Dragonsteel Prime Chapter 31: Bridge Four 4
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).
They were an unsightly group. Their beards were unkempt and often filthy, their clothing even more ragged and stained, and their expressions dull. They moved slowly, with little energy—except, of course, when there was food to be had. Their muscles were large, but their eyes were fatigued. They were slovenly, degraded, and unassertive. In short, they were bridgemen.
Only a couple of them appeared to be new recruits. Gaz was belligerent and demeaning, but he knew better than to construct a crew completely from the untried. Such would buckle the first time an arrow flew their way. No, most of these men had been gathered from other crews. They had been hauling bridges for months; they had been taught their place and they knew what they were. Jerick had to change that knowledge.
Presumed reality, he thought to himself as the group slowly gathered before him, shuffling toward the tent—they knew what a crew transfer meant. They would have less than an hour to stow what little belongings they had before the day’s work began.
“Did I say you men could move?” Jerick asked pointedly as the group moved past him.
En mass, the bridgemen paused, turning dull eyes his direction. He had spoken commandingly, like a nobleman—a tone of voice they didn’t expect from a bridgeman, even the leader of the crew.
“I am your bridgeleader,” Jerick announced, standing straight-backed as he looked across the group. “My name is Jerick, though many just call me Hook, because of this little ornament on my face.”
A couple of men smiled at the comment.
“Welcome to the Fourth Bridge,” Jerick announced. “We are going to be the best crew this war has ever seen.”
The bridgemen regarded one another for a moment then, as if by common consensus, they turned back toward the tent, leaving Jerick standing awkwardly alone, his carefully-prepared speech dying on his lips.
Jerick lay aside his adz, looking at the smooth board before him. It had been part of a mighty trek, starting back in Melerand, near one of the lumbering camps—perhaps even Jerick’s own village. It had been felled by the hands of some unknown lumberman, then floated down the Trerod to be stripped and cut into boards in Lakdon. After that, an extended voyage via ship down the eastern coast of Yolen had followed, ending in a Fallin dock. The still-rough wood was then brought to the Shattered Plains, where bridgemen would sand it and pound it together, forming bridges. Bridges that would ultimately find themselves plummeting into one of the chasms to crack and rot below, part of one, massive, eternal grave.
Hands grabbed the board, pulling it away from Jerick and fitting it into place on the side of the nearly-finished bridge. The bridgemen worked rotely, with laboriously slow movements. Jerick watched as they tried to fit his board into its notches, pushing against the unyielding wood.
“No,” Jerick, shaking his head. “It goes the other way around. The small notches should be on the outside.”
The men continued to push, ignoring Jerick’s words. They only flipped the board around when one of the bridge engineers came over and yelled at them, pointing out the proper way.
Jerick sighed, leaning back against a stack of boards. He had been trying for three days now to instill some sort of independence in the minds of his crew, and so far he had been woefully unsuccessful. The men were so accustomed to their old ways that new suggestions didn’t even register with them. New recruits were no better—most of them were not like Keeg had been. Used to a peasant’s life, the newcomers simply melded with the aggregate of dullness, falling into line and doing as the others did.
If anything, all Jerick’s efforts had done was ostracize him from the rest of the men. They didn’t look at him as one of them. He wasn’t sure what they thought of him, but they didn’t accept him. They most certainly didn’t accept his authority. To them, a bridgeleader was just a bridgeman who had survived longer than the rest.
He had tried everything. He had urged them with inspirational talks, he had tried explaining to them logically why following him would help them survive, he had proven that he understood their way of life, that he had been a peasant himself. Nothing worked. They would not see what they did not accept.
Such thoughts were his companion until the alarm sounded a few hours later.
Jerick rushed forward with his men, forcing himself to hold back, lest he outpace them. During these last few days one thing had become certain to him—the life of a bridgeman was fatiguing, but by no means debilitating. They received enough food. True, it was flavorless, but it was food. They worked hard, but only a short period of that work—the actual carrying of the bridges—was taxing. The bridgemen’s lethargy was as much a function of their mindset as their conditions.
“All right, form up,” Jerick commanded as they reached their bridge. Gaz stood at the center of the crews, directing them with powerful—and not a little pudgy—arms.
