flASH fiction: Volume 4: Past and Present (37)

Past and Present
By
Jason Pere

“She is not how I remembered her,” said Sir Liam Boradcliff as he walked the parapets over Rayward’s Gate. He took a long pause every few steps to ponder the stone and metal of the tireless fortification. Though he had never seen the massive structure in such a disheveled state he knew that even if the gate had not been besieged by the chimera for days on end, it would not be the place he remembered serving so many years ago.

“Much has changed since you walked here last,” said Master Whitehawk. He fell in step beside Sir Liam after giving the Helm Breaker a few moments of silent reminiscing.

“It is fitting that you say such a thing. One difference in particular comes to mind,” said the Helm Breaker. He pointed one of his thick fingers at the Master of Arms sigil pinning back Master Whitehawk’s cloak.

The younger man quickly brushed the bronze crest with his fingers, like he had been stuck by an arrow in that precise location. He halted for a moment and struggled with some weighty embarrassment that threatened to turn his face an awkward shade of red. He regained his composure after a few heartbeats. “Is this what this is all about? Did you come back to Rayward in her hour of need to reclaim your title after all these years?”

Sir Liam stopped and turned to face the new Master of Arms eye to eye. He cut the younger man down to a fraction of his being with a single glance form his steely warrior’s stare. The standoff was put to a swift end as Sir Liam broke out with a merciful chuckle. “Lad, you can keep the title. My time wearing that old thing is far gone. I’ve no need to reclaim it,” he said with another nod at the Master of Arms sigil. “My honor though…” he said quietly under his breath and trailing off into an uncomfortable moment of brooding. His dark rumination was put to and end as he rapped a gauntleted hand on the likeness of an armored hound embossed on his breastplate. “Besides, you can see I have a new crest that I fight under,” he said before casting a wary eye back at Tinaca and Kalli who were following not far behind amid a mob of Rayward Generals and officers.

“Indeed. It is a curious thing and has caused much discussion at court. Most of us here thought you had faded away into memory but now you have returned to fight the chimera under your own banner, and leading a host of Iron Men no less. What are we to think?” said Master Whitehawk with a leading edge in his words.

“First you should think about getting your facts straight. It is not my banner. The man responsible for this new army, the army that just secured your oceanside front and finished clearing the city of the beasts that made it thought the wall, no this is not my army. The man down there you see?” he asked as he pointed down to the cobblestone streets below where Brother Pratt was busy accessing the gate with Shibon and a host of engineers and tradesmen. “Brother Pratt is the heart behind all of this and you know what? He is too humble a man to say it is his army. The Amurai are Argaia’s soldiers, belong to no one king or nation, they…we…serve all people and are all people, plain and true and that good man will not have it any other way.”

“I see,” responded the Rayward Master of Arms with a kindly nod of his head. “In any case, I have not properly expressed my personal gratitude for the service you have done for Rayward,” he said with a warrior’s salute.

Sir Liam returned the gesture though his motion and posture was not as clean or crisp as his younger successor’s. It was not possible to tell if it was the weight of time and age, inhibiting the Helm Breaker’s movements or if it was a general distaste for matters of etiquette and formality. “You can thank us by pledging some proper fighting men to the cause,” he said before leaning in and lowering his voice so that only Master Whitehawk could hear. “The Iron Men are good soldiers but they are not of Rayward mettle.”

Master Whitehawk stifled a laugh. “Let us first worry ourselves about the matter at hand. Once Rayward is secured again we can discuss our contributions to your army,” he said with a friendly and familiar tone.

“Fair, lad, fair,” said Sir Liam. The two men continued to walk the parapets of the gate. Sir Liam found no end to the wonder and majesty of this place. It was a more profound homecoming than he had expected. The bloody arrival on the Bone Sea had not given him time to reflect on what it was like to return to the place of his birth and decades of service. Now in the quiet moments between battles he found that his spirit was moved by walking over the same ground he had known in his prime. As he had found fear when traveling to Rustwatch, Sir Liam grasped a strange kind of peace now that he had come back to Rayward. He looked down at the ground beyond the gate, remembering the last time he had battled there. His eyes managed to find their way back to the very spot where he had bested the Iron Lord in single combat and won the day. He found his nostalgic memories of the first battle of Rayward’s Gate interrupted by a stir of movement form the tree line across no man’s land beyond the seal wall.

