Alvin’s War, first draft
Alvin, an orphan since birth with no last name, is a month away from the age of manhood. Unlike most orphans, he has been allowed to study academics, and had become a squire to Sir Rayburn, one of the knights that serve Mercer, Duke of Northumbria. During a battle to defend Workworth from the army of the Duke of Durham, dragons suddenly appear from the north. Dragons are only supposed to be creatures of myth and bedtime stories, yet here they are.
The two armies both change their focus on the dragons, who are destroying everything. After the combined armies kill two of them the rest retreat.
After the battle, Mercer and Rayburn inform Alvin that he is not just an orphan, he is the surviving son and heir of Richard, the last king to unite England. They send him to his uncle in York to begin the unification of all Britain, so they can defend her against these creatures that in truth are the reason Calistania has become an isolated world, out of contact with the rest of the galaxy. The dragons will stop their attacks as soon as the frost sets in, so they only have one sinter to get it done.
Man was spreading across the galaxy. Though only a few worlds could support life easily, fusion energy, and then quantum energy, had given him the ability not just to move himself from star to star, but to move planets to that “Cinderella zone” orbit where temperature and climate would be right for life. Corporations with huge bankrolls and visionary long-term goals set about on terra-forming operations that took eight or ten generations to reap the fantastic rewards available to the patient. Hundreds of solar systems became part of the “Community of Man”.
But then it happened. When two civilizations meet, and one or both take an uncompromising stance, war is inevitable. If the strength of both civilizations is about equal, and one side refuses to settle for anything less than total victory, the devastation to both civilizations can be incomprehensible.
Some worlds lost the ability to travel between stars. Some also lost the ability to communicate between stars. During the rebuilding, some of those worlds were overlooked, then forgotten, then lost to the memory of civilization. Those worlds had to fend for themselves, to do what they could to survive and rebuild.
Found already alive, moved to that perfect orbit, settled by dreamers, romantics, and storytellers, lost to the galaxy, Calistania was one such world.
Alvin stood on the west rampart near the southwest parapet. Durham’s forces were coming straight in from the South, so Alvin couldn’t be sure what was developing. Only archers were allowed on the south rampart at this time, and Alvin was only a squire. Alvin could see his own liege, Sir Rayburn, from where he was just fine. Sir Rayburn was responsible for the right flank.
Rayburn was holding his position, so the actual battle was going well. There would be scouts in the trees just to the right of the lawns, watching for a strike from the woods. Durham was predictably unimaginative. The classic assault called for an attempt to go around one flank or the other once the battle was active enough to distract the flank forces from watching what was going on.
Rayburn had not been distracted, and his forces were also on the alert. They would be there, shields up and swords at the ready, if it came from the west. Rayburn’s black and gold helmet plume made him easy to pick out from the other armored knights. His colors on each footman’s uniform and shield would simplify tracking them in the thick of the dust, blood, and flashing metal.
Rayburn was nudging his horse backward through the footmen around him. They would make room as he moved. From the back of the group, he could turn only his head to see both the battle to his left and the trees to his right. Sir Michael was stationed facing the trees, and was expected to be first to see a signal. Rayburn would be watchful nevertheless.
The fields were already harvested for the year, so protecting the crop would be a waste of resources. The defenders would do what they could to keep the battle from moving into the orchards, where the late apples still hung, and where a fire would be extremely costly. Durham should have known the corn, root vegetables, and oats would be in. There wasn’t enough to gain, unless he was desperate enough to try to take the keep.
A rock with a yellow streamer attached came out of a tree two hundred meters into the forest to the west. The watchers on the wall advised the knights on the field by a bugle signal. But Michael had already signaled to Rayburn. The flank leader was watching as the second and third streamers came into sight. The sentinel had a great arm, and the rocks were traveling high and far before falling back into the trees. With luck, the poor fellow would avoid detection in the mantle of the trees over the heads of the enemy. If not, they would take him down, just for sport.
