A Thousand Desperate Years
The horsemen rode single file along the cliff's craggy edge. The forest, dense and dark sat angrily to their left. On their right, lay open sky and malevolent winds whispering for them to misstep and plummet to a broken death. The leader lifted a strong, dark hand above his head. He wiped away a fat drop of water that was sliding easily over the deeply trenched lines of his forehead. “Rain.” He called out noncommittally over his shoulders. Tired grunts returned from the hard men following his lead.
The party had been forced to walk the high treacherous edge of the canyon to avoid leaving a trail that a tracker could follow. Soldiers hunted them in the thick wooded valley below, callously razing hamlets and throwing confused villagers to the ground. “A quick “where’d they go” snarled the king’s guard, followed by a boot to the ribs. The soldiers had fanned out across the river, pushed their way into the forest but they had lost their prey, the hard, brave men of the Kin. None had thought to traverse the forest and climb the dangerous outcropping of granite. Their imagination limited by their own cowardice and lack of determination had left the guards lost and angry.
Night dropped her veil quickly, bullying the light from the forest floor. Overhead, rainclouds blew dangerously, quickly muddying up the clear spring sky. Thunder crashed overhead, wolves howled and the rain fell like lead from the sky, pelting the grim faces of the horsemen. They pressed on, their deerskin vests sticking uncomfortable to their strong, sinewy bodies. The leader reached over his shoulder and took the heavy, sheathed war sword off his back and tied it tightly to the side of his black horse. Behind him, men removed swords, arrows, and bows. They kept them safe and dry under the thick skins covering their saddles. Nature’s cacophony of sounds screeched at them, slowing the horsemen to almost a dead stop. The storm had hastened night’s return to its realm, leaving the rocky ledge black, lit only by sudden flashes of lightening. The leader growled, “dismount, we’ll walk the horses. I don’t need to any of you falling because of this cursed storm. I’ll not be the one explaining your broken body to some love struck girl sobbing on my shoulder.”
The Kin chieftain was a quiet, decent man. He spoke little; men were prone to follow his actions rather than being commanded. The kin were fiercely loyal and equally independent. The leader wrapped the reins tightly in his hands and checked his gear. His grizzled features looked up as lightening forked across the heavens lighting up his path and bringing him face to face with a pair of growling wolves blocking his way. “Wolves!” He yelled, reigning in his startled horse. The leader could hear swords quickly sliding from their sheaths. He scanned the forest to his left, bright yellow eyes stared back with malice and threat. Lightening split the sky again and he counted six wolves in the flash. The men formed up in a circle, wedged between the snarls of angry wolves and a sheer drop to certain death. “Advance” he ordered. Lutharstorm the leader’s only son and a warrior built for the brutality of battle, whispered to his companions. “Notch an arrow, stick the big one, maybe they will move off,” The archer slowly slipped an arrow out of the quiver, notched it and aimed. The driving rain left him soaked and unsteady with the next flash of lightening he let it loose, it careened of Luthar’s battle axe and broke harmlessly off the trunk of a nearby pine. The wolves advanced as a pack, the large grey wolf staying just out of reach of the leader’s long sword. “Father” Luthar whispered I’ve never seen wolves act this way, brazen beasts, aye, but to surround men, why don’t they attack?”
The group made to advance again, the wolves growled, their yellow eyes shined dangerous yet mournful in the darkness. The two packs, humans and wolves they stood their ground. The leader leaned over in his saddle, staring into the eyes of the great beast in front of him, “follow, we’ll rush them and cut them to pieces before they attack.” He called out over the rain. The men readied themselves, doubled forks of lightening seared the heavens, a crack of thunder bellowed down at them/” Luthar!” the archer shouted. “There’s someone down there.” He had spotted a body, half covered by a sack, curled on a tiny outcropping of rock on the face of the sheer cliff below. As the words were shouted and the horsemen's attention was diverted the pack melted back into the dark woods like a stealthy messenger. Another flash of lightening revealed a path clear and the rain began to slowly die off.
