One Stone, Chapter 4

The city of Timoritia was no island. It was on an island, but a very big island, an island so large it had multiple countries on it. Timoritia was the capital city of the Kingdom of Tiber, which was itself the prime nation on the Island of Arat. Arat had, depending on the weather, at least two other countries within its borders, including the ever-rainy Llewya to the western coast, and the eternal warfront of Hadrian to the north. Technically, there were other small principalities, baronies, and remote kingdoms on the main island, but as time had moved on, all but the most active of revolutionaries had accepted the local word for ‘king’ just meant the same thing as the Tiberan word for ‘baron,’ lest it suddenly come to mean the same thing as the Tiberan word for ‘target.’

But Tiber did not end at the edge of the island! For across both sides of Tiber’s shores there were islands whose people sent coin back to Timoritia. They held docks, where ships broke harbour and made for the wide and open lands of other nations, claimed and constructed in the wilderness in the name of Tiber!

Thus Timoritia was the city at the heart of a nation, most important to an island, at the centre of a trade network, which itself held an empire, which controlled, by coin or by gun, roughly a third of the entire world.

The Tiberan empire was large, and the further one travelled from Timoritia, the less stability one could find. Out around the crests of far-off lands, towards the Jeru Salem, there were cities that called themselves Tiberan. There were people there, born on desert shores, who wore silks and ate dates and figs, and who had never felt rain that lasted from sunrise to sunset, who traded in Tiberan coin and spoke the Tiberan tongue, and considered themselves Tiberan citizens. Strung like beads on a necklace, these cities defended themselves against invasion, fought back, claimed territory, fell again, in an ever-increasing, elaborate dance, a cycle that constantly called brave warriors and generals from Timoritia’s military colleges and training yards to come, a single Tiberan penny on a loop around their throats, to these far-off places, to make war to defend borders of their homeland – some ten thousand kayems from where they were born.

*

“Be not sorrowed, those that pass me by,” rose a lilting, gentle voice, in the quiet solace of the trench. The worst of the day’s sun had passed, and now the criss-crossing zig-zagging trench had some shape to it that lent a shadow down, in where the troops could walk and stand and wait, somewhere out of scorching sun that made the metal buckles of a uniform feel like little bullets too-near the skin. Someplace to sit and drink water cooled on the pan on the floor, in the dark, check who had made it through the day, and sing the songs that spoke of heather and holly, rather than deserts and death.

“Oh shut the hell up.”

Well, some wanted to sing those songs.

Vince adjusted his cap and sat on his gunny – a sack stuffed carefully with everything he owned on the journey in a way to make a decent pillow-or-seat – with a sour expression. His had been the song, and he had been quite intent on soaring on those words – but politeness was baked in deep to his bones, and when someone told him to shut up, he did it without thinking. Then, in the quiet and polite way of a young man, he fumed at Leigh for telling him to be quiet. His seat was still partly in the sun, while the smaller woman, uniform sleeves rolled down despite the heat, pressed herself against wooden slats next to him trying to avoid the viperlike sting of the sky.

“You’re not bothered by the sun? You goddamn reptile,” spat his compatriot, scrubbing her hand through her white hair. Leigh barely had made the height to sign up, but she’d fought for every cim she could in the training. White-blonde hair, cut short in a military style bob, she was the kind of young woman who’d spent most of her life overhearing someone saying, ‘if only she’d stop scowling.’ It hadn’t improved her disposition any, and now here she was, in the middle of the desert, firing long guns against entrenched enemies and hoping for some sort of conclusion. “I’m from the north, we don’t handle the sun well.”

Vince considered that, but immediately his expression betrayed a discrepancy. “Aren’t you from Brighaven? That’s barely a half-day north of Timoritia.”

“It’s north of Timoritia!” Leigh shot back.

“Yes, but there are other things that are more north.”

“Like what?”

“Well, just off the top of my head, there’s half of Tiber and all of Hadrian.”

“That’s just a technicality. Also, I hate you.”

Vince considered that, and shrugged his shoulder. The tin cup in his hand was warm, too warm, but the water within it was marginally less so. Everything was about hot fluids these days. Once upon a time, he’d signed up because it was a nice sounding job in an office that involved tracing paths for mines and machines. When ‘Royal Engineers’ had been commissioned to start placing those mines and machines, everything about the job had become immediately less desirable. A trace of islander blood in him had given him a tolerance for the sun and an olive complexion, further contributing to his paler compatriot’s belief that he was some sort of reptile capable of living on sunlight.

“They hate us.”

Vince and Leigh both looked up at that voice. She’d come over the top, dragging a chain and a gun back from the Land of None twice in the day, and when she’d landed the second time, it was still and silent. Vince had checked on her, found her unconscious, and probably not dying, and let her be. Better unconscious, really – if she’d gone over the top twice, that was twice more than most soldiers were willing to go. Sometime after the fighting had died down, she’d hunkered down next to the heavy gun, which cast its shadow with the wall’s, and hid there like a feral cat.

“Hello,” Vince said, “Are you okay?”

The woman dragged in a ragged breath and planted one hand on her gun, pulling herself up to standing with a rattle of chains. “I’m out in the middle of nowhere being shot at and spat on by people who don’t like dogs,” she said, as if that made some sort of coherent sense. “I’m fucking dandy.”

Leigh narrowed her eyes as the redhead stood, and quietly cursed her for being taller – and for having a big cool scar across her cheek, and shoulders, and a bigger gun. Leigh thumped her shoulders back against the wood. “You think they hate us?” she asked, gesturing with the tip of her rifle to the edge of the trench.

The redhead squinted over at Leigh – a white outline in the gloom of the shadow, with her bright hair and pale skin – and seemed about to speak before all the wind in the world was sucked away.

