Thursday, June 29, 2017

Fire in the Skies

Commander Nawles slumped sideways in a ragged armchair. Propped haphazardly on one elbow, he forced himself through the never-ending body of official communiques and documents it fell to him to address. He removed his copper-framed reading glasses and ran his fingers through greasy brown hair tinged with gray at the temples. The arms of his military collar were flung wide to expose a neck covered in two days of stubble and dirty sweat. The skin of his face was hot and sticky in the pollen-heavy summer air, and he rubbed it absently, sliding his spectacles back into place before picking up the next missive to study, because God help him if he missed something important.

God help him if he missed some insignificant secondary scouting objective on one of Fort McKlane’s many patrol routes—the pet concern of an up-and-coming commissioned officer who just happened to be the son of one of the governors. God help him if he failed to appreciate a joke in a personal memo that one of the lieutenant generals considered to be particularly clever. God help him if he failed to remember to reference it in their next face-to-face. God help him if he delayed responding to an armor requisition by another commander who would consider it a snub by a peer.

These are the things that make madmen of heroes, he thought, remembering a line from a play he had attended in Moorhawk as a young man. It had all seemed fun and games at the time. It had all made sense. It had called to him—the patriotism, the talk of honor and heroics. That was before the whole thing had begun to unravel, before the banality of the institution had begun to show through the distracting veneer, before the ballroom mask had been lifted to reveal a visage of reality beneath that was disappointingly plain.

He looked down at the next document on the stack in front of him, a directive straight from General Royce. They were planning another offensive late in the year, and everyone was supposed to be excited. Details followed, rhetoric intended to justify another season of hunting the Kaduzan horseriders across their own territory. Tortured terminology was methodically employed: “defense” instead of “conquest,” “interrogation” instead of “torture,” “robust” instead of “excessive.” On and on it went, the carefully constructed tangle of contrived military diction which permeated every conversation and every document. It saturated the very fabric of military culture without ever being confronted or examined directly.

Even on those rare occasions when a soldier was forced to acknowledge the existence of this intricate web of deception, the suggestion would be that it existed for the benefit of the civilian, for the peace of mind of families and innocents too na├»ve to look upon the cold hard facets of war. That was the implication that normally went unspoken, one Nawles had internalized as a young soldier without ever having questioned it, but much later he had come to understand that the language they used was not there for the benefit of the public so much as for the soldiers, for the officers—to prevent them from having to verbalize the raw and bloody truth every single day.

Now a commander himself, Nawles routinely used this selfsame linguistic code to dress up butchery and deceit, to make the unpalatable fit for civilized discourse so that generals could maintain an air of refinement whilst discussing their “professional duties” over dinner, with the same level of decorum as engineers evaluating a bridge project or lawyers arguing the nuances of a complicated legal precedent. It was a tiresome charade, but one that he had perfected over many years of service. It was built into the structure of his very career, one that had been presented to him framed in the same absurd, hyperbolic, and circuitous terms that he now consciously used to encourage wave after wave of idealistic young soldiers to sacrifice for their country and defend their homeland in a neverending frontier war driven purely by greed.

The treachery of it gnawed, a dull discomfort at the base of his skull that he could never quite manage to ignore, but there was no choice other than to walk away from a ripening pension. He had too much invested now, too much at stake. So, he swallowed the hypocrisy, passing it along to a new generation who would discover in time what he had discovered, what they all discovered sooner or later, that the Kaduzan would continue to attack Dreoc soldiers as long as Dreoc continued to push into their territory. Up the chain they knew this full well and used every barbarian attack they could provoke to justify the conflict as a defensive action, a response to a highly aggressive opponent. That the public ate it up had once surprised him. No longer. He now relied upon it, though it stank of corruption as ever it had.

“Why do we really war on the Kaduzan?” he had once ventured to ask General Balizard during a confidential moment at an officer’s wedding. Nawles could never forget the dark steel eyes of the general as he considered his answer, whether to give one at all, and just how far to trust the young officer at his elbow, brimming with earnest turmoil.

