Dragonsteel Prime Chapter 25: Bridge Four 1
This chapter comes from the 2000 draft of a book called Dragonsteel. Some of the settings, situations, and characters were repurposed into The Way of Kings (2010).
From their vantage atop the hill, Jerick and Frost could see the strange landscape. Just ahead, the land of southern Fallamore, normally fertile and green in the year-round warmth, suddenly turned brown and dark. The hills dribbled into an enormous flat plateau, the grasses failing at its edges, the land growing sterile and lifeless. Here, extending for miles in either direction, the infamous Shattered Plains spread out before them.
The schisms began small, apparently no more than natural cracks in the sun-dried earth. At the edges of the Shattered Plains the largest cracks were barely wider than a man’s finger. They interlaced, joined, and diverged, running like tiny dried-out rivers. As they moved further out onto the flat, lifeless steppes, however, the cracks grew larger. They expanded, slowly changing from cracks to chasms, until finally the land itself seemed to fall away, breaking into thousands of column-like plateaus. Most were still close to one another, some even within jumping distance, but the rifts between them were sheer and incredibly deep.
Jerick stood awed beside Frost, looking out at the disjointed plateaus. “How . . . ?” he asked in wonder.
“Dragonsteel, Young Master,” Frost explained. “This is where it comes from. It seeps up from the ground, gathering in pools at the tops of those plateaus. Long ago this place was a flat plain, but thousands of years of erosion have eaten away at the ground. Dragonsteel, however, is indestructible. Over time, it seeped into the ground around the places where it pools, strengthening the earth. As a result, the ground there doesn’t wear away. The final product is what you see before you, a system of plateaus and thin, but very deep, gorges.”
The young boy’s eyes were filled with wonder as he looked down. Frost smiled slightly; as much as he disapproved of the logic behind Jerick’s travels, he knew the experience had done the boy immeasurable good. Over the last three months of traveling Jerick had experienced the wondrous variety of the land, seeing what life was like on the continent of Yolen. Now if the boy could only manage to keep himself from getting slaughtered in the Eternal War.
Frost sighed, looking out over the Shattered Plains. The sight was familiar to him; though, admittedly, [REDACTED]. The land was a dear old friend to Frost, no matter what face it chose to put on. Looking at the Shattered Plains, however, he felt a special affection well in his heart. Not for the Plains themselves; to him those only represented Dragonsteel and death. They did, however, remind him of a place nearby, a place he had once called home.
“Is that the place?” Jerick asked, nodding toward the edge of the Shattered Plains. A short distance away, built at the base of a hill, was a semi-permanent collection of tents and wooden structures. Thousands of people milled about, light twinkling as it reflected off of their various weapons and armor.
“Yes,” Frost admitted flatly.
Jerick barely kept himself from dashing toward the tents in an exuberant run. After three months of laborious travel, they were finally here. The Shattered Plains. He contained his excitement as they began to walk toward the army. It was vital that he make a good impression.
Except for that first week, his trek across Yolen had gone remarkably, if uneventfully, well. Under Frost’s council he had kept a low profile, offering his services only in smaller towns, where suspicious nobles or jealous rivals would be less likely to demand his castemark as proof of his station.
Wherever he had gone, there had always been quick demand for a scribe. Frost claimed that it was because the nations of Yolen were only beginning to understand the true benefits of literacy, and in wake of the explosion of interest there weren’t enough trained scribes to do the work. In many areas, Jerick’s position as a scribe had earned him more respect and admiration than if he had been a powerful Kalord, rather than a simple courtier. He had soon been able to afford an ox and cart, and after that they could move more quickly. Traveling in such a manner was less dignified than using a chariot, but it was also cheaper and less likely to mark him as a target for bandits. He had sold both animal and vehicle at the last stop before arriving.
The land had changed a great deal as they moved south. They had taken a direct route through the mountains that divided Fallamore in half, leaving Aldbin behind as soon as possible. After climbing up through the Fallin mountains—which, in Jerick’s opinion, were more hills than true mountains—they had dropped into the lush area known as the Rothanden Valley. Here the land was fed by the two branches of the Flueese River, creating a long strip of land that many scholars called the most fertile area on the continent.
And, as the two travelers had dropped out of the mountains, Jerick had seen why. The land to the north consisted of flat plains covered sparsely with short grasses and shrubs. In the valley, however, everything was green. Great twisting trees Jerick didn’t recognize splattered the land, and life seemed to coat every surface, whether it be dirt or rock.
