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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Riding a Black Horse (Chapter 18)


Chapter 18

Fall of Year 43 (after the Great Plague)


      In the barracks at Crestfallen Camp, Minoru collapsed on his new bunk. It had been a hard day of fighting—and running—from Fiorian forces. In the bunk next to him, covered in sweat and filth, Kamatari sagged onto the edge of his straw mattress and rested his head wearily against the pike in his hand. The rest of the men were already bedding down or grilling the camp cook for any scraps of food that may have survived the last retreat and not fallen into enemy hands. Kukiyama, or Cookie as he was known, was a short plug of man, resourceful at using whatever was available locally to create a meal that was somewhat edible, had come up short this day. Many soldiers were turned away hungry. Kamatari turned a baleful eye towards the food cart.
     “I’m so tired, I can’t even care that I’m starving,” Minoru moaned. “Why am I always hungry?”
     “Same shit, only different,” Kamatari muttered.
     “Sleeping on the job, boys?” A voice came from as the opening of the tent parted. It was Teuta, Anville’s first-in-command. She was dressed in the simple chest armor they had first seen her. Astonishingly, her uniform and hair were almost as unmussed as if she had gone for a short run instead of the forced march across three woods and a marshland, all the while being chased by Fiorian advance divisions. “We’ve got fortifications to build and you need to earn your keep if you are to stay in the Dauphin’s service.”
     “But, commander, we’ve been on the run all day,” Minoru sighed. “I can’t move a muscle.”
     “And I was almost had my head blown off three times,” Kamatari added.
     Teuta smirked.
     “Something tells me you wouldn’t miss it if it had been blown off. As for me, I’ve already been shot once and for real,” she pulled down her collar, revealing a bright red slash across her neck where a Fiorian projectile appeared to have grazed her. “Any deeper and might have severed the artery. Then you would not have me to make such a complaint to. And yet, here I am with a shovel and heading out to work on the fortifications. If we don’t get them built before sundown, you’d better believe that the Fiorians will be feasting on our flesh by morning. Besides, if we get done before dawn, I’ll put in a good word to Cookie for you. I hear he stashed some mutton away and is keeping it for himself.”
     Teuta lifted two shovels propped along the tent wall and offered to them. Minoru took one reluctantly and Kamatari followed suit. The lieutenant led them to the perimeter. They were atop a hill overlooking a sheep farm. Below them, a frightened old man frantically urged his grazing sheep back towards his hovel, and past him, an old woman, presumably his wife, was laden with two buckets of water from a nearby well as she scampered back home. They realized trouble was coming on the heels of Captain Anville’s retreating band, and would not likely leave when they did. There were already three men erecting an earthworks along the ridgeline.
     “Shorty, make sure you widen that base,” Teuta shouted to the stout one filling bags of soil to stack on the barricades. “If you don’t, it’ll topple with the first wave of advance cavalry.”
Shorty grunted his assent.
     “Grab some sacks, boys, and let’s get to it,” she told Minoru and Kamatari.
Minoru obediently hopped into the deepening with Shorty and began filling bags. Kamatari meanwhile followed Teuta and the two of them began hoisting the filled sacks onto the earthworks. The light was growing dim so torches were brought to the site. As they worked, Kamatari watched as the lieutenant undid her breastplate and dropped it to the ground. She rolled up her sleeves to reveal two toned and bronzed arms adorned with tattoos of animals he did not recognize. In the dim light, she almost looked like a woman in spite of her broad muscular shoulders.
     Over the last few months, Teuta had gained his respect and Kamatari had to admit to himself that he had grown to even like her a little. She could be hard and curt with her subordinates, but he could respect that, because she was also fair and even motherly at times. Kamatari guessed it was the reason her men had not outed her as a woman. She was a competent soldier and had kept most of them alive despite the stiff odds they faced. Teuta hoisted two sacks on either shoulder, bounded up the wall in a few agile hops and then turned to look down at Kamatari.
