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Dragonsteel Prime Chapter 35: Bridge Four 6

This chapter comes from the 2000 draft of a book called Dragonsteel. Some of the settings, situations, and characters were repurposed into The Way of Kings (2010).

“Look how they stand, men,” Jerick encouraged, gesturing to the plateau in front of them. The human warriors had arranged themselves in a sturdy line, each man prepared to guard the sides of the men around him.

“The important thing is not to break,” Jerick explained as the Sho Del made their attack. “If the line breaks, then the enemy can surround you and attack you from behind.”

The bridgemen nodded to themselves, watching the warriors fight. During the last few months, training during runs had been a success for more than one reason. Not only did it give the men something to do while they waited, but they were also able to see first-hand how their ranks were supposed to be formed. Though Jerick had a little knowledge of swordplay, he knew next to nothing about actual warfare. He learned, as the other men learned, by watching.

“See how each man’s shield partially protects his neighbor’s body,” Gathban noted.

“I doubt there’s a shield large enough to protect you, Rock,” Vessin said, slapping the Kaz’ch on the back.

Jerick chuckled, turning away from the battle. “All right, let’s form our ranks and practice. Remember your postures.”

The bridgemen did as he commanded, falling into two ranks of nine men each, and proceeded to stage a mock battle. Jerick and Gathban stood aside giving suggestions when they could.

Jerick had requested, and been refused, enough wood to make practice swords. The officers suffered Bridge Four’s training, probably because they couldn’t think of any reason to forbid it. Jerick could feel their resentment, however. Trained bridgemen challenged their elitism, breaking down the barriers between what made a man a noble and what made a man a peasant.

The more he thought about it, the more he wondered just why the officers—especially General Demetris—were so wasteful with bridgeman lives. Shields were a simple enough thing to produce, not really requiring that much wood or expenditure. However, such things were called too good for bridgemen. The more he thought about it, the more Jerick realized the entire situation—the bridgeman casualties—were less an issue of money, and more an issue of class. The regular warriors, mostly noblemen, often lost their lives while fighting for Dragonsteel. It would be wrong in their eyes for the peasants to escape unharmed when nobles died. So, the bridgemen were forbidden shields.

There was more to it than that, Jerick was certain. If the statistics he heard were true, then General Demetris was able to put more men on a plateau more quickly than any other general. Most of that success came because of the way he pushed his bridge crews. Giving them shields would just add another element of complexity to his resource management and burden of training. In the end, the simple question was: why protect the bridgemen when there are always plenty more to replace them? Demetris’s willingness to sacrifice men was always compensated by the Fallin emperor sending him more replacements.

Still, Jerick thought poorly of Demetris because of his attitude. Rin’s cardinal teaching had been that of not wasting life, and Jerick could not respect a man who so blatantly wasted his men. Jerick did, however, keep such rebellious thoughts to himself. General Demetris was the bridgemen’s ultimate superior—it would hurt their morale, and sense of purpose, if they knew of Jerick’s disapproval.

“Good,” Jerick noted as Kep jabbed his weapon between his opponents’ shields. The young boy was disadvantaged in many ways, but his size did make him a more difficult target to hit. He almost completely vanished when protected by the shield of his companion, and he moved incredibly quickly.

Kep smiled, an action that immediately earned him a rap on the head from his opponent’s ‘weapon’—a piece of bone approximately the same length of a short sword. Jerick had been right about the weapons—they weren’t as useless as they appeared. Though the short swords weren’t as majestic as longer swords, they worked very well in a tight formation. They much easier to thrust and swing than a longer blade.

“Stay focused, Kep,” Jerick warned, continuing to watch the battle. The men were getting good. Several months of training had made their reflexes quick, and their already strong muscles had provided a good basis for transforming them from servants to warriors. Now, when the members of Bridge Four walked through the camp, they wore their swords as if they knew how to use them. Each man also bore a small shield constructed of Sho Del bones.

Eventually, Jerick called for a break, and the men went to get drinks and rest. There would be no more practicing this day—it appeared as if the Dragonsteel battle was almost finished, and it wouldn’t do for his men to be exhausted from training when it came time to carry their bridge back to camp.

“Ho, Dente,” Jerick called as they approached the camp. “All is well?”

The tall Fallin smiled, nodding. He sat at the fire with four other men, stirring a pot of soup. The twenty with Jerick dropped their bridge in its place and began preparing for dinner.

“It was a quiet day, sir,” Dente explained, handing Jerick a bowl as he approached.

“That’s what it’s supposed to be,” Jerick replied with a smile.

