Friday, 15 January 2010
Just over a year ago I told you that I'd written a short story, in response to a challenge from a local writing group. After blogging about it (and getting some helpful words from others in my writing group) I duly threw the PDF up on my website, and haven't looked at it since.
I'd like to dust it off and make it better (did I ever mention leaving things for a while before editing them? This is what I mean....), and probably a little longer since I'm no longer constrained by 1500 words. This has had a very quick once-over since I wrote it, and I'll be looking at it seriously over the next couple of weeks... if anyone has any thoughts on how it could be improved, please tell me. Short is not my strength; I need your help!
Suggestions for titles also encouraged - the current title was the prompt given by the writing group.
Mart cursed as he lost his footing on the frozen ground for the fourth time that morning, and couldn't suppress a yelp of pain as his tailbone slammed into the ice.
"This is a fool's errand," he muttered as he got to his feet. "Remind me again why I agreed to this?"
"Because if we can't sort it out, Charan's just going to keep ordering more men to come and die up here," Anton replied somewhat brusquely. They'd had this conversation before, in many forms, and the ever-increasing cold wasn't improving either of their moods.
Mart sighed. "We've allied ourselves with an idiot."
They trudged on in silence, making their way gradually higher into the mountains. Their pace slowed as they reached a patch of fresh snow, sinking almost to the waist with every step.
"At least we're dressed for it," Anton said, bending to lace his knee-length boots more tightly against leaks. "Better than the advance party."
"Because that young upstart has no idea how to equip an army, how to look after his men, how to plan an expedition... In fact, I'm not convinced he could find a flagon in an ale-house."
"Maybe." In the privacy of the forest, far away form home, Anton could admit to thoughts he'd never voice in Conclave. "But he's got most of the archipelago behind him. Flying Rock holds a good enough position against haphazard marauders, but Charan's playing a different game. Best to get in on this at the beginning."
"Even if it means coming on this kind of halfwit mission." Mart had never learnt to dampen his cynicism even for show; he certainly wasn't about to moderate himself when he was alone with an old friend. "And what if it doesn't work - what then?"
"Charan keeps sending ill-equipped armies up here until he wipes out these people one by one, or-"
"You misunderstand," Mart interrupted. "I mean this whole 'Empire' undertaking. What if it fails?"
Anton shrugged. "Then I suppose we go back to how we were."
"Might be no bad thing." Mart longed for the good old days, like his teenage years when his only job was to load the catapult while Anton held it tensioned ready for the next shot. Easy days, none of this responsibility sitting heavy on his shoulders. He'd never asked for this.
They stopped for lunch as a new flurry of snowflakes began to drift down; they found a fallen tree to sit on, pulled their fox-fur cloaks tightly around their shoulders and shared out half of the day's allotted rations. They'd been walking for three days since the path had become too steep and too icy for horses; reports from the few survivors of previous missions suggested that they had another day and a half ahead of them before they reached whatever passed for civilisation in this part of the world. This time tomorrow they'd have to slow down and concentrate on moving quietly as they approached the settlement, trying to keep the element of surprise on their side as long as possible. The others had underestimated these wild mountain men, but Mart and Anton were among the finest of the battalion which guarded Flying Rock Island - and of Venncastle, the school being founded within the walls of the Keep. They were determined not to make such elementary mistakes.
They ate quickly, getting little enjoyment from their food; the rations were starting to feel monotonous. The dry bread and heavily salted meat made them thirsty, and they scooped up handfuls of snow to supplement the water from their flasks.
As they got to their feet the ground seemed to shift around them and a dozen blonde-haired, well-built men appeared as if from nowhere, dressed in cloaks of white fur which had camoflaged them against the snow. They formed a circle surrounding their captives, a loaded crossbow in every man's grip.
Mart reached instinctively for his knife, but Anton extended a hand to stop him just short of drawing the blade - a move which could well have been suicide.
"We mean you no harm," Anton said quickly, wondering how the mountain men had crept up on them so silently even through the snow and undergrowth of the forest. Skills like that could be valuable back home. "May I speak with your leader?"
