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Part One--The Sandstorms of Abeya

Part One--The Sandstorms of Abeya

A Chapter by Carole Wolf
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Set in northern central Africa, 2525 AD, think ancient Greece or Mesopotamia. History has repeated itself, post-apocalypse.

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Part One

The Sandstorms of Abeya

 The sun never rose much higher than to meet the summits of the Kilimanjaro; it hadn’t for some five hundred years. Or so those who inhabited what was now known as the Desert of Sähm had always told it. Whether the advent of the present era could ever be fully explained had been left to debates between colonial elders for centuries. Legends only lent themselves to more speculation that, in turn, begot more myths. They argued ceaselessly over how, why, and if the earth one-day turned on itself, leaving behind only scattered remnants of a life pre-existent to that of Sähm. For many, a prior world was inconceivable, though the contention of a select few remained steadfast to what little evidence had actually been found. And so, when the sun passed behind the western Ahagaar Mountains to close the day, it was those stories that drew the children of 2nd colony-Calabrecia to the feet of the local ironsmith, Najiq Bahan.

     Clapping the dust of the day’s work from his hands, Najiq pulled up an empty vegetable crate and took a seat before an eager audience. His eight-year-old daughter, Seraya, climbed into his lap and snuggled against his chest, comforted by the way his voice seemed to boom from beneath his hemp-spun pullover. His ten-year-old son Isaac, however, opted for a seat on the ground with the older children, as he had long outgrown a perch on his father’s knee. 

   “Many seasons ago,” Najiq began in an adventurous tone that colored the words with mystery. “Long before the elders of the elders were born, there lived a people, much like you and me. It is said that these people found a way to grab the lightening right out of the sky, and they controlled it to create ingenious devices. And it was this that allowed them to advance beyond anything we could ever imagine. These men built towers of glass and iron that stretched toward the heavens, entire cities made of light and sound and color. These tribes not only built cities of grand design. It is said that they had also found a way to visit the stars, to fly from one planet to another, around the moon and back. And until the coming of the Red Star, these people lived right here in this land. In fact, it is believed that our governing city of Calabrecia was built upon the ruins of one of those cities past, and --”

   “No one knows that to be fact or fable, Najiq,” Armen D’Micci, a local carpenter and father of three among Najiq’s listeners then spoke up, unable to bridle his thoughts any longer. Armen rarely made it past this point in the story before challenging his neighbor’s sources. “You’re filling these children’s heads with too much fantasy. From one passing to the next you babble on about talking picture boxes and men on the moon, giant metal birds and men swimming to the bottom of the sea! For what? For fun, you say! Ha! Let him wade out into these waters and see what he finds. Everyone here knows, including you, Najiq, that monsters rule the Bay of Gaddis just as sure I’m standing here to tell about it. You want to tell the kids something they can learn from, you tell them that.”

   “Are you finished?” Najiq asked patiently, irritation simmering beneath a polite smile. “It won’t be long before the sun comes out from behind the Ahagaar, and the children have to get to bed. Just let me tell the story the way I tell it, okay?”

      Armen’s response was indistinct, a grumble under his breath as he abandoned the campfire and stomped off to his quarters for the night.

   “Now,” Najiq continued. “Where was I? Ah, the Red Star, yes. Some thought it was simply a puzzling mystery to be studied before it disappeared into the heavens for good. Others saw it as a beautiful gift from the God Yishuîm. But there were some who thought it to be a sign of great destruction to come, and so they packed up their families and belongings and traveled to places safest from harm. The Red Star continued to hang in the eastern sky for many seasons until the people realized it was indeed drawing nearer to the earth. Storms of flaming boulders soon struck the ground with such force, as if Yishuîm Himself hurled them in a fit of rage, and the mountain tops exploded with streams of liquid fire that blanketed most everything else still standing.”

   “When did the rocks stop falling?” asked one of the children, already knowing the answer. It was the ironsmith’s talent for painting pictures with words that kept him fielding the same questions, night after night.

   “Oh, they fell for many, many passings,” he said. “They fell for so long that they kicked up a cloud of dust that blocked out the sun completely. Nearly every living thing perished beneath the sand cloud while the earth continued to shake in dozens of places at once, stirring up giant waves at the center of every sea that grew to swallow entire cities whole. Only those places protected by the mountains escaped the floods, which is why the Tassili, the Tibesti, and the Ahagaar ranges are very sacred. It is why we are all here today; the Calabrecians, the Kappolarians, the Gaddisians, even the Monascans. And you, children, are descended from the strongest of the strong, from those chosen few who survived hell on earth, who crawled out from beneath a ruined society and rebuilt another one with their bare hands.”

   “So, then why do the citizens of Calabrecia make us slaves?” Isaac then disputed, and his question was echoed by several of the other children. But as Najiq pondered over a tactful explanation for that, his daughter answered for him.

   “We’re not slaves,” Seraya frowned at her brother. “We’re workers. That’s why Abba makes the swords and armor for the soldiers, and Amma makes the rugs for the horses’ backs. Right, Abba?”

      It was what the younger children had always been told to keep up their spirits in lieu of the unfortunate truth.

      The city of Calabrecia had been established nearly five generations prior by those believed to be the pre-world ancestors of Colonel Lucius Marquís. It had been the first of the four cities in Sähm to organize into a self-sufficient community with a social structure later imitated by neighboring settlements. Tiny cedar wood dôchas were soon expanded into larger sandstone dwellings, which spread out to accommodate growing populations. Forums were later constructed, watchtowers were erected, and stone walls went up in defense of what few but precious resources each city came to control. With territorial boundaries well established at that point, several rural colonies made up of those descended from gypsies and nomads, skirted the respective cities to which they belonged. And it was in those villages that the commodities needed for citizens and nobles to maintain a relatively high standard of living were produced in turn for refuge and shelter. Inside the city walls, noble status was given to all Calabrecian military troops while local citizenship had been granted to the remaining members of their families; her gates opened for no one without such lineage.