The bridge crew followed Jerick’s instructions, falling into place along the sides of the bridge with surprising nimbleness. Dragonsteel runs were the time when they were accustomed to taking orders from their bridgeleader, and in this they worked as routinely as ever, the same habits that had caused them to ignore him before now causing them to obey.
Though this would be the first run the new crew had gone on together, they each found their places along the edges of the bridge without discussion. Bridge placing—meaning who would go in the front—was very important to bridgemen, and they had drawn lots to determine it during the first hour they were together.
They left a hole on the right side near the back, the bridgeleader’s place, most protected slot on the bridge. Jerick paused, then shook his head, walking to the front of the bridge.
“Move it, Dente,” Jerick said, motioning for the bridgeman in the front center slot—the most dangerous place—to move out of the way.
“But . . .” the man said with confused eyes.
“I said move,” Jerick said authoritatively. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Dente looked back at the bridgemen with perplexment, then shrugged, walking to the back of the bridge and taking the place saved for Jerick.
“Every time this crew goes on a run,” Jerick announced, “I get the privilege of being in the front. It is my right, and my duty, as your leader. Understood?”
All his efforts of the last few days, all his objections and explainings, hadn’t earned him such a look of utter dumbfoundment. Before he had confused them. Now they thought he was insane.
“Lift!” Jerick ordered, leaning down and reaching behind him to grab the edge of the bridge. The men followed, hoisting the construction onto their shoulders.
It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t promising either. Jerick had stood at the front of the bridge many times during his career in the war, and he knew it wasn’t a good sign when the Sho Del were already on the plateau. They appeared to have just arrived, and their archers were rushing across the plateau to fall into position.
“Run!” Gaz ordered, letting himself fall behind like he always did when it looked like it was going to be a difficult attack.
The bridge crews broke into a trot just as the first arrows began to fly. Jerick felt terror begin to shake his frame. He could have stayed in the back, been protected. Why had he come forward? It didn’t do him any good; the men would never follow him. What was he doing?
However, even as the fear and the questioning began, Jerick beat it back. He would not allow his mind to become placid. They could force him to be a bridgeman, but they couldn’t stop him from thinking like a nobleman. Better yet, like a lumberman. Like his father. He would rather face death with pride than live without purpose.
“Let’s move, men!” he bellowed, breaking into a jog, feeling the enormous bridge move behind him, as if he were towing it all on his own. “For our families!”
Arrows bore down on them, but Jerick kept running. He didn’t flinch as a shaft took the man next to him in the chest, and he continued to yell as he saw a Sho Del take him in its sights. The arrow was loosed, and Jerick felt more than saw it zip through the air. He knew it would fly truly.
This is the reality I choose, Jerick decided, screaming wordlessly, running at the arrow as if he were the weapon and it the target.
The world lost its focus. Then, suddenly, it snapped back into place—back into place in a way that Jerick only vaguely remembered from his former life. The world became [REDACTED]. The arrow hovered in the air, moving slowly toward his breast. Its shaft no longer wood, but [REDACTED]. Its tip was the cold dun gray of iron. [REDACTED] hummed in his mind, [REDACTED].
Go, Jerick felt himself urge.
Then, the world was back. Gaz was yelling for them to drop the bridges, and Jerick complied—more out of habit than conscious desire. He jumped back and grabbed a steadying rope, and the bridge slid into place. Then, his job finished, he sat stupefied, trying to determine what had just happened.
Jerick sat beside the evening fire. The sun had long since fallen, leaving darkness and a cloudy sky, but his thoughts continued to burn brightly.
Part of him was incredibly disturbed by what had just happened. He had only barely discovered [REDACTED], still uncertain of whether to accept it as good or evil, when the events at the palace forced him to leave. The part of him that had grown up listening to the Legends, the part trained by the superstitions of the villagers, told him that he didn’t want such power. Magic was of the Sho Del, the monsters he was fighting. Even Horwatchers could only use it if they had access to Sho Del bones.
Yet, another part of him—strangely, the part trained by Vendavius—was curious about [REDACTED] what he had done. Experiment, it urged. Find out what you can do. Use it.
