Dragonsteel Prime Chapter 30: Bridge Four 3
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).
The bones glowed softly in the torchlight. They lay in heaps, blanketing one another, some held together limply by the remnants of decayed sinews and muscle, others scattered and disjointed. The torches seemed to shine mutely here, in the dark home of the dead—almost as if the light itself were afraid to look too closely at the corpses. Eyeholes remained black, their secrets held in the whispering winds that could be heard from far above.
The first time Jerick had been forced to come here, to the dark valleys between the plateaus, he had been terrified. The valleys were more like caves, dank and poorly lit—cracks that led deep into the earth. The walls were perfectly smooth, worn away by thousands of years of rainfall, and in some places they were so close together that Jerick could touch both sides at the same time.
The torchlight didn’t seem to help very much. In fact, it added to the gloom. The weak light was just strong enough to give detail to the bones closest, to reveal laughing skulls and shattered bones without banishing the darkness. Beyond the torches’ reach, the silhouettes of piled bones were visible, lining the makeshift pathway.
The bridgemen walked in a line, their feet squishing in the ever-present mud. It was always wet in the caverns. Every third man carried a torch. Jerick shuffled along with them, looking around with uninterested eyes. He had been terrified his first time, but now the piled corpses didn’t bother him at all. He had seen much, much worse. He had met men for the first time in the morning and held their dying bodies in his arms by noon, watching life gush crimson from their wounds, their ragged voices begging for him to do something. Even the camp was not safe. Disease was common; he had seen entire squads wiped out by it. In fact, he had been sick a dozen times himself.
Tenne called for them to stop, and the bridgemen slowly fanned out. The crack had widened here, and the path ended. Slowly, with tired arms, the men began to sift through the bodies, searching for weapons and armor that were still usable.
Jerick made his way to one of the cliff walls, kneeling beside a corpse. The skull was cracked badly, most of the bones were—a drop of several hundred feet had that effect on bodies. Jerick pushed the bones aside, feeling the man’s clothing come apart in his hands. He had been human, Jerick guessed—not from the bones themselves, for the two races had surprisingly similar skeletons, but from the armor. It had been bronze. The fall, time, and damp humidity had not been kind. His sword appeared to have some salvageable metal left in it, so Jerick pulled it from the mud, shoved it in his sack, and moved on.
The salvaging was a relatively new idea in the Eternal War. As the demand for metals grew, new ways had to be found to get materials, no matter how gruesome the methods. Actually, most bridgemen looked forward to scavenging duty. While they were down at the bottom of the pits, they couldn’t be summoned to go on Dragonsteel runs. It said something about a man’s life when he felt lucky on the days he was allowed to pick through the half-rotting corpses of his fallen comrades.
Jerick’s next victim was part of a group. A half-dozen corpses lay piled together, bones sticking in strange directions as if they were part of some odd carnival act. There was still a little flesh on them, and a rotting chunk of wood nearby told Jerick who these men had been. A bridge crew. Jerick moved on—the metals used in bridgemen short swords was of a poor quality. What hadn’t rusted away wouldn’t be worth smelting down for reforgeing anyway.
As Jerick turned, his eyes fell on a set of bones slightly paler than those around it, the remnants of its foreign armor hanging limply. Jerick approached slowly. Sho Del corpses were extremely rare, though Jerick didn’t know why. From watching up above, it appeared that just as many Sho Del were thrown into the chasms as men. Perhaps the demons came searching for their fallen dead, though Jerick’s mind rebelled at the thought. He couldn’t associate such an apparently noble act with the monsters he had watched kill his companions for the last four months.
The skull was alarmingly similar to that of a man. The creature’s bones were fractured, but not to the extent of the human skeletons around it. And, Jerick was drawn to them. There was a power to the skeleton, and he felt his skin grow cold despite the heat. He wanted to reach out. He did reach out. To touch the bones, to feel the power.
Jerick snapped his hand back, jumping up so quickly he kicked a nearby skull, sending it skipping across the mud floor to smack into the far wall. Several heads looked up at the sound, then turned back to their work. Skittishness was common during scavenging hunts.
Jerick forced himself to reach out and retrieve the Sho Del’s rusting steel blade. After that, he turned away from the bones, ignoring their demands. He would not give in. Magic was evil; it was of the Sho Del. He would not be associated with them. It was because of the Sho Del that he had lost Courteth. It was the Sho Del that had slaughtered his friends. It was the Sho Del that had killed his. . . .