Finally, Balizard had offered a curt response, “We make war on the Kaduzan so that there will be war with the Kaduzan.”

Nawles had not understood at the time. It had seemed a meaningless evasion designed to disguise Balizard’s lack of serious thought on the matter. Now Nawles understood too well. Now it was obvious. The war was about money and politics and nothing more—contracts for armor and weapons and horses and beef and siege machines, the fortunes of trade guilds and mercenary guilds, and a convenient source of blame to deflect domestic concerns.

Nothing had changed since then, except for Nawles. He was no longer young. He no longer had the luxury of questioning. He was part of the machine, and there were no more excuses to be made. He had chosen to be a part of it just as many had, but he had also chosen not to lie to himself about it. That was something, at least. Now there was only to distinguish himself. There was only to stand out. So, he read and reread every dispatch. He analyzed. He angled. Day by day he plotted his ascent up the military ladder. He looked for any advantage.

All that remained was to exploit the path of war, to profit from systemic corruption, corruption not of his own devising but corruption which he had nonetheless made the decision to embrace rather than to resist. Nawles no longer believed resistance was practical or even possible. There would always be war and there would always be warriors, and James Douglas Nawles had set his mind to better understand the nature of the conflict to which he had been married by destiny: the eternal war of the northern border or “the Battle of the Savard Plains” as the brass preferred to chime in dignified tones.

Every season there would be some catastrophe on the plains, some patrol ambushed or some encampment massacred. It was the inevitable consequence of such a situation—brash men spoiling to prove themselves against savages on the frontier before returning to fields and cities, to lives of unremitting blunt toil. All that was required was to place them there. The heat and the boredom would do the rest. Restlessness and ambition, loyalty, shame, these forces would work upon the minds of the warriors on both sides. Nothing needed to be arranged. The outcome was as certain as the seasons themselves. Bad decisions would be made, tensions would escalate. All that the generals needed to do was wait.

There would be devastating defeats, yes, and these would spark rage and draw surges of recruits looking for justice and revenge. There would be plenty of easy victories as well, war stories for men returning to the civilized world, tales of glory and gore for the taverns and darker tales of unpunished rapine and pillage whispered between laborers in the fields, tales sure to lure hot-blooded young men into the army the following year, men who would be looking for adventure and for license to do the type of things that men have always harbored the desire to do, things that can only be done during war.

The entire process was an abomination, Nawles could see that now, an orchestrated social cycle too cynical to even be addressed by polite society. Certainly, there would be the sincere, there always were, heroic types caught by the teeth of the machine and dragged into the gears, men who believed the propaganda at face value, who would come into the service of their country because they loved the ideal. Then another massacre, another disaster, and the whole process would begin again. It would continue. It would never end.

Madmen of heroes, he thought.

Commander Nawles picked up the stamp he used to seal official documents—the seal of Dreoc. It hung from an ink-stained leather strap around his neck. On the head of the stamp was a stylized hawk depicted in the “rousant” attitude with wings presented “addorsed” and “elevated,” clutching arrows in the right or “dexter” claw and an olive branch in the “sinister” or left claw. It was a heraldric configuration conspicuously designed to convey a warlike message: war taking precedence over peace. Nawles toyed with the stamp, reminiscing about the older symbol Dreoc had long ago abandoned, the traditional symbol of the Moorhawk settlement, the profile of a soaring hawk that embodied the principles of independence and freedom. He hummed dully, conjuring the music to a song his father once sung:

“The eagle with no nest so soon must land,
Or seek a master with a steady hand.

“The falcon, who once flees his master’s glove,
Returns to find a hand devoid of love.

“The moor hawk once above the hunter’s bow,
Circles proud to scorn the earth below.”

This is all that Nawles could remember of the words. There had been more to it than that, but he had not taken an interest in the song until after his father’s passing, and since that time had never met anyone who knew the rest of the words. A rap at the commander’s door pulled him from the reverie.