     “What are you staring at, soldier?”
     Kamatari stumbled a bit. “I—I was just admiring how strong you were for a—a—”
“Mind your next words carefully, mister,” her pale blue eyes narrowed. “Lest you be using that tongue to clean out the latrines—for a week.”
     “I just mean that you’re strong. Stronger than anyone I’ve ever met.”
     Teuta dropped the sacks and gave him a sly smile. “Well, the compliment is appreciated, if coarsely worded. Sometimes I don’t know if the captain notices that.”
     “Oh, he should notice that,” Kamatari said and he hoisted two sacks of his own on his tired shoulders and climbed up to deposit them in the row next to Teuta’s.
     “He’s just been busy keeping us all alive until the Dauphin sends us reinforcements.”
Kamatari nodded. “You’re not from the capitol, are you?”
     “No,” Teuta continued her work at the base of the wall, the muscles of her biceps rippling as she sliced at the earth with her shovel. “I was born in a village in Boisfonce, south of here.”
     “Really? I have farm—had a farm—in Arbor.”
     “Do you have a wife?”
     “Yeah,” he said.
     His thoughts turned to lead when he pictured his wife’s face. They had always fought over money and the farm and the lack of children, but was only now that realized how much he missed the growl in her voice and the silhouette of her stout frame against the glow of the hearth. Love had never entered their relationship. They married as soon as they came of age. It was the proper thing to be done in a small Orlonian village and was encouraged by the magistrates to ensure they maintained the stock of cheap peasant labor. And now his wife was alone and childless. But she wouldn’t miss him. Probably even hoped he could be declared dead so she could start fresh with a new man. She was young enough. And he wouldn’t blame her. He had let his anger and desperation get the best of him when he stormed off. He had been a lousy husband.
     “You left her for this?”
     Kamatari nodded dumbly.
     “Don’t look all doom and gloomish, Kamatari,” she said matter-of-factly. “I had a spouse—a dumb brute of a blacksmith who beat me nearly as hard as he pounded his anvil. My parents married me off when I was 13. Said it was ‘tradition’ and the will of the Seraphim or some other bullshit. Anyways, I got out of that stinking village as soon as I could. I had to escape.”
     “Yeah, I had to escape that shit too.”
     The lieutenant stacked another sack on the wall. “You and I, we’re not slaves. We soldiers and we serve the Dauphin.”
     “Yeah,” Kamatari muttered. “Hope he starts serving us sometime.”
     Teuta smiled. “Alright, gloomish, let’s go get your pal and see Cookie about some mutton stew.”
Just then, Captain Anville came barreling down the hillside. Kamatari expected him to be screaming bloody murder about how shabby the wall looked, but he put up a hand signal for everyone to remain silent. Teuta immediately recognized what the signal meant and waved at Minoru and the others stationed along the fortifications.
     “Torches out now,” she called in a hoarse whisper. “Everyone, stay low.”
     They all doused the torches and ducked behind the wall. In the pitch black, Kamatari could only make out the faint shapes of Teuta and Minoru who crept closer to them. A hush replaced the drone of conversations and dull thuds of the of the dirt sacks. Anville came upon them, slowing from a dead sprint. He couldn’t see the commander’s face clearly but could tell from the heaving gulps and foul mixture of leather and sweat odors that it was him as he placed each of his hand blindly on Teuta and Kamatari’s shoulders.
     “What is it, Captain?” the lieutenant whispered.
     “I spotted a Fiorian patrol headed in this direction. I don’t think they see us yet, but they’ll be on us soon enough,” Anville said.
     “Not another attack,” Minoru moaned.
     “But at least this time we may get the element of surprise on our side,” he said. “Now stay quiet and keep your eyes and ears peeled.”