Gaz had actually given him the extra bridgemen he requested—an action that had come as a bit of a shock to Jerick. The excess of five men had given Jerick an opportunity to instigate a plan he had been working on: giving the men a day off. Bridgemen worked all days of the week, and the constant drudgery took its toll. With twenty-five men in his crew instead of twenty, Jerick had been able to put them into a rotation, giving each man one day off in every five.

It was a small blessing, but it had made an enormous change in the bridgemen. Not only did their morale improve, but their bodies grew stronger as well. In addition, the ability to leave five men behind at the tent every day had completely eliminated theft. The camp’s soldiers left Bridge Four alone, for there was much easier prey to be found. As a result, the men had actually been able to save their earnings.

“Look, sir,” Dente requested, pointing back at the tent. The normally white side of the structure was covered with black letters.

“You did that?” Jerick asked, impressed.

“I practiced all day,” Dente explained.

“It’s good,” Jerick said appreciatively. Lacking anything else to write on, he had told the men to use the sides of the tent. The charcoal washed away freely enough. “We’ll have you reading Realmatic Theory by the end of the month.”

“Rel . . . what?” Dente asked, blushing beneath the praise. Then, pausing, he continued in a quieter voice. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “You don’t know what this all has meant to me.”

Jerick placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. Dente’s body was tougher now, lean where it once had been tall and somewhat scrawny. His long, rectangular face bore hope in it—something he had never expected to see from Dente. “I understand,” Jerick said simply.

“I’ve been a wanderer since my family died in that plague,” Dente continued softly. He rarely spoke of his past. “It’s good to have a purpose again.”

With that, the tall, willowy man turned to walk over to the side of the tent, reading the words penned by his own hand with a look of amazement in his eyes.

Jerick smiled to himself, tasting the soup. It was, of course, horrible—Dente couldn’t cook to save his life. Jerick ate it anyway, as did the other men—though he did notice Gathban discreetly adding a few spices to the mix.

Jerick watched them, standing a little off to the side. He felt like Dente, in a way. He was amazed at what Bridge Four had become, unable to believe the transformation. The men were singing a rousing song Vessin had taught them. They were happy, and they were alive. Somehow, as he watched them, he knew he couldn’t take much credit for their success. Just as the words Dente wrote on the tent had first been crafted by creative thinkers long ago, the souls of these men had been given life by a power far beyond Jerick’s own understanding. He had only given them a little bit of a push.

The song was about a boy named Pluke who, through encountering several mishaps and adventures, ended up the king of a nonexistent country. It was a silly song, involving several misadventures in places like brothels, but the theme was encouraging. Pluke won in the end, proving himself not to be the fool everyone had thought him to be. As the second verse began, Vessin called out with a loud voice, changing the name from Pluke to Hook. The men laughed, continuing the verses with this new alteration, and Jerick couldn’t help but chuckle to himself.

“In all my days, I’ve never seen such love for a leader,” a voice noted.

Jerick turned slightly as Gathban moved in the twilight darkness to stand next to him.

“I still don’t really understand why, Gathban,” Jerick said softly under the sound of the music. “I’m amazed every day. How did it happen?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Gathban admitted. “For me, it started on that day you took Dente’s place at the front of the bridge. In my six months in the war, I’d had leaders yell at me, cajole me, and even beat me. However, never once had I ever seen one actually try to lead me. After that . . . well, let’s just say my loyalty was certain the day you forced us to march back to the Plains in the middle of the night to search for Uthkar.”

“We found him dead,” Jerick said with a twinge of sorrow. Uthkar was the last soldier he had lost.

“Yes, but you didn’t know we would,” Gathban continued. “I saw him fall myself, but even I couldn’t be certain he was dead, considering how fast we retreated. That night, as we searched the Plateaus for that one man, despite what old Gaz had told us to do, I knew that you would do the same for any of us. The same for me. You knew we had to retreat when we did, lest the warriors be unable to cross the chasms and escape. But, you didn’t for one moment give up on poor Uthkar. Sir, I’d follow a leader like that anywhere.”

Jerick nodded slowly. “Thank you, Gathban,” he said quietly.

“No problem, sir.”

The song ended with a round of cheers to Jerick’s health and a toast—something which consisted of slapping their bowls of soup together as if they were mugs of saprye. Jerick nodded appreciatively, and the topic changed, turning to stories from the men’s homelands.