“Come in.”

The door opened to reveal a spindly sergeant with an officious posture and pursed lips: Sergeant Gabe, a man Nawles disliked without being able to name exactly why. The sergeant gave off an air of general disdain for others and Nawles had the strong impression that Gabe would be quite a prick for anyone unfortunate enough to fall under his command.

“What is it, sergeant?”

“Sir, the watch sergeant, he…asks that you…requests your…” Sergeant Gabe struggled briefly to couch his message in eloquent military parlance, but relented. “Sir…there’s just something you need to see.”

Commander Nawles removed his glasses and scratched the patch of stubble between his eyebrows with his middle finger. He breathed in. In truth, it was a favor the kid was doing him, giving him a reason to stretch his legs and take a break from the mind-numbing stack of beaurocratic minutiae that remained. Not that this mitigated his dislike for Sergeant Gabe in the least. The commander stood, tossing the stack of dispatches down on the table next to his chair.

He stepped over to a small rectangular mirror on the wall where he fixed his collar and ran a comb through his hair, then headed for the door where the sergeant gave Nawles an inexplicable disapproving look, glancing down—at what, the commander could not guess until he looked down as well. Turning back into the room, the commander removed the leather strap from around his neck and dropped the military seal onto his desk, where it rolled quietly to a stop next to the ink well.

* * *

Commander Nawles strained to see the rider through the lens of his telescope. The image jumped and shook as he tried to follow the movement of the horse across the plain from his vantage point on the walkway above the fortress gatehouse. The day was gray and humid, and the high grasses were rich and soft and vibrant green following weeks of steady light summer rain.

Fort McKlane sat thick-walled and squat, like an ogre hunching down on the summit of a hill overlooking the valley to the south. The Rabahn River came roaring out of the Brackenreaches from the east to protect the fort’s backside to the north, and rushed off west to join the wide and uncrossable Demie in its journey south to the sea.  A dirt road circled down along the grade of the hill and cut straight across the valley south to a gap between the Newton Hills on the right and the dark edge of the forest on the left. There, the road disappeared over a low rise, to continue on south to the twin towns of Coif and Djorning, a day’s hard ride from Fort McKlane, and the site of the nearest ferry across the mighty Demie.

So, it came as no small surprise to the commander to see through his spyglass the proud bearing of a lone plains barbarian woman ranging back and forth in a long semi-circle outside bowshot of Fort McKlane, face painted with streaks of red for war, javelin raised in her right hand in the traditional challenge of Kaduzan spearmen.

Nawles scrutinized the rider carefully. She was a mystery. Although adorned in the war regalia and war paint of the Kaduzan, she was dusky-skinned, with black hair pulled back into a single long braid that whipped and snapped behind her. Her horse pranced and danced with excitement. The commander had seen the like before—a Solian warhorse with a love for war that knew when battle was imminent. It threw its head and tossed its mane, as did its bareback, narrow-eyed rider.

“That’s no Kaduzan,” said the commander, passing the telescope to Major Lewis, who stood by his side. “She has the color of an easterner.”

The young major raised the glass, remaining silent for many moments as he sighted on the rider. He read the runes painted on her horse’s flanks and studied the war-streak patterns upon her face. Finally, he spoke. “This is a Kaduzan warrior of great distinction.”

Nawles was shaking his head. “She’s an imposter,” he said, but undermined his own words with the uncertainty in his voice.

“No,” said the major, lowering the spyglass. “That’s Ajenatay.”

 Their eyes met as recognition dawned upon Commander Nawles. He knew the rider, knew of her. Everyone did, but no one would expect to see her in person, unless it be at the head of an assault. “Gods,” he said. Taking the glass that Major Lewis handed back, he raised it again and trained it on the rider, holding his breath as if watching a ghost or a goddess. A career of fighting barbarians on the Savard Plains told him it was true, that Major Lewis was correct. Right here, at his very doorstep, was the living legend herself. “I’ll be damned, Bill. It’s her. It’s One-Bell.”