     Kamatari couldn’t imagine what they were expected to see behind a wall and in the growing darkness of its shadow, but he strained to listen past the captain’s heavy breathing, the whine of the crickets and the occasional belch of a tree toad. They stood there in relative silence for nearly twenty minutes until the night was suddenly broken by a series sharp cracks. Kamatari had heard the sound before and it made the pit in his empty stomach harden—it was a blast from the Fioroans new weapon, a firestick that could kill from a distance.
     “Hold!” Anville called to his men. “It’s too far away. I’ll go check it out.”
     “Be careful, captain,” Teuta warned. “There could be snipers waiting.”
     “When have ever not been careful?” he replied. A dim yellow crescent of teeth framed in a smile was all that was visible of the captain’s face before he scrambled to the top of the wall. He kept his body flattened atop the bags. Kamatari heard a few faint screams and then there was another loud crack.
     “I can see them,” the captain called down. “It looks like a patrol—only about a dozen or so. They’ve come upon one of the farms down in the valley. Poor bastard. They’re probably just looting him for supplies but he thought he could put up a fight.”
     “Sir, what do we do?” Teuta whispered up to him.
     “We’ve caught a break. They don’t appear to have noticed us, and if we stay dark, they won’t until morning. So we lay low for now.”
     “But we should help that poor farmer,” Minoru said. “They’ll kill him.”
     “There could be more of them out there, private,” the captain said. “If we give our position away, we could be overrun by dawn.”
     There was another gunshot and another scream in the distance. This one was distinctly female.
“Sir, with all due respect, I have to agree with Private Minnie for once. It’s our duty to protect the Dauphn’s people—and these people need our help.”
     The captain growled. He slid off the wall and back onto the ground between Teuta and Kamatari. “And what about our duty to stay alive so that we can continue to serve the Dauphin and not throw away our lives for some old man and his chickens?”
     “I trust, sir, that you are skilled enough to keep us alive no matter if we help this farmer or not,” Teuta replied dryly.
     After a pause, the captain said: “Very well, you can take a detachment—no more than 20 men—and go see if you can rescue this farmer and his family. But be quiet about it. We don’t want to call the whole damned Fiorian army on our heads. And take the meat shields with you.”
     “The meat shields?” Minoru said.
     “That means us, genius,” Kamatari barked at his friend. “You volunteered us.”
     “Gather your weapons and meet us here in five,” Teuta said.
     She went about gathering her team in the dark. Kamatari and Minoru returned to their tent and gather their weapons—a confiscated Fiorian sword and a wooden pike with an iron tip. When they returned, about 15 men huddled around Teuta.
     “We’ll go down along the tree line. Stay close and, by the gods, be quiet. We need the element of surprise for this to work. They have at least one firestick amongst them and those can be deadly at a distance—and loud. Bowmen, take the lead,” the lieutenant said.
     The group scrambled over the wall and crept single-file along the tree line. Minoru seemed to stumble over every rock and tree root along the way and Kamatari was sure that every Fiorian must have heard his scuffling and moaning, but Teuta didn’t seem to notice. Her silhouette crouched before him as the glow of the farm’s hearth created a halo. When they reached a fence, she signaled them to fan out. Each planted themselves behind a fencepost, except Minoru, who huddled uncomfortably against Kamatari against a millstone half buried in the ground.
     “Your knee is on my foot, Minnie,” Kamatari growled.
     “That’s your foot?”
     “No, and if lean on it or my bladder any harder you’ll find exactly which part I meant.”
     Teuta shushed them. She pointed to two Fiorians near the barn. They were moving towards the house, but their backs were turned. In front of the door of the little one-room house, the body of the old farmer was lying the mud, face down. Beside him, the old woman knelt, wailing.
     The lieutenant pointed to the bowmen to her right and then at the two Fiorians. The men carefully vaulted over the fence, nocked their arrows and aimed. Two arrows whistled through the air and found their marks. The two Fiorians were each struck in backs of the necks. They gurgled and fell to the ground with soft thuds.
     “Cover me,” Teuta barked to the rest of them.
