After the Empire
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The soldier, he sat on the dry turf of a hill, overlooking a city. It wasn’t any city; it was the city of his youth, the city whose sky he beheld with his first breath. In that time the city had bustled with vibrant life, but it had changed in his long absence. Yes, changed was the word he sought as he stared at the now haunted ruins beneath the setting light of a chilly day. The watch fires along the city walls sat unlit and neglected. The gates were left open. The temple chimes, once melodious in the summer evening breeze, sang no more. Crows broke the still silence with their harsh, intermittent squawks, reinforcing the unmistakable odor of death rising from the once crowded streets, where the aromas of a dozen exotic imported spices had drifted from many cooking fires.
The gnawing hollow of his belly mocked those memories. The comrades that had marched with him were gone, spent away like the last days of summer into the cold emptiness of the approaching winter. The storms of change were coming, and he believed they would ride a tide of fury upon the city. He, like so many others, had tempted the wrath of the gods with boasts of immortal glory and enduring empire. Yet, in the beginning, no one was to know the outcome. Oracles blessed the effort, elders failed to counsel a different path, planners and officials expressed every confidence that their efforts would carry the day. All those well-regarded people were gone, silenced, as if their very existence was nothing but a whisper in the wind, a jest of the gods to once again deceive proud men and mock them in their ruin.
He coughed and spat on the ground. Such thoughts were a fool’s charade, he told himself. Where was the space for regret, and would it matter? He knew what was following his return to the city. Despite the decrepit sight before him, he knew the worst of his fears was yet to manifest. He knew what was to come, and the awful reality of its implication.
He stood with a grunt. He was saddle sore, even though his mount had collapsed and died the day before. His feet ached in his worn boots. His dented armor hung from his half starved body; his dull sword dangled from his belt. A blue cape, so caked with dirt it was almost brown, wrapped his huddled form. He took his water sack from his belt and raised it high to drain the last drops before tossing it aside.
He shuffled down the hill, into the delirious delusion of a dead city.
He woke, coughing, to find himself sitting against a pillar along the old parade grounds. Between the looming clouds in the night sky he could discern a few scattered stars, their pale light seeming lost and lonesome in the vast emptiness of the grounds. It seemed another life when he stood there with thousands of others before the king and the decorous arms and armor of the nobles who extolled the city’s conviction that right lies with might. It would be swift, came the promise. The people of the outer lands were savages—pathetic, disorganized, and primitively armed. They needed to be conquered, saved from themselves, shown the light of the city and its ways, and the might those ways had bestowed upon the city.
It wouldn’t be as the promise foretold. The further the march, and the more tribes defeated, only served to summon ever larger, ever more furious forces. It made him shake his head, remembering that last awful battle, the waves of screaming savages darkening the very horizon to finally silence the nobles and their delirious cries to fight and continue the effort. It was when he made his escape, turning his horse and driving it without relent until the screams and dreadful clamor were behind him. Even though the horror of the slaughter tingled along his spine as he rode, it wasn’t the greater part of what had shattered his will and left him a ghost of a man. It was the bitter memory of his own hand, his own voice, condemning others who had deserted the effort in its early darkening days.
In those moments of flight he would’ve given anything—anything—to have even one of those fellows by his side; to have anyone at his side. Nevertheless, he didn’t see himself as a hypocrite, despite the barren depths of that horrible irony. He still saw himself as a rational, loyal soldier of the city. The effort was lost. As a leader he was trained that it was his responsibility not to waste the resources and men of the city. He was a man of responsibility, and the responsibility, in the end, was to protect the city, above all else. Protect the city. He had called off attacks that he knew would be foolish, and was complimented by his superiors. He had protected his men. He loved his men.
Yet, on that last horrible day, he rode off. He knew his men were dead—he had buried the last of them several days before. He was a leader of none but himself. The effort was lost. Had he really deserted anything, by riding off that day? Was there any sense to give up his life on that field of stupid futility?
It wasn’t desertion. It was his responsibility, and it was all that remained to him. He was a rational, loyal soldier. The effort was lost, so he would protect the city.