The talk had a strange effect on Jerick. He thought of Melerand with increasing frequency lately. Perhaps it was the camaraderie of the men, perhaps it was because of the time of year—his birthdate was quickly approaching. He had been at the Eternal War nearly a year now. He wondered about the King, Courteth, and even Yoharn. He missed them—they had become his second family. He felt guilty at his treatment of Topaz and the others—they hadn’t deserved his anger. He had searched the camp for Frost, but the man had disappeared, and Jerick was frightened for the old scholar’s welfare.

Most of all, however, he found himself wondering how Ryalla was doing. It was odd to him that he should worry about her—if anything, he should be thinking about Courteth. Ostensibly, all of his effort in the war was an attempt at winning the princess’ hand. The more time he spent here, however, the more he realized he had never really known Courteth. Her personality had been a thing of vapors to him—unimportant next to her beauty. Memories of her face faded, and he was left trying to remember any truly enjoyable times he had spent with her. To his surprise, there were none.

Ryalla, however, he could remember well. True, most of the recollections involved her implying he was a fool for one reason or another, but at least they were there. Jerick remembered with fondness the first time she had chastised him—the sentiment had been building for some time, and it had been no surprise to him when she released it. Ryalla, however, had been completely shocked that she would let such thoughts pass her lips. He wondered how she was faring up in Melerand, if Topaz often came to visit, and if they often spoke of how stupid their once friend had been for running off to die on the Shattered Plains.

Jerick continued his reminiscences for a short time, but then, almost unconsciously, his eyes noticed something. Kep was looking off into the darkness, a curious look on his face. Jerick followed the boy’s gaze, picking out a group of dark forms in the twilight. At first, his hand went to his sword, assuming the silhouettes belonged to soldiers come to sport with the bridgemen. Then, however, he realized the postures were much too stooped-over to be those of warriors. They were bridgemen.

Jerick met Kep’s eyes, then looked out into the darkness. The forms stayed a good distance away, listening to the singing. Jerick felt as if he could sense their longing, their jealousy, despite his inability to see their faces.

The music fell silent as the men noticed Jerick staring off into the night. They looked from him to the dark forms, questions on their faces. What should we do? they asked.

“Come closer,” Jerick suddenly called out.

The forms jumped, and looked as if they were going to scurry away.

“Leave if you want,” Jerick said. “But if you do that, we’ll be forced to eat all this soup ourselves.”

Slowly, uncertainly, the forms approached the firelight, not quite entering the circle. They stood for a moment and then, as if in concordance, Jerick’s men burst out into another joyful song, waving for their associates to join them in the light. Kep began gathering bowls and filling them with the remains of the soup, then handing them to the newcomers.

Jerick smiled, nodding in satisfaction to himself. It appeared as if he were going to have to start spending more of his money on supplies. He turned, about to go find the privy, and was confronted by the sight of a rough form in the darkness.

“Your time has come, fick,” Gaz’s voice growled.

“What do you want, sergeant?” Jerick asked stiffly.

“It isn’t me,” Gaz informed. “It’s the general. He’s heard about your little group, and the disruption it’s making.”

A stab of fear pierced Jerick’s body. “Is that so?” he asked, keeping his voice steady.

“He’s going to watch you tomorrow. He’s coming on the next run, to see for himself.”

“I assume you’re not going to want us to bring your shield then?” Jerick asked, letting his voice grow sarcastic and folding his arms across his chest.

Gaz spat. “Don’t try and drag me down with you, fick. I was never part of this—I only suffered you. I knew the general would come down on you sooner or later.”

Jerick sighed. Gaz had been more than willing to use the shield when he thought there would be no repercussions. “Thank you for the message, sergeant,” he said dismissively. I will put it to good use.”

And he did. Or at least, he put it to use—mostly in the form of worrying the entire night what would come in the days to follow.

“By the Lords, what’s he doing here?” Gathban asked under his breath. General Demetris’s chariot—complete with several boxes in the back to improve his height—was joining up with the group of soldiers as they marched across the Plains.

“He sometimes comes to watch runs,” Jerick said off-handedly. It was a hot day, without a cloud in the sky. One nice thing about carrying the bridge was that it allowed the men to march in the shade. Unfortunately, its canopy-like nature also seemed to increase the humidity. Jerick shook his head—winter had come and passed, and it hadn’t seemed to make a bit of difference in the temperature of this crazy land.

“I know,” Gathban said. “But he always makes me nervous. Simple men like myself don’t like dealing with nobility.”

“We don’t have to deal with him, Rock,” Jerick reminded. “We only have to do our job. Who knows, maybe he’ll like the idea of our shields, and provide them for all of his bridgemen.”

