Somewhere in the Unclaimed Territories, Andil scratched idly at the dirt with the charred end of a stick. He knew he was a little north of the Merolate border, but he wasn’t certain how far. As long as he stayed away from the guardposts and stations where soldiers kept watch, the precise boundary was of little importance to him. After all, these rugged steppes weren’t unclaimed, not to him. He claimed them, as had his mothers, and their foremothers. They were home, where he had been born and raised.
Even so, they felt alien on this night. Not dangerous, but sullen. There was a brooding sense about the landscape, no matter how familiar it might be. Although, if Andil were honest with himself, some of that sense might have been his own uncertainty. As did everyone in the tribe, he had studied the gods, learning their names and the stories and their positions in the heavens, but his heart had always belonged to the bow. How he longed that he had been allowed to bring his bow with him, but Wisers were forbidden any weapon save a small, stone knife, just as they were forbidden the taking of life, whether plant, animal, or human. In this way were the Wisers made subservient unto those who could take life, which was the greatest of powers.
His horse knickered softly beside him, and he rose to rub its nose. The animal showed no signs of anxiety, so whatever sense Andil was getting from the surroundings was not something that might set an animal on edge, and everyone knew to watch the animals for signs of danger; they would always know before the people.
He had lit no fire, so the crisp, cold night was pure, though it was summer. Even in the season of life it stayed cool in the Territories. To Andil it was comfortable beneath his furs; he could hardly imagine a place where it grew so warm and lush as it was said to in the southern parts of Merolate. Above him, the sky sparkled with gods, glittering and gleaming and casting their distant light to the eyes of those who knew to look upon their beauty. They seemed especially attentive this night, twinkling and pulsing in the distant heavens. Perhaps this night, finally, they would answer his prayers.
Holding out his arms and laying himself back, so that he was facing the distant dome of the dark sky, spreadeagled, that the gods might better perceive him, Andil widened his eyes as far as he could, and began to recite the same prayer he had said for the past four nights. “Mighty Gods, Lights of the Heavens, hear now the supplication of your humble servant. May you watch over my people in their journeys and guide them on their ways to paths most pleasing to your glory. May you bless the season of life, that it be bountiful and filled with growing, that my people may not know hunger nor want. May you bless the season of death to come, that it brings great cleaning of white across the land, and leave it refreshed for the life ahead, that my people may ever dwell in this land. May all that is evil be cast upon me, and not upon my people, that they may not suffer beyond their measure…”
He continued on, though his fingers were cold and his back uncomfortable against the ground, and his eyes itched so that he desperately wanted to blink them, and even more he wanted to finish his prayer that he might sleep, but he let none of these things interrupt the ritual, nor cloud the words which he cast up to the distant gods. All across the steppe, he knew, were other Wisers splayed out upon the ground in like manner, sending forth their own prayers on journeys to the gods, and knowing that gave Andil greater strength to continue in his prayer.
“Let the bows of the hunters ever be true, and may the eyes that see be keen, and the hands that wield them be sure. Let the hands of the gatherers be ever tough, and may the ears that hear the ripeness be attuned, and the backs that support them be strong…”
High above him, at the peak of his vision, something flared. At first Andil dismissed it as naught but a trick of his dry and itching eyes, but then another flare sparkled, and this time he was certain it belonged to the heavens high above. Against his will, his eyes blinked, and tears welled up, so that when another light flashed infinitely high above his forehead it seemed to scatter into the form of all the gods together. Then a new god appeared, vast and bright like a new moon, though much smaller and closer, and it left behind it a trail of fire across the sky. It arced across Andil’s vision, and he followed it with his eyes until it disappeared over the horizon to the south and was gone.
Naught else seemed to have even taken notice of the fallen god, but to Andil it was a clear message from the heavens. The gods above had cast this one of their number from the heavens down to the mortal lands far below them, and Andil’s part would be to see that their will was fulfilled. He remembered well the teachings of the older Wisers, who whispered of a time in the distant past when another god had been cast down from the heavens in exile and had scrawled flame across the steppes before the gods had sent a great blizzard to extinguish its light forever. That had been a dark time for the tribes, for they had suffered greatly for their ignorance of how they ought to treat the fallen god. This time, they would not make such a mistake, but would ensure that wherever it had fallen it lay undisturbed, until the gods could finish their punishment.
In haste he prepared his horse, extinguished his fire, and packed away his sparse camp. Thus readied, Andil mounted and rode off in haste through the night to find the main body of his tribe where they were camped not far distant from his own place of isolation. With the other Wisers, he would muster them, and then they would ride forth to find where the god had fallen to ensure that the gods’ will was fulfilled upon the exiled one.
It was not unusual for meetings amongst Kiluron’s ministers to be noisome affairs, with various ministers vying for primacy in arguments both relevant and esoteric, especially since Kiluron enabled a far more relaxed environment for meetings than had Prime Wezzix. Sometimes he suspected that such vociferous debates made Doil uncomfortable, but Kiluron welcomed it; they made him feel less out of place, and made his ministers seem more like ordinary people than like taxidermized humans stuffed full of papers. Despite that, he had never expected to enter the conference chamber and encounter a tone of debate that could only be described as eager, or possibly excited. No one save Doil even noticed his arrival.
“Sorry I’m late,” Kiluron said, walking over to stand next to where Doil was sitting and rubbing his temples. “Vere wanted to discuss more logistics about the border postings and the province rotations. Sounds like all of the governors have signed on, now. What’s all of this about?”
“The hubbub?” Doil asked, grimacing. “Minister Kelina expressed something about being concerned about stellar humors, and everyone has been arguing ever since. I knew it was a controversial topic, but I didn’t realize just how passionate everyone could become about it, given the right impetus.”
Kiluron blinked. “Stellar humors?” he repeated. “And is this what you academic types do? You just randomly start arguing intensely about…stellar humors?”
