The Empire turned in on herself when winter came early — turned to huddle over her hearth and tend the coals, to pull the thin blanket of providence tighter about her shriveling form. If the Empire were a lady, then surely these far-flung provinces were her extremities. The frostbite was evident, even as the gloves were pulled on.
The rangers rode north, first along the Sea Road, proud and broad, well engineered and well maintained. The sun still shone here, glinting off the roaring ocean. Eventually, they split off onto a smaller highway. The sun hid behind grey clouds and the wind howled. The cities gave way to towns, the towns to villages. The farther north they went, the more harried and haggard the people looked. The buildings changed from cement and tile to wood and shingle. Boys in the south ran to watch the rangers pass by, stick-swords in hand, eager to catch a glimpse, dreams of dash and daring dancing through their heads. Boys in the north were dark smudges out in the fields, desperately gathering the meager harvest with the adults, their sticks buried beneath the leaves and their dreams far from mind.
Hoods were up and cloaks tightly drawn. Talk had dwindled and now tapered to silence. The road was packed dirt and the dark forest that marked the limits of the Empire loomed ahead. Snow fell constantly.
The rangers had enough provisions packed for the season and a fort to call home. Their company was responsible for a 30 mile stretch of wilderness. The mission was straightforward: secure the border.
The company split into patrolling squads of twelve men each. Every morning, a fresh squad would head west and a fresh squad would head east. Each squad rode out 15 miles, rendezvoused with the squad from the neighboring fort, set up camp for the night, and rode back to the fort in the morning.
People had the romantic impression that the rangers heroically defended the borders against savage raiding parties intent on rape and pillage. Armed raiding parties from the north existed, but they didn’t make up the bulk of what the rangers intercepted. No, the rangers primarily protected the Empire from something far more insidious, something far more damaging.
Captain Dant’s squad came upon them in the night, drawn to the light of their campfires. The rangers gave up any pretense of stealth after confirming the nature of the enemy. The twelve rangers approached the camp from all angles, their boots crunching through the snow, their bows drawn and arrows nocked. The women, children, and elderly sat petrified, the fire gleaming in their eyes as they stared at the silent rangers standing all about them. The handful of men in the group were tensed, stiller and more rooted than the naked trees that loomed all about them, hands clutching hatchets and bows more suited to camping and hunting than to warfare. Most were half sitting, half standing, caught between the two stances in their surprise and indecision.
A woman broke the silence, her words slow and alien, but her breath as visible as any of the ranger’s. The only ranger in the group who knew the language just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. All at once, the men dropped dead, arrows threaded through their chests and backs. An old woman had an arrow in her arm, her cries of pain filling the night. Another arrow cut her cries off.
The rangers closed in, like a noose drawn about the neck. They gathered the young, the old, the infirm. The women were set aside.
Four of the twelve were tasked by Captain Dant to gather more wood. The children whimpered for their mothers, the old comforted, and the women watched. None understood what the rangers were about.
The rangers stacked wood about the children and elderly. They doused them with the cheap wine. They held torches. All understood what the rangers were about.
They arrayed themselves before the women. The ranger who spoke their tongue addressed the woman from before.
-What is your name?
-Go back north, Dhaga. Tell those you meet not to come.
Captain Dant nodded and the rangers, without malice or mirth, tossed their torches.
Dhaga watched on in horror. Her children screamed for her as they burned to death, but all she did was watch. The woman next to her howled with rage and rushed a ranger. She managed to rake her nails down his face before she was cut down.
The rangers retreated into the cold and dark, leaving the women there to shiver in the warmth and glow cast by the bonfire of their kin.
From a flash fiction challenge way back in October. I started this months ago and am just now getting back to revisiting it in February. Hooray for procrastination.
I chose this one for some godawful reason:
“Her children screamed for her as they burned to death, but all she did was watch.” – E.B. Black
Thanks E.B. Black. This one challenged the hell out of me, especially when the story I built leading up to my chosen sentence made it almost impossible to incorporate it. If the sentence had read “… but all she could do was watch,” then I’d have had an easy time of it. As it stands, the mother who watched silently as her children died comes off as a bit unbelievable, though I suppose this can be reconciled if we suppose she was in shock. What is truly difficult to reconcile is the ascribed cruelty of the rangers. Seriously, they’re monsters. Part way through writing this, I realized I had to have some sort of extremely dark turn take place, but the turn came out more drastic than I anticipated.
Oh. In case anyone cares, this was the prompt I created. I don’t think anyone took it upon themselves to use it.
“Battered, bruised, and bloody, the survivors felt a brief pang of bittersweet triumph before the packed earth began to rumble beneath their feet and the massive southern gate groaned open, slowly revealing the cavernous and atramentous depths beyond the threshold.”