     It was widely believed that many of those who had survived the Red Star were migrants who traveled south into the region from lands somewhere across the Bay of Gaddis, lands which--if they indeed existed--had yet to be rediscovered. As far as anyone was presently aware, nothing but ocean stretched north of the Gaddisian coast. And those who had once been bold enough to embark upon such travels now had grandchildren still awaiting their return, Colonel Marquís having been one of them. Consequently, all travel by sea had since been outlawed upon his disappearance, and Calabrecia’s military was restructured to expand its infantry and ground forces, rather than wasting manpower on a naval fleet. Now, under the rule of his successor Governor Mirielle Delamere the city-state of Calabrecia was the largest sovereign for its control of the Buhari salt mines. This particular monopoly gave the Calabrecians the unique and unprecedented advantage of developing gunpowder, a resource over which countless battles had been fought for close to forty seasons. In that time, only once had the formula been in danger of slipping into the hands of spies. The culprit, an alderman left over from Colonel Marquís’ former cabinet, along with his Monascan contact, were seized and brought before Governor Delamere; she had them both tethered to the legs of elephants and ripped apart for the entire city to witness. Similar spectacles were made of colonists who did not produce up to standard or who had attempted to defect to the less ironhanded commonwealth of Gaddis. Hence, Mirielle Delamere’s term would bring little change to the rigid statutes set forth by Colonel Marquís, which meant colony life would likely remain as weary and suppressed as it had always been.

   “Yes, that’s right, jaani,” Najiq then responded with a half-hearted smile. “Your mother and I, we’re…workers…with very important jobs to do.”

      Isaac still found it difficult to understand why his mother and father worked so hard to receive only a rikk per passing, particularly if they were descended from the ancient nobility of his father’s folklore. Unless they made up the difference in odd jobs and favors for neighboring colonists, a few rikks often traded for much less than what his family needed to survive from one season to the next. Abeya, the difficult season of perpetual twilight, allowed for very little farming, as the sun remained just below the horizon indefinitely, creating one long, gray passing. And if the cities were at war, this period lent itself to numerous raids and ambushes upon the colonies; whatever food had been stored was often pillaged down to the scraps. It left them scrounging for crumbs until the season of Lumina returned and brought daylight back to the Desert of Sähm. Having lived under such distressing conditions for so long, Isaac could not accept that Governor Mirielle Delamere cared about her people as genuinely as the elders had always claimed. And he certainly did not believe there to be any other history than what was found in the Calabrecian Book of Méraah. Time began when the High Goddess erected the Tibesti Mountains and peopled the Desert of Sähm, not at the dawn of some mythical pre-world.

   “Well, that’s enough for tonight,” Najiq announced, hoisting his daughter onto his hip as he rose to dismiss his audience. “Off to your dôchas for bed.”

   A disappointed chorale of groans resounded through the young crowd as the ironsmith prodded them along. “Next sunfall,” he assured, “We’ll hear the story of the soldier Galvez and the tunnels that kept him and his followers from perishing under the sand cloud. Now, off to bed. Quickly, before the river gnomes sneak into your dôchas and steal away with your blankets and sugar bread!”

      The children then scattered with giggles and shouts, disappearing into their homes for the night as the Ahagaar extinguished the last few rays of the sun.

   “Abba, if we catch a river gnome, can we keep him?”  Seraya questioned her father as they made their way to their quarters.

   Najiq chuckled and told her, “Well, if you can catch one those nimble little creatures, yes, I imagine you should be able to keep him. That is, if he wants to live with us instead of his own family.”

   “There’s no such thing, Seraya,” Isaac mumbled and rolled his eyes. “I thought you were too big to believe in all that. River gnomes are just made up by the elders, and there’s nothing in the Ylles River but fish and snakes.”

   Seraya knitted her brow and huffed, her dark eyes brewing with defiance. “There are, too, river gnomes ‘cause I saw one, and he was sleeping under your blanket. Now what do you say?”

   I say,” their father intervened as he pushed through the door to their dôcha, “that it’s time to sleep. Both of you, river gnomes or no river gnomes. There’s a lot of work to be done tomorrow in preparation for Abeya, so you need your rest.” He lowered his daughter to the dirt floor and into the keeping of his wife Fiza.  

   “Not this argument again,” she said, shaking her head as she unrolled one of four rattan sleeping mats to be laid out for the night. “Isaac, your sister is eight, so let her be eight and believe in what she wants. Now, wash up for bed, you two, and no bickering. There’s fresh water from the cistern in the back room, and your bedclothes are folded on the shelf. And I mean it; no arguing, you understand? Next passing will be shorter than the last and busier, at that.”

   “Yes, Amma,” Isaac and Seraya muttered in unison and began their bedtime rituals.

   “We wouldn’t have to do so much work for Abeya if things were different,” Isaac then grumbled under his breath, his earlier thoughts having escaped past the ears of his father.

   “Did you have something else to say, son?” Najiq bellowed, stopping the boy in mid-stride before he could retreat to the rear of the two-room dôcha.

      Isaac froze and swallowed the words that had been rolling around at the tip of his tongue all evening. His father had only struck him once for back talk, and that had been quite enough to corral his bucking sense of independence. But he also knew his father to be a fair and patient man, and with that in mind Isaac took a deep breath set his thoughts free.

   “Yes,” he said boldly, looking his father in the eye with hopes that doing so might warrant a bit of respect. “Yes, I did have something to say.”

      Najiq raised an eyebrow as he glanced at his wife and back to his son, who had apparently taken his father’s stunned silence as permission to continue.

   “I don’t think it’s fair,” Isaac stated, “that the colonists can’t go before the Governor and ask for better changes, for more rikks for the work that’s done. I mean, the Calabrecian soldiers are no help when they make their rounds for inspections, and"“

   “Ok, now wait a second,” Najiq held up a silencing hand. It was obvious that a long-anticipated discussion had become necessary at last, even though his son now skipped along a very thin line between maturity and disrespect. He wanted answers, however. And so Najiq would give him those answers. He lowered his hand, nodded assuredly to Fiza and grabbed a chair for Isaac to sit.