The leader, leaned over the ledge, squinted, “Boy, give me some rope!” He called as he reached out a calloused hand. “Luthar tie this to the pine, I’m going down to get him. He lives I think.” The, aging chieftain, wrapped the course rope around his strong forearm, and fearlessly began to scale down the jagged rock face. He carefully placed one boot on the outcropping of rock. He kicked the body lightly, and it squirmed curling up instinctively. “He lives!” The leader called up. He tied the rope tightly around the unconscious body. “Pull the boy up” He ordered his men. The boy hung loosely, a sack of meat, dead weight as the men hauled him up carefully, so not to bang his body against the hard cliff face.
As soon as the boy had been brought up, the rain ceased, from the farthest reaches of the forest the sounds of life began to slowly crawl up from the valley towards the mountain ledge. Birds began to call and insects burst into life. Down on the valley floor, the riders saw tiny bursts of flame form an encampment. Luther knew the soldiers had quit their search for the night. The way back to camp will be safe. Though when he looked down at the burlap sack and began to pull it from the body a sense of unease settled in his hands. A warrior knew danger. Sometimes he couldn’t see it, but a feeling he learnt to trust had settled in the deep recesses of his mind.
The men pulled the leader, Luthar’s father and chief of their tribe to the top; his feet on firm ground he bent down and pulled the sack that hid the boy’s face. His father drew a deep breath, a tenderness he had never seen washed the hardness from the grizzled warrior’s face. The boy had been beaten, badly. Eyes swollen shut, dried blood caked in dark streams ran like forgotten river beds down his neck and underneath his tunic. Luthar’s father washed the blood away with a rain soaked cloth. The blood chipping off in his hands as a sculptor breaks life from a solid piece of rock. The boy moaned, tried to move his hands that were tied tightly behind him. Luthar, stood back, pressing the men back struggling to get a better a look at the figure on the ground. The young stranger had been dressed finely. Soft linen clothes, sturdy, well made boots. No farmer’s son, maybe fifteen summers. Five turns of the seasons younger than he. Luthar thought, oddly comparing himself to the boy. The chief pulled the boy up, quickly cut his binds. He lifted him gently in his strong arms and announced softly. “He’ll live,” as if were an affirmation to the Goddess of the sea and storm.
The sun beat heavily, mauling the sluggish workers shoring up the grey crumbling softstone of the royal palace. High above in the private royal chambers prince Raidenryse prowled the balcony like a tiger caught behind the iron bars of a cage. His small furtive eyes hunted the narrow streets of the capital looking for signs of his troops. In his fist clenched a priceless soft cover book recovered from an dusty, ancient iron box. He had sieged and burned the holdfast, only to find this odd ancient metal cube, unmolested by fire or time. He had his guards finally drop it from a battered old building six times before the hinge whined and cracked, pouring out its secrets like a broken, tortured man. Jewelry, stacks of rectangular paper, brittle documents and oddly enough a book., this was valuable? He wondered. Probably not, he had seen hundreds. All of them from the Great Age rotted away, the pages yellowed pieces of flaked skin, hardly worth to start a fire. Not this one. A true book from the Great Age, its value for sale, might be nothing compared to the information it held he wondered. Raidenryse, unlike most people could read. He lifted the book, read and reread the cover. The title meant nothing to him. Though this small small book had since inspired and guided him on his true path, Flipping through the pages he had read it and reread it on his journey back from the campaigns in the north. He lifted his thin arms, using the book to block the summer sun. His white arms were freckled and red from the sun, his pale blue eyes squinted down to the streets below. Suddenly from around the corner they appeared. Marching in three lines, step for step, common peasants quickly splitting and falling to the sides like a log split with the sharp metal of an axe. His soldiers had arrived.
Raiden, pushed aside the heavy cloth curtains and marched into the king’s private chambers with the arrogant stride of a conqueror. The King was obscenely obese, clad in the loose fitting finery to conceal the rolls of sweaty fat hanging beneath it. His fat doughy face looked up. A look of disgust unconcealed as he stared at young Raiden menacingly. He was standing, a feat Raidenryse was always amazed the king could even accomplish. Around him stood the aging advisers and commanders of his army. Their bony fingers tracing across new borderlines etched on the large map. “Uncle” Raiden called out. This made the fat king scowl. “You use that term too liberally”, he barked, and then turning to his generals, “my sister was not a woman of particular taste, don’t think she cared who she shared her bed with. He could be the pisspot cleaner’s son for all we know.” He laughed, the commanders feigned a smile, eyeing the young prince warily.