With a wry smile, Doil shook his head as Kiluron settled himself into the adjacent chair. “Something like that, perhaps. But in this case, it arose because of the general excitement around the recent starfall.”
“Oh, that?” Kiluron asked. “I read a scout report about that. Something about damages in the Dervate lumber farms. That was enough to get everyone this excited?”
“My lord, a star fell from the sky. And at least part of it actually crash-landed in Dervate Province, near the silvicultural holdings,” Doil remarked. “There hasn’t been a recorded case of a fallen star actually reaching the surface within our borders since, well, since we began keeping records. There are some references to something similar before the days of the Blood Empire, and during the Pax Sankt there are some mentions of the discovery of what some ancient texts claim to be fragments of starfalls, but nothing definitive. This could be a unique opportunity to learn exactly what the stars are, what they’re made of, how they work, why they shine. It has implications for…for everything.”
Pursing his lips, Kiluron nodded. “Now, why couldn’t the report have sounded as enthusiastic and interesting as you do? I might pay more attention to reports like that. Now, shall we get started? It sounds like this is probably going to be kind of a long meeting, if everyone is this talkative already.”
Doil nodded and called the meeting to order. Then, because Doil was Doil, they went through the agenda in an orderly fashion, from Borivat with the Ministry of Affairs and Relations with Alien Lands, to Regicio with the Ministry of Economics, Currency, and Trade and his exaggeratedly pompous and dramatic diction, to Adima with the Ministry of Agriculture and Industry, to Kelina with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, to Admiral Ferl with the Ministry of Public Defense and Civil Order, to finally Inpernuth with the Ministry of Law and Governmental Policy, who as usual had nothing at all to report, and did not even favor the council of ministers with a superfluous “lok.” When at last the rotation had been finished, Doil paused, and then said: “Now, I believe there was interest in some discussion of the recent starfall.”
To the surprise of everyone there, Inpernuth was the first to speak, drawing all attention to him when his booted feet smacked against the floor from where they had been propped on the table. When he saw that everyone was regarding him in surprise, he puckered his lips twice, and then shrugged. “I’m not interested, so I’ll just go if that’s alright by you, lok.” He was already halfway to his laconic feet by the time he had finished stringing those words together. Everyone had stopped being surprised.
“Whether or not you’re interested, this could be relevant to all of the ministers,” Doil insisted, sounding significantly more patient than several of the ministers appeared. Inpernuth settled with an exaggerated sigh back into his chair.
“It seems quite clear to me that we ought to send forth an expedition immediately,” Minister Adima declared. “This represents an unprecedented opportunity to gain insight into something fundamental to our world: the nature of the stars themselves.”
Minister Kelina interrupted Adima almost before the other had finished speaking. “Will you take no heed of the danger of stellar humors? It’s well known that the stars are brighter in the winter, when more people take ill because of their stronger humors. If we go playing around with a star that has fallen all the way down here, I can hardly imagine how powerful and dangerous the humors might be. It could unleash a plague upon the land such as we have never known.”
“Oh please,” Adima retorted, “stop going on about ‘stellar humors.’ Even if they exist, a fact which is yet in considerable dispute, I highly doubt that they would be present in a fallen star. Surely you saw how it burst into flames as it fell from the heavens, and we all know that fire helps dispel humors.”
This was clearly meant to goad Kelina, who had not heard of the starfall until the following morning and had therefore not witnessed it. “It still seems like tempting fate. This Union has undergone enough hardships recently.”
Admiral Ferl cleared his throat to interject, thankfully quelling the rising argument. “I think it advisable that we at least investigate this starfall. We were assuredly not the only people to have witnessed it, and I am concerned that others may take an interest in it.”
“Admiral Ferl speaks wisely,” Borivat agreed. The two of them had quickly formed a coalition within the council of ministers, and Kiluron was happy to let them do so; their suggestions were usually common sense and genuinely helpful, unlike those from some of his other ministers. “Research suggests that historically starfalls have been the subject of or impetus to international attention and internal unrest. We know, for instance, that the tribes of the Unclaimed Territories worship the stars as some kind of deities; I would not be surprised if they attempt some kind of push into Dervate Province to reach the starfall site.”
Regicio held up his hand then to speak, and waited patronizingly for everyone else to turn and devote unto him their full attention. There was an extended silence. “Obviously this is not exactly within my usual areas of expertise, but seeing as to the expansive implications of any potential expedition to investigate the starfall, it seems only fitting that I ought to provide an opinion. Therefore, I contend that it is most necessary and appropriate that we deputize investigation of this matter unto persons whom we can deem, ah, eminently expendable, thus to ensure that if there is a danger we do not put persons we would be dismayed to lose in a position to experience it. Furthermore…”
With a sigh, Kiluron interrupted him, and he looked around at all of the ministers now that he had their attention. At least they would turn towards him to listen no matter how much they might beenjoying their own voices. “I believe that I’ve heard enough about this issue,” he declared, and he felt confident as he spoke, powerful. This time, he felt like the Prime, and he found that was happening more and more often during these meetings and while executing his other duties. It was a rather strange experience, if he was honest with himself, but definitely not unpleasant. “We’ll dispatch a team to investigate. Admiral Ferl, ask Vere to put together a detachment of guardsmen, and send messages to our border outposts along the Dervate border to keep extra watch for raids from the Territories. Doil, work with Adima, Kelina, and Borivat to identify academics and philosophers to include in the expedition, and have them collect whatever equipment they’ll need for departure within the next three days. Does anyone have any objections?” He scanned their faces, focusing most on Kelina, since she had been previously so vocally opposed, but even she was nodded in reluctant agreement. Kiluron gave a firm nod. “Then it’s settled. Doil, anything else?”
A smile flickered on Doil’s face, but he buried it behind an agenda. “No, my lord. We’ll adjourn for today, with your permission.”
“By all means: meeting adjourned,” Kiluron agreed. The ministers filed out, again talking excitedly about the starfall, and Kelina still arguing about stellar humors with anyone who would listen.