   “Alright, listen to me,” he said, propping a foot on a chair of his own. “You’re not a little boy, anymore. I understand this. You are not a man, not by any means. But I realize that at your age, things begin to look, well, different. And you’re right; Amma and I are not just workers for Calabrecia, and neither are you, which is why it is very important that you take my words to heart when I tell you to just let things lie.”

   “There’s nothing we can do about the way we live, is there?” Isaac grumbled as a rebellious flash in his eyes made his father’s stomach sink.

   “No,” Najiq said flatly, sternly. “Everything has been set down as law, and the law will never change. So, we make the best of it. We wake up at sunrise, do our jobs, try to have a little fun when we can, and we don’t make trouble for ourselves. You understand?”

   “I guess. It’s just that when some of us were talking about it today, we thought maybe…”

   “Some of us,” Najiq echoed and shook his head. “And who would ‘some of us’ be, eh? Immel? Minyar? I bet that Adem Al-Dîn boy’s got lots of bright ideas, too. You boys need to be doing your chores instead of entertaining pig-headed nonsense all day. You think you all are the first to look around and say ‘I don’t like this’? When I was your age, I was certain…certain…that I would one day be the governor of my very own city-state! Ha! With my army of young fools, just like me. Bahania! The place where every man, woman and child is free!”

     A shadow of a smile snuck across Isaac’s face at his father’s story, and he said, “Well, maybe it’s not so foolish. I mean, look at what they say about Gaddis. Slavery doesn’t exist there, and they say Governor Sandoval even allows his colonists to cast votes on how they want things to be.”

   “Ok. Now, that’s enough about that,” Najiq shushed him. The topic itself had death lurking between every word, and it was up to Najiq to halt his son’s dangerous ideas at once.

   “But Abba.”

   “I said we’re not going to discuss that, Isaac.”

   “If you’d just listen to what we came up with, Abba,” Isaac continued to skid across a hazardous theme. “It’s not impossible. The only reason why others never made it there was because--”

      Najiq kicked aside his chair, grabbed his son by the collar and lifted him out of his seat. In a single thrust he planted him squarely against the dôcha wall and snarled, “You will not speak of it again, boy. You’ve got two good ears and a mind to think, so I know I don’t have to ask if you understand me. Do I?”

     Isaac studied his father’s bearded face and searched himself for the courage that had begun their talk, just minutes ago. But his fear defeated him, and nothing could be found but the will to shake his head obediently.

   “Najiq,” Fiza then addressed her husband calmly, breaking a terrible silence that had never filled their household before. And Najiq felt assured that it never would again, for the fiery glint of belligerence that flickered in his son’s eyes was gone.

   Najiq set the boy back onto his feet and turned away from him with disapproval. “Go to bed.”

     Isaac obeyed without another word and left his parents to sort out what had just happened.

   “They all do it,” Najiq began to rant, pacing the dirt with his hands on his hips. “When they get to be his age, they all think they can outsmart the way of things. They get together and one puts an idea in the other’s head, and before you know it they think they’ve found a way to defect! ‘Oh, we can make it to Gaddis’, they say, and then one of them grows up to be another fool who tries it! Well, not my son! My father put welts upon my back for uttering those words, and I’ll do the same if it saves his life.”

   “Well, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Fiza told him quietly, a bit disturbed by his outburst. “I think you made a point that should stick with him for quite some time…without welts.”

   “You think I was hard on him?” Najiq challenged her, and she shrugged, spread their mats out on the floor and covered them with wool blankets.

   “You do,” Najiq said, following closely behind her. “It seems as though you weren’t listening to the boy when he suggested the four of us commit suicide, I suppose.”

   “It seems as though you let your temper do the talking, and you know as well as I do that, at his age, it will only make him resent you. Tell me, when your father put those welts on your back, did you suddenly wish to stay by his side forever more? Did thoughts of running off to Gaddis just fly out of your head for good? I don’t think so.”

   “Well, I never tried it, that’s for sure. So, something about a good lashing must have worked on me, no?”

   “Kids are different now, Najiq.”

   Tugging pensively at his beard, Najiq slowly began to fold under his wife’s subtle pressure. He never ruled over her with the same strictness that some of his neighbors commanded of their wives. He considered her his equal, as she contributed as much to their family as he. And, more often than not, she made good sense when he tended to react with haste.

   He watched her work for several moments, then said, “I promised Mr. D’Micci I’d help him stack firewood for the colony before bed. I suppose…if you think it’d be best…I can talk to Isaac again when I get back.”

     Fiza nodded and gave him an approving smile as he disappeared out into the dusk.

 

     2nd Colony was churning with activity as Najiq headed toward Armen D’Micci’s work tent. The elders, made up of a small group of colony grandparents, were assembled around a campfire, deliberating over how best to manage through the upcoming change of seasons. The desert air had already chilled as the Ahagaar tucked the sun behind towering rugged crags that lined the horizon. The aromas of spiced incense and charred venison drifted through the village on a stirring breeze, which swirled around the dôchas and tossed glowing firelight embers toward a cerulean sky. Cisterns were filled, supplies of beans and grain were replenished in wooden receptacles, and livestock was penned and bedded down for the night. At the village hub, an ensemble of local musicians closed the passing with spirited chants in the native L’ghälii tongue, which were accompanied by the thunder of nakara kettledrums and the strumming of handmade guitars.

      But as Najiq approached Mr. D’Micci’s cabin, it was the trotting of horses that stole his attention. Four, perhaps even five of them could be heard ambling slowly between the dôchas. Calabrecian security troops often performed random checks of each of the thirteen colonies; however, Najiq found it to be a peculiar hour for such reconnaissance. He peered warily through the amber twilight as the commotion drew nearer.

     A restless murmur then traveled through the colony, and the music soon fell apart as a squad of five soldiers, mounted atop powerful black steeds marshaled around the nearest campfire. Their heads had been shaved to the skin, and a small insignia, which identified their particular order, was tattooed onto the left side of the scalp. Between the breaks in each man’s armor additional, more colorful tattooed of stills himself engaged in battle could be seen; these detailed murals of fierce bloodletting signified each soldier’s experience, or rank. Strapped across leather breastplates were decoratively molded batliff blades, much like those Najiq designed for infantry. Several hand-held katar axes, which varied in the size and arch of each blade hung from studded belts around the waist, and as the soldiers scanned the stifled peasants before them, a red and black-trimmed military flag clapped against the desert breeze.

