This category is for the discussion of the various characters in the Destroyermen Series
RIVER OF BONES
(Unedited, from the CEM)
“To the cookpots with any who fall out!” gasped Jash, heaving his burden along with the rest of his warriors. He was a Senior First of One Hundred, now sometimes referred to by the odd-sounding words Taii or Ka’tan, and commanded three hundred of First General Regent Champion Esshk’s New Warriors. The New Warriors were still sometimes derisively called the hatchling host by long-established regents and the elite Hij of Old Sofesshk, which was the First City and old/new capital of the Ghaarrichk’k Empire in Africa. But they’d been schooled from birth in the radical new ways of the Hunt and were the best equipped, best trained, most lethal warriors the Grik ever made, all for the purpose of this Final Swarm they were about to embark upon. Their mission was to slaughter a most tiresome “worthy prey” once and for all, a prey that had made the Grik prey for the first time since before their racial memory began, and was now threatening the holy city of Sofesshk itself.
Jash knew all this, or most of it, as well as the fact that he owed his rank—probably his very life—to the military reforms of First General Esshk and not, also for the first time in history, to the Celestial Mother or Giver of Life who ruled the empire in name. This was particularly remarkable for a warrior not quite three years old, with precisely zero combat experience and only beginning to sprout the bristly crest of adulthood on his head. Like many his age, raised as he was, it was his intellect that so quickly elevated him to the exalted rank of First of One Hundred, then Senior (Ka’tan), and he was very clever for a Grik not “of the blood.” Under normal circumstances, even if he’d survived the cannibalistic melee of traditional hatchlinghood in the nest, he would’ve risked being arbitrarily sent to the cookpots by some disinterested chooser. If he avoided that, the best he could’ve hoped for was a brief, brutal life as an ordinary Uul warrior or laborer. He owed everything to Esshk, he believed, and it was for the Regent Champion that Jash felt the urgency of (and responsibility for) completing his current task in the allotted time—whether or not he fully understood why his three hundred warriors must carry the inverted weight of a seventy-foot, eighteen ton, wooden galley to the waters of Lake Nalak, west of Sofesshk.
“The warriors tire, Senior,” another First of One Hundred named Seech wheezed beside him, hacking a gobbet of dust-stained mucus on the ground. He didn’t add that they were thirsty as well. He didn’t have to. They’d been carrying the galley all night, down twisty trails in the vine-choked brush south of the lake, from the place it had been hidden from view from above ever since the prey, the . . . enemy . . . discovered the covered slips on the lake. To prevent their destruction, all the galleys—maybe twenty or thirty hundreds; Jash had no idea—were quickly carried ashore or sunk in shallow water. Most were stashed in places it was hoped the enemy flying machines wouldn’t look, but some were even buried. The latter didn’t fare well, quickly rotting in the living soil, but all this was accomplished none too soon, since the enemy returned a few days later with more flying machines and bombed the slips into a roaring inferno. As far as anyone could tell, however, they hadn’t found any galleys, and rarely diverted their efforts from bombing more obvious targets bordering the lake and the Zambezi River.
Jash glanced at Seech, one of only thirty-odd under his command that even had a name. Names were earned by rank or achievement, and only Firsts of Ten, Fifty, or a Hundred had them yet. Looking harder, Jash realized it was dawn at last, because he saw Seech’s tongue lolling from his tooth-studded jaws, moisture around his red eyes made muddy with dust, the young plumage on his tail dragging the ground. The gray armor and tunic over his dun-colored, feathery fur wasn’t stained with sweat, but they’d crossed several streams and the dark dust had stuck. Somehow he’d kept his weapons clean; that was something whipped into them since infancy. There was dust on the shiny-bright barrel of his musket, (called a “garrack” for the loud sound it made, and because the near lipless Grik couldn’t do ‘M’s)–but there wasn’t a speck of rust. Jash expected nothing less. He and Seech had been nestmates, and, according to the old way, would’ve torn each other apart if they could. Prevented from that and raised together, they’d developed a certain . . . fellow-feeling between them that was difficult to define. Jash was smarter and Seech expected him to display wise leadership. Seech was possibly stronger and Jash relied on him to swiftly enforce his commands. Being closer to the ranks, Seech was also expected to have a better feel for what the warriors could endure. The relationship worked, and Jash knew Seech wouldn’t have spoken at all if their warriors didn’t absolutely require a rest.
“Very well,” he panted, then called a halt with a loud, guttural bark. “Hold them here,” he said, “but do not allow them to lay their burden down.” He hesitated. Able to do simple sums, he’d calculated that each of his warriors had been supporting upwards of 120 pounds with their arms and heads since dusk the night before. “They may never lift it again,” he added resignedly. “I will look at the trail ahead.” He nodded at the peak of the rise they’d been working toward.