Raiden looked around the room, mismatched carpets covered the cool concrete, a softstone floor. Giant feathered pillows were scattered in the far corners. The fat king’s women lounged contented and safe in their nest high above the cowed population. The thin tapestries danced seductively as the breeze blew. Outside the window Raiden could see the city spreading out like a collection of shattered human jaw bones. Tall jagged buildings stuck out among the small, square, wooden shops and homes. In the center a large rectangular park, used for the entertainment of the masses, but now Raiden know his army had already marched through the gates and will soon be encamped along its even plain, waiting for word.
“Come here,” the king growled. His giant soft belly folded in waves of stretching fabric as he strained to point to a position on the map over the wooden table. “Read this!” He ordered. “There are too many damn words on this map! What does it say over this big area in the south?” The prince had been raised by his only aunt. Aunt Sinistre Rise took the unwanted child in. She would forge a weapon out of him and wield to cut down the members of her family who had cast her away. She was as nasty as she was destitute but she inherited one treasure from the Great Age and that was the ability to read and write English, the common language across the land to the far south and over the mountains to the ocean river in the north. She would beat his pale skin badly and near starve him growing up, but she shared her one gift and made him promise he would use it. The prince, confident in his plans, marched over to the map. He picked up a pointer and touched the green area to the south and read the bold letters Veterans’ Land. He read it calmly to the king, he then pointed to the north and traced the kingdom’s boundaries. Lands he and his armies had taken from the northerners. A peace treaty had been signed and now most of his army was marching down the large boulevards towards Central Park. A hush, like the ominous coolness before a mighty storm fell over the room. The king’s anger was legendary, but the prince knew an old dog can bark, but when it’s toothless, one swift kick will leave it wounded and slinking away. The prince would enjoy watching this plump, toothless old dog slunk away. "Yes uncle. It says 'veteran's land.' "soldiers don’t fight for free, they expect to be paid, and if they live, they expect to retire. They have been promised a place to do that. Right here, where it says Veterans’ Land.” the Prince said it slowly and loudly as if the king were a small stupid child. The King’s fat hand reached out to grab the pointer, but Raidenrise pulled it quickly out of the slow king’s reach. The area he had chosen was a semi-autonomous state, the very area the king had been born in. The prince raised his sour face and said. “I believe the nobles will need to be purged, their lands confiscated and their supporters driven out. I will begin tomorrow.” The king stared at the young prince fiercely, his grin hungry. “You can read, Raiden and yes, you can write. Now you have written your death warrant. What did you call my new king’s guards, Praetorians? Guards seize this jackal, hang him by his ankles and drop him out the window.” The Praetorians didn’t move. They were stone sentinels, to be awakened only by a word from the prince, their true master. The king looked uneasily at his generals. They stood motionless. The women stood slowly and began to make their way to the door. “Yes uncle, I can read and this little book I found on my campaigns was full of very useful information”. He tossed the small red covered book on to the map. The king looked at it staring uncomprehendingly. In gold letters the title read, The Rise of the Roman Empire.
At that very moment a young messenger appeared in the room, Sire, he addressed the king. “The army has entered the city!” The king hastily pushed his body across the room and out to the balcony. His eyes were wild with fear and confusion. “Praetorians, please give our fat king a very close, last look at the city that was once his”. The guards moved swiftly, violently taking the king by the hair and ankles. They hefted his struggling body up and over the iron fence and dropped him. The king plummeted down. He screamed terrified till he splattered against the city streets below. The women screamed. They ran in confusion for the door. Raidenryse, grabbed the king’s official consort by the neck, she scratched at his thin arms. Her new jewels glittered in the sunlight. “The queen, overcome with loss, leaps after her dead king.” He said laughingly as he pushed her out and over the ledge, one finger curled around the new diamond necklace. It snapped off staying in his hand and her screams of “NOOOO!” went ignored by all in the room. He tossed the jewels to the guards an announced, “The king is dead."