  “Monascans,” Najiq muttered. The word caused his pallet to run dry as the ground beneath his boots.

     It had been twelve seasons since the end of the last war. General Vincente Monasco IV had a sordid history of treaty violations among the four city-states, beginning with his refusal to admit Kappolarian laborers to use Monascan-controlled water sources after agreements were firmly in place. The colonial grapevine proclaimed a gamut of other political infractions, from kidnapping slave colonists to disgracing sacred Calabrecian land for espionage schemes, which titled him duly as a tyrant and a deviant to public accord. Allowing Monascan warriors to tread so boldly into an enemy colony would summon absolute outrage from the Calabrecian government.

     And it certainly meant nothing well for their village tonight.

******

Twenty miles to the west, Jun Naginata sorted through her daughter’s clothes for what could be handed down to the neighbor children, come daylight. For by the time the sun crept from behind the Ahagaar Mountains, her child would be gone, most likely for good. Unless, of course, her military duties returned her to the city as, perhaps, a watchtower guard, if she were to be so fortunate. But Jun knew that only to be wishful thinking. Tai Naginata’s willful pride and determination would undoubtedly carry her through military school and out into the bloodiest conflicts the Desert of Sähm had ever witnessed. Just like her father. Even now, she was out boasting about the city with her friends, reveling in the fact that her time for service had finally come.

Jun swiped a tear from her face, scolded herself for such an ineffectual display of sorrow. A Monascan woman, particularly a widow like herself, should have known better than to weep for her child on the eve of recruitment. It was expected that most Monascan mothers would one day bury their sons"and daughters"whom they would hardly recognize after nearly thirty seasons of rigid brutality and warfare. This was what Tai had been bred for. She was but a child now, yet during her twenty-first year, she would be considered for the final rite of passage to warrior status, and the notion of death will have, by then, found solace in the darkened chambers of a military mind. At the present, Tai’s gangly ten-year-old frame promised a bit less than the heroics of a military icon. But someday, the late Lieutenant Takuro Naginata’s daughter would certainly welcome the fatal swing of an enemy ax for the advancement of Monascan culture.    

Jun took a deep breath of composure, stuffed more clothes into burlap sacks and tossed them across the tile floor with the others.

   “Mother!” Tai then called through the house. Her best friend Seth, the son of Captain Luis Broussard of the Monascan 4th cavalry, followed close behind. “Tell him that if Monasco goes to war next sunfall, the new trainees will be allowed to assist the soldiers for battle! That’s what we’re going to camp for, isn’t it?”

   Jun made a quizzical face and held up another pair of pants for inspection. “Well, I don’t know about assisting them, Tai. I would imagine you might get a chance to see them, at some point. But to assist in battle preparations is something the older recruits would do, don’t you think?”

   “See, I told you,” Seth insisted with a nudge. “I should know, anyhow, since my father’s been in the army all his life.”

   “And so was mine,” Tai sassed. “But they change the rules every other season, practically. And there’s nothing saying we can’t go along to the encampments and help. After all, they’re probably gonna need it, right?”

   “Tai,” Jun shook her head and approached her with compassion. She put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder and said to them both, “I know you two are excited about going to camp next passing, but it’s not all about adventure and glorious combat, like those stories the officers tell at the Lumina banquets. You need to keep your minds focused on what’s going to be expected of you. The first years of your training will be spent studying and reading, learning to use philosophy and logic in your lives as citizens and soldiers. Only a portion of it will be physical until you’re well into your fourteenth year. And besides, Monasco isn’t going to war anytime soon, so all this talk of assisting in battle is just a waste of productive energy.”

   “That’s not what they’re saying around the city,” Tai exclaimed, her brown eyes wide as plates. “They say General Monasco’s calling the troops for a raid on Calabrecia by sunrise. And before the end of the season all the city-states--Calabrecia, Kappolaris and Gaddis--will fall under his control!”

   Our control,” Seth specified proudly. “We’ll all be feared by everyone who lives in Sähm, and they’ll kneel at our feet as we pass through their cities, bestowing us with gifts and begging us to spare their lives!” And he threw up his fists in a fighting stance as Tai joined in, slashing at him with an imaginary batliff.

   “All right, now,” Jun placed herself between them with a chuckle. “That’s enough of silly rumors. Every season someone claims that Monasco’s going to war again, but until the General makes a formal declaration himself, we’ll continue things as we’ve always done. And right now, what’s always done is Monascan children get ready for bed. Seth, your mother’s going to be wondering where you are, so you need to run on home now. You’ll see Tai tomorrow, most definitely. And Tai, off to bed. At sunrise, we’ll spend some time in the courtyard before the army cadre comes for you.”

   “Yes, mother,” she groaned and bid her best friend goodnight with another mock-thrust of her katar blade. Seth dodged it and pretended to strike her down with a blow to her mid-section, then fled through the house, waving as he disappeared out into the city.

Jun wanted to curse the gloating officers who retired from service and recounted the most unrealistic portrayals of military life. The city children listened with pyres of nobility and grandeur burning in their eyes, innocent eyes that had seen only the accolades of war. The grim truths had always been downplayed for fear it might discourage the children from such willingness to participate, once their time for recruitment had come. And as Jun watched her daughter in make-believe combat, she cringed, knowing what little her child understood of the trials that lay before her. For despite the promises of prestige that the General delivered, Monascan honor was an irrevocable mark, clawed by the enemy onto a warrior deceased.

Jun Naginata turned down her daughter’s blankets for the last time, lowered the lamp flame, and prepared herself for tomorrow’s goodbyes.

*******

 A rush of cool wind swept across the Desert of Sähm, whipped around the Ahagaar and through to Najiq’s bones as he and the others stood quietly before the intruders.