Jerick couldn’t decide between the two halves. He was frightened by both options, and more than a little bitter about the fact that he should have to make such a decision when normal men were left to much simpler lives.
“Sir?” a quiet voice asked.
Jerick looked up from the small fire—used only to warm food and give light, for even in the winter the nights were hot enough without fires to help. Beside him in the quiet darkness stood Dente. He was a tall, thin Fallin man with hair almost blond enough one would have thought him a nobleman. Of course, more people had lighter hair down here in the south.
“Yes, Dente?” Jerick asked.
The man stood uncomfortably for a moment, then he took a seat on the ground next to the fire. A few other men sat on the other side of the pit, staring into the flames with uninterested looks.
“Sir, I want to thank you,” Dente mumbled. “I . . . you took my place, sir. I would have died today.”
“Nonsense,” Jerick chided. “I didn’t die, did I?”
Dente twitched nervously, holding a small leather cap in his hands. “I don’t know, sir. Old Kerl, he was next to you. He said the Lords themselves protected us today. Why, we only lost one man, and the other crews lost at least four or five each. Old Kerl, he says he saw Oren himself standing over you protecting us.”
Jerick sat quietly for a moment. “Why would he do that, Dente?”
“Because you’re special, sir,” Dente mumbled. “We all know it. You don’t belong here. The Lords protected you, that’s certain as the heat. Kerl saw an arrow disappear, vanish right before it hit you. He swears he did.”
Dente fell silent then, resting back against the ground. A group of men were returning from the tavern; Jerick could smell the saprye on the wind. They shuffled quietly—not drunk, of course. Bridgemen didn’t earn enough to get themselves properly intoxicated. Some of them sat next to the fire.
They’re so sad, Jerick thought with a shake of his head. No hope in their eyes at all. After today, which should have been a victory to them, they still have no hope. No matter how much they drink, no matter how much they numb their thoughts, they know that a victory only means they’ll live to see another day of nothingness. If only there were a way to cheer them up a little.
“Now, we all know that Fentalloni is the most cunning of the Nine Lords,” Jerick heard himself say as he looked into the fire. “Fentalloni—we call him Leri in Melerand—is Oreon’s son, and before he was even born he was known to slip out of his mother’s womb at night and commit mischief. As he grew, he only got more cunning, though he never reached a height of more than a few dozen feet tall—making him something of a dwarf amongst the gods.”
Jerick spoke the words in his best imitation of Topaz’s storyteller’s voice. He spoke as much for himself as for the men, a means of pushing away their overwhelming despair and trying to remember the lighthearted ways of his friend the jesk.
“One day, when the earth was still rather new, Fentalloni was passing through the woods when he heard familiar voices in the distance. He crept forward, sneaking through the bushes until he found a small clearing. Inside, he could see Venteere the Wise—we call him Aldvin in the north—and Sivonn, the Healer, standing together. Before them on the ground was a creature unlike any Fentalloni had ever seen before. It had a head like a horse, but wings like a bird, and a tail that was a hundred different-colored strands of hair. The two gods were arguing back and forth.
“‘It is certainly an animal of a practical nature,’ Venteere claimed, pointing at the strange creature. ‘Why, look at its strong back and powerful legs. It was meant to carry burdens and do work.’
“Sivonn shook his head. ‘No, brother, I must disagree. Look at the beautiful colors of its wings, and the graceful style of its tail. This is a creature of beauty. It is meant to be kept as a pet, to be admired and to be painted by artists. It would be a travesty to reduce it to simple labor.’
“The two gods continued their discussion for some time, neither one willing to give credit to the other’s words. As everyone knows, Venteere is a practical god, and all things must be put to good use in his eyes. Sivonn, however, is an artist, and seeks decoration in all that he does. The argument grew quite fierce until finally, Fentalloni stepped out from his hiding place and confronted his siblings.
“‘Brothers, brothers,’ he chastised. ‘You should listen to yourselves. You sound like simple-minded mortals, unable to make a decision.’
“‘But we cannot agree,’ Venteere explained. ‘He will not listen to my words.’
“‘Nor he mine,’ Sivonn complained.