     She placed her sword and crossbow on the ground and then crossed over the fence. She approached the old woman slowly with her arms outstretched and displaying her palms to the woman crouched and weeping over the dead old man.
     “Ma’am, can you speak?”
     The old woman’s chest heaved as she sobbed but she didn’t look up or acknowledge the lieutenant’s presence. Teuta approached each of the Fiorians and examined them. She rummaged through their clothes for something and then turned towards the fence.
     “No firesticks or ammo,” she called. “Keep your eyes peeled.”
     Teuta crept closer to the old woman. When she was in reach of her, she placed on the crone’s shoulder and leaned over the man’s body. Only then, did the old woman look up at her with glazed eyes and wind-hardened faced creased with age.
     “I’m sorry. Your husband has passed,” Teuta told her. “We come to help. We are still in danger though. Where are the wielders of the firesticks that did this?”
     “You brought them here? To our home?” the crone said, pointing to the dead Fiorians.
     “They chased us here. I’m sorry about what happened, but there is still time to stop them from doing any more harm.”
     “They went to the barn, to take our sheep. I told him not to fight, to let them have the sheep but Furuinouka—”
     “How many?”
     “About six.”
     “Do you know how many firesticks they have?”
     The old woman shook her head. “My granddaughter, she was inside when the men attacked…”
     “We’ll find her,” Teuta said. She waved Kamatari and Minoru over. When they arrived, she told the crone: “These men will take you and your husband inside. Stay there until we give the all clear—and stay quiet.”
     Teuta motioned for the rest of the soldiers to follow her. About half the men gathered at either side of the barn door facing them while the others split into two groups and crept around the sides of the barn and disappeared at the rear of the barn. The front door was ajar and there were sounds of agitated sheep and clatter of unintelligible shouting from the Fiorians.
     The lieutenant caught sight of Minoru and Kamatari dawdling next to the old man and waved them off. Minoru took the hand of the old lady and tried to guide her towards the house.
     “Won’t you come with us granmama? It’s safer indoors,” he said trying to feign politeness.
Kamatari grabbed the old man’s body under the arms and proceeded to drag it behind Minoru and the crone. The corpse was light like a sack of dried leaves. He could feel the rib cage under the plain tunic. “Why do I always wind up handling the dead bodies,” he muttered under his breath.
     As Kamatari pulled the corpse through the front door, he watched as Teuta gathered her weapons and slipped through the barn door followed by her men. A moment later, he saw movement along the tree line. At first, he thought Anville had sent reinforcements, but as two men stepped into the clearing, it became obvious they were Fiorian. He bit back a sudden cry of surprise. The men had not seen them. One had a chicken under one arm and the other was carrying a basket of apples. The pillaging Fiorians were facing the house. They were facing him.
     Kamatari grabbed the door handle and lunged backwards, trying to drag the body with him as he fell backwards. But the old man’s foot caught in the door and it simply shuddered and flew open again. The lead Fiorian shouted something at him. The other Fiorian let go of his chicken, which scurried away, and aimed his firestick. The weapon made a loud crack and a projectile screamed towards Kamatari. He had no time to react. He felt a heavy thud and the impact sent him sprawling with the old man landing atop his chest. This seemed familiar.
     “Gods, who’s shooting at us?” Minoru cried as the old woman began to howl.
Kamatari was sure he’d been hit. He’d seen the molten ball of lead zoom directly towards his forehead. Yet, except for the ringing of his ears from the blast, he felt unharmed. He looked down at the old man’s forehead. There was a new hole in it where the projectile had penetrated. A dark spot on the tawny skull that almost looked like another liver spot.
     “Who do you think?” Kamatari yelled. “Help me get this door shut!”
Minoru climbed over Kamatari and the body. He grabbed the door handle and kicked the old man’s foot through the threshold. As he slammed the door shut, there was another blast and the wood of the door splintered just over Minoru’s head. The projectile blasted a fist-sized hole, whizzed past their heads and buried itself on the opposite wall.