   “What’s the meaning of this?” Armen D’Micci then emerged through the gathering crowd with a frown for the Monascan soldiers. Najiq pulled at him to keep silent, but he continued. “How dare you set foot here! What do you want, our supplies? Our food? What? We don’t have anything here that our own troops haven’t already collected for themselves, so you’re wasting your time.”

   “Armen!” Najiq hissed and stood in his neighbor’s face. “Have you lost your mind? These men are barbarians, not ambassadors. Just keep quiet and let them be on their way.”

   “General Vincente Monasco IV,” the most decorated of the five soldiers then roared as his horse snorted and back-stepped, “has declared war upon your ruling city. And as of this passing, all Calabrecian colonists are to make preparations for enslavement to Monasco. For by the coming of Lumina, there will be no independent Calabrecia.”

   “That’s ridiculous,” the stubborn carpenter muttered, despite Najiq’s threatening glare.

        The Monascan government in the past had never used such an impudent tactic to declare war with Calabrecia. City leaders typically held talks, which often went awry and exploded into promises of defeat. Slave colonies became pawns, cowering in the crossfire while hustling to produce weaponry, food, and ammunition for their respective armies. Apparently, General Monasco hoped to fuel his own ill repute by first sending soldiers into the colonies to taunt and to intimidate. Perhaps, Najiq considered further, it was meant to somehow slow production for the Calabrecians. By planting the seed of conquest in the minds of those who were, in effect, the backbone of the Calabrecian army, Monasco might fracture her opponent’s framework from the bottom up.

     Before he could further convince his friend to shut his mouth, however, two of the soldiers dismounted and surrounded the woodworker with pole axes drawn.

   “Take him prisoner,” their commander barked from atop his steed. “If he thinks service to Monasco is so ridiculous, then let him be the first to find out.”

   “Now, wait,” Najiq heard himself plead as he took post between his neighbor and the tattooed brawn of his heavily armed nemeses. He smiled nervously and begged, “Wait, please. He’s just a carpenter, a bull-headed old fool who chops wood all day. He doesn’t mean what he says, and he’d be more of a bother than an asset to your military, I’m certain.”

   “Najiq?” he then heard his wife’s voice through the crowd as she pushed her way into view. “Najiq, what in the name of Méraah are you doing? What’s going on?”

   “Take the children and go home, Fiza,” he ordered. “Everything here is under control. It’s just a misunderstanding, and we’re working it all out.”

   “I don’t need anyone to speak for me,” Armen protested as the soldiers now flanked the two of them. “Our troops will be here any moment to break this up, and then we’ll see who lives in service to who.”

   “Shut up, D’Micci,” the ironsmith insisted angrily.

   “Take them both,” the Monascan commander then bellowed as he unsheathed a katar from his belt. He swung a leg over the back of his horse and let himself down into the dust, joining his subordinates in the faces of Armen and Najiq.

   “Abba,” Seraya whimpered from her mother’s arms, and she was shushed as Fiza turned her away from the scene.

   “Fiza, do as I ask, please,” Najiq requested firmly, his eyes darting from the enemy to his family and back. Inside he knew she would not comply; she hadn’t left his side in twenty-six seasons, and Fiza Bahan was not about to retreat to the dôcha while her husband stood at the mercy of three of the most savage warriors in Sähm.

   You,” the commander then pointed the tip of his blade at Najiq’s nose. His black eyes narrowed and his jaws clenched as he snarled, “You are just as foolish a drudge as your friend the wood chopper. There aren’t any negotiations taking place here tonight. Monascans do not seek diplomacy with slaves of any kind.” He withdrew his weapon and turned back toward his horse. “Take the wood chopper prisoner as ordered. And I’m sure his brave emissary will serve as a shrewd example of what happens when negotiations fail. Kill him.”

     The Monascan flag whipped against the breeze as distant palms bowed to the whirling winds of Sähm. And as Abeya officially fell across the desert region, Calabrecia’s 2nd-colony storyteller dropped beneath the blade of Monascan savagery, pouring crimson into the dirt at his neighbor’s feet.

     Iron chains were shackled to a stunned Armen D’Micci who hadn’t the wherewithal to resist. Najiq’s body was then seized from his wailing family and lifted onto an enemy stallion.

     The intruding Monascans mounted their steeds and abandoned the colony to the consequence of the upcoming war as Isaac Bahan fell to his knees, aching with hollow vengeance, watching them vanish into the approaching storm.

********

When the Naginata bungalow fell dark and silent for the night, bamboo window shades rattled against the mud brick as tides of blustering sand swept through the dormant city of Monasco. Sentinels, perched in watchtowers at the four corners of her fortress, endured dependably with ivory shofar horns to alert of a potential invasion. The brewing sandstorm, however, had turned the landscape to a dusted blur, and so their duties were, for now, diminished to that of a common watchdog.

     But even the local canine sentries had not distinguished between the rush of the storm and the shuffling of foot soldiers that crept stealthily along household perimeters. Their scents went undetected amidst the howling desert winds as the subtle clanking of body armor hid beneath rumbles of distant thunder. The earth’s climatic chaos granted ideal cover as positions were taken, bungalows were breached, and Monasco’s select children were stolen away into a raging brume.

     Tai Naginata opened her eyes to but a glimpse of her abductors as a wad of what felt--and tasted--like soiled linen was packed into her mouth. A black hood shut out her surroundings as her hands and feet were tightly bound. The girl twisted against the strength of her captors and hollered through the suffocating gauze but to little avail. She could feel herself sway with the purposeful quickness of their mission as they carried her from her home and tossed onto a heap of others. Children. Several of them kicked and struggled beneath her, next to her, on top of her. Angry muffled growls sobbed into what she could only assume were black hoods like her own.

And at the crack of the reigns, the horse-drawn wagon jolted forward to begin its clandestine journey.

