Amelia; or, The Faithless Briton (1787)

AMELIA: OR THE FAITHLESS BRITON.

“An original novel, founded upon recent facts.”

The Columbian Magazine, Philadelphia, 1787.


THE revolutions of government, and the subversions of empire, which have swelled the theme of national historians, have, likewise, in every age, furnished anecdote to the biographer, and incident to the novellist. The objects of policy or ambition are generally, indeed, accomplished at the expence of private ease and prosperity; while the triumph of arms, like the funeral festivity of a savage tribe, serves to announce some recent calamity—the waste of property, or the fall of families. Thus, the great events of the late war, which produced the separation of the British empire, and established the sovereignty of America, were chequered with scenes of private sorrow, and the success of the contending forces was alternately fatal to the peace and order of domestic life. The lamentations of the widow and the orphan, mingled with the song of victory; and the sable mantle with which the hand of friendship cloathed the bier of the gallant MONTGOMERY, cast a momentary gloom upon the trophies his valour had atchieved.

Though the following tale then, does not exhibit the terrible magnificence of warlike operations, or scrutinize the principles of national politics, it recites an episode that too frequently occurs in the military drama, and contains a history of female affliction, that claims, from its authenticity, at least, an interest in the feeling heart. It is the first of a series of novels, drawn from the same source, and intended for public communication, through the medium of the Columbian Magazine: but as the author’s object is merely to glean those circumstances in the progress of the revolution, which the historian has neither leisure nor disposition to commemorate, and to produce, from the annals of private life, something to entertain, and something to improve his readers, the occasion will yield little to hope from the applause of the public, and nothing to dread from its candor.

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HORATIO BLYFIELD was a respectable inhabitant of the state of New-York. Success had rewarded his industry in trade with an ample fortune; and his mind, uncontaminated by envy and ambition, freely indulged itself in the delicious enjoyments of the father and the friend. In the former character he superintended the education of a son and a daughter, left to his sole care by the death of their excellent mother; and in the latter, his benevolence and council were uniformly exercised for the relief of the distressed, and the information of the illiterate. His mercantile intercourse with Great Britain afforded an early opportunity of observing the disposition of that kingdom with respect to her colonies; and his knowledge of the habits, tempers, and opinions of the American citizens, furnished him with a painful anticipation of anarchy and war. The texture of his mind, indeed, was naturally calm and passive, and the ordinary effects of a life of sixty years duration, had totally eradicated all those passions which rouse men to opposition, and qualify them for enterprize. When, therefore, the gauntlet was thrown upon the theatre of the new world, and the spirit of discord began to rage, Horatio, like the Roman Atticus, withdrew from public clamour, to a sequestered cottage, in the interior district of Long-Island; and, consecrating the youthful ardour of his son, Honorius, to the service of his country, the fair Amelia was the only companion of his retreat.

Amelia had then attained her seventeenth year. The delicacy of her form was in unison with the mildness of her aspect, and the exquisite harmony of her soul, was responsive to the symmetry of her person. The pride of parental attachment had graced her with every accomplishment that depends upon tuition; and it was the singular fortune of Amelia, to be at once the admiration of our sex, and the favourite of her own. From such a daughter, Horatio could not but receive every solace of which his generous feelings were susceptible in a season of national calamity; but the din of arms that frequently interrupted the silence of the neighbouring forests, and the disastrous intelligence which his son occasionally transmitted from the standard of the union, superceded the cheerful avocations of the day, and dispelled the peaceful slumbers of the night. After a retirement of many months, on a morning fatal to the happiness of Horatio’s family, the sound of artillery announced a battle, and the horsemen who were observed gallopping across the grounds, proved that the scene of action could not be remote. As soon, therefore, as the tumult of hostility had subsided, Horatio advanced with his domestics, to administer comfort and assistance to the wounded, and to provide a decent interment for the mangled victims of the conflict. In traversing the deadly field, he perceived an officer, whose exhausted strength just served for the articulation of a groan, and his attention was immediately directed to the preservation of this interesting object, who alone, of the number that had fallen, yielded a hope that his compassionate exertions might be crowned with success. Having bathed, and bound up his wounds, the youthful soldier was borne to the cottage; where, in a short time, a stronger pulse, and a freer respiration, afforded a flattering presage of returning life. Amelia, who had anxiously waited the arrival of her father, beheld, with a mixed sensation of horror and pity, the spectacle which now accompanied him. She had never before seen the semblance of death, which therefore afflicted her with all the terrors of imagination; and, notwithstanding the pallid countenance of the wounded guest, he possessed an elegance of person, which, according to the natural operations of female sensibility, added something, perhaps, to her commiseration for his misfortunes. When, however, these first impressions had passed away, the tenderness of her nature expressed itself in the most assiduous actions for his ease and accommodation, and the encreasing symptoms of his recovery, filled her mind with joy and exultation. The day succeeding that on which he was introduced to the family of Horatio, his servant, who had made an
ineffectual search for his body among the slain, arrived at the cottage, and discovered him to be Doliscus, the only son and heir of a noble family in England. When Doliscus had recovered from the senseless state to which he had been reduced (chiefly, indeed, by the great effusion of blood) the first exercise of his faculties was the acknowledgement of obligation, and the profession of gratitude. To Horatio he spoke in terms of reverence and respect; and to Amelia in the more animated language of admiration, which melted at length, into the gentle tone of flattery and love. But Doliscus had been reared in the school of dissipation! and, with all the qualifications which allure and captivate the female heart, he had learned to consider virtue only as an obstacle to pleasure, and beauty merely as an incentive to the gratification of passion. His experience soon enabled him to discover something in the solicitude of the artless Amelia beyond the dictates of compassion and hospitality; and, even before his wounds were closed, he conceived the infamous project of violating the purity and tranquility of a family, to which he was indebted for the prolongation of his existence, and the restoration of his health. From that very innocence, however, which betrayed her feelings, while she was herself ignorant of their source, he anticipated the extremest difficulty and danger. To improve the evident predilection of her mind into a fixed and ardent attachment, required not, indeed, a very strenuous display of his talents and address; but the sacrifice of her honour (which an insurmountable antipathy to the matrimonial engagements made necessary to the accomplishment of his purpose) was a task that he justly foresaw, could be only executed by the detestable agency of perfidy and fraud. With these views then he readily accepted the solicitations of the unsuspecting host, and even contrived to protract his cure, in order to furnish a plea for his continuance at the cottage. Amelia, when, at length, the apprehensions for his safety were removed, employed all the charms of music and conversation to dissipate the languor, which his indisposition had produced, and to prevent the melancholy, with which retirement is apt to affect a disposition accustomed to the gay and busy transactions of the world. She experienced an unusual pleasure, indeed, in the discharge of these benevolent offices; for, in the company of Doliscus she insensibly forgot the anxiety she was wont to feel for the fate of her absent brother; and the sympathy which she had hitherto extended to all the sufferers of the war, was now monopolized by a single object. Horatio’s attachment to the solitude of his library, afforded frequent opportunities for this infatuating intercourse, which the designing Doliscus gradually diverted from general to particular topics—from observations upon public manners and events, to insinuations of personal esteem and partiality. Amelia was incapable of deceit, and unacquainted with suspicion. The energy, but, at the same time, the respect, with which Doliscus addressed her, was grateful to her feelings; his rank and fortune entitled him to consideration, and the inestimable favors that had been conferred upon him, offered a specious security for his truth and fidelity. The acknowledgement of reciprocal regard was, therefore, an easy acquisition, and Doliscus triumphed in the modest, but explicit avowal, before Amelia was apprized of its importance and extent. From that moment, however, he assumed a pensive and dejected carriage. He occasionally affected to start from the terrors of a deep reverie; and the vivacity of his temper, which had never yielded to the anguish of his wounds, seemed suddenly to have expired under the weight of secret and intolerable affliction. Amelia, distressed and astonished, implored an explanation of so mysterious a change in his deportment; but his reiterated sighs, which were for a while, the only answers she received, tended equally to encrease her curiosity and her sorrow. At length he undertook to disclose the source of his pretended wretchedness; and, having prefaced the hypocritical tale with the most solemn protestations of his love and constancy, he told the trembling Amelia that, were it even possible to disengage himself from an alliance which had been early contracted for him with a noble heiress of London, still the pride of family, and the spirit of loyalty, which governed his father’s actions, would oppose a union unaccompanied by the accumulation of dignity, and formed with one whose connections were zealous in the arduous resistance to the authority of Britain. “While he lives,” added Doliscus, “it is not in my power to chuse the means of happiness—and yet, as the time approaches when it will be inconsistent with the duty and honor of a soldier to enjoy any longer the society of Amelia, how can I reflect upon my situation without anguish and despair!” The delicate frame of Amelia was agitated with the sensations which this picture had excited; and, for the first time, she became acquainted with the force of love, and the dread of separation from its object. Doliscus traced the sentiments of her heart in the silent, but certain indications of her countenance, and when tears had melted the violence of her first emotion into a soft and sympathetic grief, the treacherous suitor thus prosecuted his scheme against her peace and innocence. “But it is impossible to resolve upon perpetual misery! One thing may yet be done to change the scene without incurring a father’s resentment and reproach:—can my Amelia consent to sacrifice a sentiment of delicacy, to ensure a life of happiness?” Her complexion brightened, and her eye inquisitively turned towards him. “The parade of public marriage” he continued, “neither adds strength or energy to the obligation; for, form is the superfluous offspring of fashion, not the result of reason. The poor peasant whose nuptial contract is only witnessed by the hallowed minister that pronounces it, is as blest as the prince who weds in all the ostentation of a court, and furnishes an additional festival to a giddy nation. My Amelia has surely no vanity to gratify with idle pageantry; and as the privacy of the marriage does not take from its sanctity, I will venture to propose—nay, look not with severity—at the neighbouring farm we may be met by the chaplain of my regiment, and love and honour shall record a union, which prudence fetters with a temporary secrecy.” Hope, fear, the sense of decorum, and the incitements of a passion pure, but fervent, completed the painful perturbation of Amelia’s heart, and, in this critical moment of her fate, deprived her of speech and recollection. An anxious interval of silence took place; but when, at length, the power of expression returned, Amelia urged the duty which she owed to a parent, the scandal which the world imputed to clandestine marriages, and the fatal consequences that might arise from the obscurity of the transaction. But Doliscus, steady to his purpose, again deprecated the folly of pursuing the shadow in preference to the substance, of preserving fame at the expence of happiness, and of relinquishing the blessings of connubial life, for the sake of its formalities. He spoke of Horatio’s inflexible integrity, which could not brook even the appearance of deception, and of his punctilious honor, which could not submit even to the appearance of intrusion upon the domestic arrangements of another, as insurmountable arguments for denying him the knowledge of their union. Finally, he described, in the warmest colouring of passion and fancy, the effects of Amelia’s refusal upon the future tenor of his life, and bathing her hand with his obedient tears, practised all the arts of flattery and frenzy. The influence of love supercedes every other obligation: Amelia acknowledged its dominion, and yielded to the persuasion of the exulting Doliscus. The marriage ceremony was privately repeated:—but how will it excite the indignation of the virtuous reader when he understands, that the sacred character of the priest was personated by a soldier whom Doliscus had suborned for this
iniquitous occasion! Ye spirits of seduction! whose means are the prostitution of faith, and whose end is the destruction of innocence,—tremble at impending judgment, for “there is no mercy in heaven for such unheard of crimes as these!” But a short time had elapsed after this fatal step, when the mandate of the commanding officer obliged Doliscus to prepare for joining his corps. A silent, but pungent sense of indiscretion, added to the anguish which Amelia felt in the hour of separation; and not all his strong assurances of inviolable truth and attachment, with the soothing prospect of an honorable avowal of their union could efface the melancholy impressions of her mind. The farmer, at whose house the fictitious marriage had been rehearsed, was employed to manage their future correspondence; and Doliscus, finally, left the cottage with vows of love and gratitude at his lips; but schemes of fraud and perjury in his heart. The small distance from New-York, where he was quartered, rendered it easy to maintain an epistolary intercourse; which became, during its continuance, the only employment, and the only gratification of Amelia’s existence. Its continuance, however, exceeded not a few weeks. Doliscus soon assumed a formal and dispassionate style, the number of his letters gradually diminished, and every allusion to that marriage, which was the last hope and consolation of Amelia, he cautiously avoided. But an event, that demanded the exercise of all her fortitude, now forced itself upon Amelia’s thoughts. She was pregnant; yet could neither resort for council and comfort to the father whom she had deceived, or obtain it from the lover by whom she had been seduced. In the tenderest and most delicate terms she communicated her situation to Doliscus, emphatically called upon him to rescue her reputation from obloquy, and solicitously courted his return to the cottage, or, at least, that he would disclose to Horatio the secret of their union. To prevent any accident, the farmer was prevailed upon to be the bearer of the paper which contained these sentiments, and, on his return produced the following epistle.

MADAM,

THE sudden death of my father will occasion my embarking for England to-morrow. It is not therefore possible to visit the cottage before my departure; but you may be assured, that I still entertain the warmest gratitude for the favours which were there conferred upon me by the virtuous Horatio, and his amiable daughter. Although I do not perfectly comprehend the meaning of some expressions you have employed, I perceive that you stand in need of a confidential person, to whom you may reveal the consequence of an indiscreet attachment; and from my knowledge of his probity (of which you are likewise a judge) no man seems more conveniently situated, or better calculated for that office than the worthy farmer who has delivered your letter. To him, therefore, I have recommended you; and, lest any pecuniary assistance should be necessary on this occasion, I have entrusted him with a temporary supply, directing him in what manner he may, from time to time, obtain a sum adequate to your exigencies. The hurry of package and adieus compels me abruptly to subscribe myself,

Madam,

Your most devoted, humble servant, DOLISCUS.

“Gracious God!” exclaimed Amelia, and fell senseless to the ground. For a while, a convulsive motion shook her frame, but gradually subsiding, the flame of life seemed to be extinct, and all her terrors at an end. The poor farmer, petrified with horror and amazement, stood gazing on the scene: but the exertions of his homely spouse, at length,
restored Amelia to existence and despair. It has often been observed that despondency begets boldness and enterprize; and the female heart, which is susceptible of the gentlest sentiment, is, likewise, capable of the noblest fortitude. Amelia perceived all the baseness of the desertion meditated by Doliscus, she foresaw all its ruinous consequences upon Horatio’s peace, her own character, and the fate of the innocent being which she bore, and, wiping the useless tears from her cheek, she resolved publicly to vindicate her honor, and assert her rights. Animated then, with the important purpose, supported by the presumption of her marriage, and hoping yet to find Doliscus in New-York, she immediately repaired to that city—but, alas! he was gone!