Doil paused at the door before he departed and caught Kiluron’s gaze. “That was well done, my lord.”
“You don’t sound surprised anymore,” Kiluron remarked.
“I’m not. You’re growing for the role now, not into it.” Doil smiled. “I think you can tell, too. You’ve been much more confident in your decisions.”
Kiluron agreed. “You’re right. I just hope that I don’t go confidently into the wrong decisions. But I suppose that’s what I have you for.” He grinned. “Don’t think you can sit back and relax, just because I’m getting a little more confident at my job.”
“I would never dream of it,” Doil replied. Then he left to put together the academics for the expedition, and Kiluron returned to his own study, to examine his own list of tasks for the remainder of the day. It was extensive, but he saw nothing there that he would not be able to handle. Of course, it still remained to be seen what the next day might bring.
There were some amongst Vere’s acquaintances who he knew held horses in nearly as high regard as they held people, maybe higher, and would flatly refuse to ride into battle with any horse they had not groomed themselves and come to know intimately over long training. For that matter, there were people he knew he would hardly stand to ride another man’s horse to get from one place to another, and who mourned for days when their horse died. For himself, he had never understood the inclination. They were useful, certainly, but aside from short cavalry actions or hauling large amounts of gear, they seemed as often as not more trouble than they were worth. He was only riding now because it helped his men identify him in the forest’s confines.
Even before they had departed Merolate, Vere had received scout reports from border outriders that there were scores of nomads massing near the border nearest to the starfall site, with more tribes streaming in each day. He had pushed for the party setting out from Merolate to hasten, but prodding stuffy academics, most of whom hadn’t spent a day in the field in years or decades, was only so effective. Although he had noticed that the natural philosophers were slightly more receptive to him after he urged them onward with a quote from Gronkin’s Collected Rhymes and Rhythms. Even so, it had taken almost ten days for them from the time they left to reach the Dervate forests where the starfall site was.
Dervate’s northern forests were mostly birch and maple trees, with the occasional old growth giant of an oak, hickory, or walnut rising above and casting a deep island of shadow over the woods. The underbrush was sparse, which made it easy to send outriders to watch the ways and apprehend early any signs of trouble, and it only grew sparser, along with the trees, as the forest began to bleed into steppes in the northernmost reaches. The starfall site was centered east-west in Dervate Province, and only a two days’ ride from the border with the Unclaimed Territories. The whole position felt exposed to Vere, despite the comfortable warmth of the forest and its verdant greenery. Or perhaps that was why it felt so exposed – the setting seemed like one for a holiday, and yet he knew there was danger, even if it had not yet arrived.
Closer to the starfall itself, the landscape was altered dramatically. In a wide line, eerily straight such that some of the guardsmen murmured amongst themselves and avoided riding too close to it, the trees and brush were charred or blow away, and there were pockmarks in the ground, as if fragments of the star had broken off during its fall and come early to impact with the surface. The destruction grew worse, and in some places as they continued smoke still rose from smoldering foliage.
A gouge had been cut into the ground like some giant had come along to plant his oversized grains, and it ended in a crater that twenty men would have had difficulty circling, where the soil had been thrown up in a great embankment, as if the ground had become temporarily liquid, only to freeze again with waveforms still precessing through it. All around the site, trees had been torn up by the roots and tossed like so many toothpicks, always outward from the crater itself, so that it seemed as if nature was pointing them away, warning them to come no nearer to the fallen star.
Not ignoring these signs, but neither changing his course, Vere followed along the swath of destruction as if it were a road in enemy territory until he and his group reined in, those in the front now able to stare down into the crater formed by the starfall. Because of the embankment of soil that had been thrown up by the impact, it was difficult to tell how deep the crater really was, but the slope was shallow, and a glint as of metal could be seen at the very center. In the sunlight, it seemed to shine with a light of its own, as if the star had not quite perished during its concussive entrance. Several of the scholars made to ride immediately down into the crater, but Vere forestalled them.
“We’ll make camp a short distance from this place,” he decided, gesturing for his scouts to find them a suitable spot to bivouac. “I want a perimeter guard established; use a quarter of the men at any given time and put them on rotation. One quarter should be guarding the crater, one quarter should be guarding the camp. The others will be off duty when not guarding, unless otherwise tasked. Any questions?”
There were none, although Ediplun, the lead scholar, pursed his lips in displeasure. Guardlieutenant Oilon saluted and went off to organize the appointed watch rotations and oversee the proper camp setup. As the small caravan of guardsmen and scholars moved off, Vere was left for a moment alone to stare down at the fallen star, before he turned to gaze north. He still felt too exposed, like there was some danger coming for which he had not yet accounted, but he couldn’t be entirely sure it was not the impact of the tortured landscape around the starfall upon his subconscious mind. With gentle pressure, he turned his horse away from the crater’s edge, and rode off to join the others at the camp.
That afternoon, he finally permitted Ediplun and his team of scholars to begin investigating the starfall. They passed the guards sharpening stakes and preparing defenses around the camp, and Vere acknowledged the salutes from the guards stationed around the starfall itself. In truth, Vere likely did not need to directly oversee the scholars’ work, but he was curious, and for the moment Guardlieutenant Oilon and the sergeants had the camp organization and defenses under control. Contrary to what he might have expected, the scholars did not immediately rush down the slope of the erupted embankment of soil to begin digging their way to the star; instead, they walked slowly around that embankment, observing the destruction caused by the starfall and reporting their observations to Ediplun, who scribbled them down on a piece of paper pinned to a board.
“This destruction is remarkable. It suggests that the star must have been both immensely hot and travelling immensely fast upon its impact,” Ediplun muttered, scratching out some figures on the edge of his paper. “The closest analog might be a volcano, but those aren’t so instantaneous.”
