This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
50th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Cuvenen
Upon leaving the road, the Redcoats found themselves overwhelmed in the forest gloom.
Terry the dog quickly became a beacon of light in the shadows of the Cuvenen.
Sylvano could readily understand why the elves left the ancient wood. It was incredibly dense, overgrown, hostile. There was not one spot free of the claustrophobic green. Vines crawled along the moist, sinking earth. Broad, massive trees stretched in haphazard directions and seemed to join at their crowns to form a second, closer sky that was eternally green and gloomy. Between them grew bushes and mosses and flowers and all manner of flora that seemed out of place — how did they grow so green with so little sun?
Around the party the air was thick with the scent of green matter. It made Sylvano gag, and he could have sworn that the smell was a tangible chemical making his eyes weep. It was an oppressive environment. Sylvano felt smothered despite being quite free to move.
Cuvenen was a labyrinth, a cage that enthralled and captured the unaware. It was one gigantic flytrap distributed among a great spread of hectares. There was visual beauty in its shamelessly colorful and fertile occupants, but every other sense was hammered by the surroundings. Somehow, Clarissa could navigate this forest. Perhaps that was part of her royal privilege. But for Sylvano and Salvatrice’s loyal redcoats, the wood was indistinct.
Terry, however, navigated the forest expertly. It was as if she could see a world that they did not. With her snout to the dirt, she confidently walked under the boughs, over the roots, around the trees, through the bushes. She had a straight line to something and she was following it without deviation. Sylvano could only hope it was Clarissa’s path too.
Still, a dog was a dog, and Sylvano, just like Salvatrice, could not fully trust it.
“How do we know she’s on the right track?” Sylvano asked.
At his side, Centurion Byanca Geta sighed loudly in exasperation. She had been having the same trouble as everyone else keeping up with the dog and following her through the wood. Byanca’s boots sank into the soft dirt and mud close to the trees and slipped on the wet, hard earth and stone that lay between them. Her clothing had more than once gotten caught on thorny thickets and on the grasping fingers of long, gnarled boughs.
“She’s a hunting dog, she’s tracked rabbits overland and caught them as they leaped out of their tunnels before! She’s leading us the right away, just have some faith in her.”
Sylvano crossed his arms and huffed but all of his ready arguments were too petty to say.
Nightfall seemed to thicken every meter of wood. Without an awareness of the gaps between every tree in the distance, the forest seemed a wall, with every step feeling like it should have been met with immovable force. Sylvano felt his breathing tighten. Byanca withdrew an electric torch, a military model with an adjustable power switch. She set it to the dimmest setting and pointed it to the floor to avoid exposing too much light.
It barely seemed to make a difference, so dense was the darkness that had fallen.
Ahead of them Terry slowed down, perhaps conscious of the limitations of her masters, and for once they caught up and walked directly alongside the dog through the forest.
Very soon, however, the dog came to a sudden and complete stop. It directed its snout up from the ground and toward a direction, and tensed its body, making no sound. Byanca urged quiet, and shut off her torch. Bowing low, she, Giuseppa and Torvald snuck through a wall of bushes that Terry had been pointing into. Sylvano moved behind them as stealthily as he could. He was practiced in sneaking around, but by no means an expert, and especially not in the woodland. Through the bush, he peered into the forest ahead.
There was a makeshift clearing, where trees had been felled but the canopy above was still so thick with the boughs and crowns of neighboring trees that the removal hardly changed the layout. In place of those trees there was a large camp, a series of tents and shacks built in and around the remaining trees. In the center of the camp there was a much larger tent with stacks of crates making up its walls. There were scattered foxholes forming defensive perimenters, many lazily abandoned, some lazily manned. There was a campfire burning in every other one. Sylvano could not tell if the men were armed or not. He could only see silhouettes, both of the men sitting and those wandering about in meandering patrols.
In the distance he could hear rushing water. They were near a river, so they could get fresh water, and they could probably hunt and forage in the Cuvenen. It was a sustainable camp.
“Where is Clarissa?” Sylvano asked.