“As you command,” Seech huffed.
Jash stepped out from under the bow of the galley, arms and legs suddenly rubbery, and staggered several steps before firming his stride. Looking back he saw the graying, raw wood bottom of the galley and wondered how badly it would leak when it touched the water again. For the first time, from his slightly elevated perch, he observed dozens more upturned hulls snaking back the way they’d come like a line of huge grayback beetles drawn to carrion. He resumed his trek to the top of the rise, where he stopped and stared, breathing hard.
Before him, stretching almost as far as he could see, the opposite mountain shore a hazy smudge of darkness against the brightening horizon, was Lake Nalak at last. He’d seen the lake many times, of course, and it always had a few of the great, iron-covered ships lying at anchor or moving smokily about its surface. Now it was packed, and he’d never seen it so densely covered with anything other than the fat, floating, flying creatures that teemed there twice a year. There were iron-covered ships to be sure, more than he’d imagined existed, and most were chuffing columns of dark smoke high in the calm, orangish morning air. But hundreds of galleys were already on the water as well, some rowing east, forty oars on either side flashing in the bright light of the rising sun. It was then that Jash fully grasped the scope of the undertaking of which he was such an insignificant part.
We made it, he thought. Gauging the distance to the near shore below and conscious that other galleys might soon start stacking up behind his, he scrambled back down the trail. “We are almost there,” he said loudly, voice carrying easily to his entire command, “just over the rise and hardly five more lengths of our burden. As soon as it’s righted, set in the water, and the way cleared for those behind, all may rest!”
Seech looked at him with widened eyes. “Truly?” he asked.
Suppressing irritation that his subordinate might question him, Jash jerked a diagonal nod. “Just so. We will step the mast and emplace the oars, but the galley is liable to sink in the shallows as soon as it is launched. Our warriors can take a short rest then, and refresh themselves in the water by bailing it out. Detail a few to watch for lake monsters while the others frolic.” He considered. “And to guard their weapons, of course.” Not all New Army warriors had garraks yet, and the leaders of those who didn’t weren’t above raiding other units for them. “Choose those who have endured the best for this task and give them names,” Jash decided. “That should inspire others to greater effort in the future.”
“How long will we let the boards soak—and our warriors rest?” Seech asked.
“Two hand-spans of the sun, perhaps slightly more. Less if we must make way for another vessel, of course. The planks should quickly tighten and we will get underway as soon as they do.”
As it turned out, it took almost four hand-spans before the galley was upright on the beach, its mast stepped and the great sail-bearing spar raised to its peak. The whole thing was then pushed down across the sand to the water. As Jash predicted, it rapidly filled and settled to the bulwarks in the murky water, the dry seams open a quarter inch in places. But just as quickly, the porous timbers swelled, and before the next galley crested the rise and began its descent, his slightly rested warriors were already tossing buckets and helmets full of water over the side. Quicker than Jash really expected, “his” galley was afloat, though bailing still, and ready to shove off.
None of his warriors had ever operated a galley, but they’d trained intensively on benches arranged for the purpose, practicing with weighted oars. What’s more, none displayed the terror of the water that came instinctively to others of their kind. There were monsters in Lake Nalak and the Zambezi, but nothing like what lurked in the salty sea and they’d trained in water since they could walk, moving in the shallows and even learning to swim, after a fashion. Mere rivers would not stop the advance of Esshk’s New Army. In any event, the dangers of the water were well-known, even avoidable to an extent, and the warriors quickly adjusted to their new environment as Jash tried to remember the commands regulating their labor. (He’d once crossed the lake in a galley, learning to steer, but never commanded one). Seech was invaluable in this instance. He may not’ve been considered as smart as Jash, but apparently had a better memory. Soon, as the day progressed, the galley was flashing across the water at an astonishing speed as its crew got the hang of working together and Jash relearned the steering commands. He rested the rowers often; they’d already had a long night and day. But they seemed invigorated by their new experience and he made the most of their enthusiasm.
Other galleys darted around them with sometimes more, often less, skill. A few occasionally collided, filling and spilling their crews farther from shore than was likely for them to survive. Jash collected forty or so stranded warriors that kept hold of their garraks. He had no use for the rest. If he hadn’t retained ship-handling commands very well, he could spew other mantras in his sleep, first and foremost being that firepower dominated this New Way of war, and he wouldn’t feed anyone who’d drop his weapon to save himself. Some were saved by other Ka’tans who valued quantity over quality, and when one of these almost crashed his galley into Jash’s, he gave the order to back oars and pull away. The soggy survivors herded below as ballast belonged to him now, and he’d see what they were made of later.