Alone, and with a dull sword.
He closed his eyes and rested his head back.
He coughed. He rubbed his face, opening his eyes to peer between his fingers.
He whipped out his sword.
The woman before him fell back a step. She held a hand up, the other clutching her shawl against the chill of the night. “Sir—”
“Do you have a horse?” he said, his voice ragged.
She studied him for a moment, and looked to either side before speaking. “I think you need water. I have water. Is there anyone with you, any of your men with you?”
He rose to his feet and sheathed his sword. “The water?”
Her eyes swelled on him. “Where are your men?”
He ground his teeth. “Water.”
They stared at each other. She stepped away, but kept her eyes on him as she led him off. They walked between several ransacked houses, large ones in the once prestigious area beside the parade grounds, until she slipped into a dark doorway. “This way,” she hissed.
He hesitated, his eyes narrowing as he peered into the darkness.
“There’s a well. There’s a well here, in this lord’s house. I’m his servant. I’ve been watching it, keeping it safe, waiting for his return. He’s a leader of many men. Many men,” she said, raising a hand in respect.
“And this lord’s family?”
She stared at him with a wide gaze. Her lips settled to a small straight line before she gave a quick, short sweep of her hand to the ground. Then she took a step toward him, one that made him lean back, wary of her intrusion. Her eyes darted about. “They were hording,” she whispered, as if it was still a secret. “People came. Took them. Ate them.” She nodded and pointed to his sword. “It’s only me now. I have things. I, I could share things. I could share them with you. I could share many things with you. I, I would give myself to you, if you would just give me a soldier’s oath to watch me, just as I have watched this water for you, and for my lord’s, return.”
He swallowed in horror at her words, calloused as he was after everything he had witnessed before returning to the city. The stickiness of his throat only reminded him of his thirst. “The water,” he said. “I ask nothing else of you, nor your honor.”
“Honor?” She blew out a breath. Her large dark eyes held on him in an unblinking stare. She smiled when he coughed. “Follow,” she said and stepped inside.
Desperate, he followed her through the doorway. Once inside his eyes adjusted so that he could make out a comfortable home, one with its own courtyard and well. The soft tinkle of the well water was enough to drive all sense from him, his feet hurrying him forward until he plunged his face and hands into the well. He drank deeply before bracing his hands on the well and lifting his face to look at her.
“Thank you,” he said, forcing out his voice between breaths. She nodded, but he looked away, his gaze roaming the little courtyard. He could almost imagine it as it must have been in better days, but, under the stark starlight, it was nothing more than empty shadows. By one doorway, though, he noted a bow and a quiver of arrows. He looked back to the woman. “You have weapons here?”
“It was the huntsmen’s bow. He was killed when the family was taken.”
His eyebrows sank as he considered the bitter irony of that fate, but then he coughed and remembered himself. “Can you use the bow?”
Her face went blank. “He was my husband.”
He looked down and nodded.
She let her breath go. “There’s nothing else here, for you.”
He turned to her. “I need a horse.” Before she could answer, he began coughing again, hunching over with the spasms in his chest.
She cupped her shawl over her mouth. “You have the sickness, the sickness from the plains. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it too many times. The king, his family, they all had it, like so many others who staggered back here in the last weeks. They all died. You, you’re—”
He clenched a fist and pounded it on the rim of the well to silence her. He forced himself up and caught his breath. “The horsemasters across the river; do they still have their stables?”
She shook her head. “Nobody goes to the other side of the city.”
“Do they have their stables?”
Her eyes widened. “You’ll find nothing there but madness. The few who remain there, they ride out, ride out into the rest of the city, and feed on those they find.”
He shook his head. “So they have horses?”
“They will have you, if you go there,” she said, but eased when he turned to leave. “Wait, Sir, please! The rest of your men, are they coming to help us? You must know it, you must if you came here, that the city is surrounded. The savages are everywhere, preying upon anyone who has tried to work the fields under the city’s banner. Ruin without, and madness within, this is all that’s left to us. There’s no one left to man the walls, no one left to close the gates, to protect our city. The rest of your men—my lord and his men—they are coming, are they not?”
