“The terms of your surrender are as thus,” Nicator the Ambitious was on his best warhorse, high and ostentatious. Large gold plating coated the exemplary equine specimen with scrolling wheat and cherub faces. He was the new empire, and aggressive expansion was the first priority. The very best of his conquests held at attention behind him. All of them skilled warriors, now duty-bound to serve in his army. Anything less than conformity would mean the systematic cleansing of their lineage.
“You shall submit to my authority and all of your resources shall be shared equally throughout my domain. You shall pay tax, which will be collected at the first of every month. All of you shall be examined by the army physicians for military fitness. Any qualified soldier shall be impressed into the ranks with unconditional compliance. Any resistance shall not be tolerated and your people would face certain eradication. As I see your ‘army’ standing before me, I doubt any of you would have to worry about that last stipulation.”
He was correct, if a bit direct. A hastily cobbled militia of country folk was the best the area could do. Determined to fight for their loved ones, these laymen to Aries would have their blood spilt in seconds. The corner country simply known as “the Thicket” was steeped in farmers and shepherds. Superstitious, but hard working and simple, their removed location from the rest of the world, the known world, their little world, suited them just fine. Burlap sacks travel further on the backs of asses.
“Do you accept these terms?” Impatient, Nicator was now pushing himself to speed up the formalities. This was no fight, and he’d rather be heading north into the mineral rich Isthan mountains. The precious metals found there would fund his overseas campaigns. He always wanted to travel the world.
“I do not, sir.” Quiet and full of breath, yet firm and full of conviction, was the reply. A mounted knight, armored cap-a-pie in flat black plate approached the party divide. The conveyance, pallid yet hale, suggested it had passed its expiry date but was held hostage by the binds of enchantment. At its feet, a wispy shroud mingled in the grass.
With superstitions come fairy tales, and with fairy tales come ghost stories. The Thicket, with its bounty of lush property, espoused a tract of land decayed. Tucked behind the fields of wheat and the mountain sheep, was a mossy bog ever smoking like the fumes of dry ice. Bleached-white ash trunks fractured in the sun, and gnarled oaks stretched their way out to claw and scratch. Black mud rolled with wondrous varieties of serpents and reptiles, fungi and Monera.
This damnable earth carried a long and sad fable. An old tale… one of a boy born on a cold, harvest night to a widow by mining accident. Iuliu the Meek. The child lacked strength. He could barely plow. He couldn’t walk far without labored breath. His eyes appeared a perpetual hemorrhage, and grew to be excluded from the community. Before too long the new demon would be actively repelled by his peers. The sadness and sorrow drove him to seek refuge in the bog. No one dared follow, as it was believed to be a place of malevolent spirits and grief.
As generations came and went, the story was molded into a cautionary tale to keep children out. Reports from travelers would occasionally include the spotting of corpses ambling among the peat and tall grass. Legend had it they were the lives claimed by the swamp, making their pilgrimage to the hidden necropolis founded by Iuliu, now a terrifying necromancer.
A child’s bedtime story, townsfolk mythology at best, now presented itself for all to see. Iulius knew of Nicator’s advance and what would happen to the swamp if in the wrong hands. His refuge would cease to exist, as it would be drained for more crops. There was no way he would let the tactical incompetence of the Thicket destroy another home.
“And who, exactly, are you?” Ignorant to local culture, Nicator was watching a new spectacle unfold right before his eyes.
“I, sir, am Iulius,” the grate on the helmet blew words out like a bellows. His difficulty speaking became apparent, as he slowly and meticulously carved out sentences from these gusts. “I am here to inform you that the empire will not take the Thicket, and it shall fall back to its borders internationally recognized. This land has no need for the empire, and truly, the area is merely a notch in her belt.”
“How dare one knight defy the greatness of Nicator’s army!” A pompous shout, if one were ever to exist, but seconds gave way to laughter. “Your gall is laughable. How do you expect to succeed in this repel?”
“Mighty Emporor Nicator, do not be so foolish to think this emissary traveled lightly.” By this time the threads of smoke had made tendrils about the feet of the villagers. Heavier fog rolled over the battle ground like the tongues of wild animals. Even the most stalwart of soldier sensed the immediate dread over the cards to be played next.
Silence was broken when dozens of shofar blasted the tranquil air about them. Clink-a-clank, clink-a-clank, clink-a-clank. Rumble-thunk, Rumble-thunk, Rumble-thunk. Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop. The dead made themselve known. Warriors from brutal ages, archers of legendary marksmenship, and all ranges of calvary lined up with a motley of ensigns tattered by age and fighting. The seige mechanics milled about, slowly moving their abominations into position. Ghoulish creatures, never completely whole and never completely apart, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the now outrageously frightened militia. The scent of decomposition overwhelmed many, and gave way to the aroma of urine and defecant.
“What sorcery is this?!” Cried the conquerer of nations. “I have met the master of Evil this day! Lo, the empire does not do business with such treachery!”
This gave the gaunt figure pause, for it reminded him of his past. It reminded him of all he wished to escape, and the entire reason for his display. Further encouraged by his decision, he remained silent. A moment later saw the slow draw of a obsidian blade with white relief, the hounds of war, and come to point at the opposition. The drop cut curls into the larthargic mist.
No sooner did Nicator scream his orders than flames pox the sky. Utter bedlam broke out as the militia scrambled to save their own skin. One would think all of them came to fight barehanded, tools dropped so quickly. Blade upon blade, leather upon sinew, forces collided with a remarkable resonance. Fog confused, and smoke blurred. Chaos took his usual seat in the middle of the action.
Savage, but astonishingly harmless, living combatants were rendered helpless as children and no more dead than alive. Any unarmed being was then left to their own devices and soon found a will to live as a spectator. It did make sense, much later around the campfires of caravans, why this was to be. The dead, especially those a casualty of war, wish not to remember their past let alone repeat it. Their benevolence was cloaked in bone and riddle, but served as a potent reminder of the nature of combat. Running swift upon winged feet, messages of soliders returning to their countries spread from coast to coast. Most, if not all, would find a way to honor the dead in return for their sage-like mercy. An era of peace was afoot.
Nicator’s defeat was finalized with the would-be conqueror prostrate at Iulius’s stirrup. “By the gods, this wasn’t meant to happen! How?! I’m to rule the world. I am order! I am law! I am a god!” Weeping through his white silver mask, tears and saliva dripped from the slots masterfully carved.
“You are not a god, sir. You are a monster. You are an animal, and as such, you shall be dinner.” The sputtering line collided with the image of the victor. Someone so weak was now demonstrably formidable, and strong enough to cut the head off an empire. Nicator jumped to his feet in alarm. “What? NO!” could only escape his lips before the commanding officers fell upon him in hunger. Little could be seen of the actual event, but the gurgling wails gave nightmares to all. A revolting mess lay in place of the mightiest of the mighty.
The emaciated figure now turned to the gathering crowd for one last performance. Tired and taciturn, the black grill was finally removed to show the visage of a blood-eyed skull. Thin, ashen skin stretched taught over ancient bones ticked in the light of day while dirty white wisps of hair swayed from his scalp. Iulius preserved himself the only way he knew how.
“Thank you, merciful Iulius, for saving our people in this time of need.” Country folk knew naught of anything else to say. For a moment, it seemed as if all was right with the world until a screech of anger and pain pieced the gathering like a spear. Iulius was not intersted in amends, but not so much in revenge either. Guiding his steed through the mass, his party silently marched back to their domain. It served as a powerful statement to the folly of human nature.
For centuries to come, the swamp of the Thicket would be off limits for different reasons.
© 2013 by Corvidae in the Fields, all rights reserved