Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Fighting For No One

by Francis Bass


"The enemy is at the gate."

"Of course they are," I said. "Of course. Pour over some boiling water, c'mon, quick now, and signal for the cliff tower's help."

"As you wish sir," said a tall soldier, and five people ran up the stairs to the battlements.

Silence pervaded the room. As I assessed the situation I fixed my gaze on the twisting and popping of a torch's flame. I had always hated the dungeon, with its oppressive atmosphere, eye-straining lighting conditions, and especially with the way it amplified sounds from above. In the dungeon, footsteps turned into the stomps of giants. It was still the largest room, however, and the only place I could address all of my soldiers.

"It's times like this when I wish I was in the cliff tower," a portly spearman named Henry grumbled, shocking me out of my meditation.

"Don't complain," I said, tired of the 'I wish I was in the cliff tower' remark. "Just get your gear on and get ready." Not long ago, I would have been among the ones whining -- and some of the men still saw me as one of them, instead of a man who could have them flogged for insubordination. Henry, in particular, had been my drinking companion on a few occasions.

"Wait -- we aren't going to be fighting on foot, are we?" Henry asked.

"I'm preparing for the worst -- if the ransals get through the canyon -- "

"Then 'the city of Karvan will have hell to pay'," Henry parroted. "You've only said that twenty times."

"Get your gear on, go to the south gate," I ordered. "There should be fifty other soldiers there."

"Fifty? Just fifty?"

I paused and wondered how best could I get the message through this moron's brain. "Do you hear that?" I asked with an ambiguous hand gesture. Above us came the sounds of banging and slamming against metal and rock, and unearthly screams as boiling water was poured down on the swarming enemy. "How long do you think it will take for those ransals to break through the gates? When they do, we need a group of people to greet them. What are you afraid of? They don't have any weapons."

"Have you seen them? They have some pretty useful weapons," Henry retorted, glaring back at me. The gouges in the shield he picked up had been made by an 'unarmed' ransal.

"All right, they do, but only in the same way that I can use this helmet as a weapon to smack you if you don't hurry up and get to the gate."

"Yes, sir." Finally the soldier took to one of the two stairwells, and left the dungeon an empty room.

I removed the torch I had been staring at from its bracket, and held it tight as I went up the north stairwell. After passing several landings, I made it to the battlements. An incredibly bright moon lit the entire desert plain for miles around. Looking over my shoulder, I could see five large cauldrons on wheels, and fires crackling warmly beneath them. Behind the cauldrons was a sort of oversized lantern, with a huge pile of timber burning inside -- the signal to the cliff tower. I counted twenty men on the battlements. It seemed the tower's entire arsenal of soldiers had been put to use.

"Feerodin," I called, and a bowman emerged from the group. "Anything to report?"

"No, sir, nothing. They seem to be having a harder time getting through the gates...harder than when, uh...I think we're pretty safe."

Of course, I knew exactly the time he was referring to when he said 'harder'. Most soldiers called it 'the breach', but it was hardly spoken of. "Thank you, Feerodin."

He nodded, and returned to shooting arrows into the heads of the enemy.

I walked to the edge of the battlements, and looked over. I estimated that there were about five hundred ransals massing at the south wall.

"Do you ever think about what their lives were before they became bloodthirsty killers?" asked the soldier next to me.

"They don't exactly kill," I said. I always nitpicked what people said -- a bad habit for a commander. But the more experienced officers had been ordered to aid in the defense of Karvan, eventually leaving lesser fortresses in the hands of lesser people like me.

"Well, what they do to people -- worse than death," the archer nodded knowingly.

"Oh, like you know what they do to people."

"I think we all do."

"Yeah, but you don't know what it's like. It's never happened to you."

"Judging by all the screams, I'd imagine that being eaten alive would be pretty painful."

"True, although we aren't talking about -- "

"Sir!" My head whipped around, and I saw a man named Marcus with a crossbow strapped to his back. He held a telescope at his side.

"What is it?" I asked.

"We haven't been receiving any help from the cliff tower, and I think I know why," the crossbowman said, and he handed me the telescope.

I aimed it at the cliff tower, and I instantly knew what was happening. The enemy was attacking the cliff tower, which prevented the cliff tower from aiding us. This sounded like some sort of strategic, well thought out attack, although I knew that the enemy was so disorganized that this had not been their plan -- they hadn't had a plan at all. It's near impossible to fight soldiers (if you can call ransals soldiers) who have been stripped of all their humanity, who fear nothing, who have only one goal in mind. There's no way to predict their next move, no way to reason with them.

"Sir, you know what this means, right? Ransals from the North?" asked Marcus.

"No, it doesn't mean anything," I shook my head. "Perhaps they learned to climb, perhaps they came in on a boat, perhaps it's just a group that was exiled from Karvan, it doesn't mean anything!"

"Sir, I'd estimate that there are three thousand ransals up there. Do you really think that they're just a group of exiles from Karvan? No. They are Karvan -- or at least three tenths of the population. I give it one hour before the other seven tenths come staggering through this canyon toward us."

"Look, everything will be fine," I said as calmly as possible.

Heads began to turn.

