I wrote this piece recently for a writing group exercise, and because I’ve had this short story in my head for a few years. I intended for it to be part of Book 2, but since I’m still polishing Book 1, I think I might use it there as an “interlude”, to steal Brandon Sanderson’s term. In simple terms, these are not my main characters or even on the same continent in the world of my story, but hopefully this short story gives a little more depth and color to the world and conflict of IRE. Enjoy.
ORDENAN SOLDIER INTERLUDE
Rallen Gan breathed deep as his squad’s longboat glided smoothly through the calm, fog-shrouded waters of the bay. The fog was thick enough that he could just see the keel of his boat cut through the small moonlit waves. The mist weighed heavy in his lungs, filled his nostrils with the marine scent of the coastal town. They must be close.
He looked about him, eyeing each of his squad mates. He had fought beside each of them countless times, beating back hordes of poorly armed peasants, the horrific Bound monsters their priests turned them into with their twisted Infused Binder bracelets, and even the dread black Malithii priests themselves once or twice. But none of them had been with him as long as Skinny Jack. Jack had joined the Ordenan Imperial Army in the Dark Nations at the same time as Rallen, and they had fought for their freedom together for the four years since.
Rallen nudged Jack. “Hey, boy. You shouldn’t be here. Your years fighting are up, go home and find yourself a nice willing lass. You’re a full Ordenan citizen now, there’ll be any number lining up for you, even ugly as you are.”
Jack chuckled, teeth bared in the smile that tended to charm women in moments. “You think so, you iron-faced provincial ox?”
Rallen grinned. “I do indeed. Now me, I got a beauty like you’ve never seen waiting for me, a little girl at her skirts. I just have to put in four more years, and all that Ordena has to offer is ours. But you could go back now, you don’t have to fight more years for anybody else.”
“I will, I will. But if I leave now, who’ll haul your sorry ass out of every shit fight we are thrown into? I go home, you’ll be butchered like the pig you are the next day, most like. Then who’ll take care of that beauty of yours back home? I suppose I wouldn’t mind… assuming she hasn’t already found a nice bloke to cozy up to, that is.”
Rallen slugged his friend in the shoulder. “Not my Melia, not while I’m still breathing. ‘Sides, if I die in service to the Empire, she and my sweet girl are free sooner than I could have hoped.” He smiled. “I’d rather just liberate a few of the dread black priests of their heads to earn some years off my time, and stay alive to see them again myself, though.”
Jack shook his head, his long hair swaying. “You do have a death wish. I’ve told you, stay away from those Malithii bastards if we find any in this town tonight. They aren’t usually stupid enough to come into the protected zone themselves, but I’ve seen it once. Not pretty. You are big, and good in a fight, but not that good, especially since the damn commanders didn’t send any Mages. If you want to earn extra time and stay alive, just keep collecting the Binders from their lifeless. We’ve already got enough between us to take a whole year off your time. We’ll have enough for us to go home together in no time.”
Rallen put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, trying to keep emotion out of his voice. “Thank you, Jack.”
Their captain whispered hoarsely from the back of their longboat, “Shut your damn mouths, we’re getting close enough to be heard. Silent approach from here out.”
Rallen looked to Jack, who smirked but kept quiet. The reality of their assault was beginning to set in. They’d been on plenty of raids and defense missions, but something felt different about this one. They’d heard odd stories coming out of this region for some time, odd enough that the Army command should have sent far more than three longboats with ten men each to retake a town of this size.
The rocky shoreline came into view just before they slid to a stop with a muted tinkle of rounded pebbles. Rallen and Jack jumped into the surf to help the squad pull the boat further upshore, and immediately started the boot-squelching march toward the inland side of the small but high-walled port town.
They joined the other two squads at the rally point, a small hill several hundred paces from the wall. The wall and the town within were dark and silent in the still of the deep night, but a thimble of caution was worth a bucket of blood to a soldier, as Jack was so fond of saying.
The scouts of the Ordenan Imperial Army said that a small service gate on the north west side of the wall provided their best point of attack, and if Rallen remembered the map correctly, it should be a straight shot from the hill.
“Rallen, Jack, Stian, Boral! You are on point. Have that door open within ten seconds of arrival, or I’ll stab you myself. You know the plan, each squad clears their targets and we meet back in the main square at dawn,” the Captain called.
Rallen patted Jack on the shoulder, and the four of them were off at a trot. When they reached the gate, Rallen put his big boot through one side, splintering it from its frame with a crash. Jack and the other two ducked through immediately, short spears at the ready. Rallen shoved his spear through a strap in his pack and drew his sword, a heavy, straight blade.
He pulled up short after he sprung through the door when he found himself alone in the dark courtyard of a compound of warehouses that reeked of fish. “Jack?” he called softly.
“Here,” the reply floated through the night.
Rallen scanned the dark courtyard, but couldn’t see anything. “Stupid son of a bitch…” Rallen mumbled, then raised his voice slightly. “Where?”