And the heat was like nothing Jerick had ever experienced. Even at the height of summer in Melerand it hadn’t been half as hot as it was in Fallamore. His body soon grew sticky from the humidity, and his brow was constantly streaming with sweat. It seemed as if the entire land were an enormous bathhouse filled with steaming water.
He was surprised anything could live in such an environment. Frost, however, had only laughed when he made the comment, claiming that the southern heat was actually rather mild when compared to places like the Ke’Chan desert. Jerick’s only response had been to decide that he would definitely never visit Old Ke’Chan.
Frost walked lethargically beside him. For some reason the old scholar continued to travel with him, even though he hadn’t been able to persuade Jerick to return to Melerand. But, despite the constant naggings, Jerick had been glad for the company. Frost’s presence had not only given him someone to talk with, but the scholar was also a fount of useful knowledge. He knew the customs, languages, and mannerisms of even the smallest ethnic groups, not to mention their histories.
Jerick’s footsteps grew quicker as he approached the camp. It was enormous, more like a city than an army. The camp seemed to be divided into sections, different groupings marked by different colors. Men of all body shapes stood about, some lounging, others practicing, others working. Jerick looked at them in wonder, noting their armor. It was bright and silver. Steel, not bronze. This was a real army, unlike the ornamental guards of King Rodis’s court.
Jerick paused at the edge of the conglomeration of tents and buildings, his brow furrowing as he looked from side to side. Which way was he to go? A quick look at Frost told him that in this case, the old scholar knew no more than himself. So, shrugging, he approached an armored man leaning against his spear. A sentry of some sort.
“Um, excuse me . . . ?” Jerick began.
“New conscripts report at the big white tent,” the man mumbled in Fallin, pointing lazily.
Jerick nodded, motioning for Frost to follow. It was time for the real adventure to begin.
General Demetris stood over his table map, a scowl on his face. The map had been carved into the top of the massive table—so large it took up half of his conference room—then painted to give accents to the separate plateaus. The rough circles were connected by strings of various colors, the common pathways used to move from plateau to plateau. Through the use of mobile bridges every plateau could be reached by at least one route, though sometimes a company had to take an extremely round-about path to reach its goal. If only he could make fortresses on the Plains themselves. . . .
But, no, he had tried that. Demetris hadn’t believed the stories when he’d first arrived at the Eternal War a year earlier, and had proceeded to experiment with permanent settlements. He had lost several forts before learning the truth. Plants could not grow on the Shattered Plains, and the Sho Del demons were impossibly quick. He hadn’t been able to keep his fortresses supplied, let alone get them reinforcements in an attack. Demetris shook his head—it all came back to the bridges.
Most of the generals used the same basic bridge design. A couple used wider constructions that allowed more men to move from plateau to plateau at the same time, but most favored the thinner bridges for mobility’s sake. Demetris now used the smaller variety, as did Ki Tzern. Yet, somehow the Tzendish general still managed to hold his place as the most profitable leader in the war, forcing Demetris to be an unacceptable second.
Demetris pounded his fist against the hard wooden table. Over the last year Demetris had taken Ske Company from the least successful position all the way up to second place. Yet, for all the glory and wealth he had earned, he still couldn’t defeat Ki Tzern. The man continued to stay a little bit ahead of Demetris, reaching wells a little more quickly, retrieving just a little more Dragonsteel, killing just a few more Sho Del.
It had to stop. Demetris was poised to lead his Ka to the imperial throne. The succession was only a few years away, but Demetris would never gain the prestige necessary as long as Ki Tzern continued to make a fool of him. He—
“My lord?” a voice asked from the front of the tent.
Demetris turned angrily, almost toppling off the wooden box he used to raise his height a couple of feet. It was Flavinne, the captain in charge of conscriptions.
“What?” Demetris demanded. The man should have known better than to bother him.
“I apologize, sir,” Flavinne said, saluting. “But there is a matter that demands your attention.”
“What?” Demetris demanded dismissively. “The men want more prostitutes? Tell them to win more battles, and I’ll see about it.”
“Um, no, sir,” the man stuttered. “It’s about a new volunteer. He claims to be trained as a nobleman.”
“What does his castemark say?” Demetris asked.
“It says he’s a lumberman from Melerand, sir.”
Demetris snorted. Flavinne was wasting his time again. “Peasants, especially runaways, go to the bridge crews,” he spat. “You know that.”
“But, he claims he was raised in the palace, sir,” Flavinne continued to argue. “And he speaks perfect Fallin.”
“Yes, well, so do you, but that doesn’t appear to make you any smarter. Put him in the bridge crews, and be gone!”
“Um, yes sir,” the man said as Demetris turned back to his map. The man wasn’t through, though. “Just one more thing,” he added.
