I wrote this story last night. Just a little flight of fantasy…
At 2,350 words it’s not exactly flash fiction. On the other hand, if I’d written it a decade ago it would probably have taken me at least twice as many words to tell the tale:
The army waits in the mist. Spears and swords are swaddled in cloth; the bridles of the horses are muffled.
They are close to the town. Drifting cloud covers everything at ground level but the walls rise clear: details of the stonework beginning to appear as the light grows. Inside, everything is quiet. Trails of smoke drift up from chimneys but there is no clamour of voices, no clatter of weapons being readied.
It appears their approach has gone undetected. The khan nods, satisfied. They have ridden and marched through the night, trying to catch the town unprepared. The greater part of his forces lie a day or so behind. With it are plenty enough men and weapons to overpower the walls ahead of them. But a siege takes time and means more lives lost on both sides. Plus, the kind of assault needed to storm a fortified town often results in many of its buildings going up in flames – and with the flames much of the wealth they hope to seize.
A voice breaks the silence.
The sound makes the men on horseback go still. They listen carefully. They hear a second voice: coming from the gatehouse off to their left. The mist swallows the words but following them comes a stiff creaking. The khan and the warriors of the waiting horde relax. The noise is good news. Dawn is here and the guards are getting ready to open the town’s gates.
If the early morning fog holds for a few more minutes, they will be able to reach the open gates before the defenders have time to react. And once a handful of the khan’s men are inside it will be over.
But then a snatched gasp comes from one of his deputies. Eyes turn and he points.
The khan and his warriors narrow their eyes. On one corner of the walls is a watchtower. A sentry has climbed into the tower and is looking around.
Around them, a damp cloud still blanket the ground but it’s thinning. The town gates are hidden but the attackers can see the walls. Which means the sentry can probably see them. Even if the man can’t make out any details, if he looks carefully he will spot the dark mass of the barbarian army that waits outside the walls of his home.
The khan and his men watch in silence as the sentry’s eyes scan the horizon. He’s staring out, towards the forest, towards the hills: looking too far, too high, way over their heads.
Beside the khan, the warrior who spotted the sentry lets his bow slip from his shoulder and calmly notches an arrow.
The khan looks at Vedric and shakes his head. The man’s bow is larger than that of the other horsemen and he is known as a superb archer but to make this shot would be a miracle. ‘Too far,’ he says in a whisper. ‘It’s not possible.’
The hint of a smile touches Vedric’s lips. ‘If I get him?’
The khan frowns. ‘Hold your arrow. If you fail and he sees… our surprise is gone.’
Vedric nods but keeps the arrow ready.
Then it happens. The khan and his men watch as the sentry turns in their direction. He glances down and steps to the edge of the wall, leaning over as he tries to work out what it is that he has seen in the mist.
The khan and his men hold their breath. No one moves. They hear the gates of the town swinging open. But that’s just the start. It’s too early to charge. They’ve got to wait for the guards to raise the portcullis and lower the drawbridge. The next minutes are crucial. Only when they hear the clank of chains and the thump of the drawbridge hitting the stone on this side of the moat will it be time.
Once it’s down, then they can make their move. Race through the mist, charge the guards and rush through the gates before the defenders have time to even think about raising the drawbridge or dropping the portcullis.
But if the sentry gives the alarm…
A soft groan breaks from the lips of several warriors as the sentry suddenly stiffens. He gives no shout but leaps onto the battlements, pulling a long horn from his belt. The man takes a deep breath and raises the horn to his lips.
But Vedric’s arrow is already on the way. The others don’t see it fly but something dark drops from the sky. It strikes the horn first, punching straight through. A fragment of a strangled note is all that emerges as the arrow continues through into the man’s chest.
The sentry wavers on the battlements and then falls, forwards.
The body vanishes into the bank of vapour that hangs above the moat. A large splash follows. The sound is loud but the mist muffles it somewhat.
From the direction of the gatehouse there is a shout of inquiry and the noise of the chains pauses for a moment.
Calmly, Vedric lowers his bow and raises one hand to his mouth. He makes a loud quacking, the sound of an angry duck.
A brief, shouted conversation comes from the gatehouse and then a loud laugh. Followed by the sound of the chains resuming their movement.
Vedric glances at the khan. ‘Sorry, my lord. I realise you said to hold the arrow but…’
The khan chuckles. ‘I am a kind man. I forgive you this time.’
He nudges his horse closer to Vedric and pats him on the shoulder. ‘If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t believe any man could have made that shot. It was worth riding here just to see that.’
‘Thank you, my lord.’
‘Name your prize.’
‘For that shot. That shot is worth more than a few gold bracelets or a couple of women. What would you have? Name your prize.’
Vedric nods slowly. ‘Give me the church.’
Eyes widen around the khan. The prize for which Vedric has asked is a large one. Even for such an act.
‘Not the cathedral,’ says Vedric. ‘The smaller church. Where the ordinary people pray.’
The khan smiles. ‘It’s yours.’
Vedric nods. He is always a serious man but today he looks a little nervous. ‘The church… and what is inside?’
The khan looks irritated. ‘It’s yours. I gave my word. The church and whatever it holds belongs to you.’
‘Thank you, my lord. You are very generous.’
The khan slaps Vedric on the shoulder. ‘Relax, man. You have proved your worth many a time and that shot is one songs will be made about.’
He turns. ‘Come. It is time.’
The army advances through the mist. Soft, cautious footsteps: every one taking them a little closer to the sleepy town. No man breathes a word. They take care to hold their weapons tight: making sure nothing jingles, nothing breaks the morning calm. Even the horses known to move quietly.
