July 6, 2008

Barbarians at the Gate

Posted in stories tagged at 7:50 pm by littlesubmissions

“Bad news?”

“A messenger arrived. We’ll not see any troops for at least five days. Longer if they have trouble fording the river.” The heir to the Castle Riverbend – no, the Lord of Castle Riverbend since his father died of sepsis from an arrow wound – slammed a fist into the heavy oak table. Parchment jumped and an ink well toppled, a black stain spreading across an old map of the countryside, obliterating towns and castles, erasing forests and rivers.

She sighed and closed bloodshot eyes, pulled her hair back tighter, her fingers working around the knots and rat nests rather than pulling them out. “I have an idea.”

“Is it the idea I had two days ago? About the women and children getting on horses and getting the hell out of here? Because it’s too late for that now, you’ll just die with saddle sores. The horde will be here this afternoon.” His laughter had a sick, hollow sound.

She snorted, “It was too late for that then. The army took all the fast horses, we’d have been fleeing on old nags and mules, though I’m sure the barbarians would have appreciated the jest while they let their young use us for target practice.” She carefully marked her place in an ancient, leather bound book and set it down, waiting patiently.

He closed his eyes and lay his head down on the table, asked her what her plan was. At least he could find some comfort in her voice while he contemplated his death. Her voice was low and soft, but confident. “They respect strength. If we show them our men are strong enough, they’ll leave. The only question is, how strong are you? How strong are the men of this castle?”

Hours later he opened his eyes to watch the sun set, and cursed his pride again. His father had warned him it would be his undoing, and it appeared he could now number prophecy among the old man’s gifts. He looked around at the home he was sure he would lose, the men lined up on the ramparts, and his lip curled into a gallows grin when he thought that at least he wouldn’t have long to remember his mistake.

And neither would anyone else, except the strange horsemen whooping and riding their ponies around the castle, standing on the saddles and firing whistling arrows through loops of grass tossed in the air by children. They had been arriving for hours, but would wait until the entire horde was here to take the castle. Over one hundred men for every one of his, an army to take a pile of stone that no one cared about but the people who lived in and around it.

A forgotten keep from a forgotten war that would soon be forgotten.

Darkness came, and he welcomed it. His men had looked at him as if he were mad when he told them the plan, and he had feared mutiny. Afraid that they would insist on dying on the arrows, throwing their lives away, but the arrival of the horde had changed all that. Suddenly, the more outrageous the plan, the more it seemed to make sense, to offer some chance of survival.

Desperate times often call for truly mad ideas, and if this plan had anything going for it, it was the sheer insanity at its core. As more than one man had ruefully observed, it was the last thing the horde would expect.

When the darkness was total, the women locked the children in the inner keep, and it began.

The horde heard the cracks of whips, the miniature sonic booms preceding the wet splat of leather hitting flesh. The horde sentries roused themselves, tried to see up to the top of the castle walls. The shadows up there were moving, dancing and crashing into each other, pausing, then starting again, a hundred or more at once all beating out a measure cadence.

The sounds continued, occasionally changing to the sharp hiss of a cane or the shorter swooshing arc of a cat-o-nine tails. Always with that same measured beat, always ending with the sound of flesh being torn and broken.

The night got darker.

The sounds continued, and a curious noise filled the night air. It was a wet sound, an organic sound, like soft rain water pooling and pouring down a leather helm. It filled the night, and the horde, wide awake now, found it familiar but more terrifying than the sound of the torture from the castle.

One dropped to his belly in the summer grass, crawled forward slowly, cautiously, and found the castle walls. The smell hit him just as he ran a hand along the stone. Coppery and bitter, he ran back to his companions shaking his hand. The torches they brought only confirmed what he knew. Blood was running down the castle walls.

By the time the sun began to peek over the horizon, the entire horde was awake, in their saddles, many standing in their stirrups to try and see what was happening on the walls of the castle.

Sunlight crept across them, until the vague outlines turned into the men of the castle on the walls. They were kneeling, their clothes torn to ribbons. Blood poured out, and in places the pale hint of bone showed through their shredded clothing. Chunks of dried leather clenched in their mouths bulged around their teeth, and sweat mixed with the blood that pooled around their feet.

The women of the castle stood behind them, whips and canes at their feet, blood splattered on their faces and congealing on their hands, in their hair.

The barbarians pointed, stared, gasped.

The men of the castle stood. From the lowest stable boy to the lord protector, they rose to their feet on shaking legs, blood cracking and popping, wiping salt sweat and blood from their eyes. Their clothes fell apart, or stuck to the blood on the stone of the castle when they rose, and more torn flesh appeared.

They gathered up the weapons at their feet, and stood against the horde. One stepped forward, the most flayed of all. Skin hung in ribbons, blood had caked and matted the hair around his eye until he couldn’t open it.

He drew his sword in salute, and the horde winced as his teeth ground against each other with the pain of moving.

The horsemen stared at the men on the wall. The men on the wall looked at the horsemen.

A sudden snap broke the long silence. One of the horseman rode to the castle wall, dropped a broken arrow before it, and rode back the way he had came. Others followed. Soon the arrows piled at the wall of the castle, and the rising cloud of dust obscured all but the slightest outlines of the horde as it rode back to the East.

Life at the castle returned to normal quickly. There was livestock to be tended, and refugees were still pouring in from places that the barbarians had overrun. Surviving the winter was again the order of the day.

Except that sometimes, usually at night, people would come out and stare at the bloodstains on the castle walls. A few would run their fingers over it, and wonder if it was just their imagination that made it feel warmer than the surrounding stone.

And sometimes, the blood on the wall would be fresh.

Copyright Jerry Jones. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

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