It was after the marauders raged and the neighbor’s dogs, hungry, ran in packs. It was after the soldiers had pillaged the land foraging for supplies. It was after they cleared the farms of people and taken their children. They had marched over the land like a sharpened scythe cutting the frightened population down. They moved as swiftly and easily as if the fleeing families were no more than thin swaying stalks of grain. As if it we’re harvest time. They eventually marched away, their wagons lumbering down the old black road. In the next town, the same panic, grief and destruction would be littered in their wake.
The wind carried the smoke of a wood fire burning across the farm. Jackson, the baker’s apprentice stole into a barn quickly and quietly, like the white wisps of smoke floating through its cracked planks. That was where he saw her. Her eyes widened with fear, then gave way to sensibility and she shifted ever so slightly, making room for Jackson to join her behind the chopped winter firewood. She leaned closer falling back into his arms. Her beautiful long auburn hair smelled of smoke. It smelled warm, like home, like the fire and desolation that had invaded her world.
Two soldiers walked in to the barn and down a rickety ladder into a root cellar looking for the last remnants of food. Outside the wagons settled into the worn ruts made in the broken patches of the old black road and shambled away. The two soldiers wearing red and white jerkins made of tight boiled leather armor began to climb down the old wooden ladder. I held her tightly as she tried to squirm away and I held it her tightly hoping against the truth that we wouldn’t be found. She broke loose and in one desperate heave pushed hard on the stacks of firewood, they rolled down in a giant heap cracking the skulls and covering the two marauders. She jumped up, lifted a big log and leapt from the ledge, splitting the King gaurd's skull like a ripe summer melon, brain oozed out befouling her toes. The other soldier, his legs severely broken began to scramble away, but like the spirit of vengeance she pinned he arms down, covered his mouth for a full five minutes. Her voice was steady and resonated with vengeance at she methodically counted down the minutes of the young soldier’s life. The young soldier squirmed, scratched at her arms tears flowed down his dirty cheeks, but in the end he was dead like so many others who had called this land home. the land they now called Veteran's Land,
She looked up, around, out the open barn doors and then said calmly “We should go, now.” The sun began to set, readying the land for night to roll its black blanket over the patchwork of farms and burnt out husks of simmering homes. The two strangers ran together over wooden fences through the high stalks of young corn, every step took them farther from the grisly scene at the barn, every danger, every sound caused them to lay flat against the mud and brought them closer. He did not know her name, but he promised himself he would keep her safe. At some place among he patches of soil and manure he thought he had shed his baker’s assistance’s life and took on the role of protector. he thought he had changed. Strong and vigilant against the coming of the night he thought of himself now. The woman, dressed in a filthy white cotton skirt and breezy ankle length skirt led his way. Her auburn hair falling across her shoulders to mid point on her back. She turned back to him, smiled. Her dark eyes alight in the blackness. Her caramel skin smudged with ash and sweat. Jackson reached out for her hand. She enveloped his in both of hers and said calmly, quietly, “follow me, I live here. We’ll be safe.” He had fled with hundreds of refugees when the soldiers marched through, he wished now he had grabbed some bread that he had taken out of the great stove oven early that morning. He yearned to share everything with her.
She figured the soldiers were camped for the night and would be on their way south come morning. The marauders, rangers, and the army that trailed them had marched away. The boys and men of soldiering age had been conscripted. The girls taken along with the bounty the people of this land had toiled in the hard dirt to spring to life. He thought about the baker and his family that he left behind, they were always nice to him. They took him in as a child after his family had been ravished, then buried by disease. It had left him young and alone but now, he looked ahead at the slight curved outline of the woman in front of him, leading him to safety and thought she would be his family.
Her home was a big, sturdy farm house built on a foundation of flat rocks. The hidden root cellar was a cornucopia of food, stored away year after year by a careful, prudent family. The months passed and Autumn drifted through her farm and valley on light cool winds. The leaves changed to hues of golden rust, auburn reds and humble yellows. Often they would walk the dirt path through the rows of ripe corn towards the deep valley and into the thick forests that covered her, our land he began to think. She had found some of her livestock wandering the forest and standing quietly munching yellow grass on the valley floor. He enjoyed their walks, the way she playfully jumped frozen cow patties and giggled each time she landed. She would spread her hands and bow to me, her captivated audience. At night she would lie quietly on the hard wood in front of the fire and sketch her memories on the thick, rough paper she had stored in a bottom drawer. Often they would fall asleep on soft blankets in front of the dying fire. Holding each other tightly, making love gently, whispering until their words trailed off and fluttered in to the land of dreams.