This disappointment, however, did not defeat, nor could any obstacle retard the prosecution of her design: a ship that sailed the succeeding day wafted her to Britain, friendless and forlorn.

Innumerable difficulties and inconveniences were encountered by the inexperienced traveller, but they vanished before the object of her pursuit; and even her entrance into London, that chaos of clamour and dissipation, produced no other sensations than those which naturally arose from her approach to the dwelling of Doliscus. Amelia recollected that Doliscus had often described the family residence to be situated to Grosvenor-place, and the stage, in which she journeyed, stopping in the evening, at a public house in Picadilly, she determined, without delay, to pay him her unexpected and unwelcome visit. The embarrassed and anxious manner with which she enquired for his house, exposed her to unjust surmise and senseless ribaldry; but her grief rendered her incapable of observation, and her purity was superior to insult. Doliscus had arrived about a fortnight earlier than Amelia. The title, influence, and fortune which devolved upon him in consequence of his father’s death, had swelled his youthful vanity to excess, and supplied him with a numerous retinue of flatterers and dependants. At the moment that he was listening in extasy to that servile crew, the victim of his arts, the deluded daughter of the man to whom he was indebted for the preservation of his life, stood trembling at his door. A gentle rap, after an awful pause of some minutes, procured her admission. Her memory recognized the features of the servant that opened the door; but it was not the valet who had attended Doliscus at the cottage—she remembered not where or when she had seen him. After considerable solicitation the porter consented to call Doliscus from his company, and conducted Amelia into an antichamber to wait his arrival. A roar of laughter succeeded the delivery of her message, and the word assignation, which was repeated on all sides, seemed to renovate the wit and hilarity of the table. The gay and gallant host, inflamed with Champagne, was not displeased at the imputation, but observed that as a lady was in the case, it was unnecessary to apologize for a short desertion of his friends and wine. At the sight of that lady, however, Doliscus started. Amelia’s countenance was pale and haggard with fatigue and sorrow, her person was oppressed with the burthen which she now bore in its last stage, and her eye, fixed steadfastly upon him, as he entered the room, bespoke the complicated anguish and indignation of her feelings. Her aspect so changed, and her appearance so unexpected, added to the terrors of a guilty conscience, and, for a moment, Doliscus thought the visitation supernatural. But Amelia’s wrongs having inspired her with courage, she boldly reproached him with his baseness and perfidy, and demanded a public and unequivocal acknowledgement of their marriage. In vain he endeavoured to sooth and divert her from her purpose, in vain to persuade her to silence and delay,—his arts had lost their wonted influence, while the restoration of her injured fame and honor absorbed every faculty of her mind.

At length he assumed a different tone, a more authoritative manner. “Madam,” exclaimed he, “I am not to be thus duped or controuled. I have a sense of pity, indeed, for your indiscretion, but none for your passion: I would alleviate your afflictions, but I will not submit to your frenzy.” “Wretch!” retorted Amelia, “but that I owe something to a father’s peace, I should despise to call thee husband.”—“Husband” cried Doliscus, with a sneer, “Husband! why truly, I remember a rural masquerade, at which an honest soldier, now my humble porter, played the parson, and you the blushing bride—but, pr’ythee, do not talk of husband.”—This discovery only was wanting for the consummation of Amelia’s misery. It was sudden and fatal as the lightning’s blast—she sunk beneath the stroke. A deadly stupor seized upon her senses, which was sometimes interrupted with a boisterous laugh, and sometimes with a nervous ejaculation. Doliscus, unaffected by compassion or remorse, was solicitous only to employ this opportunity for Amelia’s removal, and having conveyed her into a coach, a servant was directed to procure lodgings for her, in some obscure quarter of the city. She spoke not a word during the transaction, but gazing with apparent indifference upon the objects that surrounded her, she submitted to be transported whither soever they pleased to conduct her. After winding through a drear and dirty passage in the neighbourhood of St. Giles’s,18 the carriage stopped at a hovel which belonged to a relation of the servant that accompanied her, and, he having communicated in a short whisper the object of his visit, an old and decrepid beldame led Amelia into a damp and narrow room, whose scant and tattered furniture proved the wretchedness of its inhabitants. A premature birth was the natural consequence of the conflict which had raged in Amelia’s mind. She had entered the apartment but a few moments, when the approach of that event gave a turn to her passions, and called her drooping faculties once more into action. Without comfort, without assistance, in the hour of extreme distress (save the officious services of her antiquated host) she was delivered of a son; but the fond sensibility of the mother obtained an instantaneous superiority over every other consideration. Though, alas! this solitary gratification too, continued not long;—her infant expired after a languid existence of three days, serving only to encrease the bitterness of Amelia’s portion.
Amelia cast her eye towards heaven as the breath deserted the body of her babe:—it was not a look of supplication, for what had she to hope, or what to dread?—neither did it indicate dissatisfaction or reproach, for she had early learned the duty of reverence and resignation—but it was an awful appeal to the throne of grace, for the vindication of the act by which she had resolved to terminate her woes. A phial of laudanum, left by a charitable apothecary, who had visited her in her sickness, presented the means, and she wanted not the fortitude to employ them. Deliberately, then, pouring the baneful draught into a glass, she looked wistfully for a while upon the infant corpse that lay extended on its bed, then bending on her knee, uttered, in a firm and solemn voice the melancholy effusions of her soul.—“Gracious Father! when thy justice shall pronounce upon the deed which extricates me from the calamities of the world, let thy mercy contemplate the cause that urged me to the perpetration. I have been deluded into error; but am free from guilt: I have been solicitous to preserve my innocence and honour; but am exposed to infamy and shame. The treachery of him to whom I entrusted my fate, has reduced me to despair—the declining day of him from whom I received my being, has been clouded with my indiscretions, and there is no cure left for the sorrows that consume me, but the dark and silent grave. Visit me not then, in thy wrath, oh! Father, but let the excess of my sufferings in this world, expiate the crime which wafts me into the world to come—may thy mercy yield comfort to Horatio’s heart, and teach Doliscus the virtue of repentance!”
She rose and lifted the glass. At that instant, a noise on the stairs attracted her attention, and a voice anxiously pronouncing—“It must be so!—nay, I will see her—” arrested the dreadful potion in its passage to her lips. “It is my Amelia!” exclaimed Horatio, as he hastily entered the room.¹ Amelia started, and looked for some moments intently on her father, then rushed into his arms, and anxiously concealed the shame and agony of her countenance, in that bosom, from which alone she now dreaded a reproach, or hoped for consolation. He, too, beheld with horror the scene that was presented to his view: he pressed his deluded, miserable daughter, to his heart, while a stream of tears ran freely down his cheeks; till, at length, his imagination, infected with the objects that surrounded him, conceived the dreadful purpose of the draught, which had fallen from Amelia’s hand, and anticipated a sorrow, even beyond the extremity of his present feelings. When, however, he collected sufficient courage to resolve his fears, and it was ascertained, that the meditated act had not been perpetrated, a momentary sensation of joy illuminated his mind, like the transient appearance of the moon, amidst the gloomy horrors of a midnight storm. When the first impressions of this mournful interview had passed away, Horatio spoke comfort to his daughter. “Come, my child, the hand of Heaven, that afflicted us with worldly cares, has been stretched out to guard you from everlasting wretchedness:—that Providence which proves how vain are the pursuits of this life, has bestowed upon us the means of seeking the permanent happiness of that which is to come. Chear up, my Amelia! The errors of our conduct may expose us to the scandal of the world, but it is guilt alone which can violate the inward tranquility of the mind.” He then took her hand, and attempted to lead her to the door. “Let us withdraw from this melancholy scene, my love!”—“Look there!” said Amelia, pointing to the corpse,– “look there!” “Ah!” said Horatio, in a faultering accent, “but it is the will of Heaven!” “Then it is right,” cried Amelia—“give the poor victim a little earth—sir! is it not sad to think of?—and I am satisfied.” She now consented to quit the room, and was
conveyed in a carriage to the inn, at which Horatio (who immediately returned to superintend the interment of the child) had stopped on his arrival.

It is now proper to inform the reader, that after Amelia had left the Cottage, and the alarm of her elopement had spread around the neighbourhood, the Farmer hastened to communicate to Horatio the transactions which he had witnessed, and the suspicions which his wife had conceived of Amelia’s situation. The wretched father sickened at the tale. But it was the sentiment of compassion, and not of resentment, that oppressed his soul. There are men, indeed, so abject in their subjection to the opinion of the world, that they can sacrifice natural affection to artificial pride, and doom to perpetual infamy and wretchedness, a child, who might be reclaimed from error by parental admonition, or raised from despair by the fostering hand of friendship. Horatio, however, entertained a different sense: he regarded not the weakness of human virtue as an object of accusation, but liberally distinguished between the crimes and the errors of mankind; and, when he could not alleviate the afflicted, or correct the vicious, he continued to lament, but he forebore to reprobate. “My poor Amelia! How basely has her innocence been betrayed!—But I must follow her:—may be, her injuries have distracted her, and she has fled, she knows not whither! Come! Not a moment shall be lost: I will overtake my child, wherever her sorrows may lead her; for, if I cannot procure redress for her wrongs, I will, at least, administer comfort to her miseries.” Such was the language of Horatio, as soon as he could exercise the power of utterance. A few days enabled him to arrange his affairs, and having learned the route which Amelia had taken, he embarked in the first vessel for England. The peculiar object of his voyage, and the nature of his misfortunes, determined him to conceal himself from the knowledge of his friends and correspondents; and a lucky chance discovered the wretched abode of his Amelia, the very instant of his arrival in London. “Can you tell me, my good host, where Doliscus, the lord —, resides?” said Horatio as he entered the inn. “Marry, that I can,” replied the landlord: “his porter is just now talking with my wife; and if you will step into the next room, perhaps he will shew you the way to the house.” Horatio advanced towards the room door, and, upon looking through a glass pannel in the door, he beheld the identical servant that had attended Doliscus at the Cottage, in eager conversation with the hostess. He paused. “She is delivered; but the child is dead:” —said the servant. Horatio started; his imagination eagerly interpreted these words to have been spoken of Amelia, and he could scarcely restrain the anguish of his feelings from loud exclamation and complaint.—“My lord’s conscience grows unusually troublesome” continued the servant; “he has ordered me again to enquire after her health, and to provide for the funeral of the child–Would she were safe in America! for, to be sure, her father is the best old man that ever lived!” “It is well!” cried Horatio. “Did you call sir?” said the hostess, opening the door. The servant took this opportunity of withdrawing, and Horatio silently followed him, at a distance, till he arrived at the habitation of Amelia, in the critical moment which enabled him to save the life he had given, and to rescue his deluded daughter from the desperate
sin of suicide. When Horatio returned to the inn, after discharging the last solemn duties to the departed infant, the landlord presented a letter to him, which a servant had just left at the bar, and asked if he was the person to whom it was addressed. As soon as Horatio had cast eye upon the superscription, he exclaimed, “What mistery is this?—A letter left for my son Honorius at an inn in London.” He eagerly seized the paper, and retiring into an adjoining chamber, he perused its contents with increased amazement and agitation.

SIR,

I AM sensible that the injuries of which you complain, will neither admit of denial or expiation. Your note was delivered; a few minutes after, some circumstances had been
communicated to me respecting the unhappy Amelia, that awakened a sentiment of remorse, and prepared me for a ready compliance with your summons. To-morrow morning, at five o’clock, I shall attend at the place which you have appointed.

DOLISCUS.

The voice of Honorius, enquiring for the letter, roused Horatio from the reverie into which its contents had plunged him. The honor, of his son, the villainy of his antagonist and Amelia’s sufferings, contending with the feelings of the father, and the forbearance of the christian, at last prevailed with him to suffer the hostile interview to which Doliscus had thus consented. When therefore, Honorius entered the room, and the natural expressions of tenderness and surprize were mutually exchanged, they freely discoursed of the lamentable history of Amelia, and warmly execrated that treachery which had accomplished the ruin of her peace and fame. Nor had Doliscus confined his baseness to this object. The chance of war had thrown Honorius into his power shortly after his departure from the cottage, and discovering his affinity to Amelia, the persevering hypocrite artfully insinuated to the commander in chief, that Honorious meditated an escape, and obtained an order for his imprisonment on board a frigate, which sailing suddenly for England, he was lodged upon his arrival, in the common gaol, appropriated for the confinement of American prisoners. Here it was, however, that he acquired the information of Amelia’s elopement, and heard the cause to which it was imputed from the captured master of an American vessel, who had formerly been employed in the service of Horatio, and had received the communication from the lips of his ancient patron, in the first moments of his grief. The fate which had unexpectedly led him to Britain, Honorious now regarded as the minister of his revenge. He frowned away the tear which started at the recital of his sister’s wrongs, as if ashamed to pity ’till he had redressed them; and feeling, upon this occasion, an additional motive for soliciting his freedom, he employed the interest of Horatio’s name, which notwithstanding the political feuds that prevailed, was sufficient, at length, to procure his discharge upon parol. Having easily learned the abode of Doliscus, he immediately addressed that note to him which produced the answer delivered to Horatio. When Honorius was informed that Amelia was, at that time, beneath the fame roof, he expressed an eager desire immediately to embrace his afflicted sister; but Horatio strongly represented the impropriety of an interview ’till the event of the assignation with Doliscus was ascertained, and it was, therefore, agreed for the present, to conceal his arrival from her knowledge. Absorbed in the melancholy of her thoughts, Amelia had not uttered a syllable since the removal from her dreary habitation, but suffered the busy attentions of
the servants of the inn, with a listless indifference. The agitation of her mind, indeed, had hitherto rendered her insensible to the weakness of her frame; but exhausted nature, at length produced the symptoms of an approaching fever, and compelled her, reluctantly, to retire to her bed. When Horatio entered the room, the fever had considerably increased, he therefore requested the assistance of a neighbouring physician, who pronounced her situation to be critically dangerous. In the evening, the unusual vivacity of her eyes, the incoherence of her speech, and repeated peals of loud and vacant laughter, proved the disordered state of her understanding, and increased the apprehensions of her attendants. “A few hours will decide her fate,” said the Doctor, as he left the room. “My poor Amelia!” cried Horatio, raising her hand to his lips—she looked sternly at him for a moment, then relaxing the severity of her features, she again burst into a boisterous laugh, which terminated in a long and heavy sigh, as if her spirits were exhausted with the violence of her exertions. The task which Horatio had now to perform was difficult indeed! The virtue and fortitude of his soul could hardly sustain a conflict against the grief and passion that consumed him, while on the one hand, he beheld the distraction of his daughter, and, on the other, anticipated the danger of his son. He resolved, however, to keep Amelia’s indisposition a secret from Honorius, with whom he arranged the dreadful business of the morning, and, having fervently bestowed his blessing there, he returned to pass the night in prayer and watching by Amelia’s side. Honorius retired to his chamber, but not to rest. It was not, however, the danger of the approaching combat, which occasioned a moment’s anxiety or reflection; for his courage was superior to every consideration of personal safety. But that courage had hitherto been regulated by a sense of obligation consistent with the precepts of religion—he had often exerted it to deserve the glorious meed of a soldier, but he scorned to employ it for the contemptible reputation of a duellist; it had taught him to serve his country, but not to offend his God. “If there is a cause which can justify the act, is it not mine? ’Tis not a punctilious honour, a visionary insult, or a petulant disposition that influences my conduct:” said Honorius, as he mused upon the subject. “A sister basely tricked of her innocence and fame, a father ungratefully plundered of his peace and hopes, in the last stage of an honorable life, and myself (but that is little) treacherously transported to a remote and inhospitable land—these are my motives; and Heaven, Doliscus, be the judge between us!” As soon as the dawn appeared, Honorius repaired to the place of appointment, where a few minutes before the hour, Doliscus, likewise arrived. He was attended by a friend, but perceiving his antagonist alone, he requested his companion to withdraw to a distant spot, from which be might observe the event, and afford assistance to the vanquished party. “Once more we meet, Sir,” said Doliscus, “upon the business of death; but that fortune which failed you in your
country’s cause, may be more propitious in your own.”– “What pity it is,” exclaimed Honorius, “that thou should’st be a villain, for thou art brave!” “Nay, I come to offer a more substantial revenge for the wrongs I have committed, than merely the imputation of so gross an epithet—take it, Sir,—it is my life.” They instantly engaged. Doliscus for awhile defended himself with superior address, but laying himself suddenly open to the pass of his antagonist, he received his sword in the left breast, a little below the seat of the heart! “Nobly done,” cried Doliscus as he fell, “it is the vengeance of Amelia; and oh! may it serve to expiate the crime of her betrayer.” His friend who had attentively viewed the scene, advanced, when he saw him on the ground; and, assisted by Honorius, bore him to a carriage which had been directed to attend within call. He was then conveyed to the house of an eminent surgeon, who having ordered the necessary accommodations, examined the wound, and pronounced it to be mortal. “Fly, sir,” said Doliscus turning to Honorius at this intelligence—“your country will afford you an asylum, and protect you from the consequences of my fate. I beseech you embitter not my last moments with the
reflection of your danger—but bear with you to the injured Amelia, the story of my repentance, and, if you dare, ask her to forgive me.” The resentments of Honorius were subdued, he presented his hand to the dying Doliscus, in whose eye a gleam of joy was kindled at the thought, but it was quickly superceded by a cold and sudden tremour; he attempted, but in vain, to speak; he seized the offered hand; he pressed it eagerly to his lips, and in the moment of that expressive action, he expired.

