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Authors: James Tallett

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BOOK: Breaking an Empire
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Pulling the doors open, the sergeant smiled as he saw the fully stocked warehouse before him. “Everyone, eat your fill. Don’t make yourselves sick. Taflen, when you’re done eating, take inventory.” Taflen nodded, his eyes glancing over the stacks and barrels of food. Patting Locsyn on his shoulder, the historian pried open a cask and handed the dried meat within to his wounded friend.

The soldiers set to with a will, and Rhyfelwyr stationed himself at the door as a sentry, gratefully accepting meat to chew on while he waited. As the twilight laid a thick blanket over Horaim, he pulled the doors closed, barring them from the inside and falling asleep on the ground. Around him, his squad slept, content in their lot.

The morning arrived late and groggy, the squad struggling to rise in the dim confines of the warehouse. Unbarring the doors, Llofruddiwr and Gwyth were greeted by Veryan soldiers organizing supplies being taken from the stockpiles. Llofruddiwr turned to Rhyfelwyr and pointed, and the sergeant sighed and shook his head. “I’ll go report, shall I?”

Official communication made, the sergeant returned with orders that they were to assemble at the south gate at noon. The soldiers would then be given quarters in the city and two days leave, after which they were to march to Niam Liad.

The assembly was uneventful, a roll call of men and supplies, merely counting the cost of Horaim. On the way back, Rhyfelwyr spoke. “There’s something else, something they weren’t talking about. We lost a third of our men. You could see it, whole banners missing from the rows. We also lost half the storehouses. They were fired before our soldiers got there. We have enough for the trip down, and perhaps some of the trip back, but not all the way across Bedwar Barthu Dirio. Looks like it’s Niam Liad or nothing.”

Taflen spoke. “A third? We must have crippled the Lianese.”

“Oh, we did. Their forces in Horaim were shattered. But how many more do they have in Niam Liad?”

“Given how many fought here, they can’t have more than a few handfuls left. The emperor never let them keep or train many soldiers, so we’ll be going against farmers with pitchforks.”

“Pitchforks and a twenty foot city wall.”

Days of sleeping and eating followed, with the squad not 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 again, the supply wagons flush with goods. The journey south was to take a little over two weeks, barring constant raiding.

***

Within two days, the soldiers saw evidence of burned fields and ruined terrain once more. The cursed landscapes brought a dark humour over the soldiers, and many wry and sarcastic jokes were passed back and forth. Locsyn delighted in creating new ones, and shared them far and wide. Taflen took part too, as did all the others except Llofruddiwr, who disappeared for days at a time, returning at random intervals to gather supplies. Rhyfelwyr thought of approaching the assassin 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, called back to his mage training. Whether he would be reassigned to them or not was uncertain. The sergeant 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 it looked as if he had achieved his goal, command tried to make Rhocas into a mage. The young man hadn’t had enough time for his teachings to settle in, and being confused 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 a flank, launch a volley of javelins and arrows, and retreat. 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 spheres of flame, 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 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 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 and sword, 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 for morale. If the Lianese become more inventive with their attacks, we’re going to crumble like so much bad masonry.”

While Locsyn was speaking, Rhyfelwyr joined the little group. “No, we aren’t going to crumble. You’ve seen this army in action. You 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 are always good at ignoring facts. Guess I can do it one more time.”

The sergeant 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 talk, recording responses for his history of this campaign. The veteran knew it would never see the light of day, but it was his ambition to finish, and so he pushed ahead, letting the work carry him forward.

***

That night, as camp was made, burning casks of pitch and tar arced high into the sky, smashing down upon 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, and were felled in droves. The horn sounded for retreat, and the Veryan troops pulled backwards, to see a series of small flares fly over their heads from within the camp. The skirmishers, revealed in the light, turned to flee, but they could not outrun the wave of fire that spilled over them, as the mages of Bhreac Veryan laid their wrath upon the countryside. A few casks flew into the air, aimed at the Veryan mages, but they were quick to avoid the projectiles, and the burning tar splashed 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: we are coming for you, and you shall die. The Veryan soldiers jeered and called 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. The soldiers had known they would face airmages in some battle, but to see their efforts repulsed by the firemages was a welcome sight, and restored the faith of Glanhaol Fflamboethi. 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 army 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 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 a 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 a 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, I guess not. I’ve been wondering if this campaign would do me in, especially since Taflen mentioned our food supplies. Been a little touchy.”

Snorting, Gwyth turned 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 into the darkness. He needed time to think this through, for if he had lost the core of soldiering, he was useless. Worse, he’d be a liability, and if the others got run through trying to protect him… Locsyn knew he couldn’t live with that. They’d sent Gwewyr home for this malady, only there was no way go home now. Locsyn would have to make it through. 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 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 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, but far enough away not to bother our scouts. In front is skirmishers and 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. Had 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 alive.”

“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.”

The sergeant glared at Llofruddiwr. “You damn well better, you’re the best fighter in the whole army. No one can stand up to you.”

“Gwyth can.”

“Okay, sure, 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?”

“They cursed.”

“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 food and rest.” The two soldiers departed, readying themselves for what tomorrow would bring.

***

The next morning saw the squad taking their place as the vanguard of the army, leading the march towards Niam Liad. Rhyfelwyr fell into a steady pace, giving his mind leave to wander. He had spent many a day in such a state, and today he wondered at his life. He was, charitably, heading towards late middle age, and had been fighting for a great many years, but he had nothing. He had no house, no family, and his only friends were fellow soldiers. At this point, they were the only connection beyond himself, and he was probably theirs. The squad had been through so many years together, resisting all attempts to promote them or break them apart.

The sergeant 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 into the field, sword and shield in hand. Perhaps he was afraid of civilian life, but whatever the reason, he turned away from peace, and back to war.

BOOK: Breaking an Empire
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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