“‘Brothers, what you need is a mediator,’ Fentalloni declared. ‘Someone to listen to your two sides and make a decision for you.’
“‘Why, that is an excellent idea,’ Venteere said. ‘Would you do such a thing for us, brother?’
“‘Well,’ Fentalloni said thoughtfully, ‘I have heard much of what you’ve been saying. Perhaps I could spare the time to give judgment on this most odd of beasts. Where did it come from?’
“‘Our father just now created it,’ Sivonn explained. ‘It is the only of its kind, and we were trying to decide what its use should be.’
“Fentalloni sat back and listened while the two brothers continued to explain their case. However, he soon grew bored of their arguments. ‘This is no good,’ he declared. ‘Your words are of little use, and look, the light is getting dim. I can barely see the creature any more. How can I give judgement?”
“‘Here,’ Sivonn said, ‘let me make you a fire.’ And he did so.
“‘Ah, very nice,’ Fentalloni said with a smile. ‘However, it is still difficult to judge with the creature sitting down on the ground as it is. Do you expect me, a god, to stoop down to examine it?’
“‘Of course not,’ Venteere exclaimed. ‘Here, let me build you a table on which to place the beast.’ And he did so.
“Fentalloni examined the strange creature before him, shaking his head. ‘I still cannot decide,’ he said.
“‘What can we do?’ Sivonn complained. ‘Can we never resolve this question?’
“‘I know,” the cunning Fentalloni suddenly said. ‘What I need are some examples. Brothers, why don’t you each go gather several beasts from the forest. Venteere, you bring the most functional animals you can think of, and Sivonn, you bring the most beautiful and colorful. Then I will compare this new creature with the two groups and see which one it belongs in.’
“‘Ah, now I see why you are known as the must cunning of the gods,’ Venteere said.
“‘Yes,’ Sivonn agreed. ‘We will go quickly and gather as you have said.’
“And they did. They rushed forth, carefully selecting those animals they thought would best make their case. Then, they met together at the small clearing. However, when they arrived they found it empty. The table was still there, however, and on it was a neat pile of bones. Beside the charred bones was a note.
“‘Dear brothers,’ it said. ‘I don’t know whether it would have been better for work or for beauty. I only know one thing: it certainly tasted good. Thank you for the fire to cook and the nice table on which to eat.’”
Jerick spoke the final line with a smile. It was one of his favorite stories, and he had asked Topaz to repeat it on several of occasions. He had expected a few chuckles at the ending. He was surprised to no end when he got a roar.
Jerick looked around with surprise. While he had been focusing on the story, men had been gathering around the fire. He had seen a few forms moving in the darkness, but he hadn’t realized the extent of the gathering. Every man in his crew stood circling the flames, and they all laughed heartily together at the final lines.
Jerick looked through the crowd of faces, the twenty men standing, smiling, firelight glittering in their eyes. Eyes that seemed alive for the first time since he had become bridgeleader. All they had needed was a little bit of laughter.
And, also for the first time since he had become bridgeleader, he seemed to have their attention. The all watched him eagerly, obviously hoping he would tell them another story.
Instead, he asked them a question. “Men, why are you here?”
There was a silent pause. “For the pay?” one finally answered.
“Because I was told I had to come,” another mumbled.
“Where else would I go?” a third—Dente—added.
“Wrong,” Jerick said simply. “That may be how you ended up here, but that’s not why you are here.”
“Then why?” Dente asked quietly.
“Look out there,” Jerick said, nodding toward the dark Shattered Plains. “Beyond those plateaus, beyond the chasms and the wells, is an enemy. Now, some say that the armies are only here for Dragonsteel, that the generals only care about money. I don’t know about that. All I know is that this is the only place where Yolen connects to Fain lands. We have to keep them away, lest they slaughter our families.”
“They say the Sho Del don’t want our families,” a voice in the darkness muttered. “That they only want the Dragonsteel too.”
“They’re wrong,” Jerick said flatly, his voice growing quiet. “Trust me, they’re wrong. I’ve . . . seen Sho Del murder families. One tried to kill my King.” Something was itching at the back of his mind, something he didn’t want to acknowledge. Fortunately, another comment drew him back to the conversation.
