The Last City
by David Weaver
The sky was hot and airless. There was nothing in it to ruffle the tattered flags on the battlements. It was now early evening, yet all that could be seen of that day’s fighting was a thin pall of smoke drifting above the northern hills.
Daniel had noticed the old man slumped against the side of the city gate some time ago but had not approached him, contenting himself instead with silently watching the steady flow of the great metropolis as its lifeblood trickled away across the burning sands.
From early morning and throughout a long and humid afternoon people had pushed and pulled their possessions out of the stricken city. He supposed some would still be making for the harbour, although all the boats must be long gone by now. He had observed them all, as he supposed Karnog had; the old men, their wives, their daughters with their mewling brats.
The young men had all gone to fight, of course, to fight and die. Karnog and he had been left behind with a small retinue of frightened children masquerading as soldiers, ostensibly to guard the giant main gates. It had been a final act of kindness by the Supreme Commander to order thus; Daniel had watched them slowly slip away, one by one with the remainder of their families, until only he and the old soldier were left.
Kindness was all that the Supreme Commander had left to give them now.
For Daniel knew that all who stayed in the bleached white bones of the city were nearer to death than they were to the next sunrise. The Overlord’s army would be here before dusk, triumphant, rampant, destructive. They would tear down what was left of the ancient walls, burn the palaces and temples, kill without a thought any citizen foolish enough to remain.
And the last city would finally have fallen.
The Overlord hated cities. His hordes had eaten them up, one by one, so that only the City of the Four Winds now remained. It had other names in its long past, of course; Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. But now it was the City of the Four Winds; city of hope, of aspiration, built up again and again from the debris of the religious wars that had destroyed its brothers across the world.
Survivors of every race and creed had been blown there. Tucked inside its historic buildings, the straits of the Bosphorus at their backs, its pilgrims had rebuilt their temples and shrines, and eventually their lives. Now they were leaving even as their offspring fought and fell, the illusory dream of peace so much dust beneath their feet.
Daniel turned back to the old man once again and saw him, with a grizzled frown of annoyance, whisking flies away from his face. He looked half asleep, head lolling drunkenly down, mouth drooling as he hung on to his pike and swayed. Men like Karnog had come to the City of the Four Winds because they had nowhere else to go, seeking some kind of redemption from violent pasts remembered only in nightmares. They had stayed to become its protectors, a ring of steel that had kept a hostile world at bay.
Daniel knew that ring now lay smashed and scattered across the scorched earth. He was not allowed to join his fellows in the fight, not allowed to spill his blood with theirs. So he’d decided he would wait at the gates of the city for his last self-appointed duty on earth: to kill the Overlord as he entered his conquest.
He saw the old man drop his shield, the sudden clang snapping his body up straight. He looked up directly at Daniel, frowning again as if momentarily lost. Then his shoulders slackened.
“What are you doing here?” Karnog shouted across the gap between them.
Daniel said nothing.
“I asked you a question, Cadet!” The voice took on a harder tone.
“I... I’ve been sent to relieve you.” Daniel said the first words that came to him.
“Sent? Sent by who? You’re lying. There’s no-one left to send anyone anywhere. They’re all out there” — Karnog gestured vaguely at the slowly darkening hills — “rotting in their boots.”
Daniel sensed Karnog studying him more closely. What did he see? A fifteen year-old boy, downy-cheeked and wide-eyed, giving a pale imitation of manhood? Daniel wore the light blue uniform of the city guards, or rather the immaculately turned out uniform was wearing him. Three sizes too large, it hung apologetically off his slender frame. He saw the old man’s own was threadbare and dirt encrusted, ripped and stitched from a thousand skirmishes. His bear-like figure filled it to bursting point.
“Well...?” Karnog gave him a mean-eyed squint emphasizing the scar running from forehead to cheek-bone like a dry riverbed down a dusty valley.
Daniel looked up sheepishly at him, an unsteady hand shielding his eyes.
“They wouldn’t let me fight with them.” And then, as if in explanation, “My father was Oswald Maddox.”
“Ah... the traitor’s son.” Daniel saw Karnog study him again, this time with renewed interest as if he’d found something missing from his first cursory glance. Daniel held his head up and body straight under the old warrior’s scrutiny, despite the fact he felt ashamed, and that he was nearly crapping on himself with fear.
“Your father did for us all, y’know?” Karnog growled at him.
“My father was a foolish man. I must do what I can to redeem him.” It was a statement from Daniel, not an apology.
“And you think dying here at these gates will do that effectively?” Karnog favoured him with a rueful smile.
“What else can I do?”
The smile vanished. “You can fight!”
“I intend to take as many of the Overlord’s scum with me as...”
