Fiction Friday: Tales of the Dark Eras

Chronicles of Darkness, Mage: The Awakening

Given our ongoing Kickstarter for Chronicles of Darkness: Dark Eras 2, we decided it would be prudent to take another look at Tales from the Dark Eras which contains stories from many of the eras covered in the original Chronicles of Darkness: Dark Eras. This week we look at Bone and Gold, a story by Malcolm Sheppard set in Mage: The Awakening’s Alexandrian period (330-320 BCE).

War is groaning.

We remember the screams of the fray, hurled spears and swift-stabbing swords, but a man can only exert his full strength for a few dozen breaths before he must shuffle back and fght with grimaces and shouts alone, until his vitality returns. As battles progress, soldiers take longer pauses between assaults. They pant beside horses under the relentless sun. The purr of exhaustion rattles from their lips. And of course, they weep. That is war’s true music, nothing so much as a hard day’s work by a thousand of the lowest slaves. Labor and terror.

Today the groaning belonged to one side, populated by Greeks, Persians, Egyptians and others, bound to the service of our Warlord. With five comrades I pulled our earthladen pallet, ropes over our shoulders and shields ahead. We growled out our steps, like in the marching drills. As we six pulled, six more pushed the pallet from behind, and together we were one of four units, an entire lochos of the army, made of survivors and ill-tempered men, suited to the riskiest work. We were building a ramp.

The defenders of Pir Sar knew exactly where to aim their arrows, but they lacked coordination and enthusiasm, argued after each volley, and warned us of the next with early, scattered shots that gave us time to hide behind shields, javelin-scarred stones and the sturdy dead.

Yet men died. An arrow caught Phillipos under his ear, sending him straight to breathless, open-eyed sleep. A javelin took Argyros in the chest while he straightened one of the shields we’d planted to shelter us. He gurgled and rolled down black, tamped dirt. Stray missiles danced down the growing earthwork until the sun touched the mountains. By the day’s last volley, fatigue had conquered all terror. I sat in my shield’s long shadow to break out water and dried figs.

Phokas crawled to me, holding up a bit of bread. We traded half portions with each
other. “Who wants to die hungry?” he said. “Even if you wanted to think of some fine fuck from your youth or pray your last, hunger would throw ox shanks and olives into your dreams and wine to wash it down. Petty things.” Then he ate: three bites.

“I don’t know what I’d want to think while I died.” An arrow struck my shield. It sounded like rain on an old roof. “It’s a distraction.”

“Theophanes, you really know how to make me feel like a brother.”

“I hated my brother.”

Phokas squeezed my arm and laughed, just like when I met him, after they’d made our lochos out of the remnants of two others. He’d invited me to his tent then. I knew he wanted to take honor from me like I was a staring, frightened boy.

The volley struck: long, black, killing raindrops.

I pressed my heel against his belly. A little kick would send him over the shield. He’d get rained on. “Think of death so nobly, and you’ll want it,” I said. “It’ll tempt you to make mistakes.”

“Yet the gods hate cowards.” He wound my forearm into his armpit. I forgot he was a strong wrestler. He could rip my elbow out of joint with a shrug.

I let go first. “They hate heroes too.”

We fled after the meal was done.

After night’s cool mercy, dawn hid in wine-colored clouds. We could be swift and comfortable. By noon, the ramp was fit to carry one catapult at a time. Pir Sar sent a sortie: over a hundred in a crooked line, dispersed by rocky terrain on the spur that held their fortress. We twenty-four set a phalanx on smooth earth of our own making. My shield touched Ariston’s; our spears wheeled into place, Greeks together.

Athenian strategy, Spartan muscle, even Persian iron — conquered Persian iron. Oh yes. I yelled “Ha-Oh!” with the rest, and thrust at the first wave in a single beat, creating upon the ground that storm the Asians failed to summon with ill-timed arrows. There’s much to love about battle, in the little techniques: shifting to the overhand grip so, when you thrust with a spear, the weight of a skewered body doesn’t wrench you forward. Stamping the ground twice, to advance as one force. We made a line of corpses for the rest to cross, but they thought better of it, hid behind rocks and harassed us with javelins. If a man shook his cramped shield arm they’d cast fast for the opening. We could only wait; advancing to the rocks would break our formation. We were back to the groaning war. Twenty-four warriors became twenty, sixteen, then eleven.

They saw our Horse Companions before we heard their crashing hooves, coming up from behind. We jumped aside for them. The Warlord was with them, set apart by a white high-crested helmet and his black horse, called Ox-Head.

Later they’d drink to their victory, omitting talk of we eleven on the ramp. Catapults loosened the enemy walls enough that enemy archers could no longer safely shoot from its vantage. The spur was ours. Even camp followers scurried up to loot the dead.

One of them turned a body over with a practiced yank to the hip. She knelt and stared at the dead man’s ruined face with the strange blue eyes of the Alinas. She ignored the sharp sword at his side. She was alone, and that was unusual, too. Followers usually worked in families, or beside soldiers who were their lovers, masters, or relatives.

Phokas must have noticed this. He swaggered over. “His things are mine,” he said to her. “I killed him on the ramp.”

“Take them.” She spoke calmly, in a Persian accent.

“I will!” said Phokas. “I can be generous. What can I give you? You haven’t even loosened his linen.”

“Nothing.” She stood and flexed her fingers singly, in a peculiar order. I glanced at my sword hand for a moment. When I looked up again, I was a dozen paces closer between them. Yet they ignored me.

“You won’t find anything on him that I can’t give you, though with more warmth.” He laughed at his own wit and crouched like a wrestler.

“You’re going to enslave me,” she said. “I’m not your enemy.”

He reached out to her, but my left hand intercepted his. I pulled; my sword entered his belly upward, from below the cuirass. I didn’t remember the thrust, but the end of it: failing tension in his arm, wetness on my legs from his blood. Yet I worried that he’d scream, so I put the next strike through his lung, entering from the notch of the collarbone. He made a soft sound, like a bubbling stream.

The noise carried my thoughts to an absurd place: a memory of Thebes. I’d visited with my mother and her family. We went to get my brother married, but really spent most of our time visiting famous places. I was very young.

We stopped at a spring. “Herakles came here,” said my mother. “He killed his family, but washed the blood away. So the gods gave him a new purpose. The water still tastes like blood.” I took a sip. Salt. Iron.

My brother elbowed me. “Ghosts love unburnt blood,” he said. “They suck it up like that and talk to the living.” That gave me nightmares for a year.

The spring sounded like Phokas’ death, so even as I dragged his body to a cliff’s edge I thought of those dreams, where pale men and women drank by a blood-flled trench.

The woman was with me. “I’m Maya,” she said and, as if to complete the introduction, she pushed his legs over the edge. The rest of his body followed.

“I can’t pay you to keep this secret,” I said.

“You’re not going to kill me, since you did it to save me. Nor will I abandon the army. My uncle lives near Vitasta — the Hydaspes in your language, where Zeus-Ammon must go to open the gates of the East. I don’t want to travel alone. I can reassure you with my service,” she said. She made a peculiar gesture and touched my arm. I felt as if it connected two pieces of a torn scroll, which when read together revealed my weakness, my shame. What else could I do?

Find out what happens to Theophanes and Maya in Tales of the Dark Eras, available now in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction!