FOR THE EMPIRE • by Alexander Burns

The knights wore the finest steel, forged in dragon flame, cooled by the tears of the war priests. It did them no good. Hundreds lay dead in this nameless field, fifty leagues from the beloved Imperial capitol. Their horses lay crumpled beneath or on top of them. Smoke hung above the field, a stagnant remnant of the enemy who slaughtered these men with magic that pierced armor and skin so easily.

Perhaps the knights should not have attacked without attempts at parlay. Certainly, the war priests should not have mucked with that portal in the old temple barracks. It was their lot in life, though; they couldn’t help but meddle with things inscribed with ancient runes. Deven had his own role to fulfill in this mess.

Knights were poor salvage. Lances were too bulky. The armor was so much scrap. Valuable scrap, but Deven didn’t have a wagon to haul it away. He looked instead for the squires. They didn’t bring much when war was on the horizon, just enough for drinks and whores at roadside taverns. But a man could make a fine living off that gold, if he were quick and careful.

He would have to be especially quick this day. The battle still raged, a short distance from where the cavalry had made its doomed charge. Their killers had retreated to the ruins of the old fortress up the hill to fend off the larger force of Imperial men-at-arms. Deven heard screams and the pops of the enemy’s strange weapons. He guessed the battle was going as well over there as it had here.

Scattered among the dead knights and horses were the stupidly brave dead squires. He flipped over a young man whose leather tunic had been torn to shreds. His chest looked no better, punctured with a series of holes that turned flesh and meat to pulp. There were no crossbow bolts or arrows in the wounds, only twisted shards of metal. Deven looked to the boy’s belt, where he found a pouch that jingled as he tugged it free.

Deven heard a footfall, a boot in the tall grass, and spun, dropping the pouch to grab the pommel of his sword.

An enemy stood a short distance away, on the other side of a pile of dead men. The weapon at his shoulder was a black, jagged thing, and enormous up close. As if spitting metal wasn’t enough, a wicked dagger hung beneath the leading end of it.

He looked no older than the dead squire. He wore an open-faced pot helm strapped to his head and a knapsack burdened with a shovel and gods knew what else. He wore no armor, just a simple green tunic and matching pants. None of the crests sewn into his sleeves were familiar.

“Holedet!” the man shouted. “Hooayreyoo? Wearisdispulas?”

Deven slowly lifted his hand from his sword. The words were meaningless gibber. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. I’m just… I’m trying to help these people.” He gestured to the bodies.

The man’s eyes flickered at Deven’s movement, then to the pouch on the ground. He grimaced. That was fine. Deven was on familiar ground there. He judged the distance, but doubted he could cross the body-strewn ground faster than the man could activate his weapon.

But disgust — that he could use. Deven slowly backed up and stooped to retrieve the pouch. The man watched. The weapon never moved. Deven spilled gold into his hand, ignoring coins that fell to the ground. He reached out to offer the gold to the enemy soldier, holding his breath.

The reaction was as expected. The weapon lowered slightly. Disdain wrinkled the man’s face. The enemy soldier stepped back, as though offended by Deven’s very presence.

“Fukenskafenjers,” the man muttered. He shook his head.

Deven kneeled and scooped up the fallen gold and clutched it to his chest. Best not push his luck. He scrambled backward, fleeing toward the safety of the woods at the edge of the field. His own squire, Aljos, stooped and middle-aged but thankfully very much alive, met him with the horse and his own pile of jingling pouches. Yes, a fine living for a poor man granted a rare hereditary knighthood because his grandfather had saved some princess, years ago.

“Thought he had you there, sir,” said Aljos, piling their treasure into Deven’s saddlebags.

Deven watched as the mysterious soldier worked his way toward the opposite tree line. There, he met up and conferred with another of his kind. Scouts looking for a way out of the valley. “He thinks me some peasant, scouring for scraps, no doubt.”

The horse snorted.

The Imperator’s page, a boy whose name Deven had forgotten, crashed through the brush. He looked a total mess, covered in blood, cradling an injured arm.

“Sir Deven!” The boy wept. “Thank the pillars!” Tears streaked through the blood sprayed across his face.

“How goes the battle?” Deven asked. “And show some decorum, lad.”

The page nodded and straightened, sniffed back tears. “Not well, sir. The line has broken. The forward advance…they are mostly dead. None reach the enemy.”

Aljos froze. Deven blinked, surprised even though he’d already seen one massacre today.

“I believe, sir, you are ranking officer now. Unless…” The boy’s eyes turned to the field of dead knights, but soon dropped. Deven swallowed the lump in his throat. The page snapped to attention.

“Your orders, sir?”

Deven and Aljos exchanged looks. Deven cleared his throat.

“Have the men redouble their efforts,” he said. “I’ll be along presently to take charge. I have met the enemy and survived. There is weakness to be found there; I have seen it. For the Empire!”

“Sir!” The page’s eyes lit up. He saluted. “For the Empire!”

The boy ran through the underbrush and toward certain horrific death. Deven looked again to Aljos. Pale, terrified Aljos.

“What now, sir?”

“Now, dear Aljos,” Deven said, “we wait. And we find a wagon.”

Alexander Burns almost feels bad for subjecting this guy on an unwitting audience, and wishes he didn’t have to. He lives in Denton, Texas, and writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, The Future Fire, Big Pulp, and other fine online journals.

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