Authors: D.A. Stone
SHADOW OF THE MOUNTAIN
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, places, incidents, and dialogue are the product of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real, or if real, are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, either living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by D. A. Stone
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
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OF THE MOUNTAIN
D. A. Stone
Five months before the Battle of Goridai
Aldren had grown to hate the sand, more so than anything else, and it had only taken him seven weeks. Seven weeks into the year-long post and he was officially full of hate. He didn’t smile and he didn’t laugh. Everything, big and small, made him angry. He wasn’t alone, though. Aldren was surrounded by others just as miserable as he was.
The Dershaw outpost was a nightmare if ever a place could be called one. Located five hundred miles south of the Goridai Flatlands, with a further hundred from there to the capital of Corda, Dershaw sat at the rim of the Sand Vale, which might as well be the very edge of the world. One could ride three, four, even five days in any direction and find nothing but shifting dunes beneath a sun that baked flesh raw and turned men mad. Other than the Amorian outpost, no water and no shelter were to be had for another three-week march south to the deserted city of the Danaki along the Nangien harbor.
Dershaw. Even within his mind it sounded like a nasty word. The outpost was little more than a grouping of huts and canvas hovels surrounded by a crumbling, shoulder-high stone wall that looked to be in danger of collapse at the slightest touch. Lining the wall, the Amorian standard fluttered restlessly above on weather-beaten poles, colors so faded that one could barely find the curled dragon of bronze which was to stand out against a green field. An oval enclosure for the horses was located near the northern gate and the tallest structure within the outpost was a wooden scaffold that supported the well’s water pump. A dining hall, small set of barracks, and other buildings had been hastily built generations previous, though no updates or renovations had been made in a long time.
Retrieving a heavy sack of grain and a few feeding-bags from a hut, Aldren swung them over a shoulder with a grunt before kicking the door closed. Covering his face with a scarf against the erratic gusts of wind, he marched off towards the horses beneath the weakening heat of the evening sun, nodding to a group of dust-weary men as he passed. The nod was not returned. He shook his head, wondering why he even bothered. No one wanted to be here and no one wanted a new friend.
The settlement was in a constant battle against the desert for survival, and it was losing. Sand was everywhere. It drifted against the barracks and other cabins, invading the mess hall and the surgery tent and supply sheds. It crept into your boots and irritated the skin of your feet and between your toes. It seasoned your rations and snuck into your canteen; it rotted your clothes and stuck to the corner of your eye and under your eyelids. Sand was in your ears and up your nose; it was in your armpits and down your ass crack and between your thighs and against your groin. Even letters from family were filled with sand. Your teeth ground against it as you fought for sleep, then you dreamt of it when sleep finally came. You lived with sand; you breathed it. You ate it, you drank it, you shit it out. Sand was everywhere.
Aldren despised the desert, and per the army’s orders he was to spend a year of his life here. A year! This place made the fourteen months of training at the Stonewall garrison feel like a holiday at the beach.
The army needed brown cloaks, his father had told him after graduation. Not everyone is fit for the infantry or the cavalry. Metal workers, cooks, horse handlers, stretcher-bearers, builders and carpenters, messengers, he’d say; all are part of the same beast. War on a large scale requires organization, and not everyone is able to carry the shield and swing the sword.
Aldren had agreed with him, though not for the reason one might have thought. After graduation he had told everyone—even his father—that he was recruited for supplies and logistics, when in fact he’d volunteered for the duty. It was a numbers game, full of mathematical formulas contingent on men, distance, time, and availability of resources. The closest he’d come to combat would be the rearmost ranks of the baggage train, with the message birds and fold-out shit-houses, and that’s just the way he wanted it.
He was nine when he knew the infantry wasn’t for him. The instructors had taken his class to the capital and they’d spent three nights in the surgery halls of Corda’s most overpopulated district. The students were exposed to bloodied corpses, screaming knife wounds, and clubbed skulls that left the victims in a drooling, useless state. Aldren had been horrified, and not merely at the thought of receiving such wounds, but also delivering them to others. He simply couldn’t get past it. After that he had the fear, and it wouldn’t release him. Still, he studied hard, trained even harder, and graduated, making his father proud.
But a combat-oriented career was not in his future. Thankfully as a youth he was forced to enroll in one of the smaller academies rather than a prominent one that bred soldiers for the king’s phalanx. Kessland, Orantak, Blackstar, those were schools of violence. The boys there did nothing but train; from the time they woke to the moment their exhausted bodies were allowed to rest, it was shield, sword, and spear. They sparred with real steel, studying swordsmanship and murder as if it were an art form, and for them, it was. Children went through those gates, and eight years later, killers walked out.
