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Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Wars of Ashton - by Nacho

A novel under construction by Nacho
For full story, please visit Nacho's blog in:
http://thewarsofashton.blogspot.com

The morning sun did not hasten into the sky, but simply and methodically spread its light to the valley. First, the white beams illuminated the snow-capped mountain peaks and then spread down the evergreen forests to the golden valley below. In the warming summer air, still retaining the leftover chill of night, a man basked. Behind him, to the east, the mountains hovered, dominating the skyline. His unseeing eyes gazed into the infinite horizon of the prairie while he reclined in the grass of a small hill just outside the city walls. Here, in the newfound daylight, he meditated—leaving the responsibilities of his life and the fears of his dreams. From the twilight hours in which he journeyed to this place to the time his servants woke and hunted him down, the man enjoyed the morning in nature, reveling in the nip of the cool night air and the straightforward beauty of a sunrise. The sunlight, painting the inside of his eyelids a deep red and its warmth caressing his back, promptly demanded more and more of the man’s attention. As he found himself relaxing in the golden rays of the sun, he grew comfortable. Turning his thoughts to his wife and daughter and stretching out on the dew-spotted grass, he yawned and smiled. And then a hand touched him on the shoulder. His eyes shot open in an instant; then closed again as he bit his lip and nodded his head. It always came when he found himself comfortable.
“My lord, you have a visitor. Lord Talibor is here to see you.” a voice prompted. “He awaits you in the courtyard.”
The man rubbed his forehead and replied, “Tell him I will be there momentarily.”
“Yes, my lord,” the servant replied and scurried away.
After rising from his natural bed, he twisted his back and swung his arms, preparing himself for the day to come and ridding himself of any stiffness that plagued his body. His armor—light and fitted as it was—hung as a bothersome weight draped around his neck and shoulders. Until this point, he had ignored it, but somehow it gave an extra effort in its annoyance as he paced back to the great walls barring any unwanted access to the empire of Ashton. Behind those magnificent walls stood the city of Harken, the key to the eastern valleys. Located at the joining of the northern Atep Mountains and the southern Kailan Range, the city had been erected on the only pass linking the east and west. Crowning the city and shining in the morning sun stood the Fortress of Caida. When he reached the gates leading to the courtyard, a familiar voice rang out.
“Lord Valimor, my old friend.”
He glanced to the gates to see the young lord, arms spread wide, rush out to welcome him. He nodded and smiled. “It’s good to see you, friend,” he replied and caught him in a strong embrace. “What brings you to the edge of the empire? It must be business, for I assuredly do not hold such a friendship that you would visit me without occasion.”
“You most certainly do…but, I do bring news and seek advice, if you will part with it.” Talibor smiled grandly and his blue eyes gleamed in the early sun. “But let us save that for a meal. How have you been?” he asked.
“Well, I do not feel young, that is for sure. My little Berea reminds me of that each day…”
“And how old is she?” Talibor interrupted.
“Nearly four years old, and an energetic four at that!” Valimor replied.
“It has been too long, for sure, my friend. Last I saw you was on your wedding day, near five years ago…a time when I would have much rather climbed upon the stone walls as a reptile than talk beside them as we do now. I have but heard of her birth and that is all. Shall I have the chance to be introduced to her properly today?” Talibor wondered aloud.
“Of course, friend. But tell me, much has happened in your life since we last met in your uncle’s hall. Besides your promotion to Captain, has anything changed? Is there a woman in your life yet?” Valimor asked, a suspicious smile crossing his lips.
“Of the promotion you are correct, but of a woman you err. I remain single and content at the moment, thank you,” Talibor replied. Valimor laughed and reached for his shoulder.
“Have you eaten yet this morning?” Valimor inquired.
“Not yet, no. And you?” Talibor replied.
“I was on my way. Join me,” declared Valimor as the two turned to head into the courtyard and then up to the keep. “Look at you, though—a strong Captain of the Imperial Army! You have grown…and matured, too, I trust. I remember a boy neglecting his schooling for the bogs and monsters north of Ashton last I visited you.”
Talibor smiled, recollecting the sometimes pointless adventures of his younger years. Now tall and handsome, the young Captain had won the respect of his troops in the recent border skirmish with the Western Ortharians, a small battle but a needed victory for Talibor. “Ahh,” he began, “the adventures of boyhood are now but a shade of the past. If only all little boys were so fortunate.” Valimor raised his eyebrows. “Oh, I know studies are necessary, but the sword and the bow are the icons of boyhood. Danger and adventure are ingredients to life, a spice many young boys miss while trapped in the schoolroom with women and old, dying men. Look, you are smiling already! Am I not right?” Talibor questioned.
Valimor grabbed his shoulder and laughed. “You will do well at your post, lord Talibor, Imperial Captain, but your arguments are built into the children. No one had to tell you to climb a tree or jump down the stairs, did they?”
“True, but when little boys are forced to remain inside and restrained from any element of risk, something bad will happen for sure,” he replied.
“Okay, okay, I hear you,” Valimor said as he reached the breeze way of the fortress. “However, I can see your political side coming out. Perhaps you ought to have been a senator?” Instead of unleashing a torment of curses, his youthful friend bowed his head and a strange silence hung about him—a silence which surprised Valimor.
After a moment of sudden tension, Talibor spoke, “So, about that meal and our discussion. Shall we begin?”