“She might be in a tent, being debriefed. We’ll have to get closer.” Byanca said.
“Can Terry lead us to her?”
Sylvano looked down at the dog. Terry gathered up her paws and laid on the floor.
Byanca shook her head. “She’s a dog, not a sneak thief. She’d just alert them.”
He had expected a much bigger presence, with tunnels and heavy weapons and light artillery and everything that he had been told the anarchists possessed and was to be feared. She did not expect a tent village for lightly armed, beggarly looking folk. It seemed as if their own little band of redcoats might be more heavily armed based solely on the Norgler Giuseppa carried slung behind her back. At Byanca’s urging, she withdrew the weapon, loaded it, and lay prone with it in the bushes on overwatch duty.
“Cover us. We’re going around the camp. We’ll shoot a flare if we need to escape.”
Giuseppa nodded her head in response and Byanca waved Torvald and Sylvano toward a low ditch that seemed to skirt much of the length of the camp starting where their bushes ended. Byanca crawled on her belly with a pistol in hand started to navigate the little trench. Sylvano thought she could not possibly be serious, but Torvald quickly got on his own stomach and started to move, hugging the wet, mossy wall of the selfsame trench.
Feeling an anxious thumping in her chest, Sylvano got on his own stomach and followed.
It was extremely dark. Light from the campfires danced over the trench but could hardly penetrate inside it. Ahead of him, Sylvano’s allies became indistinct shapes that blended with the dirt and the rock and the moss. Worms and bugs and creatures crawled among them in the natural ditch as they snuck through it, circumventing the outer ring of the anarchist defense. It was like swimming in mud. Sylvano pulled himself slowly with his forearms and hips and knees. Torvald’s boots were almost all he could see of the man.
In this way they crawled for several meters, unseen but incredibly vulnerable. There was no fighting position they could take from their current predicament that would help them. Being caught meant a swift death by bayoneting, sitting helpless like rats in a cage. All of them had pistols but lying on their bellies they would be unlikely to have the first shot.
Sylvano’s eyes drifted nervously from the foul-smelling earth to the rocky wall at his side.
Over the shallow trench the fire-light stirred suddenly.
Sylvano heard footsteps and froze up.
Ahead, Byanca raised her hand enough for Sylvano to see it in the dim illumination.
She then retracted it, and Sylvano saw no more of her. Torvald hugged the ground lower.
Sylvano quickly did the same.
He heard the footsteps come closer.
Overhead, he saw a shadow stretch, dividing the light that danced over the trench.
There was a sharp, sudden flash and a short fizzing noise.
Sylvano smelled smoke. Tobacco smoke.
Then the footsteps started to drift far once more.
Torvald started moving. Sylvano assumed Byanca was moving too, and followed closely.
As they crawled around the outer rim of the camp a pair of voices started to sound louder than the fire and footsteps and general chatter. Sylvano could not make them out at first. Following the trench, however, they came upon a thick, broad tree that blocked the camp’s sight to them. Covered in its shadow, Byanca stood from the trench, and stacked behind the tree. Torvald followed, and Sylvano left last and put his back to the tree with them. Now standing, he could peer around the bulk of the tree and see the men on patrol.
In the light of the campfire their rifle bayonets glinted; Sylvano swallowed hard.
Byanca lifted her finger to her lip. “Listen.”
Sylvano crawled closer to Byanca. Around the tree was a tent, strung from the branches. He tried to make out the speech coming from inside, and managed to catch a familiar voice speaking about familiar topics. Holding his breath intermittently, since even the slightest sound disturbed his understanding, Sylvano tried to put together as much as he could.
“–weapons will be arriving any moment now. Be patient.” a man was saying.
“Is Cesare delivering them personally?”
Clarissa was in this tent as well, talking with this man.
“He is bringing them to us, yes. We’re getting ready for a big play.”
“I don’t think weapons will make this cell ready for–”
Clarissa replied, but Sylvano had to breathe, and lost some of the meaning.
“We’re not in charge of operations. We’re stockpiling. Cesare wants–”
“I know that’s what he wants. And I trust him. But will the villagers fight if armed?”