Honorius now hastened to inform Horatio of this fatal event, and to contrive the means of escape. But when he returned to the inn, confusion and distress were pictured on every face; a wild, but harmonious voice, occasionally broke forth into melancholy strains, and the name of Amelia was repeatedly pronounced in accents of tenderness and
compassion.—“How is it my son?” cried Horatio eagerly. “Doliscus is no more!” replied Honorius. “Would he had lived another day! I wished not the ruin of his soul.” “But he
repented sir.” “Then heaven be merciful!” exclaimed Horatio. Here their conversation was interrupted, by the melodious chauntings of Amelia. I’ll have none of your flowr’s, tho’ so blooming and sweet; Their scent, it may poison, and false is their hue; I tell you be gone! for I ne’er shall forget, That Doliscus was lovely and treacherous too. Honorius listened attentively to the song; it vibrated in his ear, and swelled the aching artery of his heart. “Come on!” said Horatio leading him to Amelia’s chamber. They found her sitting on the bed, with a pillow before her, over which she moved her fingers, as if playing on a harpsichord. Their entrance disturbed her for a moment, but she soon resumed her employment. He said and swore he lov’d me true:—was it a lover’s part, To ruin good Horatio’s peace, and break Amelia’s heart? A heavy sigh followed these lines, which were
articulated in a wistful and sympathetic tone, and she sunk exhausted on her bed.—In a few minutes, however, she started from this still and silent state, and having gazed with a wild and aching eye around the room, she uttered a loud and piercing cry—it was the awful signal of her dissolution—and her injured spirit took its everlasting flight.

The reader will excuse a minute description of the succeeding scenes. The alarm raised by the death of Doliscus compelled Honorius to quicken his departure, and he joined the standard of America a few hours before the battle of Monmouth, in which, for the service of his country, he sacrificed a life that misfortune had then taught him to consider of no other use or estimation. As for the venerable Horatio–having carried with him to the cottage the remains of his darling child, in a melancholy solitude he consumes the time; his only business, meditation and prayer; his only recreation a daily visit to the monument, which he has raised in commemoration of Amelia’s fate, and all his consolation resting in this assurance, that whatever may be the sufferings of virtue HERE, its portion must be happiness HEREAFTER.

###


Endnotes

¹ This is the point where the first installment of Amelia in the Columbian Magazine ends; the tale was continued two months later in December of 1787.

Strawberry Moon

“If you don’t find the fern by morning, you’ll turn into a goat.”

Eduards shook his golden head, “Sure…”

“You will.”

“That’s not one of Uncle stories. You just made that up.”

“Don’t worry. I know a witch that can turn you back,” Audra declared raising her thick, black brows.

The children scrambled over the bracken floor, backlit, as the trees, by the sanguine hues of the great strawberry moon.

“I’m not going to turn into a goat.”

“Yes you are. You can’t find it.”

“Haven’t even got to where the ferns grow, yet.”

“Doesn’t matter. Hasn’t Uncle told you the story of the fern flower?”

“No.”

“The fern flower can’t be found in company.”

Eduards stopped and turned to the young girl, with a puzzled expression.

“Ferns don’t have flowers.”

“They do. They’re just invisible. That’s what uncle said. Said they only appear tonight, June 24th. Will be the 25th soon.”

“If fern flowers are invisible, then how does Uncle know about them?”

The Seal Maiden & The Spirit Cage

“I can not.” The woman declared, shaking her head, slick red locks swirling like ethereal worms.

“Can not… or will not?” The shaman pressed, narrowing his dark, grey eyes shimmering like boiling water full up with the light of the midday sun.

“I will not.”

“It is my right, as it is thy duty, Sephia.”

“Even still.”

“Thou art decided?”

“I am.”

“If thou wilt bare no child of mine, thine own shall the human form eschew.”

“No!”

“Thou shalt beget only seals.”

She shrunk away from the shaman, though she knew he was too powerful for distance to matter for he needed no proximity to weave a death-gealdor. She had seen it. The shaman had demanded the hand of the daughter of Low-Frost, the latter refusing, whereupon the shaman had informed him that the spirits would be most displeased and would surely punish him for his insolent selfishness. Low-Frost had collapsed three days later directly following his third meal of the day. Foam about his mouth. His daughter, Dancing Willow, was convinced it was the work of angry spirits and consequently pledged herself to the shaman the following day.

Sephia braced herself against the wall as the mystic took a step forward, his attendants and Dancing Willow watching with nervous anticipation from the middle of the room.

“All thy line shalt be contorted by the high-hain. All thy line shalt be seals.”

With that he brushed passed Sephia and passed into the outer bright, his entourage swiftly following.

*

The pale skinned man appeared as if from some other plane. His manifestation was so foreign and his appearance so sudden that many of the villagers believed he was not of the world, but of the spirit plane that lay beyond the veil of the High Mist and the edges of the Great Waters. The outlander was so courteous and fluent in the native tongue that the villagers could not but welcome him.

Upon his second day at the village he was sought out by a middle aged man with braided beard and a dour expression.

“Outlander, I hath heard thou hailest from the south; it is said that southerners are versed in the medicinal arts. Is this so?”

The pale man smiled faintly and adjusted himself upon the rune stone he had taken for a chair and cast his gaze to the south, where the hilly land flattened out and was swallowed up by great and tangled forests that gleamed white with caked on snow.

“Aye. That tis so.”

“Then… perhaps thou mayest assist in this dire moment.”

“Dire moment?”

“Tis mine daughter, outlander, she hath been afflicted.”

“With?”

“A spiritual sickness. A curse.”

“Wherefore this sickness?”

“She hath refused to bare the child of Singing-Thorn, our shaman, as is his right. For this denial the spirits have castigated the poor child and her womb swells with their fervor.”

“That sounds very grave indeed. I shall go to her forthwith, if thou wouldst only lead me aright.”

The man nodded and then paused and realized he had not made proper greetings.

“Thy name, kind stranger?”

The pale man smiled broadly, “Dren. Drake Dren.”

“I am High-Stone.”

“Well met, sir. Let us make of earth a drum and beat a hasty tune.”

With that the two men left off and in short order made way to a small hut covered with a leather tarp that issued forth small puffs of white smoke; to the outlander the construct looked akin to a tiny volcano made of sticks. The men passed within whereupon High-Stone gestured to a young woman who lay upon a cot, flush and breathing irregularly and swaddled in blankets. Though she appeared to Drake as somewhat ill, there was no outward sign of injury.

“This is my daughter, Sephia.”

“Quite a departure from the usual nomenclature.”

“Her mother was from southern lands.”

“I see.”

“Please, see to her. I do not expect miracles, but the spirits are capricious.”

Drake nodded and knelt upon a rough-sewn rug next to the cot. The woman opened her eyes and withdrew from the man.

“Who is this?”

“Fear not, little one, he’s an outlander, from the south. He’s here to help.”

“There can be no help… my children shalt be seals.”

Drake arched a brow and turned to make a inquiry to his host only to witness High-Stone exiting the hut, muttering, “I have errands I must attend to.” Drake refocused his attention upon the shivering body of the terrified young woman before him and reached out and gently braced her forearm.

“Calm thyself, woman and explain thyself. Wherefore this talk of seals?”

“The shaman… has cursed me.”

“Why?”

“I refused to bare his child.”

“Ah.”

The woman looked away as Dren furrowed his brows momentarily, resuming a open and amiable countenance when she returned her gaze.

“Thou art soul-sick. But despair not – I can work a charm to remove the gealdor and banish the spirits.”

“That is impossible! I thank thee for thy pains, outlander, but there is nothing thee can do. The shaman’s gealdory is too powerful to be overcome by one uninitiated into the mysteries of the hain.”

“Who told thee I was uninitiated? I shall show thee the falsity of thy words and swiftly. Let us weave the charm. I need of thee a little of thy knowing. I must ask thee a personal question — I disdain such prying, but that it is imperative — whence last didst thee lay with a man?”

The young woman blushed and pulled the blankets more tightly around her shivering frame.

“I have never slept with a man.”

“I see. Tell me this also, what and when didst last thee eat?”

“Barley.”

“Was it raw?”

“Yes.”

He felt her head and then with drew, sitting upon his haunches and gazing at the ground with his keen, gold-green eyes.

“Then drink water and plentifully. Rest and exert thyself not.”

“I see. I thank thee kindly for thy pains. Now I must go; but I shall return shortly. Do as I have bide and leave the rest to me.”

The pale, angular man then left Sephia to her travails. She rose and drank some water and then laid back down and slept until he returned bearing a strange concoction. He asked her to drink it and she did so without hesitation; if her father trusted him, so too would she. With that Dren informed her to rest and that he would return again once his charm was done.

*

Days passed and with the setting of every sun, Sephia felt a little better. The swelling in her stomach had gone away completely and her fever had subsided. On the second day word began to spread throughout the village; murmurs of a challenger to the shaman’s dominion, one who sought to break his gealdor. On the third day Sephia was feeling good enough to get up and feed her goats, even though her father had seen to them but several hours before, and as she did so she heard the voices of two other young men from the village speaking a couple yards away.

“Know ye this outlander, Rough-Stone?”

Rough-Stone shook his shaggy, braided locks, “I know him not, but saw him whence he’d come. He’d strange eyes, what looked gold beneath the sphere’s turning.”

Sephia nodded to herself; his eyes were strange. Every villager knew that the eyes were the windows to the soul which was but further proof of his charms potency.

On the fourth day, Drake returned, a broad smile adorning his sharp and corvine face and a odd contraption clutched in his left hand as he greeted the young woman beside her goats.

“Stranger! Thy charm hath freed me from the spell! See, see,” she grabbed his free hand and pressed it to her belly.

“Thy charm hath removed the seal!”

He held up the little contraption, “Indeed. I captured the spirits in this box where even now they reside.” A little crowd began to gather, tittering with excitement and curiosity.

“If thou canst remove seals, then thou art stronger than the shaman.”

The crowd swelled and they moved forth to better inspect the stranger, someone muttering, “He broke the shaman’s gealdor; such a thing is not possible!”

In short order the shaman himself appeared whereupon the crowd made way as he strode confidently and furiously up to Sephia and her newfound friend.

“I see thy baleful machinations! Begone, outlander; thou hath no business here.”

“I am afraid thou art mistaken. My business with thee closely resides. See here this box?”

“Aye.”

“Knowth thee what it contains?”

“Nay.”

“Thine spirits, summoned for dear Sephia.”

A beleaguered look passed over what little of the mystic’s face were visible behind his gruesome mask of bone.

“That is not possible.”

“Oh, believe thee not thy own professions?”

“That is not what I meant! The spirits cannot be commanded.”

“And yet thou hath commanded them.”

“Yes, but-”

“So they can be commanded.”

“Yes, but only by one who has knowledge of the other side. What would a outlander such as thee know of it?”

“More than thee.”

The shaman gave a booming laugh.

“Prove it then; open the box.”

A crooked smiled played up the side of the pale man’s face.

“If I open the box the spirits will be freed. Doth thee wish to birth a seal?”

The crowd chittered. Someone spoke up with nervous agitation, “He’s right; what if the spirits possess one of us?!” A old man declared suddenly, “He must not open the box!” Swiftly the crowd followed suit, urging Dren to keep the contraption closed and chiding the shaman for his recklessness in summoning the spirits to begin with. Their concern became so intense that Drake threw up his free hand in entreaty and spoke with sudden vivacity.

“Fear not, dear people, I shall not open the box unless thy leader commands it.”

They looked to the shaman with expectation; the shaman sighed.

“Leave it.”

The throng breathed a sigh of relief as the outlander pocketed the box triumphantly. The shaman gave his opponent a poisonous glare and then retreated to his lodge with his attendants. The following day, High-Stone returned from his errand with the neighboring tribe and thanked the outlander for freeing his daughter from the spirits of the otherworld they called ‘Corybahn.’ He offered her hand, but Dren politely declined.