Tai tuned her senses to the sound of voices from the wagon head. But the conversation was indistinct, barely audible over the surging winds and furious objections of the other captives. War with Calabrecia had been but a rumor as her mother had assured. There had been no official announcement that Tai was aware of. But now, with this? Calabrecia would be lucky to have a single brick standing, lucky if the Monascans allowed even one soul spared to tell the story of its massacre. She had heard the officers speak at banquets about the Calabrecian governor, Mirielle Delamere, and her reckless, brash approach to politics. She remembered them tell of her drunken rampages, stomping through the palace halls, dooming anyone in her path to execution. A mass abduction of

the Monascan children was an idea only an ill-bred, unrefined drunkard would concoct. That woman was as mad as General Monasco had always claimed, and her people were sure to suffer terribly for that.

 

When the wagon came to a halt, the flesh on Tai’s bare arms and feet flared hot from the constant spray of whipping sand. Perspiration settled into the abrasions like the sting of a thousand hornets, and her body throbbed with bruises from her struggling companions.

     The pile of children then shifted as the first of them was dragged off the wagon bed and ordered to stand shoulder to shoulder for inspection. She, too, felt herself tugged from the heap, and she was set upon her feet and shoved up next to one of the others. Finding it difficult to balance with their ankles so tightly bound, it sounded as though several of the prisoners had toppled over from the force of the desert wind. Tai could hear the snap of a switch against bare skin as the abductors shouted commands for them to rise, to stop crying, to be silent or else another, more severe beating would surely follow. Hoarse, graveled voices penetrated the wail of the storm as she listened closely for clues as to her whereabouts and her fate. One of them was a woman, and she was fierce, unyielding, violent.  She stood in front of Tai and roared about her worthlessness as a Monascan citizen, promised that death would finish her as swiftly as the edge of an ax could slice the air between them.

   “Remove their hoods!” One of the captors then commanded. The black drape was untied and snatched from over her face, and the filthy rag was extracted from her mouth.

      Once able to get her bearings, Tai estimated there to be about fifty or so city children, squinting through the storm, their faces twisted with bewilderment and fear. At the far end of the line, she could see Seth Broussard peering into whirls of sand, and he spotted her as well but stayed wisely in his place. As Tai strained to make out the faces of the others, she suddenly realized that each of them was a selected army recruit. And pacing back and forth before them were eight members of the Monascan training cadre.

     Dumbfounded, Tai gaped at her new instructors with a silent flurry of questions. Nothing had ever been said of this method for rounding up trainees. As far as she knew, it had never been done before. In the past, military personnel had simply gone door to door at sunrise. Recruits were gathered together in the city square, given directions as to what was expected, and they were loaded civilly onto transport wagons with time to bid their families goodbye.

     She searched through the storm for a sign of the classrooms, but there was only Sähm’s barren wasteland. Not even the barracks were visible from where she stood. There were certainly barracks, she presumed. She had heard the other soldiers speak of them. Her father spent most of his boyhood years living in an encampment of straw shacks with larger sandstone buildings for formal studies. She wondered if she should ask but suddenly reconsidered as the female trooper stepped into the space of the boy beside her.

     Unlike the males, this soldier wore a long ponytail with only the bottom portion of the head bare, which distinguished her from the males yet still allowed the Monascan warrior tattoo to be seen on the left side of the scalp.

     Tai studied the calligraphic symbol for the L’ghälii phrase “ehroh khemîn a rahän” meaning “the strongest warriors"favored by the gods”. From what her father told her, only half of the insignia was etched onto the scalps of new recruits; it was completed upon their return from the final training mission at twenty-one. Tai watched as the soldier tucked her batliff under the boy’s chin and snarled something into his ear that sent tears streaming through the dirt on his face.

      And as the other members of the cadre patrolled back and forth before the group, Tai Naginata wondered if a lifelong desire for her place in the Monascan army had been a terrible mistake.

   “As of this passing,” the chief commander then shouted as the others went down the rows, cutting loose the linens. “You will not exist but for the calling of General Vincente Monasco IV to defeat and to destroy anyone and anything that sets against Monascan rule. And for that objective you will suffer. You will starve, you will bear you own weight on broken bones. And many of you will fail, which means most of you will die before ever laying eyes on a battlefield.” He glared down at each of them individually as he strolled passed. “I am Infantry Training Sergeant Kiraç, and those few who live through this program will grow to despise me by the age of twenty-one. But you will also spring to your feet and throw yourselves between me and the enemy without hesitation. And you will do so for each other and for any other Monascan, civilian or otherwise. You will learn to welcome death as astutely as you will learn to avoid it, for you will see a lot of it within your own ranks in the first season of your training. However, those who persevere long enough to attempt his or her final rite of passage will not make for easy prey. You will become the predator, a cunning and merciless combatant with superior knowledge and fighting skill. And you will learn that taking lives without the interruption of conscience is both an art form and an asset.”

     Two instructors then carried the decapitated corpse of what looked to be a peasant man over to where Kiraç stood, and they dumped the body at his feet.

   “This,” he announced, standing firmly as a mountain against the windstorm, “is the unfortunate result of enemy colonists meddling in Monascan military affairs. This example was made for Calabrecians to contemplate earlier last passing. One from each Calabrecian colony has been delivered to this location, and the heads will be set upon spikes, lit aflame and launched over the city walls to declare war. You will be required to transport the bodies on a one twenty-mile journey to your training camp without the assistance of any member of the cadre. You will carry them…yourselves…and when you reach the encampment, those of you who are still able to stand will be given the opportunity to eat and to drink. And I suggest you see to it that you are still on your feet at that time because you’re going to have to fight each other for it. Never again will anything be handed to you without having earned it. And females! I suggest to you that you take a long look at yourselves and at Infantry Training Sergeant Muralii; she is your standard, however unlikely it is that any of you will survive long enough to wash the blood from her saber. You females are only the second generation permitted to take part in this program, and instructor Muralii is one of eighty female warriors in an army of three thousand. She was one of two hundred females selected for training, twenty-four seasons ago. There are fourteen of you here tonight; I’m sure if the rules of mathematics have escaped you, those numbers will ring quite thunderously in your minds, come Lumina. You are not your mothers’ daughters any longer.”