The border between the lawn and the woods was planted with blackberries and raspberries, cultivated to form a briar patch two full meters high and almost two-and-a-half meters thick the full length of the border. There were paths along the way for the serfs to get back and forth from the village and fields to the castle, but any attack that tried to follow this route would pay dearly. The archers on the west rampart had the range and trajectory for each path down pat after continuous practice. Even the breeze coming down off the cliff would not impair their effectiveness. The main road to the front gate cut a hole in the briars thirty meters wide. This was where Lord Mercer was leading the main force against the assailants.
A green streamer came out from near the edge of the trees. Durham had instructed his men to come through the trees rather than try to get past the cascade of arrows. That would mean the berry patch.
Rayburn sent a messenger toward the battle. He wanted Mercer to know something. Rayburn didn’t like this move, yet he committed a century of footmen to the briars near where the last streamer went up. Wilfred was the best centurion in his battalion, so he wasn’t taking this threat lightly.
The men under Wilfred had taken up pikes, normally kept for defending a group against an attack by cavalry. Rayburn had recently kept the smiths busy preparing pikes six meters long, which could be broken down into three shorter lengths for easy transport. Now Wilfred’s men were fifteen meters from the expected incursion point, assembling the pikes.
They formed a line, lifting the pikes from the rear end, holding them as though they were going to vault the briars. Wilfred climbed onto a stand built just for this purpose. He stood two meters off the ground and peered at the briars. He lifted his arm. The pikers lifted the tips of their spears. Alvin realized what was about to happen, and found a swelling of pride in being Rayburn’s squire.
Wilfred waved his arm, and sixty pikers charged the briars. The points of the pikes threaded through the bushes, driven by inertia into the arms and chests of the men snagged up in the briars trying to cut their way through. The pikers jerked their weapons loose, and retreated for another charge. They laughed as they withdrew to the sound of moaning soldiers. This was a new tactic, and the enemy did not know it was coming. The man in charge would have to come up with an idea in a hurry.
A few minutes later, the forest filled with the sound of axes sinking into wood. Rayburn sent twenty archers to shoot into the arbors. They were shooting blind, as the briars were blocking their vision. After a minute or so, they gave up, as the arrow to hit ratio was virtually nil.
The trees in this area of Calistania were over a hundred and twenty-five meters tall. Felling one into the briars would not only take out the berries, it would crush anyone in its path. But with trunks seven meters thick, it would take a while. Rayburn moved his men away from the probable fall zone.
The trees behind the briars would reach within ten meters of the ramparts when felled. The archers on the wall, as well as in the battalion below, would easily pick off the first men across. Infantrymen would be ready on both sides of the trunk by the time anyone got through. This would slow them down, but Durham could conceivably get some forces in place on the flank with this approach. Rayburn ordered his troops to eat in rotation while they waited. The main battalion at the face of the gate was clearly not in any immediate danger of collapsing.
Durham had been trying for weeks to gain enough food to feed his duchy, and while he had some early victories, his forces were spent by the effort. Alvin thought about the supposed wealth Durham had locked away. He was so greedy he would rather destroy his army than just go out and negotiate a purchase of surplus stocks. The fires that destroyed most of his crops were sad, but this was no way to solve his problems. If he continued to throw his own men into battle after battle, he would soon have enough to feed everyone, simply by virtue of attrition.
The battle at the center wore on. The chopping of the trees on the right flank was being echoed by similar activity on the left. Finally, after nearly a half-hour, a tree came down, followed by two more within minutes, and things heated up. Rayburn had bags of oil thrown onto the tree as the archers kept the enemy at bay. The men with the skins would have only a few seconds to toss them up onto the trunk where it cleared the briars. The bags were being pierced by the incidental fire of the archers as they came up over the tree.
A few of Durham’s men were through and leaping into the infantrymen below them. Rayburn waved his hand, and flaming arrows came off the ramparts, striking the trunk and lighting the oil. The few of Durham’s troops that had got through were quickly dispatched. Those on top of the tree were caught in the flame.
The pikers returned to the edge of the briars. There was enough kindling there to create a blaze, but it wouldn’t last long. Swords were drawn and ready.
Alvin looked at the tower clock. Nearly midday. The engagement was taking longer than expected. Lord Albert was not relenting. Rayburn began sending two squads at a time to the front gate. Brian would be doing the same from the left flank. The main forces had been engaged for nearly an hour, and it was time to relieve them.