Bending down, Vere sniffed the ground, expecting to smell ash. That scent was there, but there was also a pungent odor, as of burning sulfur, which seemed to be hanging only below knee-height. Touching the ground, he found it warm, even still hot in places, and when he pulled his hand away little bits of hot, bright metal were clinging to his glove. He brushed them away and strolled back over to where Ediplun was taking notes.
“Smell like sulfur, concentrated below knee-height, and the ground is heated unevenly. There are bright pieces of stone or metal that seem to have retained far more heat than the rest of the ground. Possibly parts of the star that broke off on impact?”
Ediplun muttered an acknowledgement, making the relevant notes in shorthand, and then started. “Guardcaptain? I wasn’t away we paid guardsmen to conduct philosophical investigations.”
“Everyone needs a hobby,” Vere remarked. “You can have one of your scholars make the same observations, if you’d find that more comfortable. But since time may be short, I would think you would appreciate all of the input you can get…”
“Limited time?” Ediplun snapped. “What are you implying, Guardcaptain? I have authority delegated from the Prime himself to ensure that we learn everything there is to learn about this starfall, and I don’t intend to return early under any circumstances.”
“And never would I dream of interfering with your mandate,” Vere replied, “but I also have a responsibility for the safety of this party, and learning more about this starfall is not worth loss of life.”
That dragged Ediplun out of his scholarly hauteur. “Are you implying that we are in some kind of danger?”
Vere crossed his arms and looked around at the scene, gazing long to the north. “For the moment, we are safe enough, I believe. But we can hardly have been the only ones to have witnessed the starfall, and we may well not be the only ones interested in it. It would be best for us to be cautious and wary. There have been concerning reports from the northern border.”
“Then we are in agreement,” Ediplun acceded. He hesitated a moment. “If you happen to make any more observations you think might be of value, I would not be amiss to adding them to the report.”
There was further debate that evening, when the scholars expressed an intention to attempt to begin excavating the star itself from its crater in the failing light. Yet as the sun went down fully and darkness reigned, the tip of the star that was already unburied in the crater was shown to still glow with an eerie, blue-white glow, and the eagerness of all was abated sufficiently for Vere to persuade them that the excavation would best wait for the light of day. So the scholars retreated to the camp and complained about the quality of the cooking, much to the amusement of the guardsmen. Vere walked the perimeter again and checked with Oilon.
“There’s something unnatural about that glow, I say,” Oilon muttered in the darkness. The glow from the starfall wasn’t enough to really provide light, but it could be seen, like a faint beacon obscured by fog, even from the camp. “Makes me uneasy. We’re too exposed here.”
Vere nodded. “I feel the same thing. Have the guards build a stockade around the camp tomorrow – there are plenty of trees down already, so it should go quickly. Trenches, spikes, a wall: enough to help us last here until reinforcements can come, if it comes down to that.”
“You expect trouble?” Oilon asked.
“I always expect trouble,” Vere replied. “I try to hope for the best outcomes, anticipate the worst outcomes, and expect something in the middle. ‘Expect ye trouble/trouble ye shall find/but better ye be able/to survive with trouble in your mind.’”
Oilon snorted. “Right.” With a sigh, he glanced up at the sky, where the stars glittered with greater significance than usual, seemingly a little less frozen in place than they had been before one of them had fallen. “I wonder which one of them it was. I don’t see any missing from any of the constellations.”
“They say there are more stars in the sky than we can see,” Vere observed. “Perhaps it was one of those.”
Long before dawn the next morning, those stars were still hanging in the sky, and Vere was awoken by a rider tearing into the camp as if pursued by slavering wolves, and though there was no immediate sign of pursuit, Vere nevertheless ordered the whole force of guards put on alert, rousing the twenty who had been off duty from their rest and stationing them besides the other twenty who were guarding the camp and the starfall site.
“For a long time, they were just sitting there, waiting. We kept a watch on them, of course, and the scouts kept coming back and reporting the same thing,” the rider explained. He was a border guard from the Dervate border post closest to the starfall. “’more riders come in, but they’ve stopped and made camp with the others. No further activity to report.’ That’s how it went, over and over. Usually it would be a handful of riders at a time, maybe two or three men and another two or three women in each party. We never saw more than a score come in as a group, but as time went on their numbers rose to what we reckon is close to four hundred.”
“Four hundred?” Oilon repeated. He turned to Vere. “I don’t think there’s been a gathering of the barbarians in those numbers since the last Ebereen border war. And that was what, two hundred years ago?”
Vere nodded, thoughtful, but gestured for the rider to continue. He swallowed and did so. “It would have been…yesterday evening,” he figured. “Just before the sun went down, when the stars were first coming out. At first we thought it was a trick of the shadow, but then the scouts came fleeing into the outpost, pursued by arrows, saying that the savages were on the move, heading right for us. The commander ordered me and two others to make like the wind to let you know here what was going on. He said – “ the rider swallowed again, and then mastered himself – “he said that he intended to hold the post as long as possible, but that he would only be able to slow down so many.”
“You did well,” Oilon told the rider. He glanced at Vere, and when the Guardcaptain shook his head slightly, he turned back to the rider. “Go see your horse cared for and find yourself some vittles and a quiet place to rest. You’ll need your strength soon enough, I’m sure.” The rider managed a relieved salute, and then retired, leaving Vere and Oilon alone in the tent.
“What are you thinking?” Oilon asked after a protracted silence.
Vere was long in answering. “The border post will be safe enough, unless things get out of hand, or the commander does something foolish. Those tribesmen aren’t there to start an invasion of Dervate or the Union; they must be responding to the starfall. But why? Why are they so interested in it? If I could understand that, so many pieces would fall into place…” he shook his head. “Four hundred men, even hardened nomads, won’t be able to move quickly or subtly, especially as it sounds that they have their families with them. Under normal circumstances, it’s a two-day ride from the border; our poor scout must have just about killed his horse getting here so fast. We’ll be safe enough for today, I figure. Probably the next day, too, but I don’t want to risk it. By dawn tomorrow, I want us breaking camp, and retreating back towards Merolate by noon.”