“True,” Gathban said dryly. “And maybe the soldiers will stop using bridges and start flying over the chasms.”

Gathban fell silent as they marched across the sweltering plateaus, making their way to the one that had chosen to spit out Dragonsteel. The other men had noticed the general as well; Jerick could hear them muttering to one another. Despite Jerick’s own attempts at remaining positive about the camp officers, Demetris was not well-liked by Bridge Four. Jerick had conditioned them to be independent and questioning, and the general’s poor leadership did not bear well beneath such scrutiny.

Demetris could be heard, riding back and forth amongst the various marching groups, barking orders at the men—most of which were completely inane. He told one bridge crew its men were too tall, and that they should try to squat down as they marched, and he ordered a group of soldiers to march with their weapons drawn, just in case the Sho Del attacked them en route—something that Jerick had never seen, or even heard of, happening.

“Keth-cursed fool,” Gathban muttered.

“Careful, Rock,” Jerick warned under his breath.

“Sorry, sir,” Gathban replied, containing his annoyance.

They arrived at the plateau before the Sho Del. As the bridgemen moved to place their bridges, however, Demetris ordered them to stop and pull back as far away from the plateau as possible. The bridgemen complied with characteristic lack of enthusiasm, and Jerick’s crew gave him looks of confusion. They waited as the Sho Del appeared on another plateau then warily made their way onto the contested plateau.

“All right, you may approach now,” Demetris said with a wave of his hand.

He wants to see how the shields work, Jerick realized with sickness in his stomach. He will waste the lives of countless bridgemen just to see how well my crew fares.

“It’s a test,” Gathban said with a quiet curse beside him. “He’s going to. . . .”

“Let’s just do our best,” Jerick said, cutting off the larger man. “All right, Bridge Four,” Jerick said as Gaz stepped forward to order the bridgemen forward. “Let’s show him what we can do!”

“Run!” Gaz ordered, and eight bridge crews dashed forward.

Jerick ran at the front, Gathban at his side, blocking arrows. No Sho Del jumped across to attack them—in fact, few of them even shot arrows at Jerick’s crew. Bridge Four moved with absolute efficiency, placing their bridge and jumping out of the way before the other bridge crews had even begun to push their bridges forward. A second later, it was all over.

“Injuries?” Jerick called to his men.

“I’ve got a rock in my shoe,” Vessin called back with a smirk in his voice. “It hurts so much, it must be as big as one of these cursed granite boulders.”

“No injuries,” Gathban answered, counting faces. “As usual, sir.”

“Good,” Jerick said, looking back at Demetris. “Let him think about that.”

The conflict was a short one. It seemed as if the Sho Del were only making a perfunctory effort at getting the Dragonsteel. There were fewer of them than normal, and none of them rode the large battle-beasts that had become standard over the last six months.

Jerick had his men practice during the fight, as usual, but he could tell their hearts were not in the fighting. They were distracted, and they kept looking back at Demetris.

For his own part, the general appeared to be watching the battle with little interest. He chatted with a couple of adjuncts he had brought, standing atop his boxes like a speaker giving an oration. Jerick looked into the man’s face, and knew that no matter what they did, it wouldn’t be enough to impress him. If Demetris decided he didn’t want Jerick’s crew carrying shields, he would order them not to.

“Good job men,” Jerick said quietly, putting an end to their practicing. “Take some rest; this battle will be over soon.”

They looked back at him, lowering their weapons. There was determination in their eyes. At that moment, Jerick realized they knew. They realized why Demetris was there, and they also understood what Jerick understood. Steal our shields, force us not to practice, increase our workload, and we will continue on, their eyes said. We are Bridge Four, and we are stronger than he is.

After that moment, Jerick wasn’t worried any more.

“Good job, men,” he repeated with a nod.

When he looked back to Demetris, something had changed. The General had ordered his chariot to pull up next to the east side of the plateau, and he was looking out across the Plains. Jerick followed his gaze. There, on the plateau just next to their own, the well had turned a dark black. It would soon give forth Dragonsteel.

He saw Demetris’s mouth open to order them across, but then he stopped. He had seen something else—men approaching in the distance.

“That plateau’s not in our district,” Gathban said from next to him. “It belongs to Ki Tzern.”

Sure enough, a tall warrior in white and gold could be seen riding at the head of the approaching force.

Vessin, just behind Jerick, snorted quietly. “Look at the general,” he said. “He looks like he’s eaten a rotten Balla Fruit.”

“He thought to get that Dragonsteel before Tzern arrived,” Gathban agreed.

