A Haunting Past

Of the two most famous Inklings, it was said that Lewis would sketch a scene by saying “The children stood in the forest. A chill wind blew.” Tolkien, on the other hand, would spend the next twenty pages not only telling you the history of the forest, but then go on to describe each and every leaf.

An exaggeration, but to make a point. My writing style can, charitably, be called more Lewisian; not so charitably, “the son-of-bitch-writer never explains anything!” Guilty as charged. I have a story to tell and my characters would be rather miffed at me if I take time to describe the leaves on the trees.

A positive of that, though, is in the million of tiny cracks and folds of my novels, there lurk hundreds of more stories. Back in January, I realized that over the course of five years being in Machine Civilization, I was able to pull together a short story collection. Below the fold is another example. Based upon “real life” – whatever that means – events, I was able to peek in on an interaction between Faustina and a civilian in a far flung corner of her imperium. This takes place about halfway through “Empress Crusade;” it is not in the book, but it is canon. Fodder for my next collection!

Standing on her horse’s back to get a better view, General Faustina Hartmann looked through her field glasses at the ranks of the Memphis army, tramping north along the little, broken road.  Her opposite, General Willis, had asked if they could move a few miles south, toward Oxford, then west, to the old Interstate.  She had countered by informing him that moving one foot south would be considered an act of war and treated accordingly.  With the ink barely dry on the treaty they had signed yesterday afternoon, Willis had scowled but agreed.

“After all,” she called from her perch, “the other old highway is only twenty miles north of here.  A turn left and they are back to Memphis thirty miles later.  Easy.”

“Easy for the legions, General,” her legate of Second Legion, Owens observed, safely seated in his saddle.  “For that force?  I’ve my doubts.”

He watched her watching the other army.  A constant series of little motions in her legs and back kept her steady.  Her legs suddenly parted and she used her inner thighs to slow her drop back into the saddle.  The general’s mare gave a small snort in protest.

“Which is why my boys get a holiday today!” Faustina smiled while stowing her glasses.  “Our cavalry scouts will stick to their tail end like a burr, keeping me informed that they are in fact first on their way, then later, out of my imperium!

“You really mean to let the men have a day off?” Owens was a little incredulous.  “Shall I have a medic check you for a blow to your head?”

“Nope, my lines are still intact!” she said with a tap of her left fist to the side of her skull.  “And there will, of course, continue to be patrols day and night.  But if the legionaries want to wander over to Sardis Lake and fish to supplement our rations?  I’ve no objection.”

“And the, ahem, Empress’ policy of the legions confiscating whatever we want from any landholders in the area who keep slaves…?”

“Continues, legate,” she replied with one of her less than human grins.  “Edibles only, of course.  Looting is punished with flogging and a discharge.  Assault or rape with flogging and firing squad.”

“I don’t worry about my boys’ behavior,” the look was gone but her tone hardened.  “But these people will learn that slavery will not be tolerated in my lands!”

“Speaking of which!” the look and tone were gone and Owen’s eighteen-year-old demi-human general smiled and snapped her fingers.  “If there are any local communities who aren’t slavers, tell our intel boys I’d like to talk to them.  Politely, of course.  C’mon, legate, let’s get back to the fort.”

“Yes, General.”

It was just after noon as Faustina sat in the shaded part of her open-faced command tent in the exact middle of her marching fort doing what she so hated:  paperwork.  To give herself a break, she looked about.  Normally, especially when on the march, there was no time for her legionaries to do anything but their assignments.  To suddenly have time on their hands had many of them just wandering inside or outside of their two-legion marching fort, at loose ends.  Having first fought a battle against the army from Tupelo, then ordered by her to march over sixty miles the next day, with another fifty miles two days later to confront the now-departing Memphis army, many were content to lie in the shade and sleep.

And they never complained once.  Such good boys!

Faustina had just returned to her paperwork when she heard boots coming toward her rather than just past.  Happy to be distracted, she looked up yet again.

