After the Empire
Roland Allnach, 2008
Published in The Armchair Aesthete, Summer 2008
The soldier, he sits on the rough, dry turf of a hill overlooking a city. It is not any city, it is the city of his youth, the city whose sky he opened his eyes to with his first breath. But that was some years ago, when the city, like his newborn days, bustled with vibrant life. Now, though, it had…changed, yes, changed was the word he settled on as he stared at the now ghostly ruins beneath the setting light of a gray, chilly day. The watch fires along the city walls sat unlit and neglected; the gates had been carelessly left open. The temple chimes, once melodious in the summer evening breezes, were ominous with their absence. Crows broke the still silence with their harsh, intermittent squawks; it only reinforced the unmistakable odor of death rising from the once crowded streets where the aromas of a dozen exotic imported spices had drifted up from many cooking fires. And it reminded him as well of those better days when he had marched off with so many others to the promises he had been sold of glorious conquest, prosperous lands, and wealth to line his warrior’s purse.
The gnawing hollow of his belly served as a silent mockery to those memories. Of his comrades, his fellows he had marched with, they 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 in his gut he believed they would ride a tide of fury upon the city like none that had been seen before, for he felt he, like so many others, had woke the wrath of the gods with vain boasts of immortal glory and enduring empire. Yet in the beginning, who was to have known how it would turn out? Where were the oracles who did not bless the effort, where were the elders who did not counsel a different path, where were the planners and officials who thought that perhaps their efforts would not carry the day? Gone now, 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, they were a fool’s charade, he told himself. Where was the space for regret? Did it matter? He knew what was following his return to the city, and 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.
With a grunt he stood. He was saddle sore, even though his mount had collapsed and died the day before. His feet ached in his worn boots. His dull and dented armor hung from his half starved body; his dull sword dangled from his belt beneath his filthy blue cape, so dirty it was almost brown. He took his water sack from his belt and raised it high to drain the last drops before tossing it aside.
And with that, he shuffled down the hill, into the delirious delusion of a dead city.
* * *
He woke, coughing, to find himself sitting against a pillar along the old parade grounds. Between the looming clouds in the night sky he could discern a few scattered stars, their pale light seeming so lost and lonely in the vast emptiness of the grounds. It seemed another life when he had stood there with thousands of others before the king and the decorous arms and armor of the nobles who extolled the city’s strength: 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, to be saved from themselves, to be shown the light of the city and its ways and the might those ways had bestowed upon the city. But it would not be this way: the further the march and the more tribes defeated, it 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 had made his escape, turning his horse and driving it relentlessly until the screams and dreadful clamor were behind him. But even though the horror of the slaughter tingled along his spine as he rode, it was not the greater part of what had shattered his will and left him a ghost of a man: it was the bitter memory of his own hand, his own voice, condemning others who had deserted the effort in its early darkening days.
In those moments of his flight, how he had wished, how he would have given anything, anything, to have had even one of those fellows by his side, to have anyone at his side. Yet in the lonely depths of that horrible irony he did not see himself as a hypocrite, rather, he still saw himself as a rational, loyal soldier of the city. The effort was lost. He had been trained as a leader that it was his responsibility not to waste the resources, the 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 had been complimented by his superiors. He had protected his men. He loved his men. Yet on that last horrible day he had rode off. He knew his men were lost; 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 then, that day, by riding off? Was there any sense to lay down- no, throw away- his life like the rest on that field of stupid futility? Protect the city. It was not desertion. It was his responsibility, and it was all that remained to him.
He was a rational, loyal soldier. The effort was lost, so he would protect the city.
Alone…and with a dull sword.
He closed his eyes and rested his head back.
* * *
He coughed. He rubbed his face, opening his eyes to peer between his fingers.
He whipped out his sword.
The woman before him fell back a step. She held a hand up, the other clutching her shawl against the chill of the night. “Sir-”
“Do you have a horse?” he demanded, his voice coarse for lack of water.
She studied him for a moment before answering. “I have water,” she said softly. “When will the rest of you arrive?” she asked, her eyes wide and eager.
He rose to his feet and sheathed his sword. “The water?”
Her eyes swelled on him. “Where are your men?”