The dark cavern flashed suddenly as pain exploded in Jerick’s head.
“Loafing again, fick?” Gaz demanded, his voice echoing though the twisting cracks.
Jerick looked up with surprise. His torch lay sputtering next to the wall, and the other bridgemen had moved forward in the darkness, expanding the path as they went. What had happened? How long had Jerick just been standing there? Another blow from Gaz nearly dropped him to the ground. Jerick scrambled forward, moving to catch up to the rest of the group.
“Never mind, fick,” Gaz mumbled. “I’ve come to bring you all back up—Rai company just got called on a run, which means we have to be ready. Tell the rest of them to get moving.”
Jerick struggled back into camp, dropping his bag of rusted swords into the pile. Gaz had made him carry two other men’s findings as punishment for laziness, and the trek up from the bottom of the Plains was a long one—they had to hike far enough away from the Plains that they reached a place where there was no Dragonsteel in the earth, and erosion had formed the land into an incline. Jerick still wasn’t accustomed to the Fallin heat, and only the thought of the food awaiting them back at their tents kept him from collapsing. As it was, the sudden release of his burden made him light-headed, and he would have fallen to the ground had Tenne not steadied him. None of the other bridgemen even looked at him. They didn’t want to be a part of his punishment—to them, Jerick’s extra burden had only meant less for them to carry.
Gaz laughed loudly, nudging one of his friends and pointing as he noticed Jerick wobbling. Jerick shook his head, clearing his vision, then began to stumble after the other bridgemen as they made their way back to their tents.
“He didn’t think you’d be able to do it,” Tenne noted quietly, walking beside him.
Jerick looked up. “What?”
“Gaz,” the older man replied, whistling slightly as he spoke the word—a result of his missing teeth. “Didn’t you notice how forced his laugh was?”
“I was too busy keeping myself from falling over to notice much,” Jerick confessed.
“You could probably take him, you know,” the older man confided.
Jerick looked up in surprise. “Me?” he asked incredulously. “Gaz would mash me worse than those ficks at the bottom of the gorges. He’s twice my size!”
“Lords, Jerick,” Tenne said with a snort. “Have you looked at yourself lately? You’re taller than Gaz, and you might not be as wide, but you’re certainly stronger.”
Jerick just shook his head, dismissing the argument, and Tenne let the matter drop. As they arrived at the tents, however, Jerick let himself ponder the question. Could he beat Gaz in a fight? Perhaps. The thing was, he didn’t want to try.
He stood back, waiting as the others rushed greedily forward, accepting bowls of the white mushy substance considered fit food for the bridgemen. Jerick turned away from the scene, looking out across the camp. The longer he stayed, the more he realized the Eternal War was not what he had envisioned. At first he had only been forced to admit that his own duties would not be as glorious as he had dreamed, but he had retained his view of the war as a whole. Bridgemen were grunts, he told himself, but the rest of the warriors were noble.
He had been wrong again.
At first, he had been too enthralled with his own miseries to notice it. Now, however, the truth was becoming increasingly stark. The camp was not stocked with heroes, or even career soldiers. It was filled with bullies and miscreants.
True, they wore uniforms, some of them even kept clean. However, fights were common, and the officers were slow to stop them. Theft was so commonplace that most men had simply given up on saving their earnings, and immediately spent them on whores or saprye. Even as Jerick scanned the semi-permanent city, he saw some soldiers taunting a group of working bridgemen. The bridgemen, mostly peasants, rarely fought back—and when they did they were quickly overwhelmed by the superiorly-trained soldiers.
That was why he couldn’t let his anger drive him to attack Gaz. He didn’t want to be part of it—the entire camp, its ideals and its activities, sickened him. Every time he thought of punching the Kaz’ch sergeant, his mind’s eye remembered the fighting that went on constantly around him, and his anger evaporated.
A sudden wail of dismay caused him to turn in alarm. Keeg, his youthful face dismayed, stumbled from his tent, tears openly running down his face. Several of the bridgemen looked up, but they immediately turned back to their meals.
“Its’in gone!” Keeg groaned, sliding to the ground.
“What’s gone, Keeg?” Jerick asked, approaching.
The boy simply groaned in sorrow.
Jerick closed his eyes, shaking his head in frustration. “Keeg, I told you to send your earnings some place safe.”
