Continuing the series about the fall of the Pyanni Empire, in this story, we go to the front lines, where it is hard to believe they are winning this war.
Photo credit: One Lucky Guy
To start at the beginning: Table 1
…is maple, the smooth oiled surface bare and blond, painted reliefs of corn stalks and squash marching along the border and down the legs. Each pair of legs is joined with a central brass pin and attached by hinges, to fold up for transport. Half the table is covered by a painted black board, a map of the battle field marked out in chalk.
The folding chair behind the table is darker, more ornate. A gray-haired man sits stiffly, stretching his aching back, trying to look taller, more like a commander.
The table does not belong to him, a fact repeatedly insinuated by those standing around it. It belongs to the high aesor—son of the Taen of Rasqearo, third in line for the throne, and technically still commander of this army. The commander remembers holding his cousin’s boy on his naming day, before she became taen. Now the aesor lies helpless again, surrounded by healers, battling the gray fever.
Early on, the aesor had periods of clarity. He asked for updates, gave commands. Now, when he does wake, he is incoherent. The commander knows what the healers won’t admit. If the aesor was going to recover, he would have done so two months ago.
The troops still follow the aesor, still have faith he will return. His death would splinter this precarious unity. The healers beg patience, keeping the aesor alive with their spells, praying for a cure. The commander realizes he is a strategist, not a leader. He gives the healers all the time they want.
In public, he tells a happier story. Says the aesor seems strong today. Says the aesor is proud of the troops. Says anything he can to keep this army together for another day.
* * *
When the commander agreed to come on this mission—as though his cousin gave him a choice—he was fourth in line for command. Nobody expected him to be sitting in this chair, least of all him.
They planned for one winter. Eight months at most. Now they are neck-deep into the third blistering summer. And he is stuck at this table, surrounded by captains who would rather run into battle screaming at each other than agree on a reasonable plan. They swarm too close, jabbing at the map board, sparring over old grievances.
The commander stops listening and gazes outside, past the rolled-up front flap. He came here as a young man long ago, before the war came to Antaroan, when the Tandonni still held off the magruks far to the north. He recalls the purple grasses flowing on the hills like waves, the paper-leaved trees whispering in the wind, the running herds of wild brownbucks. Now all he sees is parched dirt and charred stumps.
The high commander says the Pyanni are winning the war. The last magruk companies will soon be broken, the stragglers chased down and killed.
This commander wonders what it feels like to fail, if this is success.
Everyone he trained with is dead. All his friends, much of his family. The gallows are full of deserters. The sick tents outnumber the barracks. So few healers against all this injury, all this disease. For those cursed by the magruks with gray fever, they try increasingly unlikely treatments. Nothing changes. They die, or not, as the gods wish. The commander tries not to resent those who recover. Why them and not the aesor? He orders them to cover up with scarves and sleeves and longer skirts, even in this heat. The scabs from the boils are gruesome, and the scars, not much less so. Nobody needs the reminder.
Worse are those who survive but whose brains have burned. Most still fight, stumbling mute into battle. Where else could they go? Two generations after defeating Sabiron the Deathmage, the Pyanni now lead their own armies of undead.
Even the well are weakened, by hunger and fatigue and despair. And the fade. He was hit with a fade blast. A magruk divine appeared from nowhere, jingling amulets and multicolored braids, pointing a clawed finger at the shield formation he led. A dry gust knocked him back. His soldiers staggered, fell. He watched one suddenly pale, a faint dust puffing from her exposed skin. Her open eyes were already dead before she finished collapsing. He wobbled, his blood cold and limbs jellied, but managed to keep his feet and retreat. He slept like a corpse for a week straight.
He still feels faded.
Sometimes the commander thinks all the heroes have been killed. The age of the strong, disciplined soldier is over. Even the most skilled warmages today are novices compared to those a generation ago. He scoffs at who he has to command—upstarts and peasants and idiots. He is leading an army of children. Scared children.
* * *
From the back of his ear, the commander hears the captains’ raised voices. They are still arguing about how to keep the magruks from reaching the port cities. He’s planned a trap, luring the magruks toward a weak flank of second pike, mostly peasants wielding farm tools. When the peasants break and run—the one thing they seem prepared to do—the magruks will chase them through the wizard’s illusion and into the jaws of the main army.
One of the captains protests. “The second pike will be caught in the middle. You’re sending them all to their deaths!”
The commander almost laughs. They must not be paying attention. He’s sending everyone on this field to their deaths. Some of them just reach their peace earlier than others.
Another captain joins in with her objections.
The commander sighs, sick of explaining. “If the second pikes aren’t there when they’re needed, I’ll have every last one of them hanged for desertion.” He looks at each face in turn. “And whoever discouraged them, as well.”
They exchange stares, grimacing, these headstrong men and women.
One starts again, “But—”
For a moment, the commander forgets how wrinkled and short and soft-armed he is, and lets his anger propel him to his feet. He points sharply, ordering everyone out. When they sputter back at him, he yells. They sputter again, but they leave.
The commander grimaces. He didn’t mean to lose his temper. He waits for them to clear the anti-detection barrier and pounds his fist on the table. Too hard. The closest leg presses into the dirt below the carpets, enough to shift the tabletop and send his cup tottering over the edge, splashing wine in a red arc.
“Lousy table. You really are his, aren’t you? I wish I could give you back to him, trust me, I do.”
He thinks about the aesor lying limp and useless, abandoning him to sit at this table, to rein in this fractious donkey team of an army. He raises both arms to strike the table again but stops, takes a few breaths, stretches his fingers. He flattens his hands on the table and leans down, studying the chalk map, running through each scenario one more time. His brow clenching, he looks up and out, past the rows of tents, over the brown hills, to the evening sky beyond. New clouds droop on the horizon, dark and full. He worries what luck that brings for the morrow.
Next story in this series: Table 5.