“We’ve got a match we’re going to light. They’ll see their time has come–”
“How will you make contact?”
“We’re not cavemen anymore. The — helped us set up radio and taught us how to communicate safely with it to avoid decryption and–. We’re ready, Clara.”
Sylvano cursed his anxious heart and weak lungs. He was having trouble understanding.
“For all our sake’s I hope you are. So how do you take the Armory?”
“First our cells are going to make targeted attacks on barracks all around– This will be a diversion to force the Legion to deploy to Ikrea. Then the cells in — will rise up, and attack the Royal Armory, freeing weapons for the people. From there, we will march, rallying the villages around the Palace to assault castle and kill the Queen. It’s only a matter of–”
Clarissa seemed to snort. “How do you breach the walls?”
“Those walls are made of rock. We have anti-tank guns. We’ll tow them to the wall.”
“It is rather thick rock, but you know weapons better than I do.”
Next to Sylvano, Byanca finally reacted to the conversation by shaking her head.
“This is a suicide mission. It will never succeed.” Byanca whispered.
Syvalno took another deep breath and held it strongly in his chest.
“What happens after?” Clarissa then asked.
“We’ll bring the people’s war out from Pallas to the rest of the country. Our comrades in Borelia will also rise up. Our comrades in Iontano will also rise up. It’s time, Clara.”
“I am absolutely ready to stand behind you. But can you defeat the Regulars? Even if you stifle the Legion, mother still has an army that will still fight against rising proles.”
“Most of the Regulars are gone. You’ve been cut off from news, Clara. The 9th Army, 10th Army and 11th Army have been deployed to Ayvarta. They’ve long since passed the naval point of no return and are– Between Borelia, Iontano and Lubon, the remaining armies are overstretched to the point that several Divisions have but two Regiments in them.”
“You speak a lot of gibberish to me, but I believe in you.”
“Believe, comrade Clara. You have seen our power, and you know the decline of your mother’s own. Our time is now. All we need is our weapons, and the signal, which–”
Sylvano felt his heart pounding. Lubon was throwing its mightiest forces into the war in Ayvarta on Nocht’s behalf, and they would not be able to come back in time to stop a general rising of the anarchists, if such a thing was successfully accomplished. And with the Blackshirt Legion having lowered the alarm in Palladi as a result of the Queen’s mercurial whims toward Salvatrice, the anarchists had enjoyed free reign to carry out these plans. Not only that, but they were engaging with Clarissa Vittoria as if she was a friend or equal to them. They were sharing their plans with her, they were treating her well. She was not clapped in irons and beheaded. Clarissa really was one of them.
At the eruption of this civil war, Clarissa would be safe among her comrades but Salvatrice would be hated and endangered by every side of the battle. Treated as a thing by the royals and legions; treated as a monster in need of purging by the rising peasants. She would have even less of a place to live her meager life. Everything would crumble around her.
Carmela, too, would be ruined in this madness. Byanca would not be spared either.
As he listened to the anarchists deliberate, as he listened to Clarissa ask her questions as ‘Clara’, their comrade and equal, Sylvano could not help but sympathize with them and their ideals. They just wanted to be free to lead their lives, like he wanted. They too, were under the heel of the Queen, exploited to feed her armies and fuel her wars and conquests, and decimated when they expressed disagreement or voiced criticism. They were nothing but things to the Queen, like Salvatrice herself. Lubon could better if they succeeded.
But Salvatrice, and Sylvano, and everything they loved, would be in jeopardy.
“Byanca, can we stop them?” Sylvano asked in a low, careful voice.
“Depends on how many of them are delivering these weapons. We can probably light up the camp as it is right now with Giuseppa’s help but we can’t handle any reinforcements.” Byanca whispered. She palmed her face and sighed. “Don’t know if that will stop them.”
“He said there will be a signal. Do you think the signal is in this camp? Did you hear–”
Byanca sighed. “I know as much as you. We may have to wait for the delivery to be sure.”