A light-skinned hand abruptly waved at him from a shadowy alleyway, then disappeared.
Grumbling, Rallen turned back to the broken-down gate, motioning for the rest of the waiting Ordenan troops to fill the courtyard. The men wasted no time in the courtyard. Each squad formed up briefly at the gate and then was gone, marching in silence toward their targets – to clear each building in their portion of the town and move to the next until each was cleared of any enemy militants. If they were lucky, the occupiers would be regular soldiers from the Dark Nations, like their commanders had claimed in the pre-mission briefing. It was going to be a long night – or maybe a short one – if any of the lifebound monsters or their Malithii priest handlers were here.
Rallen fell in at the end of his squad’s column this time, holding his sword at the ready as he slipped out of the warehouse gate. Sporadic torches burned at seemingly random places along the street, their dancing light doing little to alleviate the darkness, but ruining his night vision every time they jogged past one. Finally, they reached their target, the portion of the town consisting primarily of small homes and dingy pubs. They would clear each of the houses – it would likely take all night, and Rallen truly hoped that none of the civilians caused a ruckus and got hurt – but their first target was the big, dark cathedral of the Fallen that dominated their side of the main square. Its ragged spires and crenelations looked to Rallen like the giant fist of some skeletal monster clawing its way free of the earth.
Rallen joined his squad in squatting behind the low wall ringing the cathedral grounds. Captain whispered orders hoarsely. “First four through the door, take the left, second four go right. Last two hold the door.”
Looked like Rallen and Jack on the door, then. Good. This doesn’t feel right. I like being close to a quick exit, he thought.
The Captain led the way, running in a crouch to the large metal doors at the front of the dark, silent building. He tested the door, found it open, and immediately slipped inside, weapon at the ready.
Rallen shook his head involuntarily in the darkness. He didn’t like it. A building like this, in a town occupied by forces that worshipped the Fallen like he drank water? Those doors should have needed a good kicking in, maybe even an axe or hammer to the hinges to bring them down. Every door worth going through in this gods-forsaken land needed kicking down, he’d found.
Nevertheless, he followed the squad inside, where he and Jack took their places just inside the doors in the large, high-ceilinged entry foyer while the rest of the squad cleared the building. Jack set his feet on the left side of the main doors, so Rallen crept over to the right side and stood clutching the hilt of his sword.
A large doorway gaped, empty and black at the other end of the foyer. Rallen stared into the darkness intently, his mind conjuring countless horrors.
A crash and a quickly-stifled scream emanated from the rooms to the left. Jack jumped, Rallen froze for an instant. They started moving at the same time, crossing slowly to the left-hand doorway. Before the reached it, however, the darkness that occupied the doorway directly in front of them writhed and became flesh in the form of two hulking figures stumbling towards them.
Rallen’s blood froze in his veins, then turned to fire, as it always did in a fight. He’d need it, today. He and Jack had faced the monstrous lifebound before, but never even numbers, and certainly not in close, dark quarters.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Jack mumbled, readying his sword and backing toward the doorway. Rallen kept his eyes on the shambling lifebound as he followed suit, backing out the doors and into the yard of the cathedral.
The lifebound followed, hefting their enormous blades like they were light as a feather. Rallen still didn’t like it, but at least out here in the yard, they could see the lifebound enough to fight them, and had space enough that the enormous size of the creatures wouldn’t doom them immediately. One of the creatures was slightly larger than the other, but both towered over Rallen by at least a head, and he was about as tall a man as most had ever met. The moonlight reflected dully off the monsters’ bald pates, sharply from their ugly weapons. Their once-human eyes stared dumbly out from faces that Rallen knew would be a sickly, mottled grey in the light of day.
Jack struck first, whipping his sword at the neck of the lifebound nearest him and retreating before the creature could react. Thick blood splattered on the stones of the walkway, and the monster slowed, but did not stop. It swung its mighty blade, but Jack nimbly stepped aside, leaving the monster’s weapon to clang and spark against the stone where he’d stood.
Rallen was tempted to continue watching his friend’s beautiful swordwork, but he had problems of his own. The larger lifebound stalked within striking distance. He brought his sword up just in time to catch the huge blade. A desperate grunt escaped his lips at the impact, his own considerable muscles straining to stop the monster’s blade. He shoved upward and lashed out with his foot. The kick was not intended to injure – the grey beasts didn’t appear to feel pain – but to create space for Rallen to use his weapon effectively.
He quickly followed the kick with a thrust to the lifebound’s midsection and was rewarded with a sickening crunch as his blade passed through his enemy’s ribcage. He took several rapid steps backward, knowing that the fight wasn’t over.
If he hadn’t been intimately familiar with the lifebound, he would have been amazed that the monster continued forward after a mortal blow. It lurched, slowed by the blood loss, but swung its blade at Rallen with clumsy strength. Rallen stepped out of range, then struck with a mighty overhand blow that severed the lifebound’s head from its corpse in an eruption of thick, putrid blood.