Karnog cut him off angrily. “Not here! Not some useless suicide mission to cleanse your pathetic little soul!”
Daniel felt suddenly confused.
“Want me to call you a hero, is that it?” Karnog suddenly shuffled the short distance to Daniel’s side with surprising speed. Grabbing his shoulders with both hands, the old soldier thrust his face into Daniel’s. The smell of bad wine and straggly sweat-soaked hair filled the boy’s nostrils.
“Throwing your life away to get daddy a ticket into heaven is a waste of time! He made his decision to sell our city’s secrets to the Overlord and now he’s swinging from a gibbet. That’s not your problem.”
Karnog must have seen Daniel’s stunned expression. “Yes, I knew your father. I trained him, along with the rest of the young arseholes they gave me to knock into shape. He was one of the best.” Karnog drew back slightly, letting his arms fall limply to his side. “I don’t know what happened to him after that.”
“My mother got the plague, we needed medicine...”
“So did countless others, but they weren’t in a position to sell their souls for it! Maddox knew every tunnel and passageway, every weak point along our walls. He knew the exact number of our men, or lack of them. And now the Overlord knows all that too. That’s why our boys had to meet him out there...” Daniel saw the old man’s shoulders slump in resignation. “That’s why we’re finished.”
Daniel felt tears sliding down his cheeks. He tried in vain to stifle them.
“Stop that sniffling! Tears never solved anything.” Karnog hesitated for a few moments then, in a softer voice, asked him his name.
“I told you, Maddox...”
“Your first name?”
“Well, Daniel Maddox. It may surprise you to know that I knew your grandfather as well. Gregory. He died at the Battle of Ankara while still quite young. We won that day! We pushed the Overlord back, for a while at least. Gregory Maddox was a hero, one of many.” Karnog rubbed the scar on his forehead absent-mindedly. “Those were glorious days...”
“Did you know him then?” Daniel asked.
The old man stared at him. “He was my best friend, Daniel.”
A trill of trumpets came from somewhere across the distant hills, now turning shades of purple in the late afternoon sun. They both looked up to see a curtain of dust along the horizon.
The Overlord’s army would soon be with them.
Karnog turned to face him. He looked at him long and hard before speaking. “I want you to do something for me Daniel. I want you to do it now, straight away, without argument or dissent.”
Daniel straightened visibly. “Yes sir, anything you say...”
“I want you to run, Daniel. Run to where I tell you.”
“Yes sir, but the Overlord will soon...”
“You’re not meeting the Overlord today, nor for many years to come. He’s growing old and tired. Soon his sons will take over. They’ll squabble, their followers will split apart and form alliances. They’ll become a rabble, weak and complacent. That’s when you’ll fight them, Daniel. You, and all the other kids from the great cities. Go and find them Daniel, lead them. The future of this world is yours, not the Overlord’s.”
“You joke with me at such a time?” Daniel’s own voice sounded bitter in his ears.
“This is no joke, boy. This is something you have to do for your father’s sake. And all the others’.”
Then quickly, before Daniel could reply, “I have a small house on the bank of the river at the western edge of the city. Take this key, here’s the address.” The old man scribbled something with a stick of charcoal on a tattered piece of paper produced from the breast pocket of his uniform. He wrote across faded lettering already there.
“My will, such as it is. Means nothing now. At the back of the place there’s a small boat. Use it. Go east along the shores of the Black Sea. When you can go no further, vanish into the land. It’ll be tough, but you’ll survive. And one day you’ll be back. Now shake my hand.”
“Shake my hand!”
Karnog grasped his hand roughly and for a brief moment stared into his eyes. He must have seen something there, maybe his own hope reflected back at him, for he gave Daniel a brief smile.
“Now go!” He pushed Daniel away from him.
“Come with me then.”
But Karnog shook his head. “My business is here. I’ve an appointment to keep.”
Daniel hesitated for a moment longer. There was still one question left to ask.
“Was my grandfather really your best friend?”
“They all were...” Karnog almost whispered the words to him, then pushed him again, this time so violently that he almost fell. “Go on, get the hell out of here...”
And suddenly Daniel was running, running blindly back through the city, his eyes focussed on nothing but the way ahead, his feet tripping and stumbling in the dust. He never turned his head for a moment to look back at the old man, or the glittering shields and helmets of the Overlord’s army now flecking the distant horizon.
He would run until he found Karnog’s boat, reached the farthest shore and disappeared into the wilderness. Right now he was scared for his life, but one day that fear would be replaced by something else.
Then he would seek out others who’d passed through the Overlord’s fire and would forge them into a new ring of steel.
And when that steel was honed and sharp and true... he would return!
Copyright © 2010 by David Weaver