“We’re just going to let them have the starfall?” Oilon asked.
“As I told Ediplun, the starfall isn’t worth loss of life, not to us. It seems it might well be to the tribesman,” Vere said. “Unless the Prime tells me otherwise, I’m inclined to let them have it. I’m certainly not going to stage a reckless action here. If we end up needing to expel the savages back to the Territories, then we’ll muster the province militias and come back here in force.”
“Understood,” Oilon agreed, “though I’m sure that Ediplun and his scholars won’t be too happy to have to leave so soon.”
Perhaps some of the scholars were dismayed, but Ediplun took the news surprisingly well. “We’ll just have to get as much as we possibly can done today,” he declared. “You say we’ll begin breaking camp at dawn tomorrow, but only need to leave before noon; perhaps my scholars could continue their investigations right until we have to depart?”
“That’s possible,” Vere assented. “But when the time comes, you and the other scholars must be prepared to do exactly as I say, when I say it. Something about this starfall as riled up the tribesmen like nothing I’ve ever heard of, and that makes this situation unpredictable. And anything I can’t predict is dangerous.”
For that day, however, they turned all of their efforts to learning more about the starfall, and that meant excavation. Shovels and picks and axes were brought forth and carted to the starfall site, and with many glances of mixed wariness and curiosity the scholars began digging around the bright bit of starmetal that was already visible. However, scholars who spend most of their time fiddling around with pens and books tend to be ill-suited to hard excavation, especially as it was found that the soil was hard and, in some cases, solidified into stone around the impact site. Vere ordered another ten of his guardsmen awoken, and when their strength was bent to the excavation the job went much faster.
The portions of the star that had been beneath the soil were progressively dimmer than what had been exposed to the sun, but seemed to grow brighter as the sunlight fell upon them. Once a pickaxe struck against the star in an explosion of metal, causing a murmur of fear amongst the guards digging and a susurration of consternation amongst the circled scholars, but it was found that no blemish or trace of injury to the star could be found, and that the explosion of metal had all come from the pickaxe, which was beyond repair. After that, the guardsmen excavated with much more caution.
Another rider came to the camp late that afternoon, saying that the border outpost had been overrun and that the tribesmen were pouring over the border en masse towards the starfall site. Vere sent the first rider ahead, towards Merolate, to bring word of the invasion and of Vere’s plan for the retreat to the Prime; he dared not send any more men away, and that night he pulled in the ten guards from around the starfall site to reinforce the camp and to rest. They had worked from first light to last and even a bit past dark, until at least it had been determined that to continue working was too hazardous. Only about half of the star had been excavated.
“Still, we’ve already learned a prodigious amount,” Ediplun declared, sounding like he was trying to cover his own disappointment, or perhaps to convince himself of something. “We now know for a fact that stars are made out of some kind of metal that can both absorb and emit light, and that it is harder than any metal we have here. And we know that they are terribly hot, but in sort of a slow way, like they don’t like to give up their heat.” He had made several other pages of notes and diagrams and figures, as well, and these he packed carefully away that night, and declared that they would stay packed, so that there was no risk of them being lost or damaged in the rush that was certain the next morning.
Predawn greyness the next day found guardsmen already at work breaking camp, and others continuing work at the starfall site. Yet when the sun had barely come fully clear of the horizon, horns echoed through the forest, and putting his ear to the ground Vere could hear the sound of many, many hooves. Leaping to his feet, he shouted for Oilon.
“Get the camp secured!” he ordered. “We’re too late to run; they’ve moved faster than I would have thought possible, with so many. I’m going to go get the people from the work site!” Oilon was already moving and shouting his own orders in response as Vere sprinted away towards the starfall site.
“Everyone retreat to camp!” Vere shouted as he panted, looking over the starfall site. “The savages have stolen a march on us. Retreat! Now!”
Ediplun blanched, but he kept his composure enough to exhort his scholars from frozen fright into terrified motion. A mad scramble ensued to get back to camp, as Vere organized the guards who were there into a loose ring around the scholars. At least the scholars could not run nearly as quickly as Vere could, so he had a chance to catch his breath from his reckless sprint.
“Can we hold the camp?” Ediplun asked. Vere’s respect for the man increased markedly for the fact that he didn’t ask what had happened that the tribesmen had come upon them so quickly, and that he wasn’t acting like a terrified rabbit.
Vere was obliged to shake his head. “No, we can’t hold the camp, not if they throw themselves against it,” he said. “But my hope is that they’ll simply make for the starfall site and leave us alone. And we’ll be able to last longer in the camp than we could out here.”
He got a nod of acknowledgement from Ediplun, but the man’s efforts were taken up with running, and they spoke no further until they had reached the camp. Vere ordered the opening into the makeshift stockade blocked off with trenches and stakes, and made sure that all of his guardsmen were supplied with arrows and were as ready as they could be. None had any illusions about their chances against a force of four hundred horsemen. None of the tribesmen were yet in sight, and once everyone was in the camp there was nothing more they could do but wait.
Not for the first time, Andil’s fingers twitched for a bow. It felt so wrong to be riding into the Union unarmed, even more wrong than it had felt to be riding with such a great host of the People unarmed. Never in his memory, nor his mother’s memory, nor his grandmother’s memory had such a gathering of the People been summoned all together, ready for war or whatever might come. They knew the risks of pushing past the outposts that marked the border of what the Union claimed as its territory, but they also knew the duty they had to see the gods’ will fulfilled, and they would not flinch before it.
Nor could they afford to wait long. When the gathering had swollen to some score of scores of the People, they rode forth to the border, streaming around the border outpost. The guardsmen there had sent arrows down at them, and they had replied in kind, until the outpost was silent. They did not pause there, but instead continued on, deeper into the Union, towards the fallen god.