"I've heard that before. It was the same ten months ago with the breach. You said things would be fine, but they weren't. We had two thousand cannibals banging on our gates -- 'things will be fine, we'll win this fight' -- until they broke through. Remember how many of our people died that day?"

"Of course I do, I lost friends too, but -- "

Heads turned again, but this time toward the cliff tower.

"Four hundred and seventy five people died that day, including the ones that were bitten and mutated. We have only seventy soldiers. Do you think we can stand an attack of seven thousand ransals? No. Turn your head toward the cliff tower, and you'll see that we have no hope."

All soldiers on the battlements looked on in horror as the ransals swarmed around the tower base, tearing it to pieces. They had broken through the walls, and now the tower was being overcome by the soldiers.

"We've got to get out of here," said Feerodin.

"You? You too?" I said, shocked.

"Sometimes, there's nothing that can be done. Now would be that time," he replied.

"Where are you to go?" I asked angrily. "You have no place to go from here, you've got no choice but to keep fighting."

"Is it true?" I turned around, and saw that the foot soldiers from the south gate had appeared on the battlements. "Has Karvan fallen?"

"No, it's not true! There is no huge group of cannibals coming to kill us!" Even as I exclaimed this, everyone focused on the cliff tower. I turned around again, and I saw that the cliff tower was collapsing. There was a brief moment that lasted two or three seconds when the stone pillar stood still, and then all seven stories came smashing down, each floor crushing the one beneath it.

"The...the tower," said one of the soldiers.

"If you morons don't get back down to the gate, it'll be our tower that's falling! I cannot believe you abandoned your position to come ask me about Karvan!" Beneath me, I heard the sound of wrenching metal. Everyone on top of the tower flooded to the battlement edges, and looked down to see that the ransals had smashed open part of the gate. It wouldn't be long before they broke through.

"What's the point of fighting now?" asked a soldier. Through the murk of moving bodies I could not identify him. "We've got an hour or so before -- "

"Yes, Karvan has fallen!" I finally yelled. There was silence. "But it fell awhile ago. I went on a trip to get supplies from Karvan three months ago and found the place in ruins. Ransals walked the streets. I had to raid an abandoned military base to get supplies. If there haven't been any cannibal groups coming so far, it seems we're fine."

"So far," the swordsman Joseph muttered. "What about now?"

There was more silence. "So who have we been fighting for?" an anonymous voice queried.

"You've been fighting for your own survival, and the survival of the cliff tower. Now you're just fighting for yourselves." I paused. "To arms!"

Gazes of absolute bafflement met me.

"For ourselves?"

"That's very poetic of you," a spearman scoffed.

"For ourselves?"

"You've finally lost it, sir."

"What kind of quality of life can we possibly have to fight for?" voiced Marcus. "At least before we knew we were fighting for the people of Karvan. We knew we would be remembered as heroes, brave guardians of the city. And now, we're fighting only because the alternative is to be cannibalized."

The reality of the situation sank in. The romance and adventure faded away with Marcus's words of 'heroes' and 'guardians', to be replaced by a cold truth -- 'the alternative is to be cannibalized'.

I coughed, and offered, "That's still something worth fighting for."

The air was so still, and everyone so motionless, that it seemed the world had been abruptly frozen in ice.

"Sir, who's to say that there aren't more coming?" by moonlight I could see the face of Joseph asking this question. "Usually ransals follow by scent, so if three thousand could catch something strong enough to bring them here, who's to say that the rest of Karvan isn't behind them?"

"I...I don't know," I had lost count of how many people had asked me things that night. "Is that really important, Joseph?"

"Maybe a more important question is 'what do we do?' I mean, do we keep fighting?" The question, asked by Feerodin, hung in the air. No one wanted to answer it with a 'yes' or a 'no'.

And then Feerodin said, "never mind, my question's been answered." He pointed northward, into the canyon. The canyon ran straight up to Karvan, with huge cliffs rising on either side of it. Our small army shifted forward along the battlements to the northside.

"Sir, I thought you said -- "

"I know what I said," my voice was hoarse. A group of ransals was coming along the canyon, headed south toward us. "Be thankful there are only one hundred."

"Sir, again, what do we do?"

"We may be able to run for it."

"We could go down to the dungeon and wait for the roof to fall on our heads. It's better than being eaten alive."

"All of Karvan is about to descend on us."

My voice was barely audible as I thought aloud, "They...that's why. That's why the enemy came from the north, they were following this group -- they just chose to follow them along the cliffs, and thank god for that!"

"Sir?" asked Feerodin, confused. Everyone shut-up now.

"They're flying the Karvan flag, they're survivors! They must've accidentally brought some Ransals with them...Raise the north gate, let them in!" I ordered.

"They're who?"

"They're from Karvan?"

"Isn't Karvan overrun with Ransals?"

"Sir, you said -- "

"They are what's left of Karvan," I stated. "They are survivors. They are the people we've been fighting for!"

THE END


© 2011 Francis Bass

Bio: Francis Bass lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and does not know why it is the capital of the state. You can't find him anywhere, for now. He recently made his debut on the weekly short-fiction website D.ustb.in with his short-story "A Robot Walks into a Bar."

E-mail: Francis Bass

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