Let Embers Fall
Here I stand, looking over the village of my birth. Grey clouds boil above, casting the land in an eerie darkness. The sun is hidden from me. Or I, it.
I can see the house I was born in across the valley from the hill I stand on. It lies hard against the river that runs through this valley. The hill I am on is known as Sentry Mount. It is the tallest of a series of hills that runs from the northeast to the southwest on this side of the river. The far side of the river, where the house is, has no hills to speak of. It is low farm land and very fertile.
The river dumps into a small lake to the southwest. I look to my left but I cannot see the lake from Sentry Mount. I know it’s there, I used to fish in it as a child with my dad and brother.
I can see a woman in the yard of the house that used to be mine. Would she remember me? The chickens in the yard are flapping around her skirts and she is swatting at them to both get them away from her and keep them out of the house.
Can I hear her voice on the wind?
I hated feeding those chickens with their incessant flapping.
A just-roused child opens the door, blond curls falling around her face in sleepy waves, and she holds the door open for her mom as the older woman hustles to be inside. I hadn’t known mom was expecting again. I didn’t know I had a little sister.
The wind whips around my cloak and the cold steel of my halberd presses against my hip and weighs me down. It is heavy. Many things are.
I can see the irrigation system I spent so many summers working on as a child. I see the youth of today working on the same trenches. They are, no doubt, cursing the leaves, sticks, and sundry debris that clog the system after a rain storm. I make a mental note about the condition of the fields below following the two days of torrential downpour that ended, hopefully, earlier last night. At least it hasn’t rained since then. The clouds still look pregnant and ready to burst though.
The wind cries out as it whistles through the trees.
I haven't been back to this valley in nearly ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Lives change. The Empire’s press gangs had claimed me from the fields and sent me to fight people I didn't know, under a sun that burned too bright; too hot. I had been strong and clever and had a very committed desire to stay alive. I still have those qualities.
I had been beaten by the press gang thugs the first time I countermanded my superior’s orders. But not so harshly as the offense warranted since I had saved my unit and plugged a gaping hole in the line that my superior was threatening to widen by moving us the way he planned. We would have been flanked and buried by the cavalry charge. Instead we anchored our pikes in the dust and rocks of the desert and broke the charge. I was promoted after the beating.
My superior was hanged.
The Empire was like that. Service, unwavering, was demanded and rewarded. Negligence was punished and incompetence was punished harshly. I was advised in my promotion that I should be far more careful in changing battle plans. Bring up ideas and concerns in planning, they told me, and run changes through the chain of command during the battle.
Six weeks later I was beaten again for “operational insubordination” that had, for a second time, spared my troopers a brutal butcher’s bill. It had also saved the life of a fellow squad commander. The fellow's father was in command of the unit we fought with.
Luck and fortune favor the prepared … which I wasn’t … but it didn’t hurt my cause, and that’s a fact.
Ten years later and I am running an entire Army for the Empire. More than 5,000 men, supply trains, siege engines (though, in truth, I will build what I need on site when I see what I have to defeat with my own eyes).
Carefully though, very carefully because the Empire is strong and I am their man.
My hands are clasped behind my back, wind whipping my red trimmed black dress coat around my waist and tugging at the button holding it closed. It is cold and foreboding, like the clouds. I stare at the valley I called home. The rain would hold.
“Burn it, Colonel; every house, every barn, every hut and hovel.” I stop and turn to face my second, “I don’t want anything alive in that valley when the sun sets except my troopers.” I drill a hole in him with my gaze so that he fully comprehends the intensity of my command.
He blinked at me, “Livestock?”
“Burn it all, Colonel.” I look back at the village I grew up in; the struggles of the past belong in the past.
The Colonel raises a flag in a series of motions to signal the start of the attack.
The hoof beats of the cavalry charge echo across the valley and up the hill to wail at my feet. They pound into my soul as I stare at the village I grew up in, the struggles of the past, the fighting and scrapping for every morsel of food.
The fires taking root below burn with a chillness that I feel twisting through me.
“Dismissed, Colonel.” It is coldly said, like the day.