Jerick looked back at their own battle. The Sho Del had completely retreated, leaving the men to stand defensively around the well. As soon as the Dragonsteel came out, they would be heading back to the camp.

“There,” Vessin said, pointing. Jerick followed his gesture. A small group of Sho Del were approaching the plateau beside them. It appeared that Tzern’s troops were going to have an easy time as well.

“Will you look at that,” Gathban breathed in surprise.

Jerick looked back at Tzern’s troops, immediately noticing what the Kaz’ch had seen. There, moving along with the men, were several massive wooden constructions. The rolled on massive wheels, and they had a large flat surface at the front, like a raised palm. There were oxen drawing them.

“What are they?” Vessin asked with confusion.

“Bridges,” Jerick realized quietly. Still out of arrow shot, the oxen were unhooked from the wooden contraptions. Several groups of men climbed down from the structures and, at Tzern’s unheard order, began pushing them forward. Several Sho Del arrived on the plateau in time to fire arrows, but the bridges were so massive that the men behind were completely protected. When they reached the chasms, a man on top pulled a crank, and the entire front of the mechanism dropped forward, bridging the chasm. A second piece fell backward, providing a ramp for the oncoming warriors—Tzern at their head—to gallop up and over the chasm.

“By the Lords,” Gathban breathed.

“Suddenly our shields don’t look quite so clever,” Vessin noted.

Jerick waited quietly for a moment. Gaz was calling from behind—their own Dragonsteel run was over. “Let’s go,” he ordered.

Bridge Four waited a laboriously long time for the soldiers to finish collecting discarded weapons and march back, then gathered up their bridge. They were just beginning to march away when they heard the yells from behind. Jerick turned, along with most everyone else, worried that they were under attack. It wasn’t them, however.

Jerick turned just in time to see the last of Tzern’s large bridge machines topple into the chasm. Hundreds, even thousands, of Sho Del had appeared as if out of nowhere. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes since they had first seen Ki Tzern gallop onto the plateau, but suddenly he was surrounded on all sides.

“Down,” Jerick said, not certain why. The men moved, dropping their bridge. Jerick stepped forward, watching the battle on the next plateau.

Sho Del were everywhere. There were dozens of the jumping beasts approaching on all sides—apparently the Sho Del had used these to push the bridge machines into the chasm. Tzern’s men were hopelessly outmatched.

“Where are the special soldiers?” Jerick asked quietly. “The ones in tan?”

“There,” Gathban said, pointing to a plateau barely visible in the distance. A second battle could barely be seen in the distance. “They must have come from a different direction—a flanking force.”

“But the Sho Del engaged them first,” Jerick realized. “It’s a trap. They’re trying to get to General Tzern.”

“And they’re going to,” Gathban said quietly. Tzern’s men were falling quickly, Sho Del pounding them mercilessly. The demons must have withheld most of their troops for this one battle—that was why Demetris’s team had won so easily.

Only then did Jerick’s mind register the chuckling. It had been going on for some time, but he had been so focused on the battle that he hadn’t noticed it. He turned, seeing General Demetris standing in his chariot a short distance away.

“Oh, what a wonderful surprise this is,” the general proclaimed. “It couldn’t have turned out better if I’d planned it myself.” Then, turning to his forces, he bellowed. “Keep moving, men! We want to be back in time for supper, don’t we?”

The bridge crews and soldiers began to walk again, traipsing back toward the home camp.

Jerick paused, looking back to his men. They hadn’t moved; most of their eyes were focused on the slaughter happening just a short distance away. Then, one at a time, their faces focused on Jerick. He could see the anger in their eyes.

“Those men need an escape route,” Jerick said quietly.

Bridge Four nodded.

“Let’s move!” Jerick yelled, grabbing his shield and pulling out his Sho Del sword.

His men raised the bridge quickly, and followed him at a dead run, bellowing calls of Fourth Bridge at the top of their voices.

The Sho Del noticed their movement, as did Demetris behind them.

“By the Lords!” he heard Demetris scream. “What are they doing?”

Then, a moment later, he continued. “You, bridgemen, stop! Stop now!”

Jerick didn’t look back.

“Archers, stop them!” Demetris called. Then, however, he must have realized his own danger. “No!” his shrill voice suddenly declared. “Everyone, back to camp! Hurry up, you fools, before they bring the demons upon us!”

Arrows flew so thick they seemed like a mass of buzzing gnats. Before, Jerick’s crew had only been one of eight. Now all of the Sho Del attention was focused on them. The shields, however, held. He heard a grunt of pain from beside him, and looked briefly to see Went falling with an arrow in his calf. Jerick continued on, blocking arrows as best he could.