Nauseated, Rallen checked on his friend. Jack still battled his monster, stabbing and moving, stabbing and moving. His way would work, but it would take forever. Luckily, the remaining lifebound has its back to Rallen.
He covered the distance in a few powerful strides and sheared the beast’s sword-arm from its shoulder. Before its arm hit the ground, Jack’s sword ploughed through its neck but stuck when it hit the spine. The monster’s remaining hand grasped at Jack, seeking to crush the life out of him. Rallen roared as he leapt forward, reaching up to hook his fingers in the lifebound’s eye sockets and pull back with all his might. He felt a snap, and the monster’s head rebounded violently when it hit the stone covered ground – Jack’s sword still in it’s neck, blood oozing around a horrendous wound – but still the damn thing clawed toward Jack.
Rallen reversed his sword and planted the point through one of the lifebound’s ruined eyes. It lay still.
Sweat dripped from his brow and his breath came heavy as he leaned down to wrench his friend’s sword from the beast’s neck. “Might want to hang on to that in the future. No good wrestling them.”
Jack gasped a laugh. “Damn things have bones thick as oxen. Thanks, Ral.”
Rallen took a knee to recover the Binder bracelets from the monster’s wrists – Command would pay good money for them, or take time off his service – and to catch his breath for a moment. “Don’t mention it. Just don’t make a habit of it. C’mon, let’s go see what our boys ran into.”
He heaved himself to his feet. Jack followed closely back through the door into the deep darkness of the cathedral of the Fallen. “Captain?” Rallen called softly. “Tomar? Stian?”
He approached the left hand doorway slowly, Jack swinging wide to cover him and get a better view of the room beyond. Something normal man-sized moved just inside the doorway.
Rallen caught the brief glint of moonlight flashing off metal streaking in Jack’s direction. Without thought, Rallen lunged.
Pain lanced through his chest. He hit the ground, hard. He couldn’t breathe. Someone screamed with rage. A cold laugh echoed through the chamber.
Rallen turned his head feebly to see Jack spring toward a shadow, blade raised. No, not a shadow. A dread black priest who met Jack stroke for stroke with a much smaller blade, almost a dagger.
He forgot his pain long enough to feel nothing but fear for his friend. They were going to die, or worse, end up as one of their mindless lifebound monsters, enslaved by evil Binder bracelets. Rallen wished for death to take him before he could be turned, before he had to see his friend be killed. Everyone knew that facing a black priest alone was a sure way to die or be turned.
But to his surprise, Jack wasn’t dead yet. In fact, he seemed to have the upper hand. Still screaming with rage, his blade moved faster and faster, keeping the shadowy priest on its heels. The mind-numbing flurry of activity ended when Jack lunged, thrusting his blade through the priest’s midsection. It hunched over and fell, clawing at the blade impaling it. Dangerous they might be, but they were still subject to the mortal limitations of normal humans.
Jack bent over to retrieve his sword, and cried out, a hand to his thigh. The bastard priest had stabbed his friend, intent on destruction even in the throes of death. Jack hacked at the priest with his sword over and over, until the form lay still.
His friend limped over to him and knelt, inspecting whatever had hit him. “The sumbitch’s sword is stuck in your shoulder, Ral. You saved my life, twice over. No chance of me winning if that bastard has his sword. Can you stand?”
Rallen summoned what strength he had left and surged to his feet, swaying. “Find me a wagon, Jack. I won’t make it twenty paces.” He already felt like he was going to empty his stomach, and the sword stuck in his shoulder hurt like a bitch.
Jack wasted no time on talk. He wrapped Rallen’s wound as best he could around the blade protruding from him, then sprinted away to look for a cart, a horse, anything.
Rallen must have passed out, for the next he knew, he was bouncing along in the back of a haycart outside the town walls, speeding toward the longboats just as fast as Jack could lead the cart horse.
“Jack!” Rallen called, but he couldn’t put enough force behind it for Jack to hear him. He lay back, closed his eyes, and tried to focus on anything but the pain radiating from his shoulder. His wife’s face, and his daughter’s floated to him from the warm depths of cherished memory, and for a time he lost himself in them, their look, their feel, their smell. It was almost as if he were with them again. He missed them so much.
“Ral! Rallen Gan, don’t you damn dare go on me yet, I just hauled your huge ass out of that town and onto this longboat, and there’s a healer on the galley. We’re no more than a quarter hour away, even with me rowing meself. Just hang on.”
Rallen reached out from where Jack had set him on a bench of the longboat. He grasped with the hand that still worked until he found Jack’s leg and gripped with all the power he had left to him. He felt the blood from Jack’s own considerable wound, warm as it trickled over his fingers. “Jack,” he grunted. “Find my girls, Jack. Keep them safe, keep them happy.”
He closed his eyes.