Now they were nigh upon the site of the god’s fall, and as they came in sight of a hasty stockade, dread rose in Andil’s breast. For now, no arrows flew from the stockade, and though he knew eyes watched the tribesmen from it, there was no other sign of life, so the People rode on to the site of the god’s final resting place. But when they arrived, as Andil had feared, the signs were clear: the Union savages had befouled and besmirched the holy site, building trenches and stakes around it, and digging around the body of the god itself. Murmurs of horror and uncertainty flowed through the host.
Riding to the top of the embankment around the god’s body, Andil raised his hands, controlling his horse with his knees. The People fell silent around him; although he was young amongst the Wisers, as the one who had first witnessed the god’s ejection from heaven he had been given great honor and respect, and in these matters even those older than he turned to him for wisdom.
“A great blasphemy has here occurred,” he declared, shouting to be heard by as many as possible. A murmur went out from him as the nearer horsemen repeated his words to those behind. “Rather than see the fallen god’s body properly buried, cut off forever from heaven, they sought to excavate it, perhaps even to return it to the glory from whence it was expelled! This cannot be borne.” Nods and expressions of agreement answered him. “First, we will bury the god in full, as is fitting. Then, we will destroy the blasphemers in yonder fort, that they may never sanctify the fallen god again!”
A great roar of assent rose up, and, dismounting together, the assembled tribesmen bent down and began shoveling dirt with their hands back over the fallen god, careful always not to look directly upon it, and more to never touch it. With so many, they soon covered it entirely, and then they continued, breaking down the embankment around the crater and smoothing it out, until the only sign that any god had ever fallen there was the freshness of the overturned soil, and the great path of destruction that it had seared in its anger over its exile across the landscape. When that was finished, all of the host mounted again, and they rode back to the stockade, surrounding it with great blowing of horns and stamping of hooves.
After a consultation with the other Wisers, Andil again rode to the front, so that the ring of stake-filled trenches was directly behind him, and he felt as if a dozen arrows were knocked and ready to pierce him from the stockade. He looked over the great host, and then turned to face the stockade. A single horn blew. “Ye who have defiled against the will of the gods, and sought even to return to glory the one that was cast out and exiled in shame and revulsion from the halls of heaven, come forth now and be judged!”
Angry jeers and calls affirming Andil’s words rose up from the assembled host, but from the stockade he received no response. “If ye shall not come forth freely, then know that no barrier nor strength of arms can protect ye from the justice that is due!”
Even still there was only silence from the makeshift Merolate fort, so at a gesture from Andil horns were sounded again, and a great call went up from the whole host as bows were strung, arrows fitted to strings, and swords and spears readied. Then, at no organized signal, the massed horsemen charged at the fort, jostling for position on the trail that led towards the opening, where they could see guards with spears waiting behind hastily thrown up trenches and spikes. It was wide enough for only two horses abreast, so the others either bunched up behind or split off to the sides, shooting arrows up over the stockade as they rode around to come back to the front. Andil was forced to watch from the back, his fingers twitching again for the bow he had set down when he became a Wiser.
As soon as the first two horses crashed into the makeshift barrier at the fort’s gate, screams and yells filled the air. Bowstrings sang and arrows hummed, cutting through the horrible crunching of flesh and bone. The first riders were ripped from their saddles as their horses collapsed on the spikes and were dead before any guardsmen could speed them on their path. More followed, a river come upon a dam and now swirling, surging, striving to break this unnatural barrier that barred their progress. Arrows were shot out towards them, thinning the ranks, but there were always more horsemen ready to ride up and replace those who fell to Merolate barbs. Still, the makeshift gate held out, too narrow and too confined for the tribesmen to charge effectively. Gritting his teeth, Andil continued to watch the battle.
It seemed nigh on a whole day had passed when the riders disengaged and reformed their circle around the fort, frustration and anger and dismay on their features, but in truth it was not yet noon. So far, the makeshift gate had held them out; they were not a people accustomed to fighting in this way, preferring the open field and the grand charge. Rarely was a force massed more than two rows deep, and it was far more common to have no formations at all in conflicts between tribes and families. While they held their perimeter, they could see the Merolate Guardsmen at the gate tending their wounded and clearing the corpses from the trenches, so that the way was again a path of bristling threat, now stained and soaked with the People’s blood.
“More valiant than I expected are these city-dwellers,” one chieftain remarked, looking upon the smoke that had begun curling from the center of the fort. “There surely cannot be more than three score of them, and yet with their wooden walls they hold off this vast force we have assembled.”
“Nay, they are cowards,” retorted another chieftain. “Their strength comes only from hiding like ground squirrels behind their walls. If out from that safety they should come we would ride them down like the prey they are.”
“Call you then me weak?” demanded the first chieftain, glowering upon his debater and putting a hand on the scimitar at his side.
“All your force against their little spikes could not break through as true warriors in might would have in moments,” declared the second chieftain. “Their guardsmen fear you not, and less so I.”
No signal was given, but suddenly both chieftains’ families were there, bows strung and arrows knocked, though as yet none had been drawn. Feeling terrified and vulnerable, Andil kneed his horse forward and put himself between the two chieftains and their bristling families. “We must not fight amongst ourselves,” he declared, hoping that the pounding of his heart could not be heard in his voice. “In this division our true enemy, the enemy of the gods above, gains strength. Against him turn your arrows, not each other.”
To his surprise, arrows were stowed in quivers, and bows lowered, though the two chieftains continued to glare at each other, their hands close to the hilts of their scimitars, and no one unstrung their bow.
“Strong we are on the open steppes,” Andil declared, looking from one chieftain to another. Many others had since come to the center of the conflict that had almost exploded just outside their true enemy’s stockade. “Therefore let us open this place. Bring out ropes, and fire, and let us burn down this stockade, and what we cannot burn we will tear down. Then all shall have the chance to prove their valor upon the open field, both we and our enemies.” He would not have been able to come up with such a plan himself, but a conference of the Wisers, who were less prone to infighting than the chieftains, had settled upon it while the warriors flung their strength and broke upon the walls. Then the chieftains deemed this plan wise, and preparations were made, and battle joined once more.
