By James Turbett
Copyright 2011

The cracked cobbles chip even more as the squad runs over the streets. The air stinks of gunpowder and the echoing booms of artillery are heard from the other side of the town. The militiamen halt when they come to a crossroads in the business district. All nine of them perspire with nervous sweat under their helms and the humid tropical air does little to help that.

Dzwache Kojo leads the squad and clutches his rifle close to him as he peers around a building.

“See anything?” one of his comrades asks him in their native Kalagnese.

“Not a thing,” Dzwache responds. “Excepting rubble. It looks like artillery rounds hit this road.”

“Nothing new, then.”

Dzwache gives the signal to proceed around the corner. The squad tries to find a command post. The attack came right before dawn and was a nasty surprise to the people of Porthold. Several bombs went off when the sun rose and woke everyone in the town. A small army of rebels invaded soon after the explosions came. The local garrison fortunately responded quickly. The native militiamen were posted outside of the town and got to the scene late. They have not seen a single rebel as they move through Porthold. They suspect that the enemy was pushed to the town’s edges.

It appears that they missed the battle. The natives of Kalagnai were only recently granted the right to a militia by the occupying Nargath forces. Whoever is charge of the town’s garrison must not have an overly fond opinion of the colonists if the militia has only recently been ordered to sortie.

The sound of close gunfire reminds the squad that the rebels are not completely routed. Three men come down the street towards them. Two of them support their comrade in between them, whose torn trousers reveal a bandage around his bleeding leg. It is obvious by their beige skin tone that they are Nargathmen and their rifles and long gray tunics indicate that they are soldiers.

“What is your lot doing here?” one of the soldiers asks the militiamen in Ranelvish as they come close.

“The militia has been dispatched to aid in the battle,” Dzwache responds in the same language.

The man on the other side of the wounded soldier groans and says, “Can’t believe we’re letting piss-eyes use guns,” under his breath, but loud enough for the militiamen to hear. The insult is a reference to the amber-colored eyes of the native Kalags. Dzwache tries his best not to let his irritation show.

“Most of the fighting has been reduced to skirmishes on the outskirts of the town,” the first soldier says. “We whipped most of the rebels already. Our friend got hit at a shootout close by so we had to leave it and we’re getting him to a hospital.”

“Is it still ongoing? Where is it?”

“Just follow the gunshots.”

The wounded soldier moans and the other two hurry him past the squad.

“Damn Nargaths don’t know appreciation,” one of militiamen says.

“Don’t let them hear you say that,” Dzwache says to him as they continue down the road.

“What, you think I’m a fool? I’ve haven’t gotten this far by insulting them to their faces, though spirits know that they deserve it. Besides, I doubt that they speak Kalagnese, anyway.”

Dzwache did not catch the fact that he spoke to the soldiers in Ranelvish and that he unconsciously slipped back into Kalagnese when speaking to his comrades. Kalagnai was made a colony twelve years ago when he was only six years old and he began learning Ranelvish from a rather early age. As such, he is fluent in both languages.

The squad follows the nearest gunshots as the soldier suggested. Dzwache notices a shadow pass over him as he runs and he looks up. The men see a wyvern fly overhead followed by five more. The beasts are dark silhouettes against the morning sky and their massive wings can be discerned from below as they fly. Dzwache feels a chill go down his spine as he sees the flying beasts even though he knows that they are on his side. Wyverns are said to be unnatural creatures spawned from sorcery. Even knights speak warily of them and the sorcerers who tame them. They are not a normal part of the garrison so it is a surprise to see them here. At least the wyverns and their riders can make short work of any rebels that they come across.

The squad comes to an avenue where several garrison soldiers put up a barricade in the street. Riflemen fire from behind sandbags at the enemy. Among the common soldiers are three knights who are well protected with their suits of steel plate armor. Each of the three also has an ekwusaur present, although they are all dismounted. Dzwache has been around ekwusaurs for most of his life and he admires the animals. The mounts look to be Royal Chargers. They are thick and muscled in body and leg. Their hexagonal scales are a steely gray color and the bristles on their shoulders and tails are rust red. Their frills are also marked with a red color.