“Did you see that?” asked Master Whitehawk from the Helm Breaker’s side.

“Aye, that I did. I had hoped it was just my old eye’s having a go at me,” Sir Liam responded. “Something is wrong.”

“Bowmen, Artillery, ready at the gate,” called Master Whitehawk. The command was echoed up and down the full length of the seal wall like a grand marshal operatic crescendo.

From the forest across the field where hundreds of chimera corpses lay riddled with Rayward arrows came bizarre sight. A screaming mass of terrified people bolted from the trees like they had been launched from a catapult. They began racing from the woodland straight at the front of Rayward’s Gate. A practical deluge of filthy unwashed masses descended on the city’s focal point from the trees.

“Master Whitehawk, should we lose a volley?” asked one of the generals who followed in the group behind the Helm Breaker and city’s Master of Arms.

Master Whitehawk gave a cautious glance to Sir Liam at his side, seeming to court some unspoken wisdom for his venerable predecessor. “Not now but stand ready and wait for my order. We do not know what this is yet,” he said while looking out at the charging horde of scarred people.

“They are not chimera but I can not say I like this sight any more than a wedge of the miserable red rainborn things coming at us,” remarked Sir Liam.

The appearance of the spcreaming people put all of Rayward’s Gate ill at ease. The fighting men of the city as well as the Amurai who witnessed the event all shared in equal measures of apprehension. Concerned murmurs and hushed curses and prayers started to circulate through the force along the seal wall’s battlements. The foreboding hiss of a rumor mill fast at work was drowned out by a horrific blood chilling roar from the trees.

On the heels of the human mob running from the wood came the harrowing sight of the chimera force that had laid siege to the city. Snapping and growling the beasts fell upon the stragglers in the flight of terrified men and women with primal savagery. The death cries of the people caught by the terrible beasts could be clearly heard behind even the mighty barricade that was Rayward’s Gate.

“I do not know how so many people survived beyond the walls of a city,” said Master Whitehawk with a shocked and compassionate quality.

“Just barely by the look of it. Some might make it to the gate,” responded the Helm Breaker while he looked at the carnage ensuing in no man’s land.

“At the beasts,” commanded Master Whitehawk, giving the signal to open fire.

The Master of Arms order was promptly obeyed with a hail of arrows and heavy boulders sent into the sky over the city. The might of the Rayward army fell within the shadow of the city and ended scores of the blood thirsty chimera. The delay rain that fell from the battlements over the gate was enough to stall the pursuit of the chimera for a respectable measure. Some of the beasts even withdrew back into the safety of the trees.

“Prepare to receive the refuges. Do not open the main gate, small passages only,” said Master Whitehawk as the screaming throng of fearful people closed the distance to the safety of the city’s seal wall. Rayward soldiers and Amurai alike moved to execute the command.

“This feels wrong to me,” said Sir Liam with an uncertain and reserved quality.

“What would you have me do, Leave them to be ripped apart before our very eyes?” rebutted the Master of Arms.

“Of course not but can you say this sits well with you?” Sir Liam responded with a piercing measure in his words.

“Nothing sits well with me about this war,” said the Master of Arms.

“I will agree with you there,” said the Helm Breaker with an affirming shake of his head.
As the first of the people fleeing form the chimera reached the seal wall a strange glow began to emanate from the mob of refugees. As the glow intensified so did the frightful sound of the groups moaning and screaming. The mixture of light and sound distorted and worked its way from the base of the gate all the way to the parapets above.

“Hold. Wait. Hold the gate. Do not let them enter the city,” cried out the Master of Arms as all positioned on the battlements witnessed the peculiar goings-on below.

His cry of alarm was answered by a catastrophic flash of light from the mob at the base of the gate. In a deafening crack and terrible bust of silver and platinum energy the mass of scarred people erupted in a shower of liquid metal. The blast from the magical explosion shook Rayward to its very core. Before the shockwave had fully dissipated into the atmosphere Rayward’s Gate began to fall. Amid the screams of soldiers falling to their death or being crushed by tons of rock there rose the sound of the great chimera army mounting a fatal charge. Above everything else the greedy sound of malevolent laughter coming from a great horned goat-beast at the vanguard of the chimera army was what filled the ears of everyone in Rayward.