He stared at her, silent to the delusion he saw beneath her questions. Her power of denial, though, he found no less seductive than his own denial in those last days of fighting. Regardless, he tried not to remember that he was still in the embrace of his own delusion, despite his fatalism. He coughed and took a step.
She grabbed his arm. “Wait, please, I beg you! My lord’s stable—”
He glared at her, his patience fading. “Where?”
He clenched his teeth. “Where?”
She lifted her hand from his arm, but then grabbed his wrist and led him down a labyrinthine series of walkways. He assumed familiarity guided her, as it was so dark he couldn’t see her before him. At last she pushed open a door and the heavy odor of hay and excrement assaulted him. When he stepped through the door he stared in disbelief before turning a caustic gaze on her. His temper was at once dispelled, though, as he discerned what hung on the wall behind her—one of the city’s blue and white checked banners. Before he realized, he put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle but decided push so that he could gaze at the pristine condition of the banner. He stepped forward and ran his trembling fingers along the banner’s length before turning back to her.
“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I know he’s little more than a sickly pony.”
He looked back to the banner. “I’m going to take this. And your pony,” he added, glancing at her.
She studied him as he took the banner from the wall, rolling it with care as he went. She faded into the shadow of the doorway. “There are no other men,” she said, understanding. “And still you ride?”
He turned to her with the folded banner in his hands. He coughed. “Yes. One last time.”
Her gaze bored into him. “Then the cough is not all that has infected you.”
His eyes narrowed on her.
Astride the little pony, he peered out the city’s main gate to the plains and loosed the banner to let it drape along his side. In the still air it hung from the banner pole, which he had slid between the straps of his breastplate to secure the pole to his back. It was still dark, but the first hint of daylight showed in a faint pink line on the most distant hills. It was enough to reveal the rising dust cloud nearing the city. The sight of it made his heart buck. He coughed.
She came up beside him. “Why do this?”
“Protect the city,” he said under his breath.
She looked to him. “What city? All that it was is lost. Now we need them,” she said, pointing to the dust cloud. “We need them to save us from ourselves.”
He held his silence, trying to ignore her. He drew his sword.
“Sir, please, don’t do this,” she said, craning her neck to catch his eye.
He looked to her. He coughed, grimacing against the increasing tightness of the spasms. Closing his eyes, he caught his breath, and then looked back to the plains. “I was raised in this city,” he said, his voice hoarse. “It meant something, to me, to say that. It’s why I chose to be a soldier. What we had, it had never been seen before us. And now that it’s gone, where am I to go without it? There’s no place left in the world for me, for I will always know that I’m part of something that was lost. But I won’t let it go silently. It must not go silently, because if it’s forgotten, it can never live again, and find its rightful way, rather than the folly we brought upon it. So, I will ride. Maybe they’ll remember it, and wonder why it was I did such a thing. In their curiosity, the city may live again.” He coughed, doubling over before he could regain himself. He held that way for several slow, rasping breaths before looking back to her. “I ride for the dream that was,” he whispered. “It’s all I have.”
She stared at him, holding his gaze. “Then you never had anything.”
He sat up straight, defiant, and looked down at her. “I shall ride again. You’ll see.”
He spurred the pony. The little mount sauntered off on the plains.
Clear of the city, the breeze of the plains caught him, his gaze rolling to his side to see the banner waver and snap to. Then he gasped, the sword falling from his hand. He looked down to see a bloody arrow tip protruding from his chest. He trembled, but looked over his shoulder to see the huntsman’s wife standing beside the city gate, drawing another arrow to her bow.
He closed his eyes.
He grunted at the impact, but felt nothing until the ground seemed to rise up and slap against his side. A ragged, shallow breath teased his lungs. Tendrils of vapor rose from his warm blood where it ran down the two arrowheads poking from his chest.
The sky was gray.
The earth shook beneath him, shook to the thunder of many, many horses. He closed his eyes.
All but a memory now, a whisper in the wind.
The breeze died.
The banner sank in the air until it settled over him.
And there he lay, in the dust, unheeded, as the mounted horde charged past him.