“They don’t hate us, me law,” came a monstrous bellow, “they’re fighting us because we’re over here, and we’re fighting them because they’re over there.” It wasn’t even a bellow. To every soldier in that trench, it was the bellow.

General Yull Bachthane, the Mad Qisar of Timoritia, was walking the trench.

Easily two hundred cims tall and eighty-five wide at the shoulder, Yull stood like he was waiting for the world to blink. Half the generals of the Tiberan army were hundreds of miles away, communicating via rolled cables to the front, but here he was, leading every charge and going over the top like he was made of mere flesh and bone just like everyone else. Over the Top? Quite appropriate really – everything about the man was over the top. Vince remembered being taught very carefully as a child to use his ‘inside voice,’ but in the time he’d been serving under General Yull, he’d become convinced that Yull hadn’t even heard of inside. Lords knows he’d never been seen there – always out on porches, or near tents, with a gun nearby. Hell, Yull still wore his sword, and he used it. Even his head seemed to be perpetually in the middle of a vast war with outdoors – he didn’t seem to sheen or sweat even in the heat. With nothing but his skin to protect him, Yull protected himself with his uniform, sometimes a brace, never a helmet, and an enormous black, bushy black beard, which right now he had tied up and soaked in water.

Water!

Water he was carrying in a large, heavy milk can one-handed. A can that had been in officer’s storage, built into one of the bunkers, underground, in the cool, closed air, until the battle broke. Water that was cold. Water that he was-

“Cups up now, law, I don’t want you spilling the good shit,” the general of a dozen wars laughed, tipping the can out into Vince’s cup. “You two, got a – that’ll do,” he laughed, as the pair frantically hauled out their cups. You didn’t look good fortune in its face, as he poured out water.

Leigh was halfway through her cup in one gulp when she looked up at the general, briefly resented him for having far too much height for any one person to ever need, then let gratitude at the taste cold water well up in its place. “We doing well, General?”

Yull leant to the side and peered at the top of the trenches. “Truth be told? It’s a pig’s arse out there. They’re confused, think they lost a general. I don’t like a panicky enemy like that – hard to get a surrender out of ‘em.”

“Surrender?” Leigh coughed in her water. “I thought we were here for the Holy Land, sir.”

Yull set the milk can down in the shade, rubbing the backs of his hands and adjusting his gloves – expensive, hard leather ones, made by some Timoritian shop for a general’s son who would, in turn become a general, then hand them on to his son who would become a general, and stand in this trench, in this time, in this place. “No, that’s why I’m here, law. I’m here because there’s a push and there are nobles and knights. You’re here,” he said, pointing over the trenches, away from the front. “Because ten kayem back there, there’s the city of Bartholomew and there’re fourteen thousand souls there.” Then he pointed the other way. “Five kayems there, they’ve got the city of Bre’Tush, and last count I heard, eight thousand souls.”

A hollow laugh from the redhead interrupted.

Yull adjusted his tunic, then reached down to pick up the milk can. “Remember, the other bastard’s here because we’re here. We’re not trying to wipe them out. We’re trying to hit them hard enough that they don’t want us to hit them any more, y’hear?” He punctuated the hopelessness with a loud laugh that somehow made what he said sound hopeful.

Just as the general was about to continue his long walk along the trenches, though, a hammering of feet came from behind him. Hard shoes on pressed earth, jingling of keys and cables – it was a messenger, not a soldier.

“General Yull!”

The massive man turned, stroking his beard with one hand while he waited for the messenger to catch up. A few moments to breathe, in the impossible heat, before he raised his chin to the messenger. “Report.”

The messenger held out a metal tube, “Express path, General Yull, all the way from Timoritia. It’s the Vox Coronate – sir, they’re calling you back. They’re calling us back.” And it was impossible to hide the hope in his voice. Valiant and true, stout and brave, whatever terms a soldier wanted to earn, they all seemed earned enough the second morning he woke up in mud that was more blood than water.

Three soldiers and a messenger stood silent while they watched their General, their commander, the Lion of Timoritia, holding the thin film of paper in his hand. Not a one of them was old enough to remember a military that wasn’t defined by General Yull, the Mad Lion of the North Rush. They learned in basic training, techniques with a rifle and a trench that he had invented.

Yull was a man they all knew to stand at the front of a charge, and to never retreat. In the burning sunset of a nation they’d never known, though, it was awful hard to care about the glory of the Tiberan Empire, and more about the hopes a soldier could have for a cold drink, fresh socks, and a soft bed.

Yull scratched at his beard, finger vanishing into it, while he folded up the paper and tucked it away. Then, his decision made like a crack in the earth, he wheeled one arm, and bellowed, voice fit to tear the sky. “For fucks’ sake! Alright, law! Drag up! Fall back!” he turned and his crimson cloak, tattered at the edges and burned at the bottom, swirled about him with great drama. “Every sword, back to the line!” massive metal feet thundered through the mud, sending waves that boomed. “We’re falling back to Bartholemew!”

There wasn’t any hesitation from the four standing with him, running to fall in step behind him, following in the trenches. “Are we waiting on reinforcements, General?”

“Arse to that,” the massive Lleywan roared. “You soldiers? Grab your gunnysacks! The Coronate wants me back in Timoritia personally, and we’ll move faster without the army. The swords here will hold just fine – hell, under Casten, they’ll probably just siege up and be done in a few weeks anyway.” Spitting fire, his fists clenched, he pointed at the messenger. “You. How far’d you come?”

“Um, me, sir? I’ve been riding four days–“

“Good! Then you’ve the best path out of here. Come on, me law, we’re heading out of here.”

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