After the Empire
Roland Allnach, 2008
Published in The Armchair Aesthete, Summer 2008
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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
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.
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.
shuffled down the hill, into the delirious delusion of a dead city.
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
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.
closed his eyes and rested his head back.
coughed. He rubbed his face, opening his eyes to peer between his
whipped out his sword.
woman before him fell back a step. She held a hand up, the other
clutching her shawl against the chill of the night. “Sir—”
you have a horse?” he said, his voice ragged.
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?”
rose to his feet and sheathed his sword. “The water?”
eyes swelled on him. “Where are your men?”
ground his teeth. “Water.”
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.
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
this lord’s family?”
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.”
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
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?”
was the huntsmen’s bow. He was killed when the family was taken.”
eyebrows sank as he considered the bitter irony of that fate, but then
he coughed and remembered himself. “Can you use the bow?”
face went blank. “He was my husband.”
looked down and nodded.
let her breath go. “There’s nothing else here, for you.”
turned to her. “I need a horse.” Before she could answer, he began
coughing again, hunching over with the spasms in his chest.
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—”
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?”
shook her head. “Nobody goes to the other side of the city.”
they have their stables?”
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?”
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.
grabbed his arm. “Wait, please, I beg you! My lord’s stable—”
glared at her, his patience fading. “Where?”
clenched his teeth. “Where?”
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
looked back to the banner. “I’m going to take this. And your pony,” he
added, glancing at her.
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?”
turned to her with the folded banner in his hands. He coughed. “Yes.
One last time.”
gaze bored into him. “Then the cough is not all that has infected you.”
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.
came up beside him. “Why do this?”
“Protect the city,” he said under his breath.
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
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
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.”
stared at him, holding his gaze. “Then you never had anything.”
sat up straight, defiant, and looked down at her. “I shall ride again.
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.
closed his eyes.
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.
sky was gray.
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
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.