They are barely one hundred yards away when the khan raises his fist. The mist is breaking into drifting tendrils. Ahead of them, the gatehouse starts to take shape. The voices of the guards sound as if they are only yards away.
For a moment, the army pauses, draws its breath. Then the fist comes down and the army erupts from standing to racing. The horses’ hooves thunder on the grass as the riders break out of concealment and surge towards the open town gates. At their heels come the rest of the horde, men who run with loping strides: spears, swords and bows in their hands as they pour out of the mist and towards their target.
Two guards are standing on the lowered drawbridge. Their mouths open as the horses appear as if from nowhere and charge towards them. The two defenders make no sound and no attempt to resist. Without any apparent hesitation, both turn and leap off the drawbridge into the moat.
The sound of the horses grows suddenly louder as their hooves hit first the wooden planks of the drawbridge and then the cobbles of the gateway. But no one comes rushing out to investigate. There is no defence, no armed guards standing in their way and suddenly the army is through.
Inside, the town is silent. It’s as if everyone is still in their beds, unaware that their doom has erupted out of the morning mists.
Horses wheel in the main street as their riders turn them in circles, looking for someone to fight. Behind them, infantry pour through into the town and each leader gathers his troop.
The khan directs his men quickly. They have taken many towns before but none this easily and it’s hard not to believe this is a trap.
But, as they work their way deeper into the town, the mystery deepens. There are no people anywhere. The houses are unlocked, no bars on the doors. Inside, food sits on tables, some of it still fresh and warm.
The army is disciplined, they will not loot and pillage until their masters say they can but after a long night march the food is too tempting to ignore. Men snatch at loaves of bread, grab chicken legs and handfuls of roasted meat as they pass. Others seize bottles and jugs, taking a quick swig on the go.
By the time the army reaches the central square they are still no wiser. The khan looks around with bemusement. It’s as if the town’s entire population had vanished into the mist. As if something took them up into the sky. As if…
As the wheeling horses come to a halt, the noise level in the cobbled plaza drops. Now, the warriors hear the singing. It comes from the church. Not the big cathedral at the head of the plaza but the smaller church tucked into one corner.
The khan’s eyes widen. Vedric is in front of the church. He is off his horse, standing beside it, reins in one hand, sword in the other.
As the khan watches, Vedric drops to his knees and holds his weapon out hilt first.
The khan rides closer and looks down. ‘Vedric?’
‘Forgive me lord.’
‘For what? What have you done?’
‘Tricked you my lord.’
The khan looks puzzled. It’s clear something strange is happening but he remains unsure where the trick lies. ‘What have you done?’
Vedric looks up, beseeching. ‘The church, lord. You said it is mine?’
The khan frowns. ‘You made the shot did you not?’
Vedric nods quickly. ‘Yes. I fired the arrow.’
‘Then the church is yours.’
‘Thank you, my lord.’
‘So, how have you tricked me?’
Vedric gives a humourless smile. ‘What do you know of me, my lord? Of my story?’
‘Of you?’ The khan considers. ‘Hmm. Maybe not as much as I should.’
Vedric nods. ‘Perhaps. But why should you? My story is not unusual. I was captured when I was a boy. My family were merchants, part of a caravan attacked as it crossed the edge of the steppes. Your father’s people took me and I was a slave until I won my freedom. After that I served you, my lord.’
He paused. ‘And I still do.’
The khan looks thoughtful. ‘You have yet to tell me something new, Vedric. I know this much already. What has happened here today?’
Vedric stands and moves to the church. He pushes its door open. As he does, the singing stops. Inside, the building is packed. The church is full of people. Old and young, poor and rich, men, women and children: they cram the pews and the aisles. As the door opens all of them fall silent. They stare out, looking at Vedric, looking at the khan; their eyes contain fear and desperate hope.
‘The town is yours,’ says Vedric. ‘Every house, every building, every coin, all of it.’
‘But the people?’
‘They are in the church. If your word is true, that makes them mine.’
‘True.’ The khan is as swift as a leopard. He swings from of his saddle and drops in front of Vedric in one move. His sword has appeared in his hand and now its point is touching Vedric’s throat. ‘But you are also mine.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘So tell me why.’
Vedric looks the khan in the eyes. ‘These are my people. This is the town where I was born. It was a long time ago but I was happy here. It is the place I remember in my dreams.’
He shakes his head. ‘They knew you were coming. They knew they could not stand against your army. They knew if they resisted then their town would be destroyed and their lives with it. I told them that if they gave you their town there was a chance they might escape with their freedom.’
Vedric is unblinking. ‘I will still always serve you, my lord. I have helped you take many towns. But I would not see these people as slaves. I tricked you, my lord, but only because I know you are a man of your word. I gave my word to help these people and I only ask you to give me what you said is mine.’
The khan’s expression is unreadable. ‘Why did you not tell me? Ask me to spare the town?’
Vedric sighs. ‘That would be to ask too much, my lord. You need this town to secure your new empire. And an army needs food… and it needs reward. If I asked you to leave the town, there are plenty who would be angry. Besides… if you left these people untouched, not everyone would appreciate your generosity. Some would try to resist. This way, you take the town, you have its wealth but these people have what is really valuable. Their lives and their freedom.’
The khan nods. Out of the corner of his eye he sees some of his other warriors. They have bows and spears ready. Whatever he commands, they will do. He smiles. Leaders of men often exercise power over life and death but do it instinctively, without thinking. Never before has he been asked to pass judgement in quite such a manner.