“Afternoon, General,” her favorite Senior Centurion, Chesney, said with a proper salute.  “Grainger has been interviewing several of the locals who don’t own slaves but thought this fellow should be referred up to you.”

“Did he, indeed?” she said with a neutral expression, standing and extending her right hand.  “I am General Hartmann, Imperial Army.”

The man who took her hand was vastly taller than she was, well over six feet.  Somewhere between sixty and seventy years old, his nearly black hair just showed streaks of white.  While not portly like the mayor and general of Tupelo was, this one was still well fed.  His clothes were all homespun but with a pattern she did not recognize.

“I’m Daniel Hill, General,” he said in an accent more Midwestern than Southern.  Letting go her hand, he waved about.  “This is so amazing!  It’s like you have built a little city overnight!”

“My legionaries, when well led, are like nothing else on this earth, Mister Hill.  Ches?  Please get the man a stool and us some water,” she asked.  With both in place, she dismissed her officer with a small motion of her left hand.

“So,” Faustina asked as she sat, “why does my intelligence officer think my paperwork be interrupted to speak with you?”

“I… I don’t know, General,” he replied seriously, not at all able to read any emotion on the young woman’s face.  “When some of your cavalry came riding into our community, after we came to realized they weren’t raiders, they had lots of questions about our lifestyle.  When, ah, they asked for someone to come back to their base, for the safety of my people, I volunteered.”

“Your people?” Faustina carefully reflected.  “Are you a monarch?”

“Oh, no, certainly not, General!” he laughed.  “They do call me ‘chief’ but most things are in the hands of the council of elders.  I just help out where I can!”

In the half-minute that passed, Hill began to grow uncomfortable as it appeared as if the woman was looking first at every inch of him, then into him.  He shuddered.

“Your blood is mixed but mostly American Indian,” she announced.  “Are you the head of some little reservation from the pre-Breakup days?”

“Nothing so formal, General,” he disagreed, taking a drink of water to try to calm back down.  “Just before the Breakup, a bunch of us from central Ohio pooled our money and resources to buy a bunch of land down here.  We’d not planned to move for some years, but when the Breakup began, we packed up and bolted the next day.”

“That was good, quick, thinking, Mister Hill,” she noted, also drinking.  “No problem with the locals once this mob of outsiders showed up?”

“Honestly, yes, there was trouble, at the start,” he admitted with a sad shake of his head.  “We tried to defuse things like that by helping out our new neighbors wherever we could.  For example, I was an experienced nurse when we moved.  So, I’d make rounds to any house where a person was too ill to be transported to someplace like Tupelo.”

“Both noble and self-serving of you.” Faustina allowed a small human smile.  “And when the locals reintroduced slavery?”

“That…” he turned to look out at the little army city he found himself in the heart of, “was a surprise.  More of a surprise was that it wasn’t just the whites taking slaves.  A lot of the black survivors from northwest of here were ready to agree to about any terms if someone would take care of them and feed them.  Over the years… well…”

“But your people, your tribe,” now she smiled, at a private joke, “did not?”

“Correct, General.  Slavery is evil.”

“I agree.” She watched his eyes come back to hers.  “I have already warned the city fathers of Tupelo that it will end soon and my legions are making a point to only take from the locals who have slaves… to make the same point:  the empress will not allow it in her imperium!”

“Her what?” She had lost him.   “And… empress?”

“I introduced myself as a general of the Imperial Army, Mister Hill.  One cannot have an empire without a sovereign,” she explained.

“Oh.  So if your army is here… does that mean all of these lands are now subject to her?” he asked.

“Correct.  As that was so astute of you, I shall ask that you be made Baron of Sardis, responsible for all law and order for a twenty-five-mile radius from your lands,” Faustina said, standing and indicating he should as well.  “You will be personally responsible to the empress, and your heirs to her heirs.”