“Drop!” he ordered as soon as they approached the chasm. A flock of Sho Del, their bows discarded, jumped into the air, soaring across the twenty-foot chasm to land in front of the bridge.

“Team one, swords out!” Jerick yelled. “Team two, get that bridge across the chasm!”

The men worked quickly, forming into a rank around Jerick, and he gave a quick prayer that months of practice would somehow pay off now that real battle had come.

“Forward!” Jerick yelled, swiping his sword at the first Sho Del. Nine men pushed forward with him, moving in a perfect rank, their short swords looking pitifully inadequate when faced by Sho Del with weapons much larger. As the battle began, however, Jerick realized the short swords were as efficient as he had assumed—his men could swing faster and with more control. Jerick’s team also had precedent on their side—the Sho Del didn’t expect bridgemen to fight back.

The little squad of soldiers pressed forward, striking as Jerick had taught them. The first Sho Del fell easily beneath Jerick’s strike, and the other three wore faces of confusion, hastily raising their blades as they realized they were actually going to have to fight. One lost his footing, toppling off the ledge and into the chasm. While the other two watched him plummet, Jerick’s team attacked them.

“Done!” Gathban called from behind just as Jerick heard the bridge thump into place. He looked across at the platform. A dozen Sho Del were approaching quickly, their intentions obvious.

“Team one, across the bridge. Hold that ground until Tzern arrives. Team two, hold the other side. The Sho Del will try and push the bridge into the chasm.”

And then it was true war. His team fanned out on the ground before the bridge, the chasm at their back, Jerick on the far left. Blades flashed on every side, beating at Jerick’s inexperienced men. He watched Kurt fall before his eyes, a Sho Del blade taking him in the neck. The Meleran bridgeman fell with a gurgle. Jerick’s men, however, did not break. They stayed firm, filling in Kurt’s place and fighting with determination.

Jerick scanned the battle, searching for the man they sought to help. Tzern’s massive war-horse had fallen, and he fought on the ground with his men a short distance away. They were moving toward the bridge, but their movement was painfully slow. Tzern’s eyes met his own. Hold a little longer, they pled.

“Fourth Bridge!” Jerick yelled, renewing his attack. His weapon was white with Sho Del blood, and splattered with not a few flecks of red, signs of his own wounds or those of his men.

“Fourth Bridge!” the men yelled around him.

Then, the bridge shuddered. Jerick spun around, stepping back to let another man hold his place. Team two was getting overwhelmed. Three of its nine members had fallen, and the others had retreated onto the bridge itself. One of the large jumping beasts was snapping at them, a Sho Del with a long spear atop its back. Gathban had found a Sho Del longblade somewhere, and was laying around himself in large sweeping blows, taking down two warriors as Jerick watched.

However, just then another Sho Del approached from behind. Jerick called out to Gathban in horror, his voice sharp, but he was too late. The Sho Del’s sword rose, then fell . . . dropping from its dead fingers. Kep, short and almost unnoticed at Gathban’s side, pulled his short sword out of the Sho Del’s stomach. He noticed Jerick and smiled, then turned back to the fighting.

The jumping beast was still a problem. It snapped at team two, driving it further back onto the bridge. Any more, and it would easily be able to push the bridge into the chasm.

“Hold the front, Dente!” Jerick ordered, preparing himself to run and help. Just then, an enormous, bulbous monstrosity appeared over the bridge. It was round, with arms hanging from dozens of pore-like holes in its body. It roared with an incredible sound, and Jerick could feel the bridgemen cringe around him.

“It’s not real!” Jerick said. “It’s an illusion. Focus on your fighting.”

With that, Jerick jumped, leaving behind the plateau. He closed his eyes and screamed as he passed through the horrific illusion to land on the bridge itself. He jumped again, crossing diagonally to land beside the war beast on the rear plateau.

The Sho Del on the monster’s back swung at him with his spear, but Jerick ducked, and felt it whoosh overhead. Jerick struck at the side of the beast, distracting it from his men on the bridge, then immediately regretted doing so. The monster turned, smashing its thick, plated head into Jerick’s chest and knocking him backward. His sword flew from his fingers, skidding across the plateau to click against a large, white boulder.

The monster reared up, two legs in the air, four on the ground. There were broad-fingered claws, not hooves, at the end of its feet. The Sho Del raised his spear, and plunged it toward Jerick as the beast dropped back to six legs.