Demetris felt his face turning red. He opened his mouth, about to order this annoying captain to place himself in the bridge crews as well, but Flavinne spoke more quickly.
“There’s a scribe, traveling with him, sir.”
Demetris paused. “A scribe?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. His castemark is valid.”
Demetris scratched his Antoli. “Send the scribe to me,” he said. “I’ve been needing someone to write correspondences with my contacts back in the capital.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said, saluting again.
Demetris watched him go, shaking his head. Yes, the first order he would have this scribe write would be one sending captain Flavinne to the bridge crews. It was just his sort of incompetence that was letting Ki Tzern stay ahead of them.
“You, follow him. You, come with me.”
Jerick looked up with surprise at the soldier’s blunt voice. He was pointing for Jerick to follow another man, one who didn’t look very warrior-like. He was overweight and had a rather slovenly appearance, his blue uniform stained in numerous places. Jerick turned back to the soldier who had spoken. The man was grabbing Frost by the arm and pointing for him to follow.
“Wait,” Jerick objected. “My man is to—”
Jerick fell silent with a sharp groan as a sudden pain jabbed him in the stomach.
“When an officer gives you an order,” the overweight soldier informed, removing his fist from Jerick’s midsection, “you obey.”
Jerick croaked his response, feeling his legs wobble slightly under the pain. He looked up, blinking through tears to catch one last glimpse of Frost as the scholar vanished inside a large brick building. The old tutor’s head was shaking slightly with resignation.
“Move,” the soldier said, pushing Jerick down an earthen path running through the camp. Jerick stumbled to respond, too shocked to do much else.
None of the soldiers gave the pair much heed as Jerick followed his companion’s proddings. They only made one stop, beside a short, open-sided tent. After speaking with the soldier inside, his guide returned, shoving a diminutive sheathed sword and leather jerkin into Jerick’s hands.
“Here,” the soldier informed. “Put these on.”
Jerick obeyed, pulling the leather vest over his head and strapping the weapon around his waist. As they walked, he pulled the short sword free of its sheath. It was bronze, and the blade looked as if it hadn’t even been sharpened. In addition, it was so stumpy and slight-looking that Jerick doubted it would do him any good in battle.
He looked back at his guide with a frown. “This is it?” he demanded.
The guard simply nodded.
“But, when do I get one of those?” he asked, nodding to the steel long sword at the man’s side.
The soldier interrupted Jerick, pushing past him and waving toward a tent that appeared to be their destination. “Hey, Gaz,” he bellowed. “New recruit.”
Beside the tent an enormous form turned, and Jerick felt his breath catch in his throat. He was Ke’Chan. Or, at least, he had the thin eyes and dark skin of a Ke’Chan, though he was wearing a blue uniform instead of the traditional skirt and coat. Jerick had never seen a Ke’Chan wearing regular clothing before.
“That spindly thing?” the Ke’Chan, Gaz, roared back. His voice held no trace of the Ke’Chan accent. “He’ll barely stop an arrow!”
Jerick’s guide chuckled, reaching back and pushing Jerick toward the Ke’Chan. Jerick stumbled, barely catching himself. Further conversation, however, was interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats and a loud blaring horn.
Gaz cursed as Jerick’s guide dashed away, running back toward the front of the camp. Men began to scatter through the camp, large groups of them either dashing or, in the case of the armored soldiers, jogging in rank. Soon a group of scruffy-looking men in leather vests like Jerick’s own had gathered around Gaz.
“Move, move, move!” Gaz yelled as the men split into several groups. “You!” the enormous Ke’Chan bellowed, pointing at Jerick. “Follow that group; you’re a member of Bridge Four. Go!”
Jerick jumped scrambling in the direction Gaz ordered. His mind was confused at the noise and rush of bodies, and he barely kept up with the others as they approached a large wooden bridge sitting on the ground a short distance from the tent. Its construction was simple, with no wheels or other means of movement.
One man, an older man with a face so scarred his beard came out in patches, stood to the side as the group of about twenty men surrounded the bridge. “You,” the older man said, pointing at Jerick. “You new?”
“Yes sir,” Jerick said, disoriented.
“To the back with you then,” the man ordered, pointing at the back of the wooden bridge.
In a daze, Jerick did as commanded, falling into place between two other soldiers. “What now?” he mumbled, almost to himself.
“We lift,” the man beside him explained, reaching down with the others. Jerick followed, digging his fingers under the edge of the bridge and heaving in rhythm with the old warrior’s command. The ponderous bridge raised slowly into the air, incredibly heavy, and then settled into place on the men’s shoulders. There were grooves to make the carrying easier, but it was still extremely uncomfortable.