“Couriors’in costin’ long too much,” Keeg replied mutedly. “They’in want half t’earnings!”
“It’s expensive,” Jerick agreed. “But now you have nothing. You should have at least carried it with you.”
“Its’in not fair,” Keeg groaned. “T’Lords, they’in hate me, sureingly.”
“They don’t hate you, Keeg,” Jerick said with a sigh. “They just. . . .”
Jerick trailed off, looking up. Then he looked back at Keeg. The young man’s eyes were closed, and he was shaking his head in denial. He heard it too—a scout’s horse approaching from the Plateaus. The horn sounded a moment later.
“Lords, it’s going to be a bad one!”
The voice belonged to Gevvane, a man who had been moved into their crew a month earlier after his own group was slaughtered.
“What do you see?” Tenne asked from his place at the middle of the bridge. Only those in front had any sort of view of what was approaching.
“The Sho Del!” Gevvane screamed back, horror in his voice. “They’ve already set in, surrounding the well. Lords, they’re raising their bows!”
“Run!” Gaz’s voice shouted to the bridge crews.
Jerick felt the men around him break into a jog. He was situated near the middle of the bridge this time, on the same side as Tenne. He felt himself grow sick as they moved, hearing men begin to scream from the bridge crews on either side of him. These kind of approaches only happened one time in ten, but when they did, it was a slaughter.
“Now is our chance, Tenne!” Jerick screamed against the terror rising in his chest.
He could feel the older man’s hesitance in front of him.
Gevvane yelled in pain at the front, and the bridge rocked.
“Tenne!” Jerick pled.
“All right, men!” Tenne yelled, his voice ragged. “Do as the boy told you!”
Spurred by what they were facing, the bridgemen acted. They paused for a moment on the field, turning to the right. The motion brought Jerick’s edge of the bridge closest to the plateau. He turned his head to look, then wished he hadn’t. Two dozen Sho Del archers stood in ranks beyond the chasm, their expressionless white faces taking aim at floundering bridges, dropping bodies to the ground in heaps. Several archers were watching Jerick’s group, pulling back their bows and finding Jerick in their sites.
The edge of the bridge dropped, tipping on its side. The motion was awkward—they hadn’t had an opportunity to practice—and they nearly dropped the bridge in the process. However, it worked. Arrows smacked against the wood frame like angry hornets, trying to break through to the soft flesh beyond
“All right, let’s move!” Jerick ordered. The men began to shuffle forward as best they could. Holding the bridge at such an angle was difficult, and he had to lean over to move, but the structure provided a wall between them and the Sho Del. Tenne walked at the far end, watching carefully as they moved forward to keep them from falling into the chasm.
“Now!” Tenne said. Together, the bridgemen dropped the structure and took their familiar places, some pushing it across the chasm, others holding the far end up with the support ropes. A few seconds later, they were done.
Men collapsed around him as the warriors rushed across the bridge. Jerick remained standing, searching through the faces of his companions. “How many did we lose?”
The men looked around at one another. Several bore wounds from arrows that had passed too close, and one man was groaning with a shaft in his arm, but no one was missing. Even Gevvane sat near the back of the group. The fallen man had stumbled after the rest of the crew, joining them when the bridge was in place. There was a bloodied bandage around his leg, but other than that he was fine.
“We didn’t lose any,” Tenne said with amazement looking over the group. Bodies of bridgemen lay slumped across the plateau, but none of them from Jerick’s crew.
Jerick smiled in satisfaction—then Gaz’s punch took him in the face, spinning him around with enough force that he lost his footing and tumbled to the hard, iron-like plateau surface.
“What in the name of Keth’s bloody fist was that!” the sergeant bellowed.
Blood poured from Jerick’s nose and the world shook around him. He tried to speak, choking on the blood pouring down the back of his throat.
“Wait, Gaz!” Tenne intervened. Jerick could vaguely see the older man’s form moving to stop Gaz. He could also see the rest of the bridgemen backing away, turning their faces from Jerick. The very ones he had saved refused to stand beside him.
“I know who’s responsible for this,” the Kaz’ch mumbled as he pushed Tenne out of his way, reaching down to grab Jerick by the front of his leather vest. Jerick flailed, trying to get back on his feet as he felt the large Kaz’ch drag him across the ground. Toward the chasm.
“He’in saved us, there!” Keeg’s voice objected in the background. Two of them, at least, would try to help him. Two out of twenty.