In the days that followed, the villagers increasingly turned to the outlander for advice and protection, some dubbing him Yellow-Eyes, others still, The Spirit-Cage, others yet still, The Crow of Corybahn.

Within the month, he had the run of the town.

The Warlord (Part 3)

I awake on a cold slab, with a cool draft passing over my bare chest soaked in frigid sweat.  Only the faint glow of a brazier with lowering embers lights the chamber. I sit up.

You won.”  Says the Warlord, his gravelly voice echoing in here.  He sits in a throne-like chair on a stone dais not far from me.
“What happened?”  I groan.
“I did not attempt anything like you did until I was already a couple decades in the service of the Shadow.  I started out with the smallest animals and you wanted to begin with one of the more strong-willed people you will encounter.”

I feel like I’m torn up inside.”  I wince as I try to move, although my body aches I suddenly feel my heart awash with sorrow, burning cold, and then numbness.

You have paid a price.”

How long was I—?”

Days.  Just laying here locked in struggle.  I could feel it was almost over one way or another.  Thought I would have a look.”

I plant my feet on the ground now and force myself to stand, trembling as I do so.  I see my sweat stained undershirt nearby and haltingly struggle to pull it over my head, as if I were a child again.
“Will I heal?”  I ask in apprehension.

No.  Wounds to the soul are eternal.”

Surely nothing is worth a soul.”
“Many of those who seek out Heaven or Hell have suffered.  They long for something greater in which to lose a self that only brings them pain.”

I think of seeing my parents, my brother and sister laying sprawled, bloodied, and crushed unrecognizably in the village square when their last stirrings of life faded in the red of sunset.  I remember the bloody tears coursing down Saint Suryn’s contorted face wrought in smooth white marble. Even as I regain possession of myself, I shudder and turn away toward the stairs leading up.  Just before I begin my ascent the Warlord continues.
“All of us are wounded. Until one day we are scraped down to our essence.”
Without a word, I take the first step up the stairs.  And then another. The first spark of my strength begins to return.

Soon, I see the first tower window with a lazily warm breeze drifting through it, laden with the scent of orange blossoms.  The light of the full moon shines bright through that aperture. Soon I encounter the first soldiers and though I am barefoot in filthy clothes they make way for me with reverence and salute with their weapons crossed over their breastplates.  “Soul-eater!” I hear. “Slayer of Jazan Gur!”
“Where do I sleep?” I ask.

Instead of a tent or barracks, I am shown to my own chamber, well furnished and sumptuous by any standard I have ever known.
I collapse onto my soft bed and pass out at once.

I wake up in the morning with rays of light flooding in through leaded window panes. I haul myself down to the pool fed by a hot spring and feel the layers of grime wash away and the tenseness of many months suddenly relax.  I luxuriate in heat that soaks through me and the gentle whisper of steam that finally seems to relieve many months of marching, digging, and sleeping outdoors in freezing cold, I feel that my arms, chest, and shoulders are even wider than before, corded thick with brawn.  The bottom of the pool is covered in tiles of powdered gold and lapis lazuli Up above are small octagonal windows that that let shafts of light fall through swirls of rising steam. All around are great round stone pillars that create a comfortably enclosed feeling as the domed ceiling creates spaciousness in just the right way.

Now that I have time to think, much of my past memory seems dimmer and further away than it did just before the capture of Siprali.  As I bask in feelings of peace for the first time in what seems forever, I become aware of parts of me that once were too painful to bear and now are cauterized.  My senses are that much more immediate with parts of my past self torn away forever. I even think back on watching my family murdered and somehow am now distant enough to feel the beginnings of detachment.  In some sense it is a great comfort to be freed from such torments, though I feel empty spots inside me where the warrior woman’s soul tore up my own. I think I am just such a person as the Warlord described last night.

Afterwards I lounge for a few hours in my chamber in a comfortable robe and then dress myself for a meeting of our leadership.  Renewed and dressed better than I ever have been before, I set forth.
The Warlord is waiting for us in the deep foundation of the citadel.

The Coalition of the Ascendant have fortified themselves in Sirangulam.”  He begins.

The two sister cities along this trade coast now oppose one another.  We will continue to push south but there will be no easy victory. They are massing their forces and will one day be able to push us back if we wait.”

Edrak of Savisia confronts the gold palanquin.
“You intervened in an honorable challenge when they made no move to violate it!”
The Grand Equal intones a hum of displeasure.  “They are scum.” It rasps.
The knight retorts “If we violate challenges, they will backstab just as gladly.”
“Our rules do not protect those who serve hell.”
“Damn it!  I watched my Captain fall right after the Ha—the Sorceress Queen joined the fight and broke a rightful challenge.  I saw as a demonic soldier rallied to his outnumbered leader and slew the father of our order.”
“You will not speak of her with irreverence.” said the Equal, its voice dripping with understated rage.

Suddenly Edrak’s mouth is stopped up and he can say nothing.  He feels inexplicably weak and falls to his knees.

The palanquin somehow drifts closer.

Edrak looks up helplessly as a sallow, sunken face with depthless black eye sockets emerges from the curtains.  It presses its mouth to his as he kneels there paralyzed and a great length of putrid tongue rams down his throat.  He strains as hard as he can to breathe and to escape the spell that somehow prevents him from struggling with all his might, or even from gagging.  The emaciated figure hidden behind the curtain gives a deep moan of satisfaction and Edrak feels some warming substance pouring into his gut. As his master’s tongue retracts, he slumps to the ground and lapses into delirium.
He sees a vision of the Grand Master Jazan Gur.  His brow furrowed in noble thought at his desk in his tent during the Northern campaign, all just as he remembered.  He tries to call out to him but realizes he is a disembodied observer. Then, the Hag slips into the tent without bothering to announce herself and comes behind him.  As he pores over a map, she strokes his head. Instead of starting with surprise, the general tilts his head back languorously, as if in a trance. She kisses him fully on the mouth with her thin, withered lips.  His throat bulges as her tongue forces its way back. Her hairy forearms wrap around his strong shoulders. Then the general’s whole body goes slack. The Hag withdraws and Jazan Gur is left slumped over in his chair.  Edrak tries to do something, anything to intervene and horror wells up in him. It was like this all along. The man who he had idolized but a slave as he had now become. Ever since he was a child, no one had seemed stronger than the White Knights and the Grand Master himself had seemed like an angel.

Edrak came to on the marble floor of the throne room.  It was night now. The Grand Equal’s palanquin is back where it had been as if nothing had happened.  Had it been just a strange nightmare?

I’ve chosen you to be my champion as the Grand Master before you was chosen by my sister.” comes the voice from the palanquin.  “You will argue with me no longer and carry out my will. Go now.”
Edrak gets to his feet and stumbles from the royal chamber and braces himself against the walls as he sways his way shakily down the steps.  On his way down he passes white knights who fervently salute him but he can say nothing to them now. He is still stunned and drained from whatever has just happened to him.

The cities of Epyr Siprali and Sirar Sirangulam face off against each other for the next few months, the demonic forces in the north, the Coalition of the Ascendant fighting from the south.  Several battles taking place in the narrow, strategic lowland that lies between jagged, sun-baked mountain ranges.
In that time I have taken many trophies of my enemies’ heads and when I can, their souls too.  As I draw that inestimable power into me from unwilling foes, I have grown more dangerous and savage than many who have served under the black dragon banner for far longer.  Every time a desperate soul claws back against mine I backhand it into submission as it wails and the scratches left behind turn into scar tissue and tough calluses. It is not as damaging to me as my first victim was, yet each time, I feel further away from who I once was.
The Warlord is agitated at the lack of progress.  He paces as he addresses us.
“Time is on their side.  The longer this war of attrition drags on, the more the hordes of fanatics multiply.  After awhile even our great victory in the far north is for nothing and their strength restored.  This stalemate must be broken now. I know their ultimate leader is there in Sirangulam. We must draw them into battle.”

The very next day we march out of the gates of Siprali in our black ranks bearing our standards as deep drums beat.  The dust of the road curls about our column in the dawn as we begin to wind our way further south with nearly our full strength.  At the end of the first day, we reach the yawning mouth of the two mountain ranges. On the second day, we are full of excitement and suspense as we approach Shemgaum Pass, the narrowest point between the mountains, the place where they would be waiting, the spot where there have been many battles before across ages.  We are greeted by barren silence. There are reports of a few of their scouts but it is clear that they are allowing us through without a fight. The men begin to bang weapons on their shields along with the drums and chant in their deep voices as they see not a single enemy soldier blocks the pass. The army moves at a tremendous pace, eager to be through the strategic chokepoint and break through into enemy territory.  The Warlord communes with the shadows and somehow the army keeps marching through the night and all through the next day until the walls and spires of Sirangulam are in sight by the end of the third day. Commotion and panic are audible from miles away as no one had thought it possible for the offensive to move so quickly. The demoniacs and the strongest human soldiers press forward yet again during the night and are dug in before the walls and beginning to build again the engines of war.  Soon, the rest of the Dark Army arrives and so another siege is begun.

Sirar Sirangulam lies just off the coast on an island.  A small spit of land connects it to the mainland at high tide and that is when we charge its walls with everything we’ve got.  It’s not enough with the core of the Coalition of the Ascendant encamped there. The Warlord has us bring dirt and gravel from miles around to throw into a recalcitrant sea to gradually form a permanent bridge.  All day and night, fanatics and sympathizers charge our trenches from the landward side to relieve the beleaguered garrison but we are always prepared for them in our defensive positions. Their bodies begin to pile up until swarms of flies dominate the air.  We catapult their maggot-ridden corpses over the walls of Sirangulam for it is a sort of ammunition that never runs out.

Every night after sundown our skirmishers fight furiously for control of the one nearby spring that prevents our men from dying of thirst in sight of endless waves.  After resistance grows, I am finally assigned to go with them to make sure all goes as planned. In the small hours of the morning we depart with scores of armored men carrying empty barrels.  We start taking arrows and crossbow bolts as soon as we get near the springs and then I spring into action. I sprint a few hundred meters in full armor with inhuman speed and begin to butcher the harassers single-handedly.  My men soon catch up with me and battle is joined in the darkest hour of night. It is impossible to tell who is winning.

As the sky flaunts the earliest gray hint of dawn I find myself facing a White Knight whose bright surcoat is just visible.  His blade hisses out of its sheath and I am immediately thrown back by a strength I have never seen. We fight until the soldiers of both sides are at a distance from us.  The first light catches the tip of his blade as another impossibly crushing blow falls upon my shield and throws me back into a grassy beach dune. As the first light reveals me fully, he lowers his sword and speaks.
“You killed my captain in Itlavalus!  Now I will slay you!”

It dawns on me now.

You slew one of mine escaping Siprali!”

I wish it had been just me.  I will kill you by myself. I have the Grand Equal’s blessing.”

How can an equal be grand?” I mock.

By overcoming privileged men who turn to evil, like you!”
“Your dear equal leader is under siege now.  Again.”

We will cut you off from every side until you are crushed.  Even until you grow old and the young have all joined us.”

Every declining empire thinks time is on its side.” I retort. “You had over seventy years and now everyone can see that your rule has failed.  We are just the ones who stand up. Kill us and there will be more like us.”

On my feet now, I fight again with the White Knight.  I meet his sword blade with my hammer but it glances off, cuts easily through my armor and buries in my arm.  In a rage I pass my weapon to my other hand and swipe back against him right into his face. His helm flies off his head and I can see his bloodied face clearly now.  I take my helm off and introduce myself. “I am Daulan Sekk. The wolf, slayer of the White Death, soul-eater.”
“Edrak of Savisia.” says he.  “Grand Master.” His features are youthful and innocent for those of a warrior, his blue eyes full of fire, yet I feel something powerful and dangerous disturbs and distorts his essence. Now that I have consumed souls, I can almost smell them out.
We now face each other under the full light of sunrise with both armies watching us.  We both lower our weapons, turn away from one another and go back to our respective armies.

The Grand Equal is furious.
“I told you not to treat honorably with the legions of hell. You idiot!” It hiss lisps venomously.

Edrak stands straight and says, “Better you ask me not to be a knight at all!  I will beat the enemy in honorable combat! So long as we are just, we win by our virtues and the enemy loses by their defects.”
No reply comes from the palanquin.  Edrak suspects no one has ever talked back to the Grand Equal like this. After a long pause he finally hears one firm word.
“Begone.”

Edrak gladly leaves the chamber with frustration eating away at him.
The next day, he goes about his duties, his misgivings about the Grand Equal and his strange dream-like experience in the back of his mind as the role of commander he has assumed consumes every minute.  Around mid-day, there is a terrible itch-like feeling, a craving of some sort that he can’t identify. By that night, he is tossing and turning in bed, sweating profusely. He feels the urge to vomit yet he hasn’t eaten anything.
Finally the longing is too great, he gets out of bed, manages to haphazardly dress himself and paces towards the Grand Equal’s chamber.  The guards quickly let him in without question and shut the door behind him. He approaches the palanquin, intensely repulsed yet unable to resist his need.  His legs buckle under him and finally he hears its voice.
“You will submit to my blessing.”  It speaks slowly in a tone dripping with pleasure and contempt.”
“You will submit.” It repeats.  Edrak full of fear finds his limbs are crawling him towards the palanquin unbidden, such is his desire for that dream-like state of bliss.  He knows somehow that nothing will ever be the same after this time, yet he cannot stop himself.
The curtain of the palanquin slips open again and his spine arches back in anticipation in spite of his horror.  Edrak breaks the spell for one final moment and manages to scream in despair before his mouth is sealed and his throat stopped shut.

Edrak lapses into happy dreams of circles of smiling people of every kind and appearance wearing white robes holding hands with garlands of flowers about their heads and necks.  They gesture to him and he joins their dance. It’s the heaven he’s always wanted to bring about on earth and he loses himself in the celebration for what seems like eternity. Then, he begins to fall out of this rapture and finds himself on the floor lying in front of the Grand Equal’s palanquin.  He feels renewed and stronger than ever now as he springs to his feet. As he turns to leave, the Grand Equal speaks behind him.
“Defy me again and you will languish much longer without my blessing.”
Edrak shudders at the thought of ever going through withdrawal again and turns back toward the palanquin.
“Yes.” he says meekly, and leaves.
The Grand Equal knows that he will never have trouble with this one again.

The siege of Sirar Sirangulam drags on, week after week, gravel, stones, and sand are tirelessly dumped into the ocean and the bridge to the city slowly grows wider.  On the landward side, there is a vast no-man’s land thickly speckled with piles of corpses as far as the eye can see. With every day, the position of the city grows a little weaker but the Coalition of the Ascendant swells and grows stronger until miles of their seething masses surround the entrenched besiegers.  A fortress of grim and gnarled driftwood now guards the one viable spring and improvised barriers protect the lines of trenches that allow the besiegers to hug against the city in a death grip against all the opposition in the world.