Sylvano bowed his head and put a hand to his chest. He felt his constitution waning. He had never been in such a stressful situation in his life. Salvatrice confronting her mother was one thing. The Queen could do nothing so terrible to her as what these men might do if they caught her, a royal, in their midst. She was face to face with death in this wood.
“Salv– Sylvano, up.”
Byanca pointed up at the crown of the tree and cupped her hands.
“Excuse me?” Sylvano asked.
“You can climb it.” Byanca said.
Just overhead there was a thick bough that served as an adequate first step onto the procession of branches forming the crown of the tree. Thick and bushy green and very dark, it was unlikely the anarchist patrols would think to look for spies in there. Sylvano, however, was displeased at the idea of having to climb up on it, and was initially quite reluctant, despite Byanca holding out her cupped hand for what seemed like a minute.
He then heard a rustling noise, and more footsteps, and that gave him the push he needed.
Nearly stepping all over Byanca in the process, Sylvano used her boost and climbed up onto that first bough, and from there began to climb the rest. Byanca helped Torvald up, and Torvald reached out a hand and helped her climb — a service Sylvano was far too panicked to provide for his loyal bodyguard. Within moments they had safely sequestered themselves high above the camp. Clarissa was nowhere to be seen from this vantage. She was directly below them. They could keep a good eye on the patrols, however.
As they waited Sylvano was astonished with how quiet and sleepy the camp seemed. Were they not preparing for a historical moment? Though they talked about slaying the Queen, the anarchists were barely lifting a finger. It was more like a pleasant camping site than a military installation. Sylvano wondered if this was the way every major event was preceded. Not with an understanding of its significance, with a buzz of anxiety toward what was to come, but with resignation and peace and even a casual lack of concern.
Either the anarchists were sure of their victory or they were ignorant of the gravity.
For what seemed like hours, Sylvano and his supporters waited atop that tree, watching the anarchists trace the same routes along the camp by rote, periodically going to one of the fires to set up a teapot on metal bars, or getting a pack of some nondescript food item out of one of the crates in the center of the camp and munching on it. They could hear no more of the conversation with Clarissa, but judging by some of the patrols Sylvano had been watching, they would be in grave danger on the ground even hiding behind the tree.
Sylvano had been meaning to ask her to be careful starting her attack. He had wanted to confirm with her again that Clarissa would be safe, that they could rescue her from here.
Then he saw the lights shining in the woods.
And he heard the turning of loud tracks, and the grunting of an engine.
Though in a panic he envisioned a tank, it was something much more mundane.
From the edge of camp, a large tractor with a covered top trundled through the bush, towing a container on a tracked carriage. Several of the patrolling anarchists turned to face it but nobody seemed alarmed. It was a white tractor with a big cab and tight, tall tracks, of the kind any industrial farm would have used for a variety of purposes. Procuring such a vehicle would not have been hard for anyone, and it could navigate the wood fairly well.
Inching forward at barely above a human walking speed, the tractor dragged its cargo near the center of the camp and stopped. From below the tree, Sylvano spotted Clarissa and a man in what seemed like hiking gear, with thick gloves, long sleeves and leather overalls. Both walked toward the tractor and gathered near the cab, waiting on the driver.
“Hey, about time you got here! Where’s Cesare?” asked the man beside Clarissa.
When the door into the interior of the tractor opened, a corpse fell right out.
A gunshot flashed in the cabin and rang out. Beside Clarissa, the anarchist fell dead.
Sylvano felt a silence that seemed to last an eternity, between the thud of the falling corpse, and the gunshot, and then the gurgling death of the stricken anarchist.
Clarissa screamed and fled past the tractor in terror.
Far too quickly, the camp descended into chaos.
Panels on the sides of the weapon crate slid open, and weapon barrels peeked from inside.
Automatic fire began to spray in every compass direction.
Muzzle flashes lit from the surrounding forest, putting lead on the anarchist patrols.
It was an ambush.
Men in dark clothing and masks rushed into the camp from the exterior.
Anarchists all over the camp began to shoot wildly in every direction to combat them.