One of the knights is obviously in charge, judging by the way that he bellows orders at his men. One of the junior knights calls him Lieutenant Markir. The lieutenant directs a group of soldiers who push cannons to the front. A carbine hangs from a strap slung over his shoulder. An ornate cavalry saber is sheathed on his left hip. The knight’s weapons look much more well-kept than the militia’s hand-me-down lever-action rifles, which have scratches on them.

Sir Lieutenant Marker raises an eyebrow when he sees the squad and asks, “What is the militia doing here?”

Dzwache salutes and says, “We are under orders from Major Hartwin to aid in the defense of Porthold.” He has to raise his voice to be heard over the gunfire.

The knight looks skeptical and scowls but says, “Very well. There are several munitions that need to be brought here. I want your squad to aid the supply lines.”

“Yes, sir.”

The militiamen follow the supply line and carry cannons from a district where the rebels have already been fought off. The young men grumble among themselves about how they resent being ordered to perform manual labor, especially by a knight. Dzwache shares his comrades’ sentiments but he is also secretly glad that this does not put him in an immediate position to get shot. He and the other militiamen push a cannon on wheels to the barricade and the commander orders the soldiers to load it. Dzwache is about to go back to the supply line but Sir Lieutenant Markir bellows a new order.

“They’re nearly whipped here,” he says. “They’re retreating.” He looks to one of the soldiers and says, “Sergeant, I want your squad to remain here and defend this position. Everyone else, you’re coming with me. That includes you militiamen. Bring those munitions with you.” The lieutenant quickly mounts his ekwusaur. He rides past the opening in the barricade and the rest follow him.

Dzwache gets a good look at the dead foes as the men go down the street. They are indeed rebels. The red and yellow face paint marks them as members of Kalagnai’s warrior caste, which was formerly abolished when the country was colonized. Among the rebels’ equipment are rifles and shotguns, most of which are single-shot weapons outdated by a few decades. There are also primitive shields made of scaly animal hides stretched over wooden frames. Dzwache cannot imagine that the shields can do much against bullets and grapeshot. Perhaps the shields were effective a hundred years ago, but now they are a remnant of a people trying to preserve their culture. The militiaman tries to look away from the pitiful sight as they continue down the street.

The knights lead the men from the garrison and the militia through the town. They see no civilians as they march. It appears that the noncombatants have the good sense to stay in their homes.

“It’s too damn hot to be fighting a war,” one of the junior knights grumbles to his comrade. “Blasted sun never relents for the seasons in this land. Only when it rains.”

“Stow the bitching,” the lieutenant says. “You don’t hear the other men complaining.”

“That’s because the garrison is used to this land. We recently arrived. And those Kalags have dark skin so they don’t feel the sun like we do.”

Dzwache cannot help but roll his eyes at that last statement. He fells the heat all too much and he is certain that his comrades do, too. Admittedly, the knights probably do sweat more, but only because of their plate armor. The militiaman has seen other knights wrap light colored cloth over their armor to keep the sun’s rays off of the metal. These new arrivals must not know of that yet.

Dzwache wishes that he could have a similar suit despite the fact that one can fry an egg on one of those plates. It would be hot and it may not stop a bullet but the metal and thick leather padding can dissuade lethal shrapnel. The only armor that the militia can afford to give its men are simple helms. Other than that, each militiaman is issued a long gray green tunic to wear and the bullet-stopping prowess of that garment is dubious.

The men come to a halt when they hear a gunshot and the ekwusaur of one of the junior knights rears up, gives a death bellow, and falls down. The knight falls with his mount and ends up with a leg pinned under the dying animal.