Jerick coughed, trying to reorient himself. His feet couldn’t find purchase. “Gaz,” he said, choking. “Gaz, it worked. No one in our crew died!”
They reached the edge of the chasm, and Jerick pulled at the large man’s arm. He tensed his body. When the Kaz’ch tried throw him over, Jerick would shift his weight and drive his fist in the back of the man’s head. He would not let him. . . .
Gaz didn’t toss him over the side. Instead, he pulled Jerick up and turned him to face the battle on the other plateau. “Look, boy,” he ordered.
Jerick looked, feeling blood drip from his chin. The men had attacked their enemies on two sides in an attempt to push the Sho Del back from the well. The maneuver hadn’t worked. The Sho Del had turned, flanking both groups of warriors and pushing them back toward the edges of the plateau. Only then did Jerick notice a third group of men, their ranks decimated, completely surrounded by white-faced warriors. It was the crew that had crossed Jerick’s bridge. The human attack hadn’t been meant to come at the Sho Del from two different sides, it had been intended to be one coordinated strike.
“There’s a reason the bridge crews move like they do, boy,” Gaz growled, dropping him next to the chasm’s edge. “They have to arrive at the chasm in unison. When the other crews saw what you were doing, they paused, and were slaughtered, and the warriors all arrived on the plateau at different times. You may have saved a half dozen bridgemen, but you’ve lost us the battle.”
Jerick slumped down, watching Sho Del cut through their warriors, as many men as possible moving to retreat back across the bridges. “I. . . .” Jerick trailed off, but Gaz had left.
As a result of their decision to listen to Jerick, Tenne’s crew was given latrine duty for the next month. News of what had happened moved quickly through the camp, and the team became a constant butt of jokes, pranks, and abuses. The crew, of course, blamed Jerick for the treatment.
Until that month, Jerick had never in his life wished he were dead. Whenever there was a grisly chore to be done, it was given to Jerick. Whenever a foot could be placed to bring him to the ground, it was done. He was dragged from his tent on four separate occasions and beaten by warriors who had lost friends in the failed Dragonsteel run, and none of the bridge crew voiced a word of objection—or even come looking for him. Each time, he somehow found a way to crawl back to his tent, and each morning afterwards he had received no sympathy from the others—just an increase in his workload.
Young, idealistic Keeg lost the lively glimmer in his eye as he watched Jerick being beaten down. Finally, it seemed to register to the young man that his dreams had been wrong, that he would never have any part in the war beside cleaning refuse and carrying bridges. The boy stopped laughing, and pulled away from Jerick, never meeting his eyes.
Even Tenne deserted him. The bridgeleader stopped confiding in Jerick, and he shook his head with sadness and turned away every time Jerick tried to talk to him.
But, slowly, things returned to normal. The months passed, and the crew changed, men either dying or being moved to other crews. When it was over, Jerick was more than willing to return to his life as a normal bridgeman. He shuffled along with the rest of them, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the ground, and to do as he was told. He stopped sending his money back to his village, instead joining the rest of the men at the tavern.
As he did so, he found the work more bearable. When the men were satisfied that he wasn’t going to cause any more trouble, they let him back into their group. They stopped calling him Jerick, simply referring to him as ‘Hook’, a name he had earned from the strange slant at the end of his nose. It had never been set properly after Gaz broke it.
The most frustrating part of the entire experience, however, was the quiet knowledge in Jerick’s heart that his plan could have worked. It had only failed because his had been the only crew to protect itself—if all of them had used their bridges as shields, moving at the same slow speed, then they all would have arrived at the same time. And they all would have survived. But, there was nothing he could do. Instead, he simply tried to tell himself he was a regular bridgeman. When further plans and ideas for protecting his crew tickled at his mind, as they invariably did, he paid them no heed.
“Have a seat, Hook.”
Jerick nodded, slumping to the ground as he listened to men fighting on the other side of the plateau. The man who had spoken was Ham, a short, burly runaway slave from Aldbin. He had been in the crew for less than a month, and hadn’t been part of the ordeal following Jerick’s failure. He simply considered Jerick a fellow Northerner, and a fine drinking buddy.
“It’s lookin’ t’be an easy day,” Jerick noted. During the last few months he had intentionally begun reverting back to his lumberman’s dialect when he spoke Meleran. It put people such as Ham at ease.