From a foxhole, a glass petrol bomb was lit and thrown toward the center of camp.
In an instant the tractor was up in flames, and the fires quickly spread over the cabin and the burning engine and into the crate. The mysterious attackers inside it had their ruse turned into a horrifying slaughter. With the camp fully engaged, however, the silence of the machine guns only allowed every other rifle and pistol to sound all the louder and drown out the screams of the burning, dying men trapped inside their trojan horse.
Despite the loss of their treacherous support weapon, the men invading the camp moved almost unopposed, trampling over the outer line of foxholes on the side of the camp opposite Sylvano’s group. Swords and bayonet flashed in the dark. Anarchists in the interior of the camp, many wounded from the machine gun crate, took up positions where they could and fired back with their own rifles, forcing the invaders to take cover in the foxholes they had invaded, huddling with the corpses of the men they had freshly killed.
Then, from behind the foxholes, a second rank of invaders opened fire with submachine guns. Every anarchist position lit up from dense volleys of blue tracers from the wood.
It was clear which side was the winning one.
None of this mattered anymore, none of it had consequence; only one thing did.
Sylvano leaped down from the tree in an action quite unlike him.
It was not him anymore.
Byanca shouted after, but the Princess was running after her sister.
The Legionnaire’s voice was barely a whisper beneath the gunfire and Salva’s own mind.
She landed harshly on her feet, nearly hurting herself, but she took off into wood, passing by the enormous bonfire that had become of the weapons crate and the tractor towing it, running past the positions of dead anarchists struck first and too quickly by the hidden weapon, ignoring the pitched battle unfolding between the shadowy soldiers and the anarchists across the camp. She rushed into the wood, into the dark. She ran on instinct.
Clarissa, whom she had never got to know, whom she had so easily abandoned.
Who was this woman who joined the anarchists like this? Who wanted to kill their mother, to betray her royal heritage? Salvatrice needed to know and Sylvano simply could not. She would look upon Sylvano as a stranger, but Salvatrice– would she see Salvatrice as her blood, as her sister? Would she pity her and free her the way she wanted to free herself? Wracked with confusion and questions and regrets, that screamed in her brain louder and brighter than the incessant gunfire she left behind, Salvatrice was running and running.
She heard the sound of the river, and she followed it. Everything else was thick bush and treacherous undergrowth and slippery soil. She ran with abandon, striking with her hands the branches and bushes and clinging vines that were in her way and rushing with all her strength toward the sound of the river, and the voices she soon heard over the battle.
“–Lubon has no more need of you.”
Salvatrice rushed out of the wood and into the river clearing in time to watch a bullet go through one end of her sister’s beautiful head and exit out the other. In the darkness of the forest night she saw the flash and she saw the blood and she felt a pain greater than the fleeting instant Clarissa must have felt as she defiantly stood before the gun, and accepted the bullet, and fell, like an angel freed from burden, backward into the river.
Clarissa Vittoria washed away with the foam of the rushing water.
Though she wanted to scream, to cry, to gnash her teeth, Salvatrice could only stare.
Her eyes welled up with silent tears, and her legs gave away.
She sat on the floor, her fists on her knees, weeping.
She was not alone.
Across from where Clarissa had stood, attached to the gun that had killed her, was a man in a black uniform, tall, strong and well-built, with a peaked cap and an unsmiling face. Around her were three other men, masked, wielding assault weapons, staring solemnly.
This man approached Salvatrice, and kneeled in front of her.
Gently, he lifted her chin. He bowed his own head, closing his eyes, and saluted.
“Legatus Tarkus Aurelius Marcel, 67th Signals Battalion, at your service, milady.”
Behind him, the three men bowed, kneeled, and saluted.
At her sides, from ambush, more legionnaires bowed, kneeled, and saluted with them.
Tarkus, that distant memory from her childhood, lay before her, contriving his stance to be lower than hers despite her collapsed state. He looked up at her from his genuflection and he smiled, and he addressed her with a warm, alien cordiality, almost a reverence.
“We dedicate this night to you, Princess. You will be in your rightful place, soon.”