“Let’s go, lads!” the older man at the front ordered, and the men began to move, following the sound of their leader’s voice. From the back, Jerick could see little of what was happening. They seemed to be joining other crews carrying bridges of their own, and he did catch a glimpse of the large Ke’Chan warrior trotting along beside them.
They moved out onto the Shattered Plains themselves, leaving behind the scrub grass and striking out onto the dry, dusty plateau Jerick had seen from above. The air beneath the bridge was stuffy, smelling of dirt and sweat, and he found it difficult to keep rhythm with the walking men around him. It grew even more difficult as an order from Gaz drove the crew into a trot.
Jerick struggled to keep going, still uncertain of what was happening.
“First day?” a voice asked beside him, speaking in Meleran.
Jerick looked up, an action that didn’t do him much good. The shoulder mounts by which he carried the bridge prevented him from turning his head toward the sound.
“Yes,” Jerick said between laborious breaths.
“Poor lad,” the voice said. It bore the distinctive accent of a man from Aldbin.
“Where are we going?” Jerick asked the voice.
“T’one of t’wells,” the man explained. “A scout must have spotted one preparin’ t’put out Dragonsteel.”
Jerick didn’t say anything for a long moment, his breathing too difficult to allow speech. Finally he managed to get out one more question. “And the bridge?”
“T’cross t’chasms, of course,” his unseen companion explained.
Jerick fell silent, trying not to concentrate on his complaining feet or the wooden boards digging into his shoulders. Fortunately, the leather vest seemed to have extra padding on the shoulders, which helped somewhat.
Just a few moments later, he sensed a change in the ground below. The sound of feet clunking against wood sounded in his ears.
“Near t’edges there are permanent bridges,” the voice explained, answering Jerick’s unasked question. “At least, where t’cursed demons haven’t burned them.”
Jerick nodded to himself beneath the canopy of wood, sweat dripping from his nose in the humidity. They quickly crossed the permanent bridge, passing onto what must have been a separate plateau, though Jerick could see nothing but the brown earth below. Hopefully, they would reach their destination quickly. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold on.
He hoped in vain.
Over the next half hour they crossed four more bridges, following Gaz’s bellowed orders. By the time the call came for them to halt, Jerick could no longer feel his arms, and he could barely stand. The order to lower the bridge came like a blessed sound from the Nine Lords themselves. Jerick moved with the rest of the group, first lifting the bridge with numb fingers, then backing away and setting it down on the hard earth.
Gloriously fresh air enveloped Jerick. However, he was given little respite.
“Now push!” Gaz ordered.
The men around Jerick moved to the back of the bridge and together they began to push the large contraption forward. Several men moved to the sides, holding ropes attached to the far end of the bridge. As they moved, Jerick noticed for the first time the enormous gap in the ground ahead of them. The earth simply stopped, dropping abruptly. Across the twenty-foot chasm was another plateau, and the men slowly pushed the bridge over the gap—the men with ropes pulling the end up to keep the entire thing from falling into the chasm. Carefully, they guided the edge of the bridge, settling its far end on the other side of the chasm. Other bridge crews did the same to Jerick’s right and left.
The men around him collapsed as the work was finished, and Jerick gladly copied them. As he sank to the ground, a thundering sound was heard and a line of horse-drawn chariots, which must have been following them the entire way, galloped across the bridge. The charioteers were followed by a squad of several hundred armored soldiers carrying swords, bows, or spears.
Jerick watched them go with wonder. Was he to have nothing to do with the combat? There had to be some mistake—he wasn’t going to spend the next two years as a simple packman. Of course, at the moment he probably couldn’t have lifted a sword if he wanted to, so he was happy to let the warriors pass. He could correct the mistake later, after his body recovered.
“All right,” Gaz ordered as the last warriors crossed. “Move!”
The men around him groaned, climbing to their feet. “Come on, lad,” a familiar voice came from beside him. Jerick’s unseen companion was a lanky, long-faced man with thin hair that was wet with sweat.
“What?” Jerick complained, climbing to his feet. “Time to turn back already?”
“Turn back?” the man laughed. “No, lad. We’re probably not even half-way there, though t’Lords only know which plateau we’re headin’ for.”
“What!” Jerick exclaimed as the group of bridgemen clamored across their bridge. He allowed himself to be pushed forward, only marginally noticing the depth of the drop below. The sides of the Plains were smooth, almost like polished marble, and the chasm continued on seemingly forever, its bottom lost in darkness.