Ham nodded. Ske Company had arrived at the battle before the Sho Del and dug into place. More importantly, however, the plateau in question stood a fair distance from the plateaus around it, and only plateaus close enough to use bridges were on the human side. A small group of Sho Del had gathered on a plateau in the distance—Jerick could barely see their forms—but it didn’t look as if they were going to attack. The distance was too far even for a Sho Del to jump, and the only other option open to the demons—a method by which they dropped long poles across the chasm and climbed across one at a time—wouldn’t work when the humans were so well-prepared. Amazingly, it looked like the humans would escape with their Dragonsteel without a fight.
“Look there,” Ham noted, gesturing to the left. In the distance Jerick could see a group of warriors who weren’t having quite as easy a time winning their Dragonsteel. Once in a while, when they were near the borders of their camp’s territory, they could see warriors from another camp fighting.
“Ki Tzern,” Jerick noted, nodding to a group of tan-clothed men waiting on a nearby plateau, separated from the battle by a wide chasm. Ki Tzern’s special troops.
Ham spat. “Devil warriors,” he mumbled. The tan-suited warriors were growing increasingly infamous.
Jerick nodded, mumbling a condemnation of Sho Del magic. Tzern’s regular soldiers seemed to be having a hard time of the battle, and they were slowly being pushed back from the well. Then, however, the group of tan-suited men burst into motion. They ran toward the gap between their plateaus, jumping and sailing through across the thirty-foot chasm to land behind the surprised Sho Del line. The strange warriors moved in, slicing through the Sho Del ranks. They ran straight through the forms of monstrous Sho Del illusions—something that Jerick had never seen even the bravest man do. Sho Del horrors affected one’s mind, somehow able to terrify you even though you knew they couldn’t be real.
“By t’Lords,” Ham whispered beside him. “Did you see that?”
“Devil warriors for certain,” Ham mumbled. “They jumped just like t’Sho Del. No regular man should be able t’do such a thing. That’s why Tzern’s been winnin’ so many battles; he’s given his soul up t’devils.”
“Cursed magics,” Jerick agreed quietly.
Presumed reality. The phrase formed in his mind even as he spoke, Topaz’s words surfacing from the back of his memory. Jerick paused. He hadn’t thought of the jesk, or home, for a long time now. He hadn’t thought of much anything for a long time.
That’s your presumed reality speaking, lumberling. Jerick smiled slightly, remembering the playful lilt that always seemed present in Topaz’s voice. Slowly, he turned his eyes around and looked at the faces of the bridgemen. Most of them sat with dull eyes, staring at nothing, their bodies and minds fatigued. Not a few were sleeping, as they did whenever they had the opportunity. Some bridgemen rarely spoke, and only then to order another mug of saprye.
You’re becoming one of them, Jerick, his mind warned. No, you have become one of them.
But that’s what I want, isn’t it? he argued back silently. They don’t have pain like I do. They don’t think of the death, the misery. They don’t dream. They’re numb. That’s how I want to be. That’s the only way to survive as a bridgeman.
Presumed reality, his mind repeated.
It isn’t presumed, it is reality! Jerick thought.
I tried! Jerick said, holding his head, feeling himself begin to tremble. I tried, and look what happened!
Jerick shook his head. He couldn’t. Not after how much work it had taken for him to regain the other men’s trust. He couldn’t go through that again, he couldn’t. His eyes sought out Keeg, who sat, his flat eyes staring thoughtlessly into the sky. Tenne sat slumped next to the bridge. They would probably be dead before another few months passed. Jerick would probably be dead before another few months passed. He didn’t care, he couldn’t care.
Suddenly there was a sound. Metal against metal. Jerick looked up with alarm to see a battle had somehow begun on the plateau beyond their bridges. Enormous beasts Jerick had never seen before were jumping through the air, traveling the vast distance between the Sho Del and human plateaus. They were large and reptilian, with four small legs in the front and two enormous ones at the back, legs powerful enough to jump even the fifty-foot chasm. Each beast bore a Sho Del on its back.
“Lords!” Ham whispered to the side of him. “Illusions?”
Jerick shook his head. “Probably not. They’re steeds of some sort.”
“Dragons!” another man hissed.
Jerick frowned, comparing the beast’s size with the shadow he had seen in the sky months ago. Then he shook his head—they were too small.
“No,” he said to himself. “Not dragons, but similar.”
“There’s hundreds of them!”