     “What in the nine hells kind of weapon is that?” Kamatari exclaimed.
     The old woman shrieked and fell to the ground.
     “I don’t know but this door won’t hold out very long. If they keep shooting at it, it’ll be sawdust,” Minoru said.
     “And you’ll be a bloody pulp if you stand in front of that door much longer. What are you doing?”
Minoru was peering through the ragged hole on his tiptoes and his teeth were chattering. “There’s two of them. They’re charging at the door.”
     “Well, shit.”
     “We’re doomed!”
     Kamatari grunted and scratched his head. He knew the basic training Teuta gave him over the last few weeks was insufficient to take on two well-armed, battle-hardened Fiorian soldiers and nor could scrawny Minoru.
     “I’m not going to let those assholes kill us—or this old cow,” he said. Kamatari looked about for his short sword and then cursed when he realized he’d left it outside when he picked up the old man. He cast about for something sharp and heavy. Propped against the hearth stones was a simple axe. It was short handled but light. Fortunately, what it lacked in heft, it made up for in sharpness. “Get ready to open the door on my signal—and stay out of the way.”
     “Open the door?” Minoru whimpered.
     Kamatari did not wait for his friend’s agreement. He pressed himself against the wall to the left of the door, brandishing the axe in his right. Minoru stood dumbfounded with his pike at his side. The old woman cowered at the rear of the room.
     “When I give the signal,” he growled huskily.
     He listened hard for footsteps. He could hear the Fiorians shouting to each other, then dull thuds of boots on the wooden stoop outside.
     “Now!”
     Minoru open the door. Immediately the head of a Fiorian soldier popped through the opening. He had been charging at the closed door to knock it down. Now his momentum was carrying him careening foreword. Kamatari swung down with his axe as hard as he could. The blade struck the soldier in the back of his exposed neck. The Fiorian gagged and blood gushed from the wound, spraying Kamatari in the face. The soldier collapsed in a heap atop the old man’s body.
     Minoru yowled, also caught by the spray of blood from the man’s neck. Then he stumbled backwards in panic and tripped over his own pike. He slammed flat on his back. The tip of his pike clattered on the ground.
     “Minnie!”
     Before Kamatari had time to react, the second Fiorian burst through the door. He was carrying the firestick with what looked like a wickedly sharp bayonet at its muzzle. He saw Minoru on the ground and then Kamatari still holding the axe buried in his comrade’s neck. He aimed his firestick at Kamatari and the peasant imagined his life parading in front of him—emptiness.
     Then there was a click. No bang.
     The Fiorian’s eyes widened a bit as he pulled the trigger again—and again. Kamatari realized his opening. He tugged at the axe but it was too deep. He put a boot on the man’s skull to gain leverage and free his weapon, but the Fiorian had already changed tactics—positioning his bayonet to drive it through Kamatari’s chest. The peasant kicked hard and the axe blade emerged, streaked with crimson. But he didn’t have time to swing down as the Fiorian was on top of him. All of time seemed to slow and thicken like molasses as he saw the gleaming bayonet close within inches of his breast. He wouldn’t be fast enough.
     Suddenly, the Fiorian jerked as he charged the bayonet veered away. The soldier continued to charge, plowing straight into Kamatari and knocking him off his feet. It was as though the air had been squeezed from his lungs by a millstone as the two men crashed to the floor. The axe swung downward, but missed the soldier’s head completely and only the blunt end struck flesh. The two were face to face with the Fiorian on top and Kamatari could smell the spoiled rations on the Fiorian’s breathe. But the breath was only temporary as the man sighed one time and then expired. His grey eyes grew dark and dull. Kamatari was completely covered by the larger man’s body and slowly suffocating under his weight. He clawed to get the mountain of flesh off his chest.
     He heard his friend moan. “Kama—Kamatari.”
     “Get this beast off me,” he tried to scream, but it only came out as muffled coughs.