On the other side the men pulled the bridge back. Then, to Jerick’s horror, they moved to lift the contraption once again. Beyond, the soldiers and charioteers waited with varying levels of patience as Jerick’s companions hoisted the bridge onto their shoulders.
“T’first time is always the worst, lad,” the Aldbish man’s kind voice came from beside him. “Keep movin’, and you’ll do all right.”
“Move!” Gaz’s unyielding voice spat again, and the nightmare began anew.
They repeated the same exercise a dozen times, spanning chasms that all looked the same to Jerick. It was as if they weren’t making any progress; the only thing that varied was the size of the plateaus. Sometimes they only carried the bridge for a few moments before putting it down again. Those times, the group of warriors would be crowded on a plateau barely large enough to hold them all. Other times the plateau extended far to either side, the cracks that marked its edges barely visible in the distance.
Each time the call came to put down the bridge, Jerick prayed with all his might that it would be the last, but each time the call came to move again. At every incident, Jerick was certain he wouldn’t be able to move when the command came, but each time he managed to pull himself forward, though sometimes it took a kick from Gaz to get him going. As the time progressed, the group of soldiers began to grow increasingly apprehensive, and Gaz’s orders became more urgent.
Finally, a new order came. It was a simple one, but one Jerick didn’t understand.
“Be ready!” Gaz ordered.
Ready for what? Jerick’s befuddled mind wondered.
“Lords,” the Aldbish man’s voice came from beside him, “please let us have gotten here first.”
“Go!” Gaz’s voice yelled sharply. The forms around him burst into a trot, moving with an energy Jerick wouldn’t have thought possible after such an extended hike. He tripped, almost losing his footing, and he reacted so sharply he knocked his head against the back of the bridge.
Through the shock, the sweat, and the daze, Jerick heard the screams begin. The bridge shook suddenly, as if it had run into a wall. However, it didn’t stop moving, it only rocked slightly. The screams continued, coming from all around. Jerick felt horror in his chest, and his arms began to shake. It was then that his foot slammed against something soft. He looked down to barely catch sight of a body in a leather vest like his own, its eyes staring blankly into the air, a white-fletched arrow in its chest.
Then Jerick screamed. He wanted to back away, to run from whatever doom he was approaching, but the bodies around him prevented him from scrambling away. The bridge continued to tow him along.
“Drop!” a voice ordered from in front. The men moved quickly, lifting the bridge in a single fluid motion and stepping away from underneath. The bridge dropped to the ground, and Jerick was thrown into a world of terror.
Arrows whizzed around them, snapping into the wooden bridges and slicing through bodies, tumbling them screaming to the ground. More frightening, however, were the monsters. Great slathering beasts with wide, bat-like wings and multi-toothed mouths hung around them. Drool and bile poured from their bulbous white bodies, and they screamed with terrible, inhuman voices that shook the air.
“They aren’t real, lad!” the man beside him warned. “They’re Sho Del illusions! Push!”
The voice jogged Jerick into motion, and he ducked down to throw his weight against the bridge. Arrows continued to fall. As Jerick pushed, the friendly Aldbish man beside him took a shaft in the chest, then another in the neck as he fell. Blood spurted from the neck wound, washing over Jerick as the man twitched, his body spasming on the ground. A second later the bridge locked into place, and Jerick barely dodged out of the way as a dozen chariots roared across the chasm, trampling the corpse of the unnamed man who had spoken so kindly to him.
Jerick sat on the hard earth as the battle progressed, his mind numb. He barely even noticed the corpses around him—fully a third of the bridge crew was dead. As soon as the bridge was in place, however, the arrows stopped falling, and the bridgemen were ignored.
Apparently, the Sho Del had obtained the plateau first, and had been ready for the humans’ approach. He could see them, their white-skinned forms battling with the blue-suited soldiers. Most of the fighting was hand-to-hand now, and the human line was slowly pushing toward the center of the plateau. Only the humans used chariots, and these rode randomly through the battle, striking where they could. The horrific illusions that had surrounded the bridge crew earlier hovered in the air above the warriors seeking to distract them. Even as Jerick watched, one of the beasts drove a charioteer off the side of the cliff, toppling him and his horse into the chasm beyond.
It lasted about an hour, neither side making much headway as far as Jerick could tell. However, eventually the Sho Del retreated, and the bridge crews around him let out a weak yell of joy. The warriors did something near the center of the plateau that Jerick couldn’t make out, then rode, or marched, back across the bridges.
Only then did Jerick’s over-taxed mind realize that he would be expected to cart the bridge back to camp, this time with two thirds the men as before.