Finally, with no orders to proceed toward the city yet, Jash decided to take his galley ashore and let his warriors get some much-needed sleep. They were heading toward the beach not far from where they’d launched their ship when First of Fifty Naxa, stationed near the bow, cried out and pointed. Jash rushed forward on the walkway between the rowers and stared at the sky. A distant speck was growing, coming their way. Even as he watched, the first became two, then five. Six! Dozens of smoky white streamers lanced into the air, pushing rockets intended to stop the enemy flying machines. They exploded with dull thumps and dirty gray puffs, mostly above and considerably behind the enemy. Jash considered the rockets worse than useless. They occasionally got an enemy machine and probably wounded more, but they did as much damage on the ground as enemy bombs. Still, they couldn’t just let them come and go as they pleased, could they? He snorted.
“All ahead full,” he shouted, and the drum regulating the stroke of the oars picked up the pace. “A quarter left!” he shouted at Seech, standing by the tiller. A “quarter” corresponded to a mark on the deck, as did “half” and “full.” More nuance was required under sail, but under oars, particularly in battle, such increments were considered sufficient. “We will land near those trees,” Jash told Naxa, pointing at the beach. “Have line handlers stand by to go over the side and secure the ship.”
“As you command,” Naxa agreed. Jash trotted back toward the stern, watching the flying machines roar past. If anything could strike terror into his warriors (and him), it was the enemy planes. These six were of the medium size with a single engine, blue on top and white on bottom, marked with a red dot in a white star, surrounded by a darker blue circle. Red and white stripes festooned their tails like colorful plumage. Shaped like a small boat with wings, they were obviously designed to land on water. Rockets no longer pursued them, though they still rose and flashed over the south side of the distant city, above New Sofesshk, where much of their war industry was. About the time he reached Seech’s side, he knew with relief that the warplanes had no interest in his lone galley, but were making for one of the monstrous iron-plated greatships of battle with four tall smoking pipes rising high in the air. Their target was anchored and seemed helpless—but Jash had seen some of the new things they could do. . . .
Three planes went for the greatship, beginning steep dives, while more peeled off after other targets. Dozens of antiair mortars fired amid a great swirl of smoke, but instead of a short-range cloud of small projectiles, each mortar threw a bomb, or “case,” packed with powder and balls. These all exploded nearly simultaneously about half the distance to the diving planes—just as two dark objects dropped from each. To Jash’s satisfaction, the cones of projectiles the mortar shells discharged intersected the paths of two of the planes pulling out of their dive and literally swatted them from the sky. Both fell in the wakes of their bombs, trailing shattered fragments and streamers of ragged fabric. All six bombs hit the sloped iron armor of the greatship, exploding and sending jagged plates spinning into the lake. One plane’s remains clattered against the armor while the other dropped in the water. The third plane, which Jash thought was uninjured, began to trail smoke as it turned away to the southeast. Except for one toppled funnel, the ship seemed little hurt.
“Well,” Jash said, eyes slitted with pleasure as he searched for the other three planes. A column of smoke towered over an armored cruiser about a mile away, but the planes were nowhere in sight. Either they’d all been destroyed or had beat a hasty retreat. Not seeing any more smoky tendrils, he suspected the latter. Still . . . “That worked better than I expected,” he finished.
“Yes,” Seech agreed, troubled. “But some almost certainly flew away from here,” he waved at the sky over the distant city, “and there. I don’t think the enemy was supposed to see us assembling like this,” he added darkly. “Why else did we do all we did, hiding the galleys and carrying them back and forth, if not to trick the prey? Now they have seen. They will know.” He paused. “They will be ready.”
Jash shook his head, staring at the vast numbers of ships and galleys spread across the lake. There were at least ten of the greatships here alone, and they’d demonstrated only what they could do to planes. Their new ship-to-ship batteries were even more impressive. More greatships would be nearer the city and there were probably three tens of cruisers and at least four hundreds of galleys in view. He knew many more had been gathered and hidden at Old Sofesshk because the enemy, for whatever reason, didn’t bomb there. There was no question he was very young and had little experience with such things, but he didn’t think there could’ve ever been so much power assembled in one place before.
Signal flags were breaking out now, punctuated by attention horns repeating the commands of other flags beyond his view. They were probably spaced all the way back to the Palace of Vanished Gods itself. The order had been given, directing the entire swarm to begin moving eastward, toward the city. “They may soon know,” Jash replied, “and they may prepare. But I doubt they will ever be ready for this.”