Jerick shifted visions, [REDACTED]. This had better work, he thought as the spear plunged toward his chest. He commanded the spear to [REDACTED], as he once had the arrow, months ago. Nothing happened.

Go! Jerick ordered, without result. [REDACTED]! his mind wailed ineffectually. Then, just before the spear hit him, he felt something else. It was like a force, a force that surrounded him, similar to the force that held all of the [REDACTED]. He couldn’t see it, not even [REDACTED], but he could feel that it wanted to leave him. It wanted to escape into the ground. A lesser force was also pulling it toward the Sho Del warrior—or rather, Jerick realized, not the Sho Del, but his armor.

Go there! Jerick thought, indicating the armor. Not knowing quite how he did so, Jerick released the force.

There was an explosive clap and a flash of light so bright, that Jerick screamed in pain. Then there was a thump beside him. He shook his head, trying to clear the bright streak from his eyes. From the edges of his vision, Jerick could make out the form of the Sho Del warrior, dead on the ground. Its breastplate was charred and black, and the smell of burnt flesh was heavy in the air.

Jerick didn’t give himself much time to glory in his continued existence. The Sho Del’s war beast, frightened by the sound, had dashed away in a random direction—in fact, all of the beasts on the field were jumping about wildly, their riders losing control. In this confusion, Ki Tzern finally broke through.

“Fall back!” Jerick yelled, barely able to hear his own voice for the ringing in his ears. His men must have been little better, but they moved quickly, anticipating his orders. They retreated across the bridge as General Tzern and a ragged group of about fifty soldiers finally crossed the bridge.

“Pull the bridge back and up!” Jerick ordered, realizing that the battle was far from finished. The Sho Del were regrouping, ready to chase them across the second plateau.

The bridge went up on men’s shoulders, then wobbled for a moment—there were only twelve men left to carry it. It stabilized, however.

“Move!” Jerick ordered, grabbing his sword and one of the arrow shields. The men pulled back, and Jerick followed, pausing only briefly to scoop up Went, who still had the arrow sticking out of his calf, and throw the man over his shoulder. Jerick turned hesitant eyes back on the bodies of his men that had fallen in the assault, then shook his head, knowing he had to leave them. None were moving; they might all be dead. They might be alive.

We’ll be back! Jerick thought.

“Move!” he yelled again, backing up as the bridge crew dashed toward the other side of the plateau. Jerick blocked what arrows he could, as did Tzern’s men. The warriors, however, were tired, and there were only a couple of them had bows to return fire. Sho Del began to pour across the chasm, jumping in groups of a dozen or more.

Then they stopped.

Jerick paused near the back of the plateau, listening as the men dropped the bridge and pushed it into place. The Sho Del could slaughter them, he knew. There were more of the demons than he had assumed; they covered the plateau behind. But, for some reason they stood quietly, waiting for something.

The wall of white faces parted, and a figure in dark gray armor stepped from the midst of them. The Lord of the War. It stooped, looking down at the warrior Jerick had felled, rubbing at the blackened breastplate with a gauntleted hand. Then it rose, its wicked helmed head locking on Jerick’s face. Jerick felt one emotion from the creature starkly, as obvious as if it had been told to him. The Lord of the War was confused.

Then, the creature raised its hand and pointed at Jerick, signaling for his warriors to attack. The Sho Del rushed forward, jumping across the chasm to run towards the frail human force.

“Lords!” Dente whispered beside Jerick, his voice horrified. “We’ll be—”

A massive shadow fell over the plateau. Sho Del and human alike froze, their eyes looking up toward the sky. Jerick’s breath caught in his chest as an enormous form dove toward them. At the last moment it unfurled its great wings, blocking out the sun. It thumped to the plateau between humans and Sho Del.

Jerick regarded the creature in awe. He had heard stories and tales, read histories and legends, studied essays and superstitious, but no words of men could possibly have described the marvelous creature that stood before him. It had broad, bat-like wings and a serpentine neck. Four massive legs grew from its body, and it sat lithely, almost like a cat, as it regarded the humans.

Most magnificent, however, were its colors. It was a pure, deep black, and its skin was crossed with silver lines. The metallic sheen outlined the creature’s body, running along the edges of the wings and across its chest. The lines of silver ran up the sides of the dragon’s neck, outlining its jaw and its reptilian head, then melded in the middle of its forehead, forming into a knife-like silver horn that jutted at an angle back from its skull.

And, standing close to the creature like he was, he could feel something from the silvery metal. Power.