Aldren was grateful that wasn’t his life. Now, three years out of the academy, all he desired was a permanent assignment at Stonewall, enough pay to buy a plot of land, and a nice pension to share with a good woman.
He knew reaching these goals would prove a challenge, and not only because he was presently stationed in the armpit of the world. The Stonewall garrison was within a few miles of Amoria’s capital and a highly sought-after post within his field. Should Amoria march off to war, it would be Stonewall through which her troops would be armed, mounted, and supplied. The entire stronghold was a pristine example of martial logistics, carefully structured and maintained by the most brilliant quartermasters in the army. And there was also capital life to enjoy. Theaters, taverns, shops, and women. So many beautiful women it made your eyes ache.
Aldren could think of no better place to live out his career. So long as he proved his strengths in Dershaw, he’d be moved to other outposts throughout the territories and, if luck were with him, find placement at Stonewall in five years or so, maybe less.
Should Amoria ever go to war, however, he’d be sent back at once to assist with the colossal enterprise of preparing her troops. No more desert and no more sun. All within his field would be summoned back, due to the magnitude of such an endeavor. There was no force in all of history that matched Amoria in size or might.
His father had been a brown cloak nearly all his life, building fortifications in hostile territories for the advancing army. For fifteen years the man carried out this duty beneath the brown, never having to draw blades against another. Shortly after his thirty-first birthday and nine months before Aldren was sent away for training, his father’s party was attacked by Skaard militiamen on the high plains of Varishna.
Years later when asked about the attack, his father said only that he’d “killed two men and pissed himself.”
His tone barred any further inquiries and Aldren was too young to push for them. His father was awarded the green cloak for his actions but never wore it much. Said it didn’t fit right and kept the garment in a chest beneath his bed.
Aldren would think on that conversation during the more solitary moments of academy life, remembering his father’s anxiety at simply having to speak of the attack. He wouldn’t wear the green cloak during the autumn harvest gatherings, town meetings, or trips to the capital, and even when young Dalia was wed, still he wore the brown. Never once did Aldren see it free of the chest and most certainly never draped across his father’s shoulders, and as strange as it sounds, that always made Aldren proud. It’s no easy thing, knowing what you are in this life and what you aren’t. Some people never get their bearings on it. He was a good man, his father.
Climbing the fenced enclosure to the mounts Aldren leapt to the other side, cursing as his brown cloak snagged on a splintered post. Freeing himself, he slipped a bag of grain over each horse’s head before returning the canvas hood that protected their nostrils and eyes from the stinging dust. There were only a dozen mounts for him to care for. King Healianos had sent an envoy through their outpost two days prior, commandeering any horse possessing even a modicum of speed or intelligence and leaving behind mostly the carthorses along with a few cavalry mounts in need of respite.
The passing envoy brought with it a great wave of excitement that rushed through the outpost like bushfire. Then, as the soldiers continued south, the excitement marched on with them, leaving behind only a dozen of the fiercest soldiers Aldren had ever seen and a single covered wagon. The strange wagon now sat outside the wall with green-cloaked men guarding it closely, their horses loosely tethered to the locked wheels. At night Aldren would see lit lanterns and dancing shadows against the canvas but never saw who was within. All were ordered not to ask questions, and under no circumstances were they to approach the wagon. Aldren and the rest kept their distance.
As the Amorian column moved on, the youthful side of him wished to go with the departing warriors, if only to escape the boredom, but of course he couldn‘t. His station was here, with the wind and the sun and the sand. This was his home now, he thought moodily.
The soldiers who passed through were a hard-looking bunch, but most Amorian infantrymen were like that. Glaring eyes, thick arms, and quick hands, they were sturdy warriors who now marched into the unknown. Their orders were to head south until contact was made with Endura’s newest arrivals.
Each year in the Deep South, above the Infinite Sea, a great storm raged before making landfall to flood the desiccated and cracked terrain. Purple-blue forks of lightning split the sky with thunder so heavy that its rumbling could be heard at this very outpost, carried on the wind across four hundred miles of emptiness. As the distant Nangien harbor swelled, forests would soon grow where not even a crooked weed sprouted all year and once again the Nangi riverbed would be brought back to sparkling life.
King Healianos had been forced to send a thousand men south, for this year the flood carried with it great ships, the size and build of which had never been seen before in this world, with sails black as shadow and no discernible standard. Spat from the storm, the number and origin of the occupants were unknown, as were their intentions. Word was that the ships continued to make land even now, so many weeks after news of their arrival reached the southern settlements. Aldren wondered how many vessels had arrived. A thousand? Ten thousand?