Her name was Evageline and she was happy with him. He knew that about her, but little more. They rarely saw the neighbors, the winter had settled in and families that had survived stayed anonymously within their homes. Tending to their wounds physical and more, new families had come and taken over the lands. Hard men, soldiers he figured. The women and children that came with them were lighter skinned, some white, with blond, brown or red straight hair, the accent a laughing sing song, words slightly different but they were families. The children played together at midwinter feasts, men talked guardedly at first and quickly became friends over cups of warm spiced wine. The seasons turned over five times and their part of the world rolled back into the life of a small country town. Jackson worked the fields, held his young son by the hand and watched with pride as Evangeline would show them both how to milk goats and cows, how to pull carrots from the soft earth. The boy's smile would screw up; imitating his mother when she would pull a gnarled dirt caked carrot instead of a smooth pointed one from the fertile garden. He filled the house each weekend with the warm smell of baking bread. They made a comfortable home and they made memories that he clung to like a tether during the desperate times that followed.
They knew the war still raged on in the south . Army tax wagons rolled through, they paid their tax in bread and vegetables. Sometimes they would lose a pig or a basket of squawking chickens. They never left us wanting and sometimes even left coin. Money, he would use at the local tavern. On mild nights he would walk the two miles and sit up at the bar listening to dangerous rumors of war and rebellion. Talk of joining up was in the air, something he had never considered until now. “Jackson!” Dennison a hard man, a soldier who had reluctantly taken to farming called to him from across the bar. “You’re a baker!” He stated loudly as a fact. They’ll pay you decent coin, food to eat, away from the fighting. That’d suit you wouldn’t it? He laughed gregariously. Not meaning any harm. He knew Evangeline loved him, she took him into her home, gave him a child, but he wanted, he needed to contribute more.
The morning arrived as usual; sunlight decimated the dark shadows of night and brought warmth to their bedroom, between them their sleeping son, his soft brown curls sticking up from under the warm quilts. “Evangeline.” He always called her by her full name. He thought for some reason that if he shortened it to Eva, it would diminish all that she was. “Evangeline.” He began again,”I’m thinking of joining up, with, with the army.” He stammered. “Just as a cook and just for a four month stint,” he said sliding his hand up her soft arm. They’ll pay well and we could use the money to set up a little bakery, something in town maybe. Something I could apprentice him in.” He whispered lowering his eyes at their quietly sleeping son. “We don’t need it, we’re doing just fine.” She said quietly. Jackson stood up out of bed.” I thought I could borrow some of your father’s clothes, maybe his old sword that’s hanging in the closet downstairs. Just in case, just in case something happens, but I’m sure it won’t.” He added quickly. Their son woke, she clutched him close to her breasts. Standing in the sunlight, Her beauty always stopped him. “If you want to go, she said hollowly. Maybe you could wait until after harvest?” She asked. Jackson jumped at the chance “yes, of course and only a few months then I’ll be right back with a bag full of coins for our future.” Jackson knew his reasoning was real, but secretly, hidden deep within his excuse, he wanted to go. He wanted change. He wanted to share some stories at the tavern instead of sitting quietly as the retired soldiers would laugh over wild exploits and close calls, how they would cheer fallen comrades over full mugs of beer. He wanted to be more than Jackson who used to be the Baker’s apprentice.
The summer went quickly, he had signed up and was scheduled to leave in thirty days. The final day arrived with three hard knocks on the door. The sky was iron grey. The clouds formed hard, thick and dangerous like a great anvil over the house. The wind whipped at the thin layers of clothing that the men at the door wore. Rain drizzled down and dropped from the roof like small tears. Jackson reached in the closet grabbed his traveling bag, and proudly hooked her father’s sword to his belt. He had never asked, but when he reached up to push a lock of auburn hair out of her eyes, he asked. He knew she had a brother, a father, parents. He touched the sword “Where’d he go?” he asked a question he had avoided these last five years. She looked up; the sadness deep in her tearless eyes tore at him. She shook her head slowly, kissed Jackson full on the lips and said in a hushed tone. He’s lost.