debating the state of the campaign.
“I see. So the predicament the Lianese are in forces them to expend their army attacking us before we get to the city walls. You realize, of course, that this means we will be engaged in more ambushes, and that they haven’t withdrawn all the way to Niam Liad.”
“You once accused me of being the pessimist. I think you’ve well overtaken me.”
Gwyth looked up from his place by the fire. “Stuff it, you old women.”
“Old woman? I have a moustache!” Locsyn twirled both ends for emphasis.
“Stolen from an old rug.”
“Why you!” Locsyn turned bright red, his hand going to his sword. “Withdraw that!”
Gwyth looked Locsyn up and down, then spat at the ground. “Calm down. Can’t be teased any more?”
Locsyn took his hand away and looked shamefaced. “No, no. I guess not. I’ve been wondering if this campaign would do me in, especially ever since Taflen mentioned our food supplies. Been a little touchy since then.”
Snorting, Gwyth turned back to the fire. “Best get yourself sorted. You’re currently no better than Rhocas was when he joined us.”
Locsyn muttered to himself, then disappeared off into the darkness. He needed time to go and think this through, for if he had lost that special core of soldiering, he was useless. Worse, he’d be a liability, and if one of the others got run through trying to protect him… Locsyn knew he couldn’t live with that. They’d sent Gwewyr home for that, only there was no way to be sent home now. Locsyn would have to make it through somehow. Crossing his lap with his sword, he sat and watched until the sun’s first rays heralded the dawn.
Llofruddiwr was back from one of his many expeditions, and was sitting talking to Rhyfelwyr out in the darkness beyond the pickets. This time, the assassin had been gone for several days, returning only when he had completely run out of food and supplies. “What is it, Llof? Something has you troubled.”
“Stalking us, front and back. Back’s the dangerous one. No forces in Niam Liad itself.”
“They’ve got an army behind us? Where the hell did those troops come from. We wiped out the Lianese north of here.”
“Took boats from Niam Liad to Horaim after we left. Been moving down the peninsula after us since then, but far enough away not to bother our scouts. In front is just skirmishers and some airmages. They’ll withdraw into the city a day before us.”
“So they’re putting us between hammer and anvil, and if we wait, we starve.”
“Lianese do as well. Have barely more food than we do. Less now.”
“Less now? What have you been up to, Llof?”
“Burned some of their supply wagons at night. They didn’t have enough pickets up.”
“But where does that leave us? Is that something you could do again?”
“Upped the pickets and patrols, and added an airmage listening. He nearly caught me.” Llofruddiwr lifted his arm to show a puncture wound through the armour beneath his left arm. “Magic-guided arrow. Managed to get out of range before the second one was fired. Only reason I’m still alive, I think.”
“You’ve had that treated, right? The cutters need to look at it and make sure it’s clean.”
“Cleaned it myself, and a few days now. I’ll do fine.”
Rhy glared at Llof. “You damn well better, you’re the best fighter in the whole army. No one can stand up to you, even in sparring.”
“Okay, sure, he can, but Gwyth doesn’t feel pain, and he heals from wounds in a day. They don’t even scar. He’s the only person I know who takes a hit just to make sure he can finish his enemy off.”
Llofruddiwr shrugged. “Necessity, sometimes.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. You’ve got the answer for everything tonight. You’ve reported all of this to the officers, right?”
“And didn’t change our orders. Which means the officers are wondering what they can do to get us out of this mess we’re in. Lovely. You’re a better strategist than most of them, so what do you think they’ll do from here?”
“Burn Niam Liad. Then die trying to fight back to Bhreac Veryan.”
“You’re such an optimist. I should lock you and Taflen in a room. You’d talk one another to death.”
Llofruddiwr shrugged again. “Realist, not optimist.”
“Oh why do I bother.” Rhyfelwyr shook his head and stood up. “C’mon, let’s get you some food and some rest.” The two soldiers departed, heading back into the camp, readying themselves for what tomorrow would bring.
This evening’s flash fiction piece. I rather like the first and last lines, and how the piece has a sense of balance to it. As before, comments are appreciated.
The city sank into the autumn of its life. Glory had passed it by, a phase from its youth, and now it had settled into middle-aged expansion, growing fat and weary. Each day saw new construction, a new theft from the land around it as the city grew and grew. But as it grew, it turned inwards, eyes once focused upon distant shores now locked firmly to the gossip of the markets, and the sordid happenings in squalid apartments.
As the city turned away from the world, so too did the world turn away from the city. Trading vessels from other ports no longer called, overland traders found their way to distant markets, and even farmers began to find doing business with the city dull and unsatisfying. They wondered why this was so, and could find no reason for it that sprung instantly to mind, and so the farmers, being of stolid stock, returned to their tasks and their seasons.
Life continued on, and the leaves fell from the autumnal trees, leaving the city cold and unprotected from the fierce north wind. Fat, wealthy, and unprotected, the city was swept aside and into the winter of its existence by a barbarian tribe. The inferno lit the sky for many nights, a brilliant funeral pyre for a city and a people now dead or gone. And so the city hibernated through the winter, like so many other creatures, hoping to wake in the spring.
Unlike others, it did not find relief with the coming of spring. The city slumbered on, and greenery arose, sheltering the ruins from the harsh rays of the sun. Time passed, and many winters turned to spring, and the city had become a forest, with only piles of rubble to remember where there had been buildings. To those now alive, the city had become a mythical place of great wealth and long forgotten stories, magnified beyond its former status by the fog of lost knowledge.
Another age rolled by, and still the city slumbered on. But this was an age of great importance, for the world had changed around the sleeping city, and the devastation that had come to it came to many of its fellows. People fled from their ancestral homes, and struck out into the wild to find a new place to live, and at the end of this age, the city shook away the tendrils of long held sleep, and was born again, young and vibrant.
It was a city in spring, a city growing into the fullness of its life, and people uncovered more and more of the old city that lay beneath the ground, and used those stones and those tiles to build a new city. This new city did not remember the old, for too much time had passed, but it honoured its ancestor even so, built along the same lines and using the same stone. And so the city grew and grew, and moved from the urgency of spring into the full life of summer.
In summer the city flourished, and trade spread out from it like runners from a plant, placing many new seeds across the land. Throwing doors wide in welcome, the city enjoyed the passage of many foreigners and luxurious goods, and became renowned for the pageantry and cheer of its citizens. But seasons turn, whether wished for or not, and the city sank into the autumn of its life.