Sir Lieutenant Markir wastes no time spotting the enemy, who aims at them from behind a building. He levels his carbine and fires a single shot without hesitation. The bullet hits the rebel squarely in the chest and the man falls dead. Many more rebels pour onto the streets from behind cover just as their comrade hits the ground.

“Take cover!” the lieutenant yells to the men. He rides his mount behind a building and the men follow his example.

Dzwache gets behind a brick wall just in time to hear a bullet zing passed his ear. His heart drops when he sees that one of his comrades is not so fortunate and writhes on the cobbled street while clutching his bleeding side. The knight whose mount was hit makes an effort to wiggle his leg out from under the ekwusaur. The only sign of life from the animal are twitching feet. Fortunately for the knight, the bulk of the dying mount is between him and the rebels. The other two knights dismount and begin firing with their rifles. The other soldiers and militiamen contribute.

It is only right for Dzwache to do the same but he needs an opening. One of his comrades already fires from around the corner of the building. Dzwache takes his place when he withdraws to reload. He sees that some of the rebels carry munitions that looks like small cannons balanced on the shoulder. One of the rebels aims his miniature cannon at the defenders and fires. Smoke escapes from the back of the munition behind the rebel’s head as a thick cloud of shrapnel erupts from the front. The shrapnel buries itself in the bodies of two of the soldiers and kills them instantly.

Dzwache makes a point to shoot for the men that carry those weapons first. His lines them up with the sights of his rifle, cocks the hammer, and fires. Some of his targets jolt in pain and others drop dead, but he cannot tell for certain if he was the one who shot them. His hands shake as he fires. He expends his rifle’s magazine and seeks cover to reload.

The air is filled with the sounds of gunshots and the screams of men. Dzwache takes cartridges out of his bandoleer and inserts them into his rifle’s magazine. He thinks he hears the lieutenant trying to yell something over the deafening noise. He peers around the corner over his comrade’s head. His eyes go wide when he sees two enormous artillery pieces being wheeled out onto the street. The rebels form a living wall in front of the artillery as it is being readied. They keep their shields in front.

Sir Lieutenant Markir makes his booming voice heard as he orders every man to shoot down the human wall and kill the men prepping the cannons. The rebel’s wood and leather shields do little against the bullets but they do obscure the enemy and make it difficult to aim for a vital spot.

Just when Dzwache thinks of retreating, he hears wings flapping. He looks up to see a wyvern swoop down on the rebels. A stream of fire erupts from the beast’s head and hits the shield wall and the cannons. The fire takes to the dry leather shields and the men scream as they burn. The wyvern immediately flies up again. The wall scatters and the defenders now have a shot at the artillery, although that appears unnecessary. The fire also takes hold of the wooden frames of the cannons.

Dzwache notices that the flames get closer to sacks of what must be gunpowder massed behind the cannons. He retreats behind a wall and covers his ears just in time for the loudest explosion that he has ever heard. The sound strikes his eardrums with a brutal force. He dares to look again when it is over. All that remains of the cannons are dented metal barrels. Most of the rebels lie dead with their bodies thrown several feet from the explosion. The few that are alive try to regain their bearings.

The defenders can only look in shock at what a single wyvern did. Another wyvern follows up on the attack and swoops low. Its rider throws a grenade to the ground. The grenade explodes in a burst of shrapnel. More rebels fall.

Dzwache is damn glad to have aeronauts on his side despite the fact that their wyverns terrify him. He notices that one of the rebels runs away and carries one of the shoulder-fired munitions in his arms. The rebel turns and aims the gun up at the flying wyvern and fires.

The shrapnel misses the wyvern and strikes the building that Dzwache uses for cover. It loosens a chunk of brick and mortar and causes it to fall onto the street mere feet from him. He cannot believe how thankful he is for the rubble to miss him. He is not so thankful a second later when something strikes his head with enough force to render him witless. He quickly losses the feeling in his body as his world goes dark.