Finally, the Warlord receives a messenger.  “They’ve retaken Siprali.” he says. “We are cut off.”  For the first time ever, I see the Warlord at a loss for words.  He clenches his fists. “Enough!” He finally says. “This is it! I know it!”

None of us know what he means and just stare at him.  Without hesitation he points to to me. “You are coming with me.” he says.  “Kivan Rasaris, you are in command!”

That night, he leads me to a small boat captured from the Sirangulese.
“You’re abandoning your army now!?” I ask.

There is a greater purpose, you must trust me.  Rejoin the army if you don’t want to be here.”
I hesitate, but say. “Alright, let’s go.” and get in the boat first.
I do not question further, I can feel from the Warlord that this really is something important.
We set sail in the middle of the night, the free ocean winds a huge relief from the vile, stagnant air of the battlefield that reeked of seaweed, feces, and swollen corpses that rolled about in the surf.

For the next week we sail to the south leaving the Trade Coast far behind for more arid regions.  Every day he tells me of his early days and of the mysterious demon he helped bring into the City of the Center Lands.  I could not believe he was once just a working man driven to desperation by the Duke and the Paladin, St. Suryn. I tell him of my childhood before my old life was abruptly taken from me.
“We had a dog,” I tell him, but it was really my dog. “ He slept on my feet every night and I felt a love for his very presence there that never got old.”
“But?” asked the warlord.
“I no longer feel it in my memory like I used to.”
The Warlord sighs. “I told you, there is a price.  I had a wife, a child, and a job once but it seems a million years ago.  That man is long dead.”

One day, we see a white sail behind us and the Warlord watches in anticipation.
“We disembark tonight.” he says.

The Warlord (Part 2)

As I wake, the Warlord and his demoniacs stand over me in a warm tent with animal-skin walls that stretch taut with the impact of sub-freezing winds.

“You are lucky to survive the venom of a witch’s blade.” the Warlord tells me.  “Making the Pact very likely saved you. The Dark Powers would rather you not die just as you have begun.”

“Thank you.”  I gasp.

“You earned it.  I don’t know if I could have fought them both.”

“They say you have never lost a fight.”

A moment of fear and pain flickers across his scarred face and to my surprise he hesitates before he says “We were all once inexperienced and weak.”

This tacit admission he has been bested before shocks me and I look to the Warlord in a new way, mighty, yet also, for the first time, as just a man.

By the morning, I am already strong enough to march.  We break camp in the long night of the far north and for the first time in many long months, finally march south.  The sun is barely grey and wan by noon as we come upon yesterday’s battlefield. We find our own dead and put them together in a pile soon be interred by ice, their place marked with thick long black pikes that will not easily disappear beneath the wastes.  In many long decades, they will still be there, aside from the ravages of frost, not remarkably different from the day they died. Then despite the solemnity of the moment our spirits are buoyant as we pass the spot where White Knights opposed us and now truly move Southward.

As we leave the dead behind us, the mood begins to lift a bit with every mile.  “Hail! The slayer of Jazan Gur, the White Death!” I’m told all day. Higher disciples of the Warlord and ordinary soldiers alike approach me in awe.  It is disconcerting to me to attract such attention. I meet men I know like brothers with whom I have dug latrine pits in the pouring rain and now they look on me with reverence at my accomplishment and my ascendancy to greater powers.  I try to talk to them like it’s old times. Old as just yesterday, but it’s no use.

Soon we begin to understand why the Warlord stopped our pursuit.  With every mile we find ourselves following a trail of fanatics, contorted and frozen stiff.
The Warlord explains, “When we slew their leaders and broke their ranks, their faith began to fail and with it their endurance.”

The word began to quickly spread.  The Warlord had lured their overwhelming masses where they could be destroyed by their own despair the moment their herd had failed to give them shelter and victory.  The coldness of reality closed in around them as they tried to flee and we found them now, their frozen eyes still wide open with their final panic, the grasping blue-white fingers clawing at air.  The trail of those who lost their faith did not abate, thousands and thousands more of them clad in rags crumpled pitifully and frozen the moment they had heard the news or had in their flight finally given in to despair.

That night, I was called into the tent of the Warlord and his disciple officers for the first time.  They heartily welcomed me one by one, shaking my hand in one crushing grip after another and slapping me on the shoulder.  These men who had barked grim orders at me yesterday suddenly treated me as one of their own. We sat around the circle by the firepit with the smoke disappearing through a small hole above.
“We lost many yesterday.” Announced the Warlord.  “But tonight…there is someone new among us.”
The dark disciples began to cheer in anticipation.

“He slew Jazan Gur as the vile Hag joined against me, in violation of an honorable duel between men.  He has ascended into the service of the Dark powers into which I was inducted by the Master long ago and into which you were all inducted by me.”

The cheering grew quieter now as the moment approached.
“The slayer of our great enemy has joined us in the Pact.  The warrior Daulan Sekk is now one of us!”

For awhile again everyone cheered and personally greeted me.  Again, it was an overwhelming experience to have my heroes regard me as a hero.  As I found my senses, I could only utter. “Do we have any wine?”

The ration for the soldiers had ran out some time ago but of course we all had suspected some was left in store.
Everyone gave me looks that I could not quite understand.
“Bring us the last of the wine!” commands the Warlord, “The time is right.”

Our chipped tin soldier’s cups that dangle daily from our swaying packs are soon brimming with the last precious red wine and I gulp of it, wishing desperately to expunge the fearsome slaughter from my senses for a few short hours.  Yet tug as I might, my troubled senses remain as clear as the starry sky outside.
I realize they have been watching me with amusement as they sip their own cups.  I take another gulp and still I feel nothing. Seeing my bewilderment, the Warlord finally says.  “Your ability to survive a witch’s venom also makes you immune to any drug. Enjoy the flavor of it.”
Dumbfounded, I throw my cup aside and the other men laugh uproariously.
More solemnly now, the Warlord adds, “In service of greater powers, no substance will affect you.  Nor as you grow in power will the need to sleep weigh you down. You will never age or die so long as you are not killed but in exchange you get little rest.”
A silence falls over the men and many pass a hand over their chests.
“Where did you come from?” asks the Warlord. “I think you are from the Center Lands.”
“Yes, I grew up in the Great City.”
There is a gasp from the men.
“I thought so.  How did you join us?”

“When I was young, I wanted to join the White Knights.  I often went to the shrine of Saint Suryn to pray there.  Her statue always seemed sad and I wanted to comfort her. I had heard the legends it would sometimes weep tears of blood.  Once, I went to the temple late at night and I saw it for myself. Worse, I could have sworn the statue’s eyes moved and its mouth twisted in indescribable agony.  I felt something was wrong with everything I had been told and I could never shake the feeling after that…When I was about twelve years of age, I watched them stone my family to death from my hiding place.  I could never figure out why. It might have been their pale faces and their agreeable manner. I will never forget how their gestures of good will only enraged them.”
I am unable to say more, my words punctuated by a sub-freezing gale that pelts the tent wall with a plaintive howl.
Then the others begin to erupt with their own stories around the fire and I hear great warriors speak of themselves as children and young men.  The hero Lazo Vazai grew up in a tormented household with the sins of his absent father laid on his shoulders. “I had pretty much left the house by the time I was ten, surviving on the edge any way I could.  I laugh at the silly weaklings who complain they are kept down. If they were worth anything, they’d have risen by now.” The hulking Kivan Rasaris had once been a frail scribe defrocked from the Savisian universities when he dared suggest that one people differed from another and the sexes doomed to be unalike, their goals in life asymmetrical.  “I finally broke and wrote a paper about what I really thought. I knew that it would not be charitably received. I was surprised though when I was thrown out not just by them, but by my family, by society itself. No one in Savisia would sell me food. I barely made it to the Center Lands without starving, my last tatters of sackcloth falling off of me.  I never forgot.”

It falls quiet again.

“Let’s give the rest of the wine to the men.”  I suggest. The others heartily agree and the last jugs are passed around the camp to howls of jubilation as the soldiers rush to bring one back to their comrades for a well-earned celebration.

As the fire burns low and my new comrades retire, the Warlord takes me aside.  “As a child you understood Saint Suryn far better than the hordes of fawning pilgrims.”
“Were you alive then?!” I ask in astonishment.  “That was a hundred years ago!”

“I knew her.”

I nearly fell as I thought of the Saint of my childhood as a living, breathing person.
“What was she like?”
“She, and the Master, made me who I am.”
“Uh…How?”
“You didn’t imagine the tears of blood and her pain.  They call her a saint, but she is damned to hell. If only they knew how everything they believe in is rotten.”
“You mean…You mean The Master you speak of is the legendary Demon that Saint Suryn sent into exile?”

The Warlord grins.  “The demon left by his own will after she was already dead.”

“But…What happened?”

“She murdered the Duke who summoned her while possessed by her final rage.”

I’ve spent years now as a rebel fighting in the Dark Army yet even so my jaw drops.
The Warlord continues.  “This is one of many planes but this one was a neutral ground that attracted little attention from Heaven or Hell.  That damned Duke brought the eternal war on us by bringing that Paladin here. One hundred years ago he destroyed my old life and drove me towards rebellion.  Your Saint Suryn made damn sure I would never stray from that path.”
“How does it end?” I ask.

“Only in the triumph of Heaven or Hell.  It has to resolve downward. Level by level.  The Master won his fight. Now it’s up to me. And when the time is right it will be up to you.”

“How do you know?!”

“He told me, one hundred years ago.”

***
Suddenly, unopposed, the Dark Army storms down from the North until tundra becomes sprawling pine forest until we begin to see the soft green leaves of deciduous trees with the first white blossoms of spring drifting down on bittersweet breezes.  The first garrisons we meet are easily subdued and totally bewildered that the all-conquering fanatics have abandoned them. For months the advance continues as we destroy the Heavenly Army wherever in our path it tries to regroup. The cold of the far north is still in the marrow of our bones as we bear down on the sun-gilded shores of Epir Siprali with its brown, sea-misted hills laden with date palms and olive groves.  Finally we come upon its famous walls drenched every morning with honeyed sunshine that pours over the inland hills. There we finally find a city guarded once again in earnest by the Heavenly Army with White Knights patrolling the battlements, their pure white surcoats trailing in seaborne winds. No commander comes out to address us, the defenders simply stand resolute on the walls, glowering down at us.

The Warlord holds council with our corps of demoniacs to discuss the matter.  The city would not be easily subdued but we had to consider that the further we went into enemy territory, the easier we would be pressed in a crushing vice, worse than that grim battle in the Itlavalutian wastes.
“We must secure our flanks and most important, discover who their new leadership is.” declared the Warlord.  “If we know their leaders we know them and how to defeat them.”

***

“Edrak of Savisia, I hereby make you Grand Master of the Order of the White Knights.”  intoned a raspy, androgynous voice. The figure that uttered the words sits on a palanquin obscured by a thin tissue of gold, silk curtains.  An indistinct silhouette is just visible by the light of guttering braziers in the drafty stone chamber in the deep foundation of the Sipralite citadel.

Edrak bows low, borne down by astonishment.
“I could never replace the leadership of the glorious and beloved Jazan Gur.  I beg you reconsider.”

“Jazan Gur led us to our most disastrous defeat of all time after decades of unending victory.  Do better.”

In spite of himself, Edrak flushes with rage but holds his tongue.  He well knows that the Sorceress Queen, called “the Hag” by men loosened up by their cups had been given authority over Jazan Gur and had called for the reckless and disastrous pursuit despite the general’s protests.  He had been there alongside his beloved commander on that doomed offensive to see and hear it. Yet the noble general had done his loyal duty to the end and was now canonized by his order. The insult is very nearly too much for Edrak to bear yet somehow he does, as he always has.

He leaves the Grand Equal’s chamber and begins his ascent up the stairs, toward the generous sunlight of a Sipralesian afternoon.  As the first rays strike him through tower windows, the import of his promotion dawns on him. Now he is in the place of the man he had followed and idolized.  He thinks back on Jazan Gur’s last speech before the disaster in Itlavalus. His characteristic bass voice and deliberate pacing as he spoke kept the seemingly endless crowds all around him transfixed.   “They are not just evil. They are on the wrong side of destiny! Our destiny is everlasting progress and they oppose that sacred voyage we all share. They want to go backward! They want to keep us mired forever in ignorance and injustice.  They want the strong to crush the weak! We will not let them hold us back! We will not let them hold us down! Today we crush them once and for all. And the last of them that falls will know in his final moments…we have overcome at last!” Jazan Gur had raised his arms to the cheering of countless thousands.  That was the kind of man he now had to be.
Even so, Edrak could see the Hag standing behind the Grand Master’s shoulder then, with a smug smile on her hideous face.  He shuddered. Who would they have standing behind him?

***

The siege begins.  Every day is full of the din of construction, the cracking of timber, the buzz of saws, and the creak of thick rope as jagged engines of war begin to take shape all about the walls of Epir Siprali.  Within a few days, the superhuman efforts of the demoniacs enable the first catapults to begin flinging missiles. A jagged steel tower arises, engraved with smoking runes. Within a week it rolls ponderously toward the walls.  It spans the whole moat with its girth and crashes into the ramparts. Its bridge drops and the city’s defenders are butchered by hulking figures in spiked black armor.
Siprali would have fallen then if not for a bold charge of the White Knights led into battle by a new captain.
That night, the Warlord says.  “They have finally revealed themselves.  They have replaced Jazan Gur with a man who might also be a worthy enemy.”

The war engines multiply around the city like swarming ants until the assault is carried out every hour of every day and the defenders can hardly get a chance to sleep.  The battlements begin to crack and fall away under the constant pounding. Reinforcements are on the way, but it has only been two weeks. Nevertheless, a force of mounted White Knight scouts emerge from the hills and wage a campaign of harassment.  They finally charge like men to aid the garrison of Siprali as it suddenly bursts out the front gate in a desperate attempt to break out of confinement. A spearhead of White Knights leads a sizable swarm of fanatics straight into the ring of besiegers with the scouts charging from the other side.  The sudden pressure is too much and the ring begins to crack. The standard of one of the demoniac disciples nears the tip of the white spear and its progress towards escape halts.

The Warlord holds up his hand as the entire army begins to rush to stop the city garrison and horns begin to blare all about the city walls.  “Keep discipline!” He bellows.