“Water,” he ordered once more.
They stared at each other. Eventually she relented and stepped away, but kept her eyes on him as she led him off. They walked between several ransacked houses, large ones in the once prestigious area beside the parade grounds, until she slipped into a dark doorway. “This way,” she hissed.
He hesitated, his eyes narrowing as he peered into the darkness.
“There is a well,” she explained. “There is a well in here, in this lord’s house. I am his servant. I have been watching it, keeping it safe- waiting for his return. He is a leader of many men. Many men,” she repeated.
“And this lord’s family?” he asked.
She stared at him with a wide gaze. Her lips settled to a small straight line before she gave a quick, short sweep of her hand to the ground. Then she took a step towards him, one that made him lean back in wariness. Her eyes darted about. “They were hording,” she whispered, as if it were still a valuable secret. “People came. Took them. Ate them.” She nodded her head and pointed to his sword. “It’s only me now, Sir. I have things. I…I could share things. I could share them with you. I could share many things with you, I…I would give myself to you, if you would just give me a soldier’s oath to watch me, just as I have watched this water for you, and for my lord’s, return.”
He swallowed, horrified by her words, even after all he had seen and endured. 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, and then it was gone. She smiled. “Follow,” she said and stepped inside.
He hesitated, but in his desperation, 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 to her as she stood across the well from him. “Thank you,” he forced out between breaths. She nodded, but he had looked away, his eyes roaming the little courtyard. He could almost imagine it as it must have been in better days, but now under the stark starlight it was nothing but empty shadows. By one doorway, though, he noted a bow and a quiver of arrows. He looked back to the woman. “You have weapons here?”
“It was the huntsmen’s bow. He was killed when the family was taken.”
His brow furrowed as he considered the bitter irony of that fate, but then he coughed and remembered himself. “Can you use the bow?”
Her lips settled to a small tight line once again. “He was my husband.”
He looked down and nodded.
She pursed her lips. “There’s nothing else here then, for you.”
“I need a horse,” he replied. Before she could answer, he began coughing again, hunching over with the spasms of his chest.
She laid her shawl over her mouth. “You have the sickness, the sickness from the plains, don’t you? I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it too many times. The king, his family, they all had it, like so many others who staggered back here in the last weeks. They all died. You, you’re-”
He clenched a fist and pounded it on the rim of the well to silence her. He forced himself up straight and caught his breath. “The horse masters across the river; do they still have their stables?”
She shook her head. “Nobody goes to the other side of the city.”
“Do they have their stables?”
Her eyes widened. “You will find nothing there but madness,” she retorted. “The few who remain there, they ride out, ride out into the rest of the city, and feed on who 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, they are coming, yes? 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 what has been left to us. There is no one left to man the walls; no one left to even close the gates, to protect our city. The rest of your men- my lord and his men- they are coming, are they not?”
He stared at her, silent to the delusion he saw beneath her questions. Her power of denial, though, he found no less seductive than he had found 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 denial, despite his fatalism. He coughed and took a step.
She grabbed his arm. “Wait, please! I beg you! I...my lord’s stable-”
He glared at her, his patience fading. “Where?”
She pursed her lips, her eyes blinking.
He clenched his teeth. “Where?”
She lifted her hand from his arm, but then grabbed his wrist and quickly led him down a labyrinthine series of walkways. Familiarity guided her; it was so dark he could not 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 it he put his hand on her shoulder and with gentle force pushed her aside so that he could gaze at the pristine condition of the banner. With trembling hands he stepped forward and ran his fingers along its length before turning back to her.
“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I know he’s but a sickly pony-”
He looked back to the banner. “I’m going to take this,” he said slowly. “And your pony,” he added, glancing at her.
She studied him as he took the banner from the wall, rolling it with care as he went. She faded into the shadow of the doorway. “There are no other men,” she said, finally understanding. “And still you would ride?”
He turned to her with the folded banner in his hands. He coughed. “Yes. One last time.”
Her gaze bore into him. “The cough is not all that has infected you.”
His eyes narrowed on her.
To read the rest of "After the Empire", visit http://www.rolandallnach.com/Read%20the%20Stories.htm#jump%20for%2011