Jerick nodded in amazement. Where had they all come from? The Sho Del had never used them before—at least, not in the half-year he had been at the Eternal War. Their sudden arrival had surprised the human troops, who were responding poorly to the attack. The Sho Del had obviously decided to make a major offensive. Human warriors scrambled into ranks, trying to fight the strange horse-sized monsters with Sho Del on their backs.
Then the screaming began. Not from the plateau, but from around him. Jerick spun with shock. A group of six Sho Del warriors, armed with swords, had appeared from behind. They were attacking the bridge crews.
Men scattered, some trying to hide behind the white boulders that were the plateau’s only cover. The small group of Sho Del attacked mercilessly, slaughtering man after man. Another group of them appeared, jumping across a chasm to Jerick’s right, falling on his own crew. The men began to scatter in all directions, completely forgetting the swords they had never been trained to use. Some simply fell to the ground whimpering as the Sho Del murdered them.
One Sho Del, white-faced and wearing a steel breastplate, turned to take an off-handed swing at Jerick. Jerick ducked, feeling the blade whoosh over his head. Then, moving with reflexes he had almost forgotten he had, Jerick rose, putting himself directly in front of the Sho Del. The demon’s face turned with shock—he had expected Jerick to duck away, not confront him. However, the look of shock was nothing compared to the surprise in its eyes when Jerick’s fist pounded into its face. The Sho Del stumbled and Jerick tore the sword from its hand, turning the weapon on its master and jamming it into the monster’s side.
White blood gushed down the blade and over Jerick’s hand, and the Sho Del fell backward, astonished expression still on its face. The last thing it had expected was for a bridgeman to fight back. Jerick stared at what he had done, nearly as surprised as the Sho Del. Then he looked up at his companions, still being slaughtered.
“Organize, you fools!” Jerick yelled, pulling a whimpering Ham to his feet, and pointing to the man’s short sword. The former slave pulled the weapon from its sheath, holding it in uncertain, trembling hands. The Sho Del warriors had already massacred half of the bridge crews, and were working on the rest. Keeg stood off to the side, huddled next to the bridge, his short sword held like a long dagger in his hand. He looked to Jerick with frightened eyes just before a Sho Del noticed him and, batting the short sword away with an off-handed movement, ran the boy through.
Jerick screamed in denial, dashing forward to attack the Sho Del from behind. The demon turned just in time to block his blow, and then moved to respond with an attack of its own. Jerick backed away, allowing Doram’s training to guide his movements as he searched desperately for help. Where were the warriors?
Then he saw. Two of the eight bridge crews had escaped across to the other side of the chasm, and they were moving to pull their bridges across to their side. From there they would be able to push the bridges across to a third plateau, providing an escape route for the warriors. The other bridges had been taken by the Sho Del, and even as Jerick watched they were toppled one by one into the chasm.
“No!” Jerick screamed, realizing his men were about to be abandoned. With the bridges gone, they would be left alone with the Sho Del.
One form turned at his scream. A large, tan-skinned form. Gaz. He watched Jerick fighting for just a moment, then he trotted across the last bridge just before it was pulled away, leaving Jerick and another two dozen bridgemen to their fates.
Ham screamed behind him, and Jerick turned briefly to see the squat man get pushed over the side of the plateau, tumbling into the chasm. Jerick turned back just in time to see his opponent launch a furious attack. Jerick parried maladroitly, his muscles out of practice. One blow turned his wrist at an awkward angle and he yelped, dropping the blade in agony.
The Sho Del smiled—a strangely human gesture to see on the face of a demon—then stepped forward to finish him.
Just then Jerick heard an odd thump beside him, and a wave of tan attacked the Sho Del. Jerick looked up in amazement. The tall form was followed by a dozen others, warriors that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, each bearing a thin steel sword. Ki Tzern’s special troops.
The tan-clothed men fought meticulously, somehow managing to engage the scattered Sho Del one-on-one while at the same time maintaining a controlled formation. They were good, better swordsmen than Jerick had ever seen, and their attack quickly pushed the Sho Del back. Just a few seconds later, the Sho Del decided that a couple of bridgemen weren’t worth the effort of fighting Tzern’s elite, and they retreated across the chasm. One Sho Del, one not wearing armor, suddenly yelled something in an odd, accented language, holding aloft a small object. A Dragonsteel container. Soon the Sho Del were gone, riding their strange jumping beasts, leaving the plateau empty save for scattered human bodies and white boulders.