“Yes,” said the major, as though he had been asked to confirm something obvious. In his voice there was no doubt.

“What’s she up to?”

“She’s calling us out,” said the major.

Commander Nawles pointed his spyglass at the shadows beneath the eaves of the forest. “Or luring us into an ambush.”

“No,” said the major, his voice dry. “The Kaduzan consider the Savard Plains to be holy, and the lands outside to be cursed. For them, to travel beyond their borders is a journey into the hells. This one here,” he said, gazing down upon the rider, “she has ridden into the outerworld – the world of evil men. She is on a death-quest. There is no army of Kaduzan that would join in such an undertaking. It is akin to suicide—taboo. Besides,” he added with a sigh, as if coming out of a trance, “our scouts would have noticed an army moving around south or crossing the Rabahn. No, Commander, she came here alone. She must have crossed at Djorning.”

“Odo.” They droned the name in unison.

The commander strained once more through the spyglass. “Where is her bow? The legendary bow. I don’t see it.”

Out in the fields before them, Ajenatay nimbly switched directions and reared her horse into the air, holding her javelin aloft. On her back was a dark leather sheath holding a short, thin blade. From the flank of her horse she lifted a buckler and shouted in a piercing voice that reached the ears of those watching from the walls.

Commander Nawles spoke the barbarian tongue, but Ajenatay’s voice was thinned by the distance, and she spoke rapidly in complex foreign syntax that defied the commander’s ears. “What does she say?” he asked.

Major Lewis was a veteran of horse warfare and a renowned tracker who knew the Savard Plains and the Kaduzan tongue better than any Dreoc soldier. He removed his hat, running a handful of fingers through a thick mane of blond hair. “It’s an idiom. She says that we perch here like sparrows watching a hawk.”

Commander Nawles looked across at his men standing at intervals along the parapets. Others were milling around by the barracks. All of them were watching him now, writing editorials in their minds which were sure to be shared later between bunks and latrine stalls, across tables in the mess. The commander knew all too well that soon the narrative would be etched in stone. He also knew that opportunities such as this one came seldom upon the frontier, and he turned to Sergeant Causebeck who stood nearby. “Bring up my armor and ready my horse. I want ten men prepared to go out the front gate with me. Volunteers only. Make sure they all understand—my orders are to take the barbarian alive.”

* * *

By the time they had assembled at the gate, every one of his soldiers understood very well what waited on the other side: Ajenatay. Many Kaduzan females were warriors, archers, riders, and trackers, but there was only one Ajenatay— “One Bell” in the Kaduzan tongue—a name that filled the minds of Dreoc soldiers with awe, one that had been behind so many of their defeats. She was uncatchable, unbeatable, a demon of the battlefield. Now they would meet her. Now they would be involved in her capture. For each of them, this was a priceless opportunity to advance, if they survived. Commander Nawles led them into the gatehouse, his expression unreadable, his hastily-groomed salt-and-pepper beard hanging stiff against the angles of a face that was beginning to lose definition with the coming of age.

The inner portcullis closed behind them and locked down into place with a wince-inducing slam before the outer gate began to ascend one clank at a time. There was no mote or bridge at Fort McKlane, which depended upon the waters of the Rabahn to protect it from the north. No assault had ever been contemplated or attempted from the south. The plainsmen of Kaduzan dwelt on the western side of the Demie River and had never crossed en masse, a feat considered impossible for an army lacking a flotilla of military ships. McKlane was therefore deemed a secure base of operations for the campaigns it launched across the river against the plains warriors, and Dreoc soldiers had been conditioned to dismiss the idea of Kaduzan reprisal against the fort. They were understandably troubled, therefore, by the sight of the barbarian waiting for them outside the gates like an apparition from the spiritworld.