There were not nearly enough arrows. Vere had shouted at the guards during the first assault when the focus had been upon the gate not to waste arrows on those wheeling futilely about the walls, but he had not always been heeded, and now, with horsemen milling about the walls, piling up brush for burning, and throwing up loops of rope to rip posts from the ground, they were nearly out of arrows, while the shafts still flew thick and black and deadly from the savages outside. At least they were leaving the gate alone, perhaps deciding that it was better to cut their losses there, though it was still technically the weakest point of the makeshift fortification. His guardsmen thought he was a genius for ordering them to construct the stockade two days past, but Vere cursed himself for a fool for not getting them out before the tribesmen had arrived. He could still hardly fathom how they had travelled so fast.
Ediplun had taken to following him around, mopping his balding brow and trying to give little speeches of encouragement to the soldiers; the latter was slightly endearing when anyone had the attention to spare. When the tribesman had made his speech before the gate in his strange, guttural language, Vere had asked Ediplun to have his scholars translate it, but none of them had been familiar with the language, and that effort had stalled. Not that it would likely have helped, but Vere would have at least liked to know why he had been so wrong, why the tribesmen had come after the fort and its people, instead of staying at the starfall site.
He had at least anticipated that fire was the most likely tactic against his wooden barricades, and he had ordered the guardsmen to dig every bare patch of dirt within the borders during the brief reprieve from battle; that soil was now being flung over the walls at an alarming rate against any fire that the barbarians outside managed to kindle. Unfortunately, many of the logs had begun to smolder despite those efforts, catching quickly because of how charred and dry they were from the starfall. Other guards ran about, watching for ropes, and cutting them with hatchets or swords whenever they saw a loop pass over the spiked logs that formed the thin wall that was the only barrier they had against a four-hundred-strong cavalry charge.
Once, a group of savages actually vaulted over the wall to the stockade’s interior, unsheathing their bronze scimitars and hacking wildly at anything they saw; they must have made spectacular leaps from horseback to clear the barrier. Vere rushed over, his own steel blade glittering cold and deadly against their warmer bronze weapons, and showed them the meaning of swordsmanship. No others made such an attempt, which Vere counted fortunate; his defenders, already stretched thin, could ill-afford to do battle both inside and outside the stockade. Already the wall was looking patchy or damaged in places where logs had been broken or burnt through or torn away, and arrows flew with terrifying accuracy through those small openings, making them ever harder to defend.
Oilon appeared from the other side of the fort, a piece of cloth tied over his scalp as a makeshift bandage, and caught Vere’s eye as he passed. “Doesn’t look good, does it,” he grunted. “We’ll make an end worthy of one of your depressing poems yet.”
“As long as those barricades hold, we still have a chance,” Vere replied, face grim and eyes flashing. “We sent for help, and not all of the riders sent from the border outpost came here; some must have gone to other outposts or deeper into the provinces to spread the word of the attack. Reinforcements will come.” It went unsaid that the chances of them coming in time for anything save vengeance were increasingly slim.
Somehow, the guardsmen of Merolate held their camp until evening, and when the sun began to set their assailants backed off from their attack and regrouped in a vast perimeter just beyond bowshot from the barricades, leaving the guardsmen standing weary and pained in a makeshift fort that smoked and leaked like a crater itself. Even the scholars had pitched in during the battle, taking up hatchets and shovels of soil to smother fires and hack off ropes. Five guardsmen were dead, and one scholar, and another half dozen were too wounded to fight the next day. Including the scholars, that left Vere with thirty-eight men, most of them bearing at least some small wound, to hold what was little more than a fence indefinitely against a force that even with its losses still surely outnumbered them by ten to one.
There was no question of sneaking out in the night; the tribesmen of the Unclaimed Territories were famous for their outdoorsmanship, and they had more than enough people to form a complete perimeter around the little camp. A hasty meal was prepared, and wounds were treated as best they could, for they all knew that they would need all of the strength that they could muster come the morning. That done, Vere arranged with Oilon for a watch to be placed, in case the savages outside determined to launch a night attack, and then those not on watch settled themselves as best they could for an uneasy slumber until the morning.
No one was still asleep when the dawn came, announced by the renewed blaring of the savages’ rude horns and the clatter of hooves and shouts in their guttural language as they tightened their circle around the stockade and brought again their attack to bear. There was a sense of inevitability about the defenders now that Vere for all his efforts could not dispel; he held little with ‘morale’ in general terms, but fighting on in the shadow of impending doom, of near-certain defeat, was a hard thing to ask any man under any circumstances to do with the same enthusiasm he might show if a chance for survival rather than merely a noble end could be offered. But Vere had no such chance to offer. Perhaps, if it had just been his troop of guardsmen, he would have considered punching through the perimeter and making for freedom deeper into the province, despite the chance of failure, but with the scholars he could not make that kind of maneuver.
“They’re breaking through!” The shout came from the northern side of the camp, and immediately Vere ran for it, though he spent most of the journey there ordering the guardsmen he passed to stay at their posts; it wouldn’t do for this one breach to give the enemy the opportunity to make breaches all around their already porous perimeter. He arrived to the north side of the camp in a moment and found a scene of chaos, with mounted savages wheeling about, surging and frothing like raw milk at the opening they had forced, where several of the logs forming the stockade had been dragged away by horsepower. Guardsmen struggling to meet them with spears and swords while arrows thrummed in with deadly accuracy, the tribal archers unworried or uncaring about the risk to their own warriors.
