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събота, 16 ноември 2013 г.

Short story: Eyes wide open



Author's note: This is a short story based on a world developed for a novel (series) called "Songs of the Void". The first novel of the series, "The sacrifice", has been published by MBG Sofia in December 2013. Keep in mind that the language of that novel, my native tongue, is not English - I am an English speaker, yes, but not a native one. Furthermore, short stories are not really my genre, but, there we go, why not try it? You can never improve if you don't practice - and you can never get opinions if you do not show your work. Here it is. Feel free to criticize to your heart's content. Criticism is helpful. Praises? Not so much.

Keep in mind  that this story contains references to abuse and violence, so if you are repulsed by such themes, turn back now. 

Eyes wide open

Keep your companion to your left. The shield on your heart. The spear high. Your armour strapped tight. The sword ready to fly. And eyes wide open. That is what his confessor always told him. His mantra. The belief that pulled him through the manoeuvres and served him well earlier in the campaign.

It is what held him together.

Belief didn’t serve the others too well, unfortunately. It didn’t save Alaras from freezing to death, didn’t help Gaius get the spear out of his chest and wasn’t any good for clothing Marcus’s wounds either. When the arrows came flying, when the shadows came crashing down, they all flagged. The others were not strong enough. They all abandoned their beliefs, forsook their hopes. Yet he persevered. He kept repeating those same few simple advices that the confessor gave him. Simple advices for a simple man.

The cold was biting into his chest. Spring had come, they told them, and a patrol had to be organised. There were paths that needed threading and posts that needed resupply. He had seen spring. And  that was not spring. The snow was knee-high, and the Thirteen-damned hills and becks of this blasted place were turned into icy traps for unwary feet. But his eyes were always peeled and his sword was always ready to fly.

Worse yet, there was hunger biting away at the same wound. And the extra rations weren’t much help. Food was coming, they told them. Just wait until the valley unfreezes. Just wait until spring. Yet, it was still frozen, was it not? He cleaned his sword and stuffed the extra rations in his traveling sack. He would need those if he wanted to survive until he reached the fort.

The shield on your heart. The spear high. Your armour strapped tight. The sword ready to fly. And eyes wide open.

It was different just half a year ago. Those shadows that now hunted them by daylight and stalked them by night; they had a different name back then. “Barbarians”, they would call them. Brutes. Their spears were dull back then, and their shields were dented. They sent their braves into the fray to get slain by the imperial sword and spear. They fought them so many times he lost track of the barbarians that fell by his blade. Those brutes were ferocious, but foolish. That is what they knew half a year ago.

Armour weighing him down… He needed rest. Didn’t even remember how long he had gone on. The sun went down once… twice… since the battle. Didn’t matter too much. The sun would set down at the oddest of times in this deplorable place. It was not like he could sleep anyways, with wolves and shadows on his track. Just the shortest of breaks, for a quick bite, and then back on the road again. Towards the fort, the Empire and safety.

Fortune had finally smiled upon him, at least. The fogs cleared up and he could again see the Great Mountains to his left. He was on the right course. They were meant to build roads here. Roads and towns, and mines for the savages to toil in. This land was rich. Easy to plunder. So they told them. He stood up from his shield and resumed his stride.

The spear high. Your armour strapped tight. The sword ready to fly. And eyes wide open.

Easy to plunder… Perhaps. They fell on one of their villages several months ago. At that stage provisions were tight and reinforcements were not coming. Even messages were not arriving, Apostate damn them! Winter was closing in. The savages were lodged here, however. Their homes were full of provisions. Ripe and ready to be plucked. They had lost their braves in combat. Only women, cripples and broken men left behind. The wooden lodges burned brightly in the night. The boys filled in their sacks. He bought a permit to go in alone from the centurion. Cornered two barbarians in their house. The haul was poor, and the harpy living there managed to bite him before she tasted his sword. The young savage, however… Heh. She would beg to die before he was through with her.

Fortune was kind again. He came across a path leading down east. Who had built those paths? Sometimes, when going through the forests, they wold come across cairns and buildings made of stone. The savages were incapable of handling stone. Alas, those places were in ruins. Good for camping in, not for living. Long abandoned. Long forgotten. Exactly the fate that was awaiting them too.

The future was bleak. Even if he reached the fort, what? Reporting back to the prefect? He feared not punishment. The fort needed every person. The times were not good enough for justice. But the savages were gathering, their shadows growing thicker. They would fall on the fort. And then there would be more death. Retreat to the east, maybe? With ragged banners and a caravan of dead men behind them. Then? Reporting to the tribune? To the protostrator? The emperor? How far would they need to go before someone decides that punishment was due for their mistakes? Would they be dismissed or killed? And… How useless to think of that when he wasn’t even sure where he was. Pride would serve him no purpose if he died.

Your armour strapped tight. The sword ready to fly. And eyes wide open.