“Dragonsteel,” Jerick whispered. That was how the metal had gotten its name. It wasn’t because the wells were so close to Fain lands, it was because dragons grew it on their bodies.

Drephrast, god of the Sho Del, continued to watch the humans for a long moment. Then, it turned its unreadable eyes back on the Sho Del, who, en mass, lay prostrate on the ground before it. Jerick heard a faint buzzing in the back of his mind, like someone yelling a great distance away.

Enough, Ethain, a powerful, and aged, voice said in Jerick’s mind. They have earned their escape.

The Lord of the War regarded Jerick for a moment. Then he spun, marching back through the prostrate Sho Del. The dragon turned eyes on Jerick, [REDACTED]. Then Drephrast launched himself into the air again, leaving stunned humans and penitent Sho Del. A few moments later, the Fain creatures rose and turned their backs on the humans, retreating toward their own land.

“Never in my career have I seen such bravery,” Ki Tzern declared, looking over Jerick’s tattered group. They still stood on the battlefield, their men searching for survivors on the now-deserted plateaus. They moved quietly, speaking in hushed tones about the creature they had just seen. Tzern, however, wasn’t concerned with dragons—he was focused on the men who had saved his life.

“And you are bridgemen?” Tzern continued. He spoke with a sharp accent that Jerick assumed was Tzendish, separating every syllable as if it were its own word.

“Yes, sir,” Jerick said. His men stood a little taller at the response.

“Bridgemen from Demetris’s army?”

“Yes, sir,” Jerick replied again, this time with less vigor.

“There are not a hundred men in this war who could have stood as firmly as your group did, soldier,” Tzern said, his voice impressed. “Nor, I am sorry to say, are there many who would risk their lives in such a manner.”

“It was our duty, sir,” Jerick said. “You would have done the same for us.”

Tzern smiled slightly, catching Jerick’s eye. Until that moment, Jerick had been certain the man didn’t recognize him.

Gathban arrived just then, and Jerick turned to him. The Kaz’ch shook his head—none of their fallen men were alive. Jerick sighed. It had been a slim hope anyway.

“I seem to be in need of a bridge crew to return me to my camp,” Tzern said speculatively, his sharp, squareish face contemplative.

“Yes, sir,” Jerick said uncertainly.

“Once you get me there,” Tzern speculated, “it would hardly seem efficient to send you all the way back to Demetris’s camp. It would probably be best if you stayed in my army.”

A sudden conflict warred in Jerick’s stomach. Demetris was a fool, true, but he was, after all, Jerick’s general.

“I am a general too, soldier,” Tzern said carefully, noticing Jerick’s indecision. “In fact, I have won more Dragonsteel than Demetris, which means I technically outrank him. If I want you in my camp, there is nothing he can do to make you come back to his.”

Jerick smiled slightly. “I understand, sir. I have men back in General Demetris’s camp. I would not leave them behind.”

Tzern frowned in confusion. “Why were their men left behind? Are they sick?”

“No, sir,” Jerick said. “It is their day off.”

“I wasn’t aware Demetris gave his men days off,” Tzern commented.

“He doesn’t.”

The Tzend smiled slightly, nodding. “They shall be sent for.”

“Then, my lord,” Jerick said with a nod, “it would be the honor of the Fourth Bridge to serve you.”

“You will not be bridgemen in my army, soldier,” Tzern said. “I think you’ve all earned a promotion.”

Jerick smiled, looking back at his men. The thirteen survivors regarded one another with uncertain looks.

“Speak,” Tzern ordered.

“Well, sir,” Dente said. “Bridging is what we know, and we’re proud of the job we do. I’m not certain we want to change.”

Tzern nodded slowly. “All right, then, bridgemen you shall be. I trust none of you will object if I pay you as soldiers, however.”

The men nodded to one another. No, there was not a problem there. Jerick smiled with pride, looking over his bridgemen. Then, however, a hand fell on his shoulder.

“You, however, will not remain a bridgeman,” Tzern said in a subdued voice.

“Sir?” Jerick asked.

“I’ve seen a lot of bridgemen in my time, son,” Tzern said. “And I know what kind of soldiers Demetris breeds. A crew is only as good as its leader, and this is a fine crew indeed. I have plans for you.”

Jerick opened his mouth to respond. However, at that moment a group of tan-suited warriors appeared, dashing across the plateau. They saluted Tzern as they arrived, out of breath.

“My Lord, we . . .” the foremost of them began.

“I understand, Sharn,” Ki Tzern said, raising his hand. “Let’s just get back to camp.”

|   Castellano