“Trios!” Vere bellowed, trusting in his guards to recall their training even in the heat of the battle; that was why they trained, after all. Indeed, at the sound of his order the men stopped milling about in confusion and separated immediately into groups of three, two with spears and one with sword, to hunt horsemen. It wouldn’t be an effective strategy for long – they did not have the numbers to support it – but it might allow the other guards to plug the breach, which Vere saw Oilon already working on doing.
Barely had the northern breach been patched and the riders who had penetrated the stockade killed than did another shout go up that a breach had formed, this time on the eastern side of the camp. Leaving Oilon to oversee securing the northern breach, Vere rushed to this new threat, finding that here the horsemen had formed a knot and were fending off the guards, allowing more and more from outside to stream through the gap in the wall and join them. Skidding in the dirt, Vere palmed a dagger and flung it, taking a horseman in the shoulder so that he dropped his scimitar just before he would have hewn a scholar whose hands were trembling around a spear shaft. Then Vere leapt, knocking the man out of his saddle and landing in his place.
With a cry, Vere yanked the horse back so that the beast reared, though it fought him fiercely; it seemed to know that he was not its proper master. Then it came crashing down, and Vere hewed with the motion, his steel sword hacking deep into an adjacent horseman’s skull. He nearly lost the sword from that maneuver, but managed to recover, and parried a flashing scimitar coming from his other side. That horseman died when a guard thrust a spear through his gut while he was distracted dealing with Vere. That was enough for the other savages; the knot of them broke up, trying to get away from Vere, and in the process made themselves easier targets for Vere’s guardsmen to clean up. Vere saluted the guardsmen who had stabbed the man, leapt down from the horse, and slew the beast.
Still more savages were streaming through the breach, and Vere did not have the guardsmen to stem the tide. In the north the breach had been reopened, or perhaps a new one had been formed, and that area was once more beset; soon a third rent in the wall had been wrenched to the south. There was no longer any time for strategy; Vere’s best use now would be his swordsmanship, so he waded into the eastern breach and for a time with a half dozen guardsmen that was enough to hold them back, piling up corpses as a grisly barricade when the savages continued trying to push inside.
Outside the stockade, horns brayed, but when Vere paused for a moment to wipe sweat and grime from his brow with his wrist, he realized that they were calling out in a different pattern than they had before. Shouts were still rising from beyond the barricades, but they were mixed now with screams and cries. Vere cocked his head, listening, and then he raised his sword above his head.
“Hold the wall! Hope has come again!” he called, for through the forest of spikes and trenches and embankments that his men had erected at the camp’s improvised gate he could see his own banners flapping in the early morning light, for though it had felt like days it was in truth only yet a little after dawn, and the savages were struggling to wheel about and face this new force, much larger and better equipped. Vere could see the banners of three different border outposts, which from the number of men must have been completely emptied to bring this force together; he was not, he reflected, in a position to reprimand such recklessness.
It was not long before the savages broke and fled, wheeling their horses to the north and galloping en masse back the way they had come, though it was far from a unified flight; some would flee here and there, as if each tribe and family were choosing its own time to abandon the fight and cut their losses. Oilon suggested making a sally forth from the camp to aid their rescuers, but Vere declined; their forces were too few to contribute much beyond their own further casualties.
It was an exhausted, dirty, and profoundly relieved group that the outpost commanders found in the remnants of the hasty stockade. Of the fifty people who had been part of the original party, ten scholars and forty guardsmen, they had lost a dozen guardsmen and two scholars. Considering the odds, it could be a reckoned a small toll, but it did not feel that way as the group dragged their way back to Merolate. Only very cautiously would they ever consider returning to further investigate the starfall, and the watch along the Dervate border outposts was doubled with reinforcements from Dervate’s own militia.
Solemnly, Andil stood in the dusk and awaited the nightly come of the gods. The Wisers had determined that the gods were pleased and satisfied with what the People had accomplished, properly burying the exiled god, and that they were not offended that the People had failed to punish the heretics from the savage southern lands. Yet though the gods might not be offended, Andil was. His people were great warriors, the finest archers and horsemen in all the land, natural hunters, predators. They ought not to have been so easily stymied and defeated by a collection of sticks and a handful of soft southern barbarians. Besides, he had not seen nor understood whatever sign the other Wisers claimed to have seen from the gods to indicate their satisfaction.
Their problem, Andil thought, was one of organization. Alone, the southern savages were weak, soft, inept compared to the hardened warriors and hunters of the steppes. But together they made themselves and their abodes strong, stronger than the People could hope to break unless they too could learn to work together, like ants work to carry a fallen fruit much larger than themselves. That, Andil had decided, was to be his duty, his holy fate, as the gods directed. He would teach the People to work together, and then they would find that no force of barbarians could stand against them. For now, only his family listened to him, and they only of politeness, but they would learn, and they would spread their message to other families and other tribes, until all the People of the steppes could work as one, like a dragon of old.
His task, though, was daunting, and more it was not the task of a Wiser. This night, Andil did not lay himself upon the ground and gaze upon the gods to make his prayers. That had been his duty once, and he had done it well, bearing witness to an event such as had not been seen nor reckoned in any but the most distant memories of his people. Now, his task and duty were different, and they would require him to assume a different role, both for himself and for his people. Tonight, a quiver of arrows sat beside him upon the ground, and his beautiful bow was ready in his hand.
A crow cawed in the darkness and wheeled into the sky; Andil tracked it with his eyes as an arrow leapt from his quiver to the string as if by its own accord – he had no awareness of the motions his hands undertook to bring the arrow hence. Muscles long unused but still strong flexed and coiled in his arms and shoulders as he smoothly drew back the bow and sighted along the arrow. The crow was nothing more than a patch of deeper blackness in the night sky, eclipsing with its black shape the gods above, like a patch eclipsed the light passing through a cloak. It disappeared in a little puff of feathers when Andil loosed his arrow, leaving the gods to shine again in their glory.
The end of Blood Magic S2:E4: Fallen Angel. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode in season two will go live on May 31st, 2021.
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