     Finally, the body was rolled to the side. There was a pike jammed in the soldier’s back, right between the shoulder blades. Minoru stood over them, an axe-shaped bruised stamped across his forehead.
     “They’re dead?” the old woman called from across the room.
     “Yes, old cow,” Kamatari said, wiping the stinging blood away from his eyes. He spat on the body of the dead Fiorian who tackled him. “They are—and not us. Assholes.”
     Kamatari put down the axe and found a chair to sit down in. His body was numb and his limbs were shaking. He still could not catch his breath.
     “Kamatari, are you okay?”
     “Yeah, almost being murdered to death has done wonders for my throbbing headache.”
     “You had a headache?” Minoru asked, then gingerly touched the swollen spot where the flat of the axe had struck him. “You had a headache?”
     “Sorry about that.”
     Minoru leaned over and picked up the fallen firestick. He examined the weapon and put the muzzle up close to his eye so he could see where the projectiles came from. Just then, Teuta came rushing through the door. Her face was screwed up into a scowl.
     “I thought I told you to keep quiet. This not—” she said, but her expression went blank when she noticed the bodies and the two peasants’ blood-slicked faces. “Oh shit.”
     Minoru held out the Fiorian weapon. “Wanna firestick?”

+++

     Captain Anville passed a hand over the firestick on his lap as the first morning light crept into the tent.
     “You’re sure you got them all?” he asked Teuta.
     “Yes, sir,” she said. “We did a sweep after we cleared the barn and rescued the farmer’s granddaughter. There were two we didn’t initially account for, but Kamatari and Minoru here, eliminated the threat and secured the weapon.”
     Anville’s eyebrows raised in astonishment as he surveyed the two peasants. “I’m impressed. The meat shields showed some initiative?”
     Minoru and Kamatari looked at each other nervously.
     “We did what we had to, sir,” Kamatari said.
     “Aye, but you did well. Been wanting to get my hands on one of these for a while,” Anville said.      “The Fiorians are getting overconfident with their recent successes—and sloppy.”
     “But we only recovered a handful of the projectiles the firestick uses,” Teuta said. “What should we do with it?”
     “We’re not letting the Fiorians get it back, that’s for damn sure,” he said. He scratched his beard and held the firestick up to the light as he inspected intently. “If we stay here for long, they’ll get it—from our dead bodies.”
     “Maybe we could request reinforcements. Maybe if they know we have this weapon, or pleas will be heard finally.”
     “Doubt it,” Anville said. “No we can’t rely on relayed messages to the capitol’s emissaries or promises of reinforcements that go up in smoke.”
     “Then what?” Teuta blinked. “You can’t be thinking of disobeying our orders, of leaving these demesnes to the mercy of our enemy?”
     “They’re already at their mercy. We can’t stop them on our own. But this gives us leverage to do what we could not before—go directly to the capitol and plead our case.”
     “But surely they would have you court-martialed and executed for treason or not respecting the chain of command,” Teuta’s voice softened and almost seemed feminine. “Char, consider what you are saying.”
     Minoru looked puzzled and mouthed the word ‘Char’ at Kamatari. His friend responded by rolling his eyes, shaking his head and folding his arms. He could no longer stay at attention, he was so exhausted. He would curled up in the dirt like a slumbering pig if he wasn’t afraid the captain would have him placed in the stockade for the disrespect.
     “Leverage,” Anville repeated, handing Teuta the firestick. “The Dauphin will have to listen to us if we come bearing one of these. And the host of courtiers and bureaucrats between us and him will part like the sea.”
     “Then it’s decided. When shall we break camp?”
     “Give the men a day to rest,” he said, casting a glance at Kamatari and Minoru. “Make sure these two get extra portions from the mess today after they’ve had a good sleep. You boys did well and you should be rewarded.”
     Then he frowned. “But make sure they clean up first. They look and smell like a slaughterhouse.”

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