Mercer would send a small number of his most exhausted men to the flanks as the fresh troops arrived. The new troops would drive up both sides of the main battle and encircle Lord Albert. Hopefully he would surrender rather than face a battlefield execution. However, the general rumor in court had him completely mad.
Suddenly, men near the briars turned and looked into the northern sky. Alvin looked up to see what they were pointing at. Something was coming down over the plateau to the North. Several birds, larger than the valkyrie from down in Calistania’s southern islands, were sweeping down in a line, angling back from west to east. No one knew what they were, but Rayburn sent a message to Mercer anyway. Then he dispatched Wilfred and half the pikers, along with a group of archers, to the orchards in case this was some new thing that Durham had come up with.
The strange things grew closer as the battle raged. Alvin found a sentinel with a spyglass, and took a look. Rayburn would be doing the same down below. As Alvin found the first bird in the lens, he froze. This was no bird, nor was it a machine of some sort. They were winged beasts, with four legs and two pairs of wings. A long, serpentine neck supported a head similar to a dog. The lizard-like tails swung up and down, keeping a slow, undulating rhythm.
Dragons. But dragons were only mythological creatures used to enrich fairy tales and decorate family crests. Durham had one on the left side of his crest, and Rayburn had one in the upper right of his. However these weren’t artwork or legends. They were reality, nearly a score in number, and covering the distance to the castle at an unbelievable pace.
Suddenly a blue light streaked out from the front creature. It struck the north wall of the castle, which erupted in a cloud of pebbles and dust. The men along the top of the wall were knocked down, and several of them fell back into the courtyard, breaking arms, legs, ribs, skulls, and necks.
Alvin dropped the spyglass and headed down off the wall. He took the steps three at a time. The dragons were over the courtyard before he reached the bottom. Flames of blue were streaking down everywhere. Women were screaming. An old woman was bent over the body of a young boy, his head split open from something Alvin didn’t have the time to discover. With every burst the ground shook around him. He was sure that the conflict with Durham was over. Arrows were flying from the ramparts toward the dragons, which simply flew above their range.
As the beasts came back around from the South, a large boulder flew up and caught one of them in the side. The dragon came down in a lump, falling the three hundred meters as fast as the rock that had downed it went up. Five dragons turned and headed for where Alvin imagined Durham’s catapults were positioned. They hadn’t reached the needed position to beat on the walls of Warkworth in the two hours of fighting, so the two sides must have joined forces to bring up the engines to reach that shot.
The carnage was everywhere. Sections of the west and north walls were crumbled to nothing. The dragons were coming down lower. They were actually beginning to land. Five were grounded as Alvin vaulted over a small boulder and reached the door he was looking for.
Rayburn suddenly appeared in the west breach. He charged through, with archers and pikers behind him. The arrows began flying at the heads of the dragons, in the hope of taking out their eyes. There was a hair-raising screech from one of the beasts. It turned, holding something in one of its front claws. Rayburn waved an orange flag, and all his forces dropped to the ground. The blue streak shot over their heads. When it ended, Rayburn jumped up with a two-meter rod in his hand. Alvin watched as he launched the front end of the pike at the beast, catching it in the center of its long thorax. The thing fell motionless. The other dragons lifted off. They made another strafing run, blasting huge holes in the courtyard and walls, then disappeared over the plateau. Alvin headed through the door and down the stairs into the dark recesses of the keep. He found a torch on the floor, picked it up, and broke into a trot. Surely Corshtain would have an answer for what had just happened, if he were still alive. There were collapsed ceilings and crumbled walls everywhere.
As he crossed the halls and staircases through the maze of the castle, his fears for Corshtain grew. The place was a shambles, with piles of gravel where pillars had been. Torches were out or burning on the floors. Furniture and tapestries were aflame, or had already burned out by the time he got to them. There were wounded at every turn.
Finally, he got to the top of the last staircase. He looked down at the crumbled steps. Two steps were missing, and a ceiling beam had fallen onto the stairway, with the stones around it clogging the way. He called out, “Master?”