Shadows of the Keepers: Chapter 9

Specter of War

  It was as if a dark shadow had fallen over the room. At the mere mention of Dulaine’s name, Lord Leon’s smile vanished and he looked down at his plate. This continued several seconds before he answered, “He is unbeatable. Not once have his armies been turned back in battle. The best we can hope is he never deigns to set his sights on our Far Shore.”  
“Well, he’s coming here now,” Selva said.
 
That sent murmurs and objections rippling throughout Lord Leon’s court.
 
Leon met her eyes again. “How do you know this?”
 
“We starmen have...observation posts circling this world like its moon, from which we can view things as they proceed below. Arztilla is moving their troops north around the sea; we can only assume they mean to march south on the Freeholds.” Unstated was the implication that Lord Leon’s lands would be the first invaded.
 
“And you say you can defeat them?” He reached for a wine cup, took a large sip. “You are only five in number, how can this be?”
 
Temerin stepped forward. “We have knowledge. Long ago, all humans lived with similar technology as you do, faced similar challenges. We know how they adapted and what made them succeed, and we can use that to help you.”
 
“I find this hard to believe. How am I to know you are even telling the truth about Dulaine’s plans?”
 
“Send your scouts north,” Selva replied. “They will find his armies marshaling along the shores of the largest river.”
 
“Why do you tell us this? Could you not go to Dulaine and receive a thousand honors, a thousand pieces of gold, for even the slightest speck of starman knowledge?”
 
“Because he is a tyrant. His men kill and slaughter without remorse, and he must be stopped before he consumes your world with evil.”
 
“So you starmen will help us to that end? What do you seek in return?”
 
“Nothing.”
 
Leon lifted his head. “No one offers such help for free. Who do you work for?”
 
“That’s classified,” Selva answered, before adding, “I am forbidden to say.”
 
“You come here from a far-distant land, practicing secrecy. Are you a spy? Will the starmen want tribute too, once they throw out Dulaine?”
 
“No. We are motivated by a desire to prevent evil, not for material gain. Is that so hard to believe?”
 
Evidently, it was. “Even those who give to beggars wish to be seen showing generosity, and beggars my landsmen are not. Should Arztilla arrive, I will stand on my own two feet with my own sword, not as the puppet of some starman scheme! Now be gone!”
     
They got down to work after dinner, in their rented inn-room. At the center stood a well-worn wooden table, Eric took rolls of parchment from his backpack and spread them out.
 
“Channeling your inner Leonardo da Vinci?” Selva asked. Drawn in ink on them was every manner of technological concept he’d been able to think up during their horseback journey—crossbows, trebuchets, water filters, gunpowder bombs, even a crude steam engine. Though he doubted Meridianite materials science was suited for that one. That had been his primary vexation throughout this, it did no good to dream up hair-brained ideas which he stood no chance of actually pulling off. He could write down all the equations he’d need for everything from a bridge to an airplane, but without a way to turn theory into practicality, their whole little scheme was sunk.
 
Mark Twain’s proverbial Connecticut Yankee, originating in a time before digital computers or molecular manufacturing, could have enough practical knowledge to restart the Industrial Revolution upon being thrown back to medieval England, but not so a modern engineer. Too much had been abstracted away—one reason why, when technology fell on many isolated planets during the Interstellar Dark Ages, it fell hard. Therefore, Eric had been studying, drilling himself on Meridian’s primitive technologies and what he could accomplish with them.
 
“This is my initial design, the Model One.” He smoothed out the parchment. “I tried to make it as simplistic as possible; the firing mechanism is a classic rolling nut and trigger. The user reloads by hooking the string to their belt, putting one foot in the stirrup, and standing up. Biggest concern will be getting the right sort of composite material for the prod.”
 
“We’ll need to see what the local smiths have got,” Temerin said. “We’ll want a carpenter and a fletcher too. Probably should ask Sir Wotoc if he knows anyone.”
 
 
It took them over a week, and many apoplectic fits from their hired craftsmen at the seeming absurdity of what they asked (going through no less than three fletchers before they found an old man willing to produce their strange shortened arrows), but finally they had their first crossbow. Then Eric broke the front off with an accidental dry-fire, and spent two days reinforcing the fastenings.
 
Small groups of people usually watched from outside the smithy, wondering at what sort of strange devices the starmen were making. Beside it was a little alley with hay bales stacked beside the stone-brick buildings, which had been rearranged to form a target complete with a bullseye Rachel painted on to it.
 
“This is it?” Sir Wotoc eyed the strange weapon Eric held. Its stock was like a rifle’s but shorter, the crossbowman would hold it to his shoulder to fire. “I have seen siege engines of this sort, but never so small.”
 
Eric handed it to Wotoc’s older squire, Remdel. If this were Jefferson, or another Americanist world, he’d probably be finishing up high school instead of carting weapons around. He had no problem loading it with the belthooks, and set a bolt between the lugs of the rolling nut which held the string spanned. Fortunately, Meridianite smithing technology had been up to the task of making the trigger mechanism—Eric had begun to suspect the Keepers slow-walked weapons technology during their reign.
 
“Now give it to Issel,” Eric said, and Remdel handed it to his younger brother. Issel took aim at the target, raised the crossbow a bit, and loosed the bolt with a thwack! It hit a little high. Onlookers murmured among themselves. “Think you can reload it?”
 
Issel gave him a look and proceeded to do it without much effort—this wasn’t a kid you’d find loafing on his mom’s couch, playing videogames. He took a second shot, and struck the bullseye.
 
“I fear for the arts of the poor archers!” Wotoc gestured Issel to hand him the weapon and belthooks.
 
“Requires minimal training, as you can see,” Eric said after Wotoc had put a bolt through it. “Anyone who can hold it, can shoot it.”
 
“The perfect civil defense weapon,” added Temerin.
 
“You think this can defeat Arztilla?” Wotoc raised an eyebrow.
 
“Not by itself.” Eric went back over to his table full of rolled parchment. “Which is why I’ve been working on—”
 
A messenger, out of breath in a white robe, skidded to a stop outside the smithy. “Sir Temerin! Lady Selva! Come quickly!” He panted.
 
“Why?” Temerin replied. “What’s going on?”
 
“The Arztillans!” He took a breath. “The Arztillans are coming!”
 

Cover image: by Vertixico

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