One of the strangers leaned in towards his neighbour and whispered something, then turned back towards the others and snapped, "Bind them!"
Four men stepped out of formation and the others moved up to fill the gaps in the circle, spaced slightly more widely now but still presenting a wall which looked all but impenetrable. The four slung their bows across their backs, and brought out lengths of thick rope from beneath their cloaks.
Mart glanced at Anton, questioning. They were unlikely to survive a fight, but allowing themselves to be tied like slaves went against all his military instincts - better to face certain death than to surrender like this.
Anton had no trouble understanding the plea behind his old friend's meaningful look -- this was distasteful to him, too -- but responded with a very slight shake of his head. With darts they might manage to take down half of their captors before they were riddled with crossbow bolts, but no more, and there was no chance they'd survive the experience. Their deaths would serve no-one.
They allowed their wrists and ankles to be lashed tightly, ropes cutting into their skin, then one of the mountain men patted them down and removed their weapons before they were lifted and hauled up the hill like animal carcasses.
The party spent the night in a small cave which was obviously used as a regular staging post, complete with a supply of firewood and furs to sleep under. They stopped just as darkness fell, and moved off again at first light the next morning, Mart and Anton still being carried by their captors.
"If you free our feet, we can walk," Anton said.
"You'd only slow us down - you don't know how to move through the snow."
Anton was insulted by the suggestion that he'd slow the group down more by walking than by being a burden on one of their backs, but he said nothing. He didn't want to upset anyone, and although it was an uncomfortable way to be carried he could at least conserve his energy for later. He forced his muscles to relax, allowing himself to be moved as a dead weight.
They came to the village shortly after midday, and Mart and Anton were deposited unceremoniously in a small wooden cabin and left alone.
Mart shuffled himself into an awkward sitting position, leaning against the wall of the cabin. "What now?"
"Now we wait," Anton said. "I don't like this any more than you do, but if we're going to get through to these people we'll have to play it their way."
"Bound up like slaves," Mart muttered. "Not a whit of dignity left. How can we expect them to take us seriously?"
His monologue was interrupted by the entrance of another tall, blonde native.
"Why are you here?" the man asked. Like the others, he was carrying a crossbow; like the others, he held the bolt ready to fire. "Have we not made it clear that we wish no dealings with your so-called Empire?"
"We've come to negotiate," Anton said. "Charan's been stupid, sending armies up here as if he could conquer the mountains. But there are things we could teach one another, food supplies from the plains that could be brought up here, jobs you might enjoy down in the cities - a better quality of life for every one of your men."
"You think our lives lack quality?"
"The Empire holds variety you could only dream of," Anton said, getting into his stride now. "No-one would force you to move, but you'd have the choice, you'd have options that you don't have now."
The man loosed his bolt straight towards Anton's heart, reloaded his weapon, and turned his attention to Mart. "And you?"
Mart watched the blood seeping from his friend's chest. Where had all the smart talking got poor Anton?
"I didn't want to come," he said flatly. "I've told them enough times it's bloody madness - you can't force folks to agree when they don't. And for me, I'd have taken a man's death when your men popped up from the snow, not this humiliation. I don't care if you shoot me, but at least let me stand on my own two feet."
"You don't share your colleague's commitment to bring us into the Empire?"
"Not really. Wouldn't be part of it myself if there'd been a choice, but our island couldn't have withstood a lengthy campaign - they'd just have sieged us. Up here, though - you've the weather on your side, and the higher ground, and apparently a good set of watch-men. Why would you give in?"
The blonde man studied Mart for a long moment, then set down his bow and pulled out a knife.
"We're simple hunters here," he said. "We would use your knowledge in the fight to come. I can offer you my sanctuary, if you'll teach us your skills."
Mart nodded, and the man sliced the ropes that held his hands and feet. The Empire was nothing but folly anyway; when it fell under the weight of its own stupidity he could return to his fellows at the Keep of Flying Rock. For now, there were worse places to be.