“Of course. Follow me.” Valimor conceded and motioned toward the keep.
As the two lords arrived in the meal hall, they were directed by a servant to a table with place settings arranged and two steaming bowls resting opposite each other. Several giant pillars and a half-wall above which hung several flashing tapestries, isolating them from the general population and any unintentional eavesdroppers. Above them, a small lamp burned, striving against the bright shafts of the early sunlight illuminating the room through the high eastern windows.
“Valimor, I have known you as a mentor for all of my childhood. This will be the first time we shall talk on the level as adult to adult,” the young Captain began. Valimor nodded slightly to convey understanding and respect. “I hope you will not dismiss my views as immature or unreasonable as the rest of the Senate seems to have.”
Valimor bit his lower lip slightly and scrunched an eyebrow. “That depends on the view and how objective it is,” Valimor cautioned. “But, I will listen as best I can. What’s going on in Ashton?”
“The Emperor has proposed the dissolution of the military. Not in such blatant terms, but his intentions remain just that,” Talibor lamented. Valimor scratched his chin in disbelief, one eyebrow cocked inquisitively. “It all began with the border dispute with the Ortharians. He claims my actions against them ‘unprovoked and unnecessary,’ as if he could have negotiated with those barbarians. Instead of an army, he wants diplomats, orators, to solve the problem in ‘peaceful collaboration.’” The Imperial Captain shook his head and narrowed his gaze, stirring his meal with an idle spoon.
“I am a lover of peace, believe it or not. I am not some ill-contented warmonger, yet the Ortharians, uncivilized and primitive as they are, would beat any ambassador we send to them to death. They fear our army, and so they do not cross the bridge. Simple, end of story. But now, with these talks circulating in the Senate, the Ortharians become bolder, yet no less barbaric. In the last conflict, after they openly attacked our eastern lines during the night and after we drove them back, slaying any and all who had passed the borders, orders from the emperor came that we should stand down. Stand down when we have been openly attacked! Can you believe that! For some irrational decision to save my skin, I did. I stood down. We stopped at the line and the invading Ortharians escaped. Don’t believe for a moment that they did not notice that when the banner of the emperor rode to me, I ceased pursuing them. Next time, Valimor, they will know we will not pursue them. What happens then? What happens when they roll boulders towards the bridge at us or shoot arrows from across the river? Will we be able to press the attack? No! What happens when the military has been disbanded and there are no lines to be held, but treaties instead? Who can reason with those barbarians? Not even the emperor himself. The only arguments they understand are the sword and the bow, Valimor. Those they understand well.” Talibor finally licked his lips and glanced to the bowl. He raised a steaming spoonful to his mouth and shifted his gaze back to lord Valimor, who seemed to be pondering this issue with special attention. At last he spoke, hesitation and wisdom thickening his speech.
“And what reason does the Emperor deem worthy enough to disband the Imperial Army?” he asked simply.
“The economy. That is his excuse. He would rather be rich and dead, than safe and alive,” Talibor quipped, standing and slamming a fist on the table. Valimor raised his hands in defense of ignorance. Talibor relaxed his shoulders and sat back down.
“What I mean is, if he knows that the Ortharians are a threat, why would he take away the apparent remedy for it? Why would he condemn his own citizens? Think about it. He is not the ignorant man you make of him. Somehow, he believes there is another solution to the problem of the Orthanians besides killing the whole lot of them. Now, his actions may be a bit one-sided, for it seems that disbanding the entire military would be quite a rash action, but there is a reason behind those actions, I assure you. What you need to do is discover those hidden motives and your own. This surface battle of “war or no war; army or no army” might have deeper roots than you imagine. This is not to say the emperor wrongs society by creating a vulnerability to barbaric invasions and death, but I do not want you plunging into something much deeper than you can handle. You have learned much of the art of war, Talibor, and you lead your men well, I know. But the Emperor is wise in many respects in which you lack knowledge or training, and he will lead the empire well. Listen to me, Talibor. I want you to question and learn. Defend your ideas as you do your people, but do not be afraid to venture into the unexpected. This proposal is simply that—a proposal. Go back to Ashton. Discuss it. Refine it. Or, defeat it, if there is no truth or logic in it.” Valimor placed a warm hand on the Captains shoulder and smiled. “You will find the right way, my young friend. Do not doubt that.”
Talibor looked up licking his teeth and nodding slightly. His eyes sagged a bit and the corners of his lips turned down. “It’s just that he seems to hate every thing I do or say that relates to warfare, as if he condemns my every thought. I cannot reason with that, no more than with the barbarians!” Then a faint smile crossed his mouth. “Perhaps the argument of a sword would convince him like it does the Ortharians.” Valimor shot him a quick warning glare, which faded quickly into a smile. They began to laugh simultaneously, huge grins traversing their lips. When the laughter died, Talibor shook his head and began again, “He is always comparing me to Harken, though, at the Battle of Kerean. That was nearly fifty years ago, why does it matter now?” Valimor’s face grew sullen and distant at Talibor’s words.
“It matters because Harken could be considered one of the greatest heros of our time…or one of the most despicable leaders ever known to Ashton. It all depends on your point of view. How is your history? Do you recall the Battle of Kerean?”

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