Even from a distance, a space can be seen clearing among the ranks.  Two small figures, one white, one black face each other. Then there are visible flashes of light and shadow as the duel begins.  Then, something gold and raised in the white ranks approaches the battle, a curtained palanquin. I see the Warlord himself turn pale and in that moment he spurs his black horse without a word and gallops toward the fight.
The curtains of the far-off palanquin flutter for a moment and the dark challenger falls dead.  Exhilarated, the white forces renew their charge and break to the surface of the stretching bubble that encloses them.  They are harassed by pursuers and take losses, but their escape is assured now.

The Warlord arrives at the site of the decisive fight and finds the body of one of his disciples broken and dead.  He lowers a gauntleted hand toward the body, but draws back. As I and other disciples begin to arrive at a dead sprint, he says “Power like I have never seen since my Birth.  After all these years I have found the one who has always stayed in hiding. An Equal. My equal.”
He turns to the men surrounding him and says to all, “We have let their army escape but because of your discipline, we have won the city.  Without its defenders, it cannot stand. We assault the gates tonight.”

As the sun sets, the arcing arms of the siege engines redouble their flinging and then they suddenly stop.  One by one, a constellation of flames comes into being as they are set alight. Then, we light several thousands of torches at once and march toward the already battered city gates with a ram.  Our thick black armor is barely scratched by arrows and stones from ordinary men who just live from day to day. The gate is flung open in minutes and Epir Siprali is ours. The night sky is transformed into an eerily glowing charcoal shade by the play of flames on drifts of smoke.

Then, just as we assert our control over the citadel in the dark hours of morning, a shrill shrieking becomes perceptible.  There have already been lookouts posted to the walls but the smoke has obscured their vision until now. “Fanatics! Fanatics are coming!”  They yell! The first of them had already begun to stream down from the hills tonight, the most faithful only a bit slower than cavalry.
“The gates!  Close the gates!”  The cry goes up. The remnants of the gate are forced shut and timbers taken from anywhere and raised up with astonishing speed.  Even so, the first fanatics leap through the closing gaps or even burst through solid wood, sending splinters hissing through the air.
Some of them are draped with pendulous curtains of fat, others are emaciated, leathery skeletons, all are divested by their ludicrous extremes of whatever identity they had before.  A seemingly female warrior with bulging, striated muscles and a bra that clings to her meaty chest swings a battle ax all around in a cruel circle that leaves red mist in its wake. A nude, drooling fat one stumbles right into a pike but that doesn’t even slow it down.  Impaled, it walks right up the length of the pole and the soldier on the end of it thinks he’s slain his opponent until the moment its placid jowly face contorts with rage and flailing flabby arms crush his helm and pop one of his eyeballs right out of its socket.

I charge into the fray and put my new powers to the test in battle for the first time.  I attack the warrior first. She’s still swinging her axe when I intervene. My hammer collides with her axe blade in midair and with a lightning-like explosion of sparks, it flies out of her hands in the opposite direction.

She tumbles to her knees, screaming inconsolably.  Both her wrists are grotesquely broken backwards with sharp slivers of shattered bone jutting from her stump-like forearms.  I immediately turn to the shambling fanatic that still drags a bloody length of spear behind it.

It makes no attempt to avoid me as I swing.  I leave a deep, square-shaped dent in its back that it somehow ignores as it reaches towards another terrified soldier.
“Leave it!”  I growl to the men.  “Kill the others.”

And so we do as they rally to me.  A swift one dodges my hammer and thinks he’s gotten past my defenses.  He darts in with his thin dagger, his pale, bloodless face fixed with a condescending smile until my other clawed gauntlet grasps him by the throat.  He gasps like a landed fish as his neck snaps and his delicate rectangle spectacles fly off his face as I fling his corpse into his fellow fanatics, knocking them down to the ground where they are easily finished off by my comrades.
Now that the first fanatics have been beaten and the gate sealed against the pounding of the rest, we turn again to the plodding yet unstoppable juggernaut fanatic.  We surround it staying just out of reach as it clumsily grasps all around.

“We’ve killed all your friends.  You are alone now. We won.” I tell it.

“Ugly! Disgusting! Fat!” The soldiers begin to mock and laugh.
Its steps begin to slow and the first tears run down its face as it is pelted with rocks and manure from all sides.  Then it begins to spasm, clutches its chest, and falls flat on its face. “By faith alone did it remain living.” I muse.  “In truth, it was already dead.”

I turn to the warrior.  I could not be of sure her sex before despite her clothing but now her blubbering, wailing, and gushing stream of tears is unmistakably feminine.  I stand over her as she weeps over her broken limbs. As her faith begins to wane, arteries slashed by her own fractured bones begin to spurt. She doesn’t have long.  I think back on what I’ve seen the warlord do, but I don’t have his knife. I clasp her face with the claws of my black steel gauntlets, press in my palms, and concentrate.
Suddenly, I feel her blood, life, and soul rushing into me.  Her struggles are so unpredictable and intense they are like a spasmodic bucking I feel will tear my hands off of her, break my own wrists, and throw me aside if I relent in the slightest.  I hold and I push until my arms, chest, my whole body is aching and crying out to let go, sweat drenching my whole body. I still hold until I pull the last of her essence into me. And then I discover the fight has just begun.  Her whole being lashes out inside of me tearing into my own soul and I begin to slash back at her to try to save myself.
We are locked in a battle for the right to exist, each of us full of the will to live, but this is my soul’s home ground while she has been ripped away from her place of power.  Little by little, her resistance chips away until she is confined in a lightless place like a muffled closet. Yet I feel the bloody stubs of her fingernails trying tear at the toughened parts of me that imprison her.  I keep closing in until finally, I can faintly hear the plaintive sniffling of a little girl.  And then the dark is complete.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VIII)

~8~

The Seeds Begin to Sprout

The day dawned just like any other in the slow march toward the spring planting season: the worker bays plowed the paths, the geese set to indolent trumpeting until food arrived, the hoofed creatures meandered about the snow covered paddocks they had claimed as their own, and the clerk pigs, accompanied by a rat or two each, set off to measure and count the day’s sick, injured, and dead. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. As the sun rose higher in the sky, a low hubbub could be heard emanating from the Big Barn. An hourish before noon, a stately procession of leadership pigs and a crowd of their attendants streamed from the hastily constructed gate outside the Big Barn and made their way towards the dog kennels. Upon arrival, they spread out line abreast. No rats were to be found in their number. It was clear that the pigs were more than a bit nervous. They did not know what to expect, and the interaction between the pig, the rat, and the pup from the evening previous had been retold and recounted so many times in the subsequent hours that no one save those present knew what had truly happened. Off in the distance, well behind and back to the left of the line of pigs, a clump of goats milled about uneasily. They had never been called on to provide any real security prior to this particular happening, and they were at a loss in terms of what formation and demeanor they should adopt. The kennel was silent; it almost seemed abandoned. Finally, one of the older pegs stepped forth.

Hail, dogs of the Farm! You have asked for the leaders of our great and good… erm, Farm… to attend and pay heed to your leader, the Mother of Dogs, and we, in our wisdom and grace, have elected to answer! Send forth an emissary so that we may hear your piece, and in so doing, perpetuate the august precedence heretofore expected of the brave and bright leaders, the noble spokespigs, who in their wisdom and kindness choose to lead through example and intellect the fair folk of this, our beloved Farm, for who can say that it is not indeed a wondrous place? Why, just the other day I was carrying on about my tasks as a humble and necessary…”

It was quite clear that there was no strategy at play and this pig had taken it upon himself to talk until the dogs saw fit to respond. This was the way of pigs: to make sound and noise until something happened. He droned on and on about his anecdotal experience of a Farm in good stead with happy and industrious denizens, a Farm of the mind in truth, as most of the animals were biding their time in their given hovels, desperately awaiting a spring that seemed just around the corner but still out of reach. The other pigs stood in solemn silence, being lulled into sense of ostensible tranquility by the notes of their favorite tune, that being the dulcet tones of a pig with nothing to say and many words with which to say it. As such, none of them noticed the dark shapes moving through the slowly melting snow behind them.

The spokespig was about to transition into another bland recount of imagined idyllic goings-on when a clear and cold bark cut him short. He looked around and suddenly squealed in shock and surprise. A double lunge’s distance behind the line of pigs were four young pups, standing stock still, one paw up, with their snouts pointed and mouths closed. Inside the kennel complex another pup had appeared and was sitting atop the roof of the main building. His maw was agape and his tongue lolled long and glistening. In his eyes a fire burned, the glint of it well visible to each pig, and in their hearts they were afraid. He barked once, then twice, then a third time, and the third bark rolled into a long, lupine howl. The tune was taken up by his siblings and thereafter by dogs unseen who sounded as if they were spread about the entire Farm. As the chorus of howls echoed loud and long, the contingent of security goats moved in a tumbling chaos of uncertain hooves, first away from the pigs, then back towards them. Horns or not, the ungulates were afraid. The howl of a dog is an ancient thing, a sound that struck fear into the hearts of their ancestors. When the echoes finally ceased, the goats had adopted a circle formation, horns facing outward. The pigs were oriented in a similar fashion, though their axes was opposite with their curly tails displayed outward as they huddled close, head to head, and to a pig were shaking in fright. It was then that the lone pup in the kennel spoke.

You are long on words and short on valor. It is a failing of your species. The Mother bids you send three pigs, no more and no less, to the Porch. She awaits your attendance. See that you go and swiftly. Flee.”

This was a predicament for the pigs. There were more than three among their group who had requisite rank to stand as leaders, but each of them would be damned before they went off into the unknown. Thus, they forcefully elected, with hasty battlefield promotions of a sort, three exceedingly junior pigs, barely more than scribes in their own right, as the chosen representatives. The four guard dogs then moved in a double brace and escorted the unlucky three young pigs off in the direction of the Porch. As soon as the group had moved out of sight, the remaining pigs hollered for their goat escorts and beat a hasty retreat to the barn. Peeking out from the corner of the kennel fence, a squinty bag of orange fur, betraying no emotion whatsoever, swayed in the soft, rolling wind.

Ahhrm… bored no longer. I think I shall find a rat…”

The main body of pigs crashed through one of the weak points in the wall in terror and shame. One of their number had the presence of mind to order the goats, in the shrillest of tones, to begin repairing the damage before he followed his cousins into the barn. With a resounding bang the main door was smashed closed and then the pigs began to squeal in earnest. The panic of the recently returned spread like a virus to those already there and in a short time all of the pigs were squealing in fright and charging about in a large circle. Their cloven hooves tore at the ground, sending hay flying up then raining back down onto their backs. It was quite some time before the mass of pigs had worn themselves out enough to slow down. Their squeals had reduced to an insistent and anxious oinkery, which further shrunk to blindly repeated statements. These too lost their vim and vigor until the scene had become a mass of pigs moving dextrally and making statements back and forth in a most conversational way. The words had remained the same, but the tone had changed:

The dogs will slay us all.”

This is the end of our era.”

Oh, pity our poor piglet progeny.”

The three young pigs are surely lost.”

Oh, dear.”

Save us.”

…and many other things besides. High above, perched in the rafters, a legion of rats gazed down upon this oddity of shoat behavior with morbid fascination.

It is actually quite amazing, their capacity to find peace and continuity through the very panic that disturbed them. Though obviously inferior, these pigs never cease to enthrall me.”

As she spoke, the youngish rat could not tear her beady eyes from the strange pageant slowly grinding itself to a halt. Minutes later the pigs had collapsed as one and were sleeping fitfully, still mumbling the phrases over and over as they shuddered and twitched, pursued in their dreams over hill and dale by lazy, ethereal dogs hellbent on destroying their regime.

Well, what do you suppose caused this furor?”

It is exactly as the Father predicted. The curs have risen up and are planning to steal our lives in the night. ‘T’wouldn’t be a surprise if they are off in squads even now bringing death to those they dislike.”

The youngish rat let her sibling-cousins meander about the myriad possibilities a while longer, then chitter-squeaked for quiet.

This is all in accordance with The Plan. We must only tarry a bit longer. Let fear and anxiety stalk about the Farm for a while yet, then we shall proceed. Send a message to the Forest kin and prepare for the next steps.”

Beneath the rats the pigs had finally fallen to sleep completely and all was silent in the Big Barn. As one, the horde of rats descended from the rafters, crawling in near silence towards the prostrate pigs.

At the same time as the pigs were driving themselves to a crazed mania, the four pups escorted their charges to the front of the Farmhouse. The matronly German Shepherd sat calmly on the rug before the main door. She watched as the mixed band approached. When the three young pigs crossed into her gaze they fell to their hocks in fright and begged for their hides.

Calm yourselves, Masters Pig, be calm, I say. I see that your leaders could not deign to attend themselves, so it falls upon you to carry my message to them. There need be no fear, so long as you and your kin tarry not on the fence line and move quickly to right the wrongs you all have let proliferate.”

The deluge of words had a calming effect on the three pigs; verbosity and purple prose was their element. They slowly rose to hoof and displayed their assent to her heed.

Look about you, pigs of the Farm. See the suffering that has befallen your charges, the animals you swore to protect. Many and more die every week, and that needlessly. Our food stores are low, lower than any winter in living memory. Waterfowl of ill countenance run amok. At night, ravenous terrors steal silent into our midst and carry away our most vulnerable. Where once was order now resides chaos.”

The three young pigs shifted from hoof to hoof nervously. The things being said were taboo, but isolated as they were, and not a rat to be seen, they could timidly admit, at least to themselves, there was some truth to what the matronly German Shepherd was saying. Things had gotten bad. Maybe not for themselves, but it was plain to see, when looking from a different perspective with which they had grown accustomed, that something was awry on the Farm.

I see in your eyes that you hear the truth I speak. Things were not like this when we followed the Rules. The labor was divided and resolved. The food was more than adequate and of good quality. The nights were safe and the winters were tolerable. There was rank and hierarchy, but with it came peace and plenty. Things were not perfect, indeed they never are. But things were better than perfect, for they were good.”

This resonated with the three young pigs and in that moment they understood the error that had befallen the Farm was that of their kin’s doing.

B-b-but what can we do, Lady Dog? We are but three upjumped clerk pigs…”

Indeed! They only sent us because we were deemed exp-p-pendable!”

They w-w-won’t listen to us…”

The matronly German Shepherd let them make their retorts then silenced them with a look.

These things may be true, yet, every problem is an opportunity. You need only carry a message of calm and certainty to your kin: the Rules must be reinstated. The Forest must be separate from the Farm.”

Each of the three young pigs thought on her words but proffered no response. What could they say to such a statement? The matronly German Shepherd waited for a time then continued.

The ingress of uncouth fowl and other Forest beasts must stop. Those already here must acknowledge our ways and work to conform themselves to a manner more suited to the Farm if they wish to remain. This is not a cruelty or a punishment; it is a necessity and, in time, a kindness. It is not so much to ask. And above all, it is not up for debate. Take this message to your kin. I shall be at the kennel with all of my kin, waiting in peace with hope in our hearts that the recent wounds can be healed and just order restored. Go now, and be true to the message you carry.”