     Tai Naginata strained through the twisting sand and focused on her assigned mentor. She followed Muralii’s every move as the instructor stalked between the rows of her new subordinates, absently twirling a katar blade through her fingers like a baton trick. Tai watched that curiously, waiting for the instructor to either slice herself or, at best, lose timing and fling the dagger to the ground. But she never faltered, drew not one drop of blood, and Cadet Naginata found that to be impressive and fascinating. It was a useful maneuver that she would be eager to learn someday.

     Tai’s attention was directed back to Chief Instructor Kiraç as he commanded the recruits to secure a corpse for the march to Camp Vallone. Each of the thirteen Calabrecian victims were heaved into the arms of the young Monascan cadets, and by three’s they set out to try themselves against the roaring turbulence of Sähm.

**************

          At the equidistant between the Calabrecian and Monascan territories, a line had been drawn eight hundred seasons past. And in that lowland sector, thirty-seven battles had been fought and four major wars won, bringing the two powers to a peaceful, twelve-season stalemate.

      Now, in this eight hundred and first season, rippling sand currents continued to blast across the desert, leveling dunes and creating new ones throughout.

      At the horizon another cloud had begun to form, stretching the distance between the Ahagaar Mountains and the far Monascan cityscape. As the oddity swelled and billowed and coalesced with the storm surge, a pounding of drums followed; manmade thunder syncopated with that of the gods. Shofar horns pealed stridently out into the foreground to proclaim the ominous arrival of the Monascan infantry. As the dark cloud dispersed to reveal their fighting force, twenty hide-beaters, poised upon the backs of elephants, battered a rhythmic cadence to which the Monascan warriors shuffled toward battle in massive unison. Rearward of the foot soldiers, a brigade of cavalry kept a strategic distance atop three hundred purebred stallions that moved across the landscape like an enormous black shadow. Once in formation at the battlefield midpoint, the drummers signaled a halt as “ehroh khemîn a rahän” resonated across the land, three thousand voices strong.

     While Monasco awaited its adversary, the Desert of Sähm groaned and wailed and threw itself around in perpetual turmoil. It had become less like a storm and more as if the ghosts of a thousand mercenaries had gathered together in a whirlwind of unrest.

     And then, as though commanded by the gods themselves, a brief calm began to settle across the wasteland. Turbid gusts slowed to a persistent breeze upon which a single voice in the distance floated out to greet the Monascan military. It was not a call for truce nor a cry of surrender that emanated from beyond the dunes; it was an anthem, a song of conquest, followed by a building rumble of two hundred Arabian chargers that carried the Calabrecian mounted corps into view. The steeds lined up, single-file, along the opposite side of Sähm, leaving three mysterious gaps in a strange asymmetrical formation.

     Monascan cutlery jingled uneasily. Elephants tossed back their trunks, anxious for the signal to charge. Batliff handles were clenched in anticipation as war-horses snorted and shook their reigns, sensing an unfamiliar threat from a well-known enemy, and the Monascan army was given the order to shield themselves from what might have become a flaming archery barrage.

     But as the peculiar formation pressed forward into firing range, Calabrecia unveiled the mystery to her bewildered opponents.

      Rolling between the breaks in the cavalry lines were three of the latest innovations in Calabrecian weaponry. Cannons. Crude, ill-fashioned apparatuses but destructive, nonetheless.

     Positioned safely at the left rear flank of his troops, General Vincente Monasco fixed his eyes on the adjacent horizon, and a thin discomfited smile crossed his lips. For he was well aware of his adversary’s newfound capabilities. Mirielle Delamere had her most ambitious minds at work on it for several seasons now. It was what he had risked the lives of his Special Forces to obtain, unsuccessfully. And he offered the governor a silent commendation for her thriving bravado on the battlefield this passing. He reached under his breastplate, pulled a hand-rolled cigar from beneath his armor, and held it up to the flame of his lieutenant’s torch. What fierce aspirations and an incisive trade agreement for Kappolaris’ iron ore could spawn in twelve short seasons.

     The Monascan leader continued to ponder his options, puffed and fidgeted with the reigns of his stallion as his troops abided their orders. As he surveyed the amassing of power below, General Monasco toiled over his own classified knowledge. Before him were three thousand oblivious warriors, eager to wage an assault in the name of Monascan glory. They had no idea of the long-range threat those outlandish contraptions posed. Pre-world weapons of war had been an area of study to which only he and his closest advisors were privy. And apparently it had become an interest of Governor Delamere’s as well. Until Monasco mustered the capacity and the resources to reproduce such weapons, he considered it a precarious decision to inform his people of their existence. His soldiers had been poised to give their lives from childhood. To ask them, now, to retreat for the first time in eight hundred seasons was out of the question. And what they did not understand today, he thought, would not make them any less noble for their allegiance.

     Calabrecian forces continued to gather at the foot of the sandbanks, cavalry first, accompanied by their latest firepower, then an archery brigade, followed by two thousand foot soldiers and five loaded catapults to match those at the rear of the Monascan lines.

   “What do you think they are, sir?” his first lieutenant Olanga then questioned, peering quizzically out across the desert at the peculiar weaponry.

   “I think they’re a pompous display of over-confidence,” the General finally growled. And with a snap of the reigns, he gave the order to strike and galloped off to a safeguarded command post.

       The desert erupted once again. Whisking sand and earth plumed into an immense arid fog but at no fault of the storm, which was still in a patient lull. The basin now smoldered with a collision of five thousand roaring combatants, stampeding toward an atrocious entanglement of iron and fury and brawn. Pole arms cracked against scimitar swords as battle-ax blades clanged into bronze shields, tearing them from the hands of their possessors. War-horses danced in circles over the fallen, trampling rouge into the earth while their riders slumped, punctured thoroughly from showers of archery assaults. Huge boulders, smeared with tar and animal fat, were set ablaze and launched across a cobalt sky, slamming into the sand, annihilating warrior and beast alike. Heroes lay crushed beneath the weight of their own animals while others rose up in their places, slashing, wrestling, thrusting sabers into whomever could still be recognized as an enemy.

