The Future | 1yr later
It was success, utter success. Of course it was a success. He had planned the whole thing meticulously. He rode straight-backed through the streets of Altunia, victory edging closer with every step taken. Success! It enriched his soul, and he thrust his great-sword into the air, roaring nothing more than a guttural scream. Two thousand voices echoed the victory. Two thousand bodies that followed him to success. Success!
Something crawled down his back, and he assumed it was sweat. But it was the late season, and it wasn’t that warm. At least it wasn’t in Ahan. He felt his brow, and noted that it was dry. But beneath the layers of leather and steel, he could be sweating, couldn’t he? Yes, that was it. It definitely wasn’t doubt.
But things were easier than he’d expected. He was quite literally strolling his horse through the lower reaches of the Old Town, stepping the mare over the rounded cobbles. He’d expected a fight at the gates, a chaos of citizens and steel, but instead he’d got nothing.
They were later than expected, floating into the estuary closer to midday than at dawn as he’d hoped. That would have given the population sight of his coming, given them a chance to hunker down or flee. That was it for certain. The island citadel, which had been called the Foundation Isle when the Delfinians were still custodians, showed clear signs of defiance. There were a handful of house guards littering the gatehouse. But the showing was weak as expected, because the Mandari were embroiled in the diversionary tactics of his genius. It was success, utter success, and yet he’d expected a greater weight of civilians. He had not expected to be able to walk straight up to the gatehouse. No. This was much easier than expected.
But was that a construct of his genius? Had he exceeded even his own high expectations? That was rare these days. He had always been able to dream. At many points in his life, it was all he had.
The interruption came from the guiding hand of his colonel, but he ignored the gesture and indulged his thoughts. He was drawn back to his moment of becoming, to that scene on the field of the Bloody Gash where he had faced the ashen breath of death and survived. No, he’d more than survived. He’d become Mandestroy. On that day he’d acted for the benefit of his colonel, intending to win favour with the untouchable echelons of the military hierarchy. Now he looked down to the colonel. How far had he come? Maybe he had exceeded expectations. The colonel still stared at him.
He was already following the suggestion of the extended arm, but he wanted his officer’s view regardless. The sweat trickled, and he started to reconsider his views. That was not expected.
“Smoke. It’s coming from the estuary.”
And it was smoke, a great fountain of it spewing into the heavens, staining the sky as the higher winds blew it out to sea. It was impossible to see exactly what the source was, but it didn’t require much in the way of intelligence to work it out. There was only one thing in the estuary that would burn so well – a fleet. Was it the Mandari fleet? It seemed unlikely, and that meant it was his own fleet. His means of escape was going up in flames.
For just the slightest of moments he shivered, but he hid it beneath the heavy layers of his armour. He looked away, not wanting to be infected by events. It was irrelevant. This had always been a one-way journey.
And if his fleet was burning, what of it? The rewards would outweigh that cost. Enough had been paid already. He stared straight ahead, sparing himself from the smoke smeared sky by refocussing on the gatehouse. He continued doggedly on.
“It is unfortunate, but it will not stop us. Now, let’s focus on the task at hand.”
His colonel dropped back, and he straightened his back, chin up. He wanted to seem confident for his troops. But the truth was otherwise. He was still sweating, or in fact, what he now realised was that he wasn’t sweating at all. His spine was tingling, and there was a very good reason. It was the nerves. His entire life amounted to this.
He grunted, the noise coming from the corner of his mouth. His leather-bound hand scratched at the stubble which was as good as a beard, and the satisfying sound eased him slightly. But only slightly.
And yet this was not the time for doubts. As they rounded the height of the incline, he thrust his arm into the air and received a welcome confidence boost from his men. They still had every chance. He smiled for his men, but it was at least in part forced.
And then the smile came easier. Upon the gatehouse of the Foundation Isle there was only a smattering of guards. He turned to his well-ordered men, and grinned more broadly. Two thousand of the bastards, each of them hand-picked and ruthless. They were seasoned siege experts, and they were coming upon a place that was barely guarded. He chuckled. It would take a hundred mandahoi to stop them now.
And then he gulped.
Time in conflict takes on a strange quality, as if it relaxes its formal definition and takes on a new, volatile one. It seems to take one of only two characteristics as the fight flourishes. It would either stagger slowly, achingly, from moment to moment, or it would take on the pace of a stallion, rushing by with just the barest recognition. He could not tell which form it had taken yet, but he looked to the sky and it became clear. It was the former. The journey through Altunia had been stretched in his perception, but Mother Bright told the truth. It was not long past midday.
And then they were at the bridge that led to the Foundation Isle, the one that was now named after Jinal; the invader.
He stalled his horse on the near side of the bridge and his troops tramped either side of him. No need to take her any further. She would be useless in the siege. His potent force settled into formation – rigid rows of surly looking men in well-made flexible armour, ready to assault – and he smiled. He jumped from his fine mare and gave her a pat on the neck. Then he stepped onto the bridge and rubbed the inside of his thighs. He still hated riding. He walked through the ranks, slaps on the shoulder encouraging him forward, but his gaze didn’t waver. He halted about half-way across the bridge, angled his head back, looked to the gatehouse, and surveyed the resistance. There was almost none. The guards looked forlorn.
Almost none; not none. At the heart of the defence, right at the centre of the resistance, stood a man. A big man. A very big man.
And he was wearing the grey.
He cursed to himself and then dropped his hood. One mandahoi; so what? He would have the bastard for breakfast. Or lunch in fact. They were late.
He cleared his throat.
“You are defeated. Resistance would be wasteful. Open your gates and none shall suffer needlessly.”
He’d chosen the words carefully. He didn’t want to lie.
It was the mandahoi who responded, and he recognised the man. Mandahoi warriors wore grey uniforms and cloaked their faces, and yet he recognised this single man. He bloody well recognised him.
“The gates will stay locked. Leave, while you still have time.”
Suddenly the plume of smoke had meaning, and he looked for it. From the bridge, it was possible to make out the flames. Definitely his fleet. One boat seemed unmolested, sailing out of the estuary, but that was irrelevant. They were here, and the boat was there. He had a job to do and a king’s trust to repay.
He looked back to Keles – the mandahoi who had become a legend in his short years of service – and chuckled. Fame had made the man arrogant.
“Come, Keles, even you are not fool enough to think that you can win this alone.”
Just the subtlest movement, as if he snorted. In amusement perhaps? Then, with barely a command, the walls crawled with movement and grey wraiths melted out of the parapets. There were dozens of them, a hundred perhaps, and a shiver went through the ranks of his men. He would need to rally them in the face of this unexpected obstacle. He would have to.
Remove the Mandahoi and you have a chance. But the Mandahoi were here, and yet he still had a chance. It was just incredibly slim.
He had barely any time to make his choice; you didn’t on the battlefield. Dally and you die. But the reality was that there was no choice. He spoke at the top of his lungs, infecting his troops with confidence.
“You have brought this upon yourselves.”
But there were no truths on the battlefield. There were only opportunities, however remote they may seem. His men attacked.
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