Jerick’s legs betrayed him, and he slumped to the ground. Around him the bridgemen bled, not a single one was still standing, though a few from other crews were moving feebly. Of Jerick’s own crew only corpses remained.
The dozen tan-clothed warriors gathered in a small group, surveying the results of their attempted rescue. Then, talking quietly amongst themselves, they moved toward the chasm to the right, jumping across with their unnatural skill to join their own camp which had finished its battle in the distance.
A pair of warriors waited, watching the retreating Sho Del as the rest of the warriors jumped plateaus. Satisfied that their enemy wouldn’t return, one of the warriors nodded to the other. Then, pausing, he turned to look at Jerick with sad eyes. He was a tall Tzendish man with dark black hair and straight features. “I’m sorry,” was all he said. Then he turned back to the other. “Let us go.”
“Yes, Lord Tzern,” the other man agreed.
The two of them backed up a little bit, then ran forward and jumped, sailing into the air and crossing to the other plateau, leaving Jerick alone.
Jerick sat waiting, strangely lucid, as the hours passed. He had searched through the bodies, finding a dozen men alive, though none from his crew. He had dressed their wounds as well as possible, and they lay in a pitiful heap moaning and complaining that they had been forgotten. Jerick doubted that was true. There were dead warriors on the plateau; their weaponry was too valuable to let sit. Perhaps if it had just been the bridgemen, no one would have returned. The steel, however, was a different story.
As Jerick waited, the sun slowly toppling from its noonday perch, he thought. He thought of the look on the Sho Del’s face when he had fought back, and the actions of the other bridgemen. He saw their faces over and over again, their desperation and their fear. He saw Keeg get killed a dozen times. He saw Ham drop into the abyss. He remembered that first, friendly bridgeman he had seen die—Jerick had never known his name—then get trampled by his own crew.
It was presumed reality, and Jerick was caught in the middle of it. Eight bridge crews with twenty men each, over a hundred and sixty men, and we couldn’t defeat a dozen Sho Del. No matter how poorly trained, no matter how pathetic our weapons, we should have been able to stand against twelve opponents.
The bridgemen hadn’t fought back because they had assumed they couldn’t. They mentally separated themselves from the warriors, believing all they were capable of was carrying bridges and cleaning latrines. Just like peasants worked because they assumed they weren’t worthy of anything better. It was a lesson Jerick had learned long ago. Why then did he keep falling into the same traps?
Two bridge crews, one without their bridge, arrived just before dusk to search the bodies. They reacted with alarm when Jerick stood, and then surprise when they realized he wasn’t a Sho Del. They hadn’t seen Tzern and his men arrive, and had given the abandoned bridgemen for dead. Jerick waited as they pushed their bridge across, then appropriated their litters—brought for carrying back the bodies of officers—to carry the wounded instead. He spoke commandingly, like a noble, and they followed him without argument. One person, however, was not so quick to obey.
“Gaz,” Jerick said flatly. The large Kaz’ch had come to supervise. The sergeant walked across the bridge, joining Jerick on the other side as he surveyed the damage.
“You’re the only one?” he demanded.
Gaz ground his teeth for a moment. “I’ll send you a new crew in the morning,” he said.
Jerick blinked in surprise. “New crew?” he asked hesitantly.
“You’re bridgeleader now.”
“I don’t have much choice,” Gaz mumbled, kicking at a body. Tenne’s body. The leader had been one of the first to die. “Everyone else is too young. They don’t know what to do.”
“But, I haven’t been here a year yet,” Jerick objected. “Barely half a year.”
Gaz looked him straight in the eye. “If anyone asks, you’ve been here eighteen months. Understand?”
Jerick nodded slowly. He did. Looking into Gaz’s thin Kaz’ch eyes, he understood much more than he was probably supposed to. It was all a lie. They told the bridge crews they would be made real warriors in two years, but no one lasted that long. It was a false hope intended to keep them going. Going until they died.
“I assume you learned your lesson from that little stunt a few months back,” Gaz said warningly.
Jerick nodded. He had indeed. The problem with the bridgemen was as much a part of their thoughts as their methods. If he wanted to help them, he had to change both.
“Yes, Gaz, I’ve learned much since then,” he replied. He bent down, retrieving the long Sho Del sword he had taken, and buckled it to his waist. Then he turned to help carry one of the litters of wounded men.