As she was speaking her final words, the guard dogs quietly flopped to the ground. One even gave a clerk pig a playful lick on the cheek, which made him blush. The three young pigs looked at each other then trundled off, making their way directly to the Big Barn.

When the three young pigs arrived all was eerily silent. The guard goats had spent only the briefest of moments nudging broken boards back into place before fleeing to their own paddock, terrified of an impending invasion of angry dogs. The three young pigs nosed through one of the many gaps and made their way towards the main door of the Big Barn, but before they could enter, the youngish rat hailed them.

You have returned! Oh, thank the Farmer and all of his many blessings! Were you harmed‽”

The three young pigs were nonplussed. Their discourse with the matronly German Shepherd had ushered into their minds a calmness heretofore unknown, and the frightful squeaking of the rat grated upon their nerves.

Oh, thank the Farmer! May his bushels ever rain upon the trees and the hissocks and the, er, the other places! If only he had shone his benevolence upon your kin! I fear that in sparing your lives, he has, in his infinite wisdom, praise his name, decided upon a grievous trade as balance… the dogs have seen fit to run your kin off and into the Forest!”

This proclamation startled the three young pigs. Had they been played false? Did the matronly German Shepherd really double-deal them so adroitly?

I know this is terrible news, dreadful news! But you must not tarry here. Head quickly now to the Pond. Emissary rats await you, our Forest kin. They will guide you to your people who are even now hiding from the dog squads that seek your doom. Tarry not, for time is of the essence!”

The three young pigs were completely bewildered. They remembered well what the matronly German Shepherd had bade them, and they wished to obey. If their kin were hiding in the woods, for whatever reason, it behooved them to carry their message swiftly there. Without a word, or even a lingering look around the grounds of the Big Barn, they egressed back through the slipshod wall and made their way to the pond. This was the last that was ever seen of the three young pigs, at least, whole and alive.

Not far away, a quiet orange spot of fur snickered to himself in near silence.

We are now well and truly damned. Oh, how exquisitely delicious…”

Battles are won with blades, but words win wars.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VII)

~7~

Spring Is Coming

Do you know of the Forest, dog?”

The battered orange tabby lay pooled in a furry puddle atop the kennel where the despondent matronly German Shepherd lay. It was still cold and snow stood heaped in mounds, cast to the side by the older worker bays who dutifully plowed the paths of the Farm, but the air had a tinge of freshness, just the tiniest hint of nascent spring. The matronly German Shepherd did not respond past an annoyed wuffle from nostrils covered by her bushy tail. Dogs hate cats, and this is well known, but the recent events had created a sort of leveling of loathing in her heart. She could no more stand the mindless bleating of sheep than she could bear the capricious honking of the derisive geese who made a point of shuffling by the kennels each day, though always at a healthy distance, to jeer at the shamed pack of dogs responsible for their past mistreatment. In truth, the animals of the Farm avoided the kennels so as not to have any of the low social status of the dogs splash onto their own coats. Short of inspection pigs and spying rats, the only visitors the dogs received of late where angry geese… and the orange tabby.

Hrm, how could you? Wed so long to this heap of buildings containing silly food with feelings. You’ve never torn through the brush at night, snapping with wild abandon at the small, fearful creatures who pray to you for mercy even as you devour their bodies. You do know you were once wolves and proud, right cur?”

Again, the matronly German Shepherd made no response.

T’chask, wolves once and proud, Lords of Death, now relegated to pens that even a Farm goose would disdain, and those foods live in the Piles and call it a kingdom.”

The orange tabby rose and stretched languidly, yawned, blinked a few times, then circled in place and returned to exactly the same position as before. The matronly German Shepherd rolled her eyes and groaned low.

I heard that pooch. I hear much. In fact, I have heard some things that may interest you, things concerning your dear old clapboard Farm… you know, the one that seeks to be rid of you and your kind?”

He was baiting her, this she knew, but she could not help herself. The confinement of the dogs had only added to the problems of the Farm. New bodies were turned out of every section of the sprawling aviary Piles each day. The goats, though swollen with pride at their upjumped station as Keepers of the Peace, were not ones for investigation, so they would play cadaver ungulaball with the bodies until they fell apart from the battery of hooves. The pigs moved about in groups with no less than three security beasts at all times. In fact, every group of animals had taken to moving in gangs for protection; a display of power. This of course led to more skirmishes which in turn meant more bodies. The dying was confined largely to the faster breeding races so overpopulation continued to be a problem. The few groups of animals that endeavored to weather these bad times with more than gang tactics had taken to remaining in their collective pens, creating insular communities that kept unwelcome beasts out under threat of force. The pigs decried this segregation as unlawful and divisive, even as they contracted with the sheep to build a wall around their pens as well as a secured thoroughfare to the big Barn for the sake of sound governance.

“Mmrrrm, Yes, I hear much. I’ll spare you the act of asking as it seems the will to speak has fled you. The horses have walled in their stable as well as a nice paddock nearby. Come spring, they plan to extend their writ to the border fence. Once the other hoofed foods realize this they will follow suit, as the pork-charlatans have already begun to do, and the land grab will begin in earnest. The geese have completed their takeover of the Piles. I have seen neither duck nor chicken in days, which is a pity. The pigs and rats are firmly ensconced in the Barn, and just last evening I happened to overhear a few rats quietly discussing what they would use the nice, white drapes from the Farmhouse windows for…”

The matronly German Shepherd, standing on two legs with her snout within chomp of the cat, spoke quietly.

If you lie I will end you.”

The cat flew at least a foot in the air and landed hissing his wrath and fear. In barely more than a mouthful of seconds he was sitting sphinx-like, his impassive demeanor barely concealing a body wound tighter than a mashed spring.

“KkssssHrm, It is good to see you have not lost all of your prowess.”

The orange tabby was more than a bit unsettled by the speed and silence of the old bitch, but it is an age old truth that to gain a cats respect, you must prove you can destroy it, and this she had done. He continued:

“Mmmrrowmr, I tell you no lies, mommy dearest; the rats have designs on the very Farmhouse you once swore to protect. I wonder if their incursion will bring the Farmer out of hiding, yes? Maybe this flagrant violation will finally make Him manifest? Or, failing that, maybe His few remaining supporters will admit that the ancient dream of the Farm is ended and take their leave, seeking the welcoming arms of instinct awoken, and return to the Forest from whence they sprung…”

And with that, he rose and stretched yet again, fanning out his claws to scrape irritatingly across the roof of the kennel, then sprung over the head of the matronly German Shepherd, caroming off the top of the kennel fence and down into the snow. The grace of the bound and bounce was completely deflated by the explosion of snow and hysterical scramble of fur and paws as the tabby tumbled headlong through the drifted snow, but the dog’s mind was elsewhere. Plans, small and simple, began to form in her head. High overhead, a hawk was soaring over the farm, waiting for its moment to strike.

When evening came, the matronly German Shepherd detailed her kin on their patrols as usual, but they detected something in the set of her spine that they had not seen of late; a resolute firmness, a sense of purpose. She sent them in doubles, as was the usual protocol, but she also dispatched all of the younger puppies as observers. She held back a daughter and son, saying in brief explanation she had need of their paws, and the nightly border walks commenced. Waiting until they were gone, she had a brief conversation with her pups, then all three set out in different directions. The matronly German Shepherd headed towards the horse stables in a roundabout way. Her daughter went towards the barn. Her son headed directly for the Porch of the Farmhouse. Upon arriving, he took up station directly in front of the door and sat at attention, his ears erect and eyes gleaming. Before too long though, the cold seemed to get to him so he curled up and was soon snoring loudly. His sister had gone to the barn and yipped politely over the new and growing wall, though she could have quite easily taken it in a single leap or even shimmied through one of the many gaping holes. She instead elected to wait patiently until a young pig with a rat astride its shoulders grudgingly made its way out.

What do you require dog? I am busy, so very busy at this moment. Some of us actually care about this Farm, you know…”

Indeed, Master Pig, and I appreciate your courtesy and forbearance. Mother humbly requests an audience, of course at your convenience and leisure. Might I inquire as to when would be a good time, rather, when she should expect to be called upon in her confinement?”

Both pig and rat were not prepared for either the request or its stately dressing, particularly from a young guard dog, and neither made any response. The young dog waited patiently, her tongue lolling as she panted vapor into the cold night air. Collecting his limited wits, the pig finally spoke.

Erm… yes… I, uh… yes, of course, a clerk pig will call on Mother, that is to say, the lead dog come noon tomorrow, assuming of course that no matter of real import arises.”

But of course, Master Pig, and thank you for your audience to this humble request.”

The young pup turned to go, but before the pig could do the same, she swung her head over her shoulder and growled low in a voice completely devoid of the previous unctuosity.

Sleep safe rat. For now.”

She loped away as the pig sputtered and the rat sat deathly still.

The matronly German Shepherd approached the horse stables, but they could now be better described as a single fortress. The wall they had constructed was high and solid, offering no holes and built with attention paid to every detail. The gate they had built could only open inward, meaning even a dead horse could hold it indefinitely against anything less than a well trained team of oxen. Behind said gate there was a soft stamping of hooves and a challenging snort.

Who goes there?”

It is I, Lord of Dogs. I wish to speak to the old workhorse.”

The Lord of Hoof is not entertaining guests, dog. Come again some other time, or not at all. In truth, the Lord is all but through entertaining anyone.”

There was a bristling militancy that the matronly German Shepherd had never experienced from a horse, and though it unsettled her to a small degree, it buttressed the purpose behind her visit in the first place. She did not turn and leave.

I hear and understand, young Master Horse, but I shall not, indeed cannot, relent. I humbly request you ask the Lord if he will see an old friend, if only for the sake of a Farm we once knew…”

This jogged something within the guard horse, and after a judicious pause he cantered off to deliver her request. When he returned, the matronly German Shepherd heard the scrape of a lifted crossbeam moments before the door swung inward, just enough for her to squeeze through. Inside the walls, she now saw that there were three horses there, all poised to stomp the life out of her. She lowered herself to her belly in deference to them, patiently waiting for their cue. One of them snorted softly, then swung her bulk towards the main stable. The dog followed close at her hocks. Inside the largest stable, the old workhorse stood flanked by two of his mares. He stared down balefully at the matronly German Shepherd, his large eyes inscrutable in the darkness.

So… it would appear… that your legs… do still work, Lady Dog.”

Indeed they do, Lord of Work, as do my ears. I apologize for intruding upon your relaxation, but a… an assertion, let’s say, has been delivered to me by a… somewhat dubious source, and I have need of… clarification.”

The matronly German Shepherd felt herself falling into the speech pattern of the old workhorse, and it reminded her of days now past wherein she and he were true Lords of a prosperous and safe farm. This stirred a deep melancholia within her, but she suppressed her emotions. She was here to get answers, not reminisce.

What is it… that you heard… my good Lady Dog?”

The matronly German Shepherd shook a few droplets of melted snow from her coat and circle sat at the hooves of the old horse.

The cat stopped by the kennel-”

The two mares whickered softly at the mention of the orange tabby. His reputation was checkered at best, being an animal that moved freely between Farm and Forest.

-and told me he had heard… things. Things too damning to ignore. Can you tell me, Lord of Work… can you tell me, is it true that the rats have invested the Farmhouse?”

The matronly German Shepherd waited for his answer. She actually held her breath to prevent an anxious whine from escaping her snout, and after a time he responded:

Who can know… the dealings of rats… though I am… certain… it does fall… well within the… bounds of the likely.”

All at once the matronly German Shepherd let out her held breath and with it a low growl so menacing that the two mares crow hopped in fright and a guard horse stuck his long nose through the entryway, laying a single eye on the scene. The old workhorse was unperturbed. The matronly German Shepherd got to her paws and shook out her shaggy fur.

Indeed. It is as I feared then. Tell me, Lord of Work, what do you plan to do? Surely we cannot let this injustice stand…”

The old workhorse stood silent for a long while be for snorting through his large nostrils.

Injustice not only stands… it scampers to and fro… with complete… abandon… on this Farm. We, the horses… have elected to… erect a wall… between what we hold… and what we loathe.”

But, but… you cannot just-”

Cannot… you say..? Pray tell me… Lady Dog… what I cannot…”

It was rare for the old workhorse to interrupt anything, and this caused fear to creep into the heart of the matronly German Shepherd. She dropped down to her belly and whined her remorse. She had not come to the horses to make more enemies.

Rise, Lady Dog… but remember your… place.”

I shall, Lord of Work, and I do apologize. It is only that much has changed, so much more than I realized. I respect your decision, and I hope you will respect mine, for it is beyond my capacity to give up. I have spent too long tucking my tail, and in so doing I have let the pigs be poisoned by the chittering of those vile rats. I beg your leave, oh Lord of Work, and may the Farmer look after you and yours.”

The old workhorse lowered his head to her level and gently lipped her ear. If she were capable of tears, a single drop for all that had passed between the two would have stained the hay beneath her paws. She turned and left the main stable and, with a burst of surprising speed, bounded off a bale of hay and vaulted the wall before the gate could be opened then disappeared into the dark and frigid night.

It is so very easy to fall asleep and so very difficult to wake again.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VI)

~6~

A New Day Dawns

The winter had been long and grueling. More than a few animals on the Farm had succumbed to the cold or shortages in rations. Others had been dragged off in the twilight hours by the ravenous animals of the Forest who always struggled in the cold months and became frantic in their search for sustenance. As if this were not bad enough, internecine violence had exploded within certain groups of animals. The geese, their ranks bolstered by the growing numbers of wild geese crowding in from the Forest, had become particularly self destructive. Most of the Forest geese fled south for the winter, but the change in the Rules inspired the craftiest, and laziest, of their number to move onto the Farm instead. Even with all of the troubles plaguing the Farm, it was still a far and away better life to live in pens, receive any kind of ration, and sleep somewhat soundly under the watchful eyes of the dogs. This influx pushed the accommodations to the breaking point, which in turn caused unrest among the geese who unleashed their angst on the neighboring chickens and ducks. Birds are quick to anger, and it never took much for violence to break out, particularly at feeding times.

