Written by Harold R. Thompson
Captain Anchor Brown sat in the shade of yarna tree, reading a history of the exotic kingdom of Calday, when a bugle chirped the officers’ call.
“Brown,” said the colonel, “your company will assault the west barricade. The signal will be three yellow rockets.”
This would be an attack against a well-entrenched enemy, but Brown held his tongue. He would have to find a way.
“’It was not for him to decide,’” he murmured as he made his way back to his troops, quoting a line from The Battle of Hymden, one of his favourite classic works. “’Duty out-measured all things.’”
The attack would begin in five hours. Brown passed the time making a sketch of their objective, the Castle of Light, with its circle of seven lofty towers, all aglow with some mysterious radiance, a different colour for each tower. It was the jewel of Calday. Taking it would humble the enemy, that was for certain, and if they could not take it, they would destroy it, reduce it to rubble with pneumatic artillery.
The attack had to succeed. Destroying the Castle would be a loss to the entire world, in Brown’s assessment.
“’The great works belong to all,’” he murmured, quoting the ancient and perhaps first true geographer, Stelven of Harmor.
Three young native girls sat nearby, dressed in the light-coloured robes of their people. One girl held a stick with which she poked at the ground.
“What you drawing today, Cap-tane?” she asked.
Brown glanced at her. She and her friends did not seem perturbed at all that Artorian troops, with all of their modern machines and weaponry, had invaded their fairy-tale kingdom, nor did they seem to care about the reasons, the opening of trade routes and so on, which would no doubt have bored them to tears. Instead, they seemed to find the pale northern soldiers, some with shocking red hair, intriguing. And Brown was forever giving them sweets that he purchased from one of the camp sutlers.
“I’m sketching your famous castle,” Brown said. “Your buildings are beautiful. I’d like to see more of them, more of your country, when this is over.”
“I could show you,” the girl said.
Brown smiled. “If only your princess would allow it.”
The girl drew straight lines in the dust with her stick.
“Someday I like to be princess,” she said.
The Caldayans had built a ring of ugly earthworks, three lines deep, around their magical castle. The Artorians launched mortar shells into these entrenchments, but Brown knew the bombardment would inflict few actual casualties. It would be the job of the assault parties, the infantry, to seize those trenches with gas rifles and bayonets.
His men were dressed in the new khaki uniforms (“khaki” being a Burtoon word for “dust-coloured), with light sun helmets. Brown inspected them for a third time as the mortar barrage continued, checking their weapons, checking their ammunition, making sure they all carried full water bottles.
When three rockets, each trailing yellow smoke, rose into the sharp blue sky, it was time to go.
Brown had his men rush forward in three ranks, each rank spaced twenty yards apart, gas rifles at the trail. The mortaring had stopped, and there was nothing for it but to cross the grassy plain and get to the trenches before the enemy raised their heads and opened fire. The Caldayans were armed with old-fashioned combustion muskets, fired by use of a burning match, and these made a lot of smoke and noise and were not terribly precise, but they were also deadly.
Puffs of smoke began to show along the enemy works. The heavy musket balls came in with a whistle, and Brown saw a few of his men drop. Pulling his sabre from its scabbard, he held the blade aloft and dashed ahead. A line occurred to him, a quotation from one of his favourite plays, but this was no time for reciting lines.
Leading the men of his first rank, Brown came to the outer trench and leapt the low parapet with its abatis of thorns. The thorns scratched his legs, but the mortars had destroyed most of them and they were more an annoyance than a hindrance. He saw an enemy musketeer, trying to reload his cumbersome weapon, and he stabbed down with his sabre. The blade pierced the man’s throat and blood gushed. Brown yanked the blade back as around him gas rifles snapped and popped.
Within minutes, all of the enemy lay dead, or had fled to their second line.
Several men in khaki also lay in the bottom of the trench.
Brown knew his attack could not lose momentum. Raising his sword again, he led his troops forward.
When the second line had fallen, Brown’s troops rushed the third. The third line fell.
Brown had no thoughts for the progress of the other two assault parties. The glowing castle stood before him. His remaining men, so few, were with him, and they ran to the great gate.
The drawbridge, made of some half-translucent wood, lowered. Brown and his men, covered in blood, sweat and dust, staggered to a halt and formed a line, gas rifles ready.
From the other end of the drawbridge, four figures advanced. In their lead was a tall woman, impossibly thin, and in her hands she carried something that glowed red and blue, green and gold.
The princess stopped in front of Brown. Her face was like stone.
“We yield to you,” she said. “The Castle must not be harmed. We grant you this gift, to demonstrate our good faith.”
The object the princess offered was a ring of seven crystals, all glowing with the same light as the Castle itself.
“Well done, Brown,” the colonel said, slapping Brown’s shoulder. “We have their blasted magic castle. They’ll give into our demands now, or we’ll bring it down around their ears.”
“I lost half my men in the attack, sir,” Brown said. “Half. Fifty percent.”
“Yes, it’s been a hard day. A hard day, Brown. But you and your boys did their duty, and I mean to put your name in for the Gold Lion.”
Brown returned to the hillside near his camp. His hands were shaking, and he found he could not hold the pencil steady enough to complete his sketch.
“’We are mere flesh,’” he quoted, a line from Harmon’s Elliott the Conqueror, “’insufficient to contain the greatness of time.’”
The native girl with the stick appeared at his shoulder.
“You won this?” she asked, pointing at the gift the princess had bestowed, which sat on the grass next to Brown. The colonel had allowed him to keep it.
“Yes, my trophy.”
He sighed and faced the girl.
“There has to be a better way than this,” he told her, and saw her frown.
Turning back, he gazed at the Castle, watched its towers glow and dance. It was a true wonder, and he was glad they had not harmed it, but angry they had come so close, and that he would have shared in that crime.
“I’ll find them all,” he said to the girl, “all the world’s wonders.”
His primary reason for joining the army was to see those wonders, but now he knew his days with the army were numbered.
“I’ll do it without trying to destroy them,” he added, “or capture them or steal them. I’ll write about them. And maybe someday they’ll be quoting me.”
His hands had stopped shaking. Taking his pencil, he finished his sketch.
If you liked this story a second story by this author in the same setting is available to supporting members.