“Th… thank you!  But when…?” he asked as he watched her call two of her soldiers over and tell them they were to be witnesses.

“Now.  Go to one knee and raise your hands, as if in prayer,” she ordered him.  When Hill did, he was surprised to see the general place her hands around his.

“I, Empress Faustina, call you Baron Hill of Sardis,” she intoned with the oddest flash of blue from her eyes.  “Rise, my loyal subject!”

“You… you are…?” he mumbled, standing and towering over his empress.

“I am many things, Baron Hill,” she said, the light in her eyes fading.  “Come, I have sat too long.  Let us walk about while you tell me the state of politics and economics in your realm!”

Starting with the several hundred of his tribe’s people, Hill went on as they walked around first the interior of the fort, then just outside.  He was amazed by how many of her soldiers she seemed to know by name, always returning that weird reach-to-the-sky salute and stopping to speak with those who needed their general’s attention.  He concluded with the area’s relationship with the towns of Tupelo and Memphis before asking a question.

“General, er, Empress?  May I ask – ”

“Please do.  As this has been politics up to now, you may address me as Empress,” she said without looking at him as they headed for the southern gate.

“Empress.  I don’t know all that much history, but your uniform is plain!  There’s that little gold circle, there, but no badge of rank, no medals, no crown… nothing!” he asked with surprise.

“That may all come hundreds of years later but I doubt it,” Faustina explained.  “Such is necessary for the weak to bluff the weak.  Anyone who knows me knows what I am.  It is that they respect, honor, and trust.  Not ribbons or jewels.”

“And what are you?” Hill asked, utterly confused.

She stopped them just inside the gate.  The sun was quartering in the west.

“I am demi-human.  In the time of the Change, my people shall remake this world!” When she looked past him toward the west, the light again made her eyes catch fire.  A breathtaking turquoise.  “Come, I have a last question before I send you home:  your tribe came from central Ohio.  Can you be more specific?”

“Well, my extended family was scattered all over,” he said, following her back to her tent in the middle of the fort, “but I lived and worked in a tiny town called Newark.”

She stopped so fast the new baron bumped into his empress.

“Of course you did,” she whispered.  “No coincidences!  So why is he here?”

Faustina turned to look up at him.

“I had family there, once.” Her tone was cold and he shuddered again, wondering if he was in trouble.

“Did you?” Hill asked carefully.

“Yes.  Did you know the Barretts?”

The sun went behind a cloud.  Hill shivered.

“Yes,” he said, getting a-hold of himself.  “I worked briefly with a Clive Barrett.  Even had some dinners at his home.  I never knew that, years later, when rumors started leaking out of Texas, about, well, the state-sponsored terror…”

“The man you shared a table with was the same who ordered the death of a quarter-million people, seventy-seven thousand by crucifixion,” Faustina hated the words which came out of her mouth.  “Tell me, Baron, when in his home, what did you think of him, then?”

“He…” Hill stared off, over her head.  “He was really different, Empress.  There was so much we disagreed about!  But he never argued.  In fact, mostly, he just listened.  Hard to believe that man was the same one who…”

“That man was my grandfather, Baron Hill.  Are you still able to obey me, your Empress, knowing that?”

His eyes dropped.

“Your grand…!”  He blinked several times.  “A child, or grandchild, does not bear the sins of a parent.  Or grandparent.”

He took a step back.  She wondered if he was leaving her.

“I serve you, my Empress,” Daniel Hill said, raising his right arm high in his first, poorly done, imperial salute.

“Thank you, Baron.” She extended her hand and he dropped his to take it.  “I shall detail two riders to take you back to the heart of your new lands.  I expect a written report once per week.  If anything unusual happens, an immediate dispatch.  Given how you are on my northwest frontier, expect a satellite radio set sent to you in the next few months.”

Now she let go and raise her arm, showing him how it’s done.

“Deus vult, Baron Daniel Hill!”

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