One bright and bitter morning, as a service sheep was filling the feeding troughs of the birds under the less than watchful eye of a shivering, young pig, a perturbed Forest goose bullied his way to the front of the line. He was larger than any of the ducks or chickens and with hisses and honks he forced a gap that a gaggle of other geese quickly sought to exploit. The service sheep, who had never felt like he was accommodated adequately for the job with which he was tasked, elected to just dump the entire bag of morning ration in a pile and skeedaddle on to safer pastures. This caused a feathered frenzy as every bird lunged towards the fast shrinking lump of feed. The pig tasked with overseeing the fair distribution of rations squealed in dismay and remonstration, but the three flocks ignored his protestations so he beat a hasty retreat to a less violent corner of the farm for propriety’s sake. The battle began in earnest when the mound had been dispersed and trampled. The geese formed a ring around what was left of the scattered seed and used their size and ferocity to great effect, beating back the uncoordinated assaults of the chickens and ducks. Having been rebuffed, they turned on each other in an effort to capture what few morsels the geese were not defending. It was a terrifying many minutes before a brace of dogs and a horse finally quelled the riot.

The tally of casualties stood at four dead ducks, a dozen dead chickens, and more than a few hovels completely destroyed. Even after the fighting had stopped, the triumphant geese refused to give up any seed. The guard dogs were incapable of reasoning with the geese on one side and were equally unsuited to calming the wrath of the aggrieved chickens and ducks. The horse who had helped stop the violence hoofed off to find a pig, leaving the two dogs as the only level heads in the bunch. Unseen in the corner, a youngish rat crept quietly in amongst the geese. She bode her time, waiting until she found the legs of the original boisterous goose that had started the whole fracas, then bit him viciously on the webs and belly. The boisterous goose trumpeted wildly in pain and anger and proceeded to strike out at any bird within range. This caused the conflict to boil up once more, only now it was in the presence of two dogs who were already at the limit of their natural tolerance. They were trained to keep order through barks and nips, but they were evolved to rip and rend. As the battle was joined anew by the chickens and ducks, who were still ravenous from their slumber and seeking to break their fast at almost any cost, the dogs saw no recourse but to wade in and put down the riot by any means necessary.

Their work was quick and brutal. They snapped the necks of the three biggest geese and mangled a handful of both chickens and ducks. The carnage served to quell any baser motivations of greed or hunger and the three separate flocks segregated themselves in abject fear and horror, their lamentations rising louder than their battle cries. When a handful of pigs and a coterie of rats finally made it to the scene, the sight was grim. It looked as if blood mad wolves had tore into the flock of innocent and starving birds. More than a few of the pigs wretched in disgust as the rats made a show of investigating each and every corpse repeatedly, lapping at the weeping wounds and poking into the rent carcasses. No one noticed the addition of an extra rat to their number as they were all coated in the syrupy blood of the unwitting sacrifices. The death toll now stood at three geese, thirteen ducks and almost a score of chickens. The two guard pups, their muzzles covered in blood, feathers, and down, sat at attention as they were trained. The pigs could not bear to look them in the eye, being cowed by their potential violence, and were given over to frantic whispers with their rat compatriots. The matronly German Shepherd was sent for, as well as more horses. The hullabaloo had caused a crowd of Farm animals to gather and, having no background information to go on, they began to speculate wildly as to what in fact had occurred. By the time the matronly German Shepherd had arrived, the rumors of near rabid dogs going on a murderous rampage had spread to every corner of the Farm, causing hue and cry to be raised against this grave injustice perpetrated by the violent dogs against the poor, starving flocks of geese, chickens, and ducks. A council was quickly convened in front of the Big Barn.

This is bad, very bad. These two pups have violated every code and custom we hold dear on this blessed Farm. Their carnivorous evil cannot be tolerated. The pigs have decided that an example must be made. They must be executed forthwith if any semblance of law and order is to be maintained. Of course you understand that we the pigs, as peaceful and just leaders, cannot carry out this sentence, so it falls to you and your ilk to do what it appears you relish in… that being murder most foul.”

The rats did not even attempt to hide their amusement at the less than clever wordplay. The other pigs all murmured their agreement. In the distance, the geese were still trumpeting their despair. The matronly German Shepherd slumped to her belly in complete disbelief.

This… this is not the way of things. We have Rules here, and these pups deserve a fair chance to-”

A fair chance‽ As fair a chance as the poor, starving geese had when they were attacked by the greedy ducks‽ As fair a chance as all the birds had against two blood mad, wolfish mongrels hellbent on murder most foul‽”

The youngish rat, now clean from the blood that had coated her snout to tail, stood on two paws with her tail keeping her propped up as she excoriated the matronly German Shepherd with her shrill rhetorical inquiries. The pigs murmured their assent to this sentiment, and the matronly German Shepherd could do nothing more than pant and whine in frustration and confusion. She had been overwhelmed by events and her iron allegiance to tradition and hierarchy left her ill equipped to handle the overwhelming sorrow that had overtaken her simple mind. She was left to act on her instincts, and chief among them was her instinct to obey. So she rose to her paws and lowered her head in supplication.

I… I will do as I am commanded. If the Rules say that murder is required, then murder I shall provide.”

She bowed her head again, and with a yip she loped away to the kennel where the two guard pups were being detained by their kin. As they matronly German Shepherd approached, the rest of the dogs rose at the ready.

What shall it be mother? Who shall be held responsible for those damnable geese and their wanton ways?”

We… we are… we are ordered to execute the Farmer’s justice, and we shall do as we are commanded to…”

They assembled dogs barked and bounded in elation, for it is always a dog’s greatest pleasure to follow a command for the good of the pack.

What then, dearest mother? How best can we obey?”

The matronly German Shepherd could only gaze into the unfeeling depths of the cold and distant Forest as she issued her command:

Fall upon your brothers and wring their necks until they are dead. Do it now and make no delay.”

And in the way of their kind, the pack did as they were ordered. The two guard pups keened in despair and rolled belly up in submission which only served to hasten their demise. When the grim deed was done, the matronly German Shepherd and one of her sons grabbed the corpses by the scruff and dragged them to the front of the Big Barn. The pigs and rats were waiting there, as well as a large crowd of other animals, both Farm and Forest. When the bodies were cast down before them, a cry of joy and righteous indignation rose up from the assembled. In unison, the pigs and rats intoned:

Justice has been done.”

The two dogs began to slink away, but they were halted by a command from one of the younger pigs.

Halt! Stand fast and accept the wise and just judgment of the leaders of this Farm.”

The matronly German Shepherd turned and sat, and her son rolled onto his back, belly exposed and tongue lolling.

Forthwith, the dogs of this Farm will no longer be the keepers of the peace. In their stead, the horses and goats shall keep the peace. The dogs are to stay in their kennels for the safety of the Farm. The dogs are to sit in quiet contemplation of their murderous inclinations. Perhaps in time they will seek to progress to a higher level of peaceful coexistence. Begone, curs, and see that you obey or there will be greater and more grievous sanction rendered. Of course, it is still the responsibility of the dogs to defend the borders of our great and good Farm, but they must do so in accordance with the reformed Rules. As such, they may only patrol at night. And they must avoid, at all costs, any temptation to bring harm to peace loving animals, whither they hail from Farm or Forest. Go now, and do not disobey. Flee!”

As ordered, the two dogs fled, their tails between their legs. After their exit, the pigs waited for the hubbub to die down, then ordered the rest of the animals back to their quarters. When only the pigs and rats remained, a secret council was instated. The pigs discussed the particulars of how the running of the Farm would continue with the dogs absent from the bulk of their traditional duties. The rats listened in silence, twitching their whiskers.

This is terrible, simply terrible. Slavish brutes though they be, the dogs did serve an important purpose in the running of this Farm. Who now will protect the peace should honest and understandable disagreements arise?”

Why, the horses will have to finally pull their weight around here. Yes, and the goats too. Why, a goat can be a fearsome beast. I mean, they do have horns after all.”

Indeed. The goats and horses, then, shall be tasked with keeping our great and good Farm safe and civil. Of course, if we have need of them, it is certain the dogs will come when called. They always do.”

The pigs continued back and forth like this for quite some time. The rats listened intently but made no statements, least ways not to any of the pigs. In quiet whispers to each other, they made note of the proceedings. Occasionally, one or two would slink off on some task even as others appeared with whispered news of this or that. In the midst of it all, the big fat rat sat stone still, the youngish rat at his side, slowly preening her whiskers in silence. After much bombastic discourse, the pigs found their way to a conclusion and declared the secret council adjourned. They went on about their day, each to his own little fiefdom, leaving the rats to their own council. They gathered in a close circle around the big fat rat, awaiting his guidance. The youngish rat held her station it his side.

My sibling-children, the great work set before us would be daunting to a humbler and less canny race than we. Our deep history of wandering and injustice at the hands of mongrel mutts is coming to an end. A brave, new world awaits all animals of the Farm. Though we have accomplished so much, this is only the beginning. Evil forces hide within the midst of this Farm, biding their time, waiting to strike a blow against peace and equality. We must remain steadfast and resilient, for change does not come naturally to the simple races. It is our solemn duty to carry these poor, ignorant creatures into the light of a new day. You know what must be done. Go now, and continue the good work that has been started.”

To a rat they scattered to the four corners of the Farm, but the big fat rat remained, stock still like the statue of a rodent from ages past. He slowly cast his glance about him, taking in all he could see. A dark greed welled up inside him, making his beady eyes flash red. He bared his sizable teeth and spoke quietly to the youngish rat, still loyally at his side.

The farm is ours to lose, daughter. See that we do not.”

It has been said that for evil to triumph, the good need only remain idle. In truth, all the evil need are a few of the good to blindly obey.

 

The Farm and the Forest (Part V)

~5~

Things Begin to Unravel

In the days following the meeting, an air of hopefulness and possibility pervaded the Farm. All of the animals took to their chores with gusto, even the Farm birds. Harvest was approaching and all of the best crops were ripening. The silo would soon be filled and the reserve stores thereafter. The horses had not been pleased with the outcome, but their loyalty was to the Farm, so they lowered their heads and worked harder than ever to make good on the promise of more rations for all. Everything did seem to be getting better. But the misgivings in the heart of the matronly German Shepherd did not dissipate. She pushed the youngest pups even harder to learn the Rules and maintain constant vigilance in protecting the boundaries and upholding the laws.

So when the elation wore off, the problems that began to crop up centered around the actions of the dogs. The geese were the first to shirk their duties. With the predicted surplus came a general lazy attitude which was exacerbated by the new Forrest geese who were never fond of any kind of work that did not seem to directly benefit themselves, and even that grudgingly. Things were made worse when two of the new Forest geese were mauled by a zealous young pup. They were not a part of the first wave of new members, and were caught breaking into one of the surplus sheds. One died immediately, and the other a day or so later. The geese and chickens raised a clamor, calling for the young pup’s hide, or at least a shredding of his ears so that he would carry with him the rest of his days the punishment of his reckless and bigoted violence. In the end, the pigs could not risk offending the dogs, but the pup was publicly shamed and new restrictions were placed on all of the dogs. The pigs put it to a vote and henceforth all dogs were under strict instructions to capture any offending animals, be they Farm or Forest, with as little violence as possible, under pain of public humiliation and a revocation of status as defenders of the farm.

And this is when the problems began to pile up in earnest. The geese now felt entitled to wander whenever and wherever they wanted. The dogs, afraid of earning the displeasure of the pigs, did little to stop them. This in turn signaled to the other Farm animals that they too could decide their own hours of work and play. As the numbers of animals milling about at all hours increased, so to did the incidences of brave foxes and brazen coyotes snatching away the young and slow of wit. Again, hue and cry was raised against the dogs for falling down in their responsibilities. The Farm animals demanded better strategies for combating these gruesome raids but would not hear of any limitation on their freedoms. The dogs redoubled their efforts, increasing patrols at night which began to take a toll on their stamina and morale.

The next major incident was when a group of geese comprised of both Farm and Forest birds stomped a number of ducklings to death for encroaching on their space. The matronly German Shepherd demanded blood for this crime, but the pigs were afraid of instigating more violence towards the ducks, so the whole thing was covered up with a story about a dreadful mistake and a light remonstration of the ducks for the lackadaisical management of their young. The geese grew ever more rebellious and haughty and demanded a new pen be set up specifically for them as just recompense for their historic suffering. This required a great amount of effort and supplies so the other animals rejected the proposition. Not to be deterred, the geese went on strike, trumpeting about housing injustice day and night. They even went as far as smashing their own eggs in protest. To quell the rebellion, the pigs ordered the pens be built. As they were quite obviously the victims, the geese were excused from the labor and the work fell largely to the ducks and chickens. Neither of these two cohorts were very capable at craftsmanship, so a mishmash of poorly thought out structures blossomed like toadstools in the avian section of the Farm. This was bemoaned by the geese, but they refused to participate in the construction in any meaningful way, and so the new pens were built, though in truth they would be more accurately described as Piles.

Late one day in autumn, a violent thunderstorm blew in and wrecked one of the reserve sheds. The morning after found precious food scattered hither and yon with geese, chickens, sheep, and cows gorging themselves sick until they were run off by the dogs. This of course caused more protests, and what should have been a few days work stretched over weeks with much time and food lost. Skirmishes between the geese and other Farm animals became a regular occurrence. The sheep began to break into sheds for more food. Even with the increased rations, they complained that they were not given enough, at least not as much as the goats and cows were getting, so the pigs decided to bolster the rations for everyone yet again. This did little to tamp down the ever increasing theft of food and the dogs could do little to stop it. It also began to eat into the reserves so laboriously gathered for the coming lifeless cold months.

When the Fall Due was posted, the geese flat out refused to render their portion. Led by the ever increasing numbers of Forest birds, they demanded the right to abstain, saying that it was cruel and unfair to give up a portion of their eggs and old to a Farmer that did nothing for them. Urged on by the whispering of the rats, they began to openly question the existence of a Farmer at all. A rumor propagated that the dogs had made up the legend of the Farmer in a plot to get extra, undeserved vittles. The other animals were of the opinion that if the geese did not have to pay their Due, then why should they? The dogs and horses refused to budge on the matter, and in the end the geese were forced to render, but they did not do so readily. In the night, many eggs were crushed and pails of milk overturned. A few of the older birds even drowned themselves in the Pond rather than wait on the porch for the Farmer to come in the night.

The weather began to turn and the nights grew colder. What should have been a winter of plenty was fast becoming a season of want. Raids on the grain stocks increased as did the skirmishes between the different groups of animals. Night time wandering ceased but only because of the cold and the chances of being dragged off by a predator was higher than even the stolid work horse could remember. The dogs did their best, but there were not enough of them and the new rules hampered their ability to enact common sense safety measures so long taken for granted. When the snow began to fall, it was on a desperate and sullen Farm. Young animals died in their pens and sheds, their carcasses left preserved where they were dragged until starving foxes and coyotes spirited them away under the cover of night. Even on the brightest days of winter, a darkness had settled on the Farm and with it, a deeply seeded foreboding of that which may be yet to come.

It takes no more than a few well pushed pebbles to cause a landslide on any mountain.