“But,” Dente said, “we’re only bridgemen.”
“Only bridgemen . . .” Jerick said, turning to look at his crew. “Let me tell you another story, men. You’re probably familiar with this one—it’s about King Agaron of Rodaius.”
Several heads bobbed at this. Agaron was a famous character throughout the legends of all Yolen. However, it was not of his many glorious adventures that Jerick wished to speak. It was of his beginnings.
“According to the legends,” Jerick began quoting from memory, “Agaron was not born a king. In fact, he was not born a noble at all. His father was a simple craftsman, and his family very poor. Had things gone differently, Agaron would have probably been a table-maker like his father.
“Now, in those days there was a regent on the throne of Rodaius. The true king had died while very young, and his chief general had decided to take the throne. However, it is said that Oren the White appeared to him in a dream, commanding him not to claim the crown for himself. ‘I will choose the next ruler of Rodaius,’ Oren informed. The general, being a pious man, only declared himself regent, informing the people that some day a new glorious king would take his place.
“When Agaron was still yet a boy, his father was commissioned by the regent to create a new banquet table for the palace. It was a massive job and, unfortunately, Agaron’s father came down with the fevers before he could finish it. Determined that the regent would get his table, Agaron went to work on his own. He carved the table with designs so intricate that it would leave no doubt that this was a king’s table. He made the legs into the shape of the Nine Lords, each one representing one of the gods, with a tenth leg bearing a crown to represent the monarch of Rodaius.
“The regent was amazed at the marvelous table. He had the boy’s father brought to the palace to reward him, but the man humbly admitted that it was not he who had done the carving, but his son. The regent immediately sent for the son, and when Agaron arrived, it was said that heavenly voices could be heard in the air above the palace, praising the new king of Rodaius. The regent immediately recognized his replacement, for Oren had shown him the boy’s face in a vision. Agaron was set on the throne, and that night feasted at the very table he had carved.”
Jerick paused. He didn’t go on with the story, though he knew the men were thinking of it in their minds. They were remembering the many tales of valor associated with Agaron, how he united nearly the entire continent, how he slew monsters, battled armies, and even braved the depths of Xeth’s underworld, battling the Lord of Death himself. All this done by the son of a craftsman.
“Before Agaron was a great king,” Jerick said to the crowd of bridgemen, “he was a great table-maker. If he had not worked so hard on his carvings, the regent would have never called him to the palace.
“You say you are only bridgemen, but what is a bridgeman’s job? Could the army function without us? Could it cross the chasms? Could it even reach the Dragonsteel? You have all seen runs where the warriors weren’t necessary—sometimes the Sho Del don’t even arrive. But, have you ever seen a run where the bridgemen weren’t necessary?”
He looked across the faces, faces that were growing less dull with every word he spoke. They were beginning to see something in themselves, a little bit of Agaron.
Jerick spoke vigorously. “We are the first ones into any battle. We wear the least armor, and we carry the smallest weapons. In my mind, that takes more courage than is required of any nobleman in a chariot. Dente, please do something for me.”
Dente nodded, and Jerick explained what he wanted him to do. The man ran off and returned shortly with a dirt stained bundle. The cloth-wrapped object had been buried shallowly beneath Jerick’s bedroll.
Jerick pulled off the cloth, revealing the silver-sheathed Sho Del sword. Jerick pulled the blade free from its sheath. The sword sparkled in the firelight, its silvery steel inscribed with the alien writing of the Sho Del. It was long and straight, but only edged on one side, and the pommel was tipped by a carved reptilian head.
“I slew the Sho Del that this belonged to,” Jerick said quietly. “I killed him with his own sword. Me, a bridgeman. This is his blood you see staining the sleeves of my shirt.
“We have been chosen to be bridgemen. So be it. But, men, we get to decide what it means to be a bridgeman. You all know boys who came into the war looking for glory—perhaps you were one. Well, who is to say there is no glory in being a bridgeman?”
He rammed the sword back in its sheath, it snapped into place with a click. “I say again what I told you on that first day, men. Let’s not just be bridgemen, let’s be the best cursed bridgemen those demons have ever seen.”
He had hoped for nods of agreement. He got shouts.