Oh, but when they were leaving! When they were leaving the Empire, they sent them with flying banners, music and cheers. Their bellies were full and they were all cleaned and dressed up, as if they were going to a wedding. The emperor had opened his armoury and provided every one of them with mail shirts and real steel swords, the likes of which were typically only reserved for centurions. The provision train stretched for a kilometre behind them.  Foolish women would follow them, hoping for riches and protection. Fools following other fools to their death. They went into this hellhole as conquerors. And it was going to spit them back as hollow men, wasn’t it?

It was melting now. Heh. Spring had come. Just a few days… moons… later than expected. His deerskin boots slid around the gushing snow. Good thing he had picked them up from that savage’s corpse. The fine sandals they had given them started falling apart ages ago. The road was winding eastward. He started picking up some familiar patterns. That hill over there, this patch of trees higher than all the others. Couldn’t put down where exactly that was, but he was getting closer.

Water was streaming down his body, he noticed after a few minutes… hours… It was hot. So hot. It shouldn’t be so hot. This was not summer, nor a proper spring. Fever? His hands covered the old wound on his shoulder. It was not throbbing. Maybe it was just that breastplate that was so tight on him. He felt as if he was being held in tongs. He loosened the straps. What good was armour now anyways? It wouldn’t withstand a good strike, nor would it stop an arrow from gouging your eye. He let in lay on a boulder and marched on. The fort waited just around the next hillock, he knew it.

The sword ready to fly. And eyes wide open.

He was just a boy three years ago. A greenhorn, conscripted into the army. The laughing stock of the veterans, and an outlet for the centurions’ cruelty. It was the manoeuvres that made him a man. They were deployed in a small village to the north and assigned to small companies. His was led by a tiny man called Triaras. He was a man of great flair. An initiative fellow. The manoeuvres were going by as usual, the cavalry having their fun while the poor sods in the infantry had to dig in and fortify positions every day. That twat, the prince-consort Hexalius prattled on from his tall steed, everyone watching him as if he was god. And while everyone worth their spurs was busy fondling the royal disaster, they had a bit of time to themselves. A bit of time to use the skills the centurions had beaten into them. He didn’t remember much about the first time he killed. It was a caravan guard. He was so drunk it was a miracle he won.

The company was dissolved and they were all admonished when command managed to get their heads unstuck from their bottoms and found out. Triaras was quartered, but the rest of them got out easy. Not like now. They were going in for the count. The hastates, the legionaires and the centurions. The prefect. Even the tribune was going to get it. A sword in his belly. A sword in his neck. And one in the back. The Empire was not as forgiving as the savages.

And he was not forgiving, just like his Empire. The sword was sticking out of the fresh corpse of the savage. She had told him that the fort was near. That was good. She offered to guide him there. That was good too. Then she asked for food. Then she shouted for help. Then she resisted. And that was not good. She bore the face of an imperial woman, but he knew better. She was a savage below the cheap dress. They were all savages, all out for him. And he needed to go. Quicker.

Eyes wide open. Always wide open. That was his mantra and his belief.

His faith was what helped him pull through all his life. His mother was weak. Sinful. He was weak too. His father tried to expunge this weakness from them, with the help of the local confessor. At times he went too far. The confessor was a kinder man than his father. He would often punish mother for her sins, while father was chastising him. Later, when the punishment was over, he would tell him about faith and about the soldier’s mantra. Soldiers were strong, he had told him. Soldiers never suffer and always fight back. And he was going to be a solider.

The confessor probably found it funny when he fought back one day. Then it was time for their very own punishment. He didn’t kill them. That would be bad. After all, “do not kill another believer” was a postulate of the Holy Church. He beat them down, gagged them and locked them up into the cellar. Threw they key in the river. If death claimed them, it wouldn’t be by his hand. He left home then. Didn’t care too much for the other sinners. He had his eyes set on the place which would teach him how to be a hard man.

The fort came up in full view of him after crossing over the millionth hill. The walls were familiar. Felt secure. The clearing around them was not full of shadows and brutes. That was all he needed. He ran towards the fort. The gates were ajar and he rushed them down, battering his path through them. Finally, safety.

Eyes wide open… Wide open.

The fort was deserted. Not a soul in sight. The tents were thrown down and only smouldering ruins were left of the wooden officers’ hall. Heh. The barbarians had beaten him home.

He crawled towards the officers’ hall, between the charred beams that once supported a roof, eyes wide open. He found himself a nice jagged plank, eyes wide open. He propped it against the ground, eyes wide open. He bashed his head against it, eyes wide open. He was strong now, with eyes wide open. He was not a sinner, with eyes wide open. His brains splattered in a dash of red across the white ground. Peace, finally. Finally…

Eyes wide shut.

1 коментар:

  1. Хареса ми. И не трябва да си подценяваш английския,според мен, всичко си е на мястото и както трябва да бъде. :) Поне от гледна точка на човек, който чете напоследък доста на английски, но не е много добре с писането на такова ниво. :)

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