The commander led them out slowly beneath the teeth of the portcullis, followed closely by the strange eyes of the slender rider sitting as still as a figure painted into the middle-distance. Her head was bowed, as if she had ridden many leagues and was unprepared to fight, but as the mounted soldiers fanned out into skirmish formation, she raised the javelin in her right hand and lifted the leather-bound buckler on her left arm to cover the bottom portion of her face and her chest. Commander Nawles noticed her preparations and brought his mount to a halt, holding his hands above his head to signal for parley, but the rider’s eyes narrowed to slits and she showed her teeth as she hissed to her horse. “H’ya!”

With a toss of its chestnut mane, the horse danced into a trot, and the trot built to a gallop that became a charge. Commander Nawles quickly abandoned thoughts of dialogue and raised his shield as she bore down on him with alarming speed, like a discharged ball of lightning, her javelin set for a cast.

From the walls above, Major Lewis watched as the barbarian closed on the group of soldiers, putting herself within range of his archers after having carefully avoided them for so long. Now she fairly dared them to fire, flaunting her speed and courage, holding tight with her legs and guiding her steed in for the kill. As easy as it would have been to rain death upon her, Lewis directed his men to hold at rest and wait upon his signal.

The soldiers could all see her now—a person, no longer a distant figure—each red streak on her swarthy cheek, the long black braid whipping behind, and now above the staccato fall of hooves they could hear the jingle of a single tiny bell ringing and singing in time with the dancing braid.

Her deadly eyes were fixed on the commander as she closed in upon him. The soldiers raised their spears, and Nawles positioned his massive shield to meet her cast, but gasped as Ajenatay drove her weapon through his horse’s neck, sending mount and rider to the ground in a sickening gale of horse screams and blood. Ajenatay drove heedlessly into the waiting wall of horses and was thrown tumbling from her horse straight into a soldier, both of whom went hurtling to the ground.

The line of men and horses erupted into chaos as riders fought to avoid trampling the barbarian they had been ordered to capture, as well as their own commander, now sprawling somewhere beneath their horses’ hooves. Several other horses had been badly injured in the collision and were splayed out on the ground, kicking and squealing, and another went down as Ajenatay came up with her sword, gutting it from underneath. By this time, all riders were dismounting and scrambling to get clear of what was quickly becoming a blood-soaked quagmire.

Catching sight of Commander Nawles pinned beneath his horse, Ajenatay lunged for the kill, and several of the archers on the walls released, hitting her once in the stomach and once in the upper back through the lung—once through the right thigh and it was over. Ajenatay was on her back, her blood mixing with the horse blood that was spreading in garish pools.

The soldiers were lifting Ajenatay from the tangle of bodies as they pulled their commander free of his saddle. They carried her to a grassy rise dotted with tiny yellow wildflowers, and when Commander Nawles reached her, she lay there staring up into the gray sky. He looked down into the still face. Many had he seen die during his lifetime, but none had been so peaceful.

Ajenatay cradled the arrow in her stomach as if it were a fragile newborn. She shivered with the loss of blood, blood that pooled in the wound and drenched the grass beneath her shoulder. Blood filled her mouth and her nose and she fought to breathe. The commander marveled as he realized that the red war paint was blood as well, her own blood, running from fresh wounds cut into her face. He could see that her left arm had been broken in the fall. The shoulder was dislocated, the arm bent back. He knelt down and took her hand, a hand of strength which squeezed his. She tried to speak, choking.

“Lift her,” said the commander, gesturing to the men behind, who tilted her broken body up so that she could spit the blood from her mouth. She tried to speak to the commander. He held her and put his ear to her lips to hear her final words.

“Does my horse live?”

Her accent was thick, but Nawles was surprised to hear her using his native language of Quolron. Shaking his head, he answered, “No.”

She swallowed, nodding almost imperceptibly. “Her name was Kellansar. It means ‘Fire in the Skies.’”

“She was as no other horse,” said the commander.

One-Bell lifted three fingertips to the commander’s face and painted the mark of the warrior upon his cheek in streaks of her own blood. Then her muscles locked, and she began to cough—her teeth stained red—fighting for every breath as she died.