     And it was then that the cannon fire began. The explosive bursts were so distinct and arresting that several of the Monascan infantry paused in search of the origin of the din. Calabrecians took full advantage of the confusion, impaled their victims on the tines of pole axes, severing limbs, leaving wounds to pulse and rot from eventual infection as they moved on to grapple with the next. Iron projectiles rocketed over the heads of the warring infantries and fractured through Monascan archery regiments. Another boom, and a catapult unit was turned to splinters. Cannoneers diligently kept torches at each fuse, shielding themselves from the back-blast as twenty-pound shells whizzed across the basin and shattered the Monascan defenses like brittle scraps of dry timber.

       From his post, General Monasco regarded the event with steeping dissatisfaction as his officers beseeched him for a decision to retreat. They were but moments into the first battle, and nearly a third of the infantry had been slaughtered. The brunt of the offensive had fallen onto weakening archers whose ammunition was quickly depleting. This strike hadn’t been devised around those regiments, as Monasco’s confidence had always been placed heavily on its cavalry and foot soldiers.

   “If we pull back now, sir,” Lieutenant Olanga implored over the furor, flinching from another explosive cannon blast. “We can restore our numbers and perhaps make an ambush on the city itself in a few passings. There’s another hundred recruits ready for service at Camp Vallone, and hundred or so that we can pull from training a bit early. They’ve got most of their time in, only their final training missions left to complete. I’m sure they’d be more than eager to fight; it just might be our only option at this point, General.”

    A surprise attack on the city had its advantages. To roll over and feign defeat, however, was a maneuver left to cowards, to the weak, he thought. It was hardly a tactic to which his father or grandfather would have resorted. From the time his ancestors had established the Monascan settlement, the tenets of pride and conquest had been relentlessly instilled in each citizen from birth, which certainly hadn’t spurred his soldiers to flee and resign themselves to ruin. It had been that thriving sense of morale, which conquered the cities of Nye and Mehkos, twenty seasons ago. Even then, Monasco had been out-numbered but still claimed magnificent victories.

   “There’ll be no retreat,” the General finally announced and threw his cigar into the sand. “They’ll maintain their honor as Monascans always have.”

   Gazing fretfully out into the basin, the Lieutenant heaved an unfavorable sigh. “Yes, sir.” He motioned for the remaining cavalry to descend into what would surely bring this battle to an unsuccessful close.

      The Monascan flag rippled high above its bearer as a hundred stallions rushed through the intensifying sandstorm and collided with disaster. Warriors were unhorsed with little effort, and once engaged in hand-to-hand-combat, most were overtaken by two, even three opponents at once.

      The flag, carried by a now slain horseman, was set ablaze and jammed into the dirt to signify her defeat. The cannon fire ceased, and a roar of triumph erupted from the surviving Calabrecian troops.

     Prisoners were quickly made of those Monascans who hadn’t the strength to fall upon their own blades, rather than suffer lifelong disgrace as an enemy captive. And as the Calabrecians collected their wounded, the same song of conquest with which they had arrived followed after them as they abandoned the battleground to a disgusted Vincente Monasco.

     As he negotiated his horse through a maze of fallen soldiers, the General’s chest hammered with vengeance and condemnation, mostly for his own. He had given them a glorious opportunity to display their military strength, yet two thirds of them were now heaped upon each other like trash in a steaming landfill. And the rest lay groaning in pools of their own blood, clutching the shields of the dead with hopes to uplift the memories of those brothers and sisters to eternal greatness. Not this passing, he thought bitterly, peering down his nose at the aftermath of what was clearly a blatant fiasco.

     The outstretched hand of a battered Monascan infantryman then caught his eye, and the General halted his horse. He watched and listened as the soldier pleaded for aid; his arm was wrapped tightly around his waist in a futile effort to protect an exposed portion of his intestines.

     General Monasco let himself down from his animal and took a step over to where the injured warrior lay.

   “What’s your name, Corporal?” he questioned, determining the soldier’s rank from his lack of body art; this was his first experience with war. His survival would have earned him a self-portrait, somewhere along the left bicep. However, judging from his condition this soldier would likely die a blank canvas. 

   “Hovsep,” the cadet gasped through gritted teeth as he desperately grabbed at the General’s ankle. “Korian Hovsep…please…sir…”

   “Stand up, Hovsep,” the General growled and stepped out of the soldier’s reach.

   The young warrior peered up at his commander through eyes glassy with anguish, a bit perplexed by his orders, and he shook his head slightly.

   “I said get up, Corporal!” Monasco then bellowed and folded his arms across his chest, waiting. “A Monascan will never find honor on his back, writhing in the dirt like a ravaged animal! You’ll earn it by dying on your feet! Now stand up!”

     A howling gust stirred the air between them and moved across the corpse-littered desert like an unseen reaper of men’s souls. Cries of distress resounded over the murmur of last rites as weapons were gathered and horses were corralled for the march back to camp. And as his leader’s words drifted upon the stench of destruction, Corporal Hovsep clenched his jaw and summoned the strength to rise out of the dirt. But exhaustion prevailed and the young man dropped to his knees, grasping the General’s weapon belt to steady himself.

   “You see?” General Monasco said to him with an exasperated smile. “This…this is why we lost this battle, Corporal. Not because of the weapons our enemy fashioned against us. We’ve defiled ourselves this passing with a disloyalty to every principle Monasco was built upon. Through their own weakness, my men have made a mockery of the warriors who’ve fought before them, and each of you will pay a price far worse than this defeat. That I can promise you, Corporal.”

    He then slipped a dagger from his belt, plunged it into the chest of Korian Hovsep, and climbed onto his steed in search of others at death’s threshold.

     This passing, the General concluded, would begin a new era in the training of these so-called warriors. There were advances in weaponry with which they were now forced to contend, and so improvements in individual qualifications would have to be made, even if it took a hundred seasons to shape another three hundred trainees. This was the most significant loss Monasco had ever faced in her brief history. And it was going to be the last.

 



© 2010 Carole Wolf


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Carole Wolf
please ignore typos and the like...

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Added on April 16, 2010
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Tags: Monasco, post-apocalyptic, soft science fiction


Author

Carole Wolf
Carole Wolf

Columbus, GA



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