Denoucement was swift. Mere hours after Seluban’s message and war reports had hit the public news networks, the government retaliated. Statements from military commanders, priestesses and even old associates of Seluban were quick to pour scorn upon the words of a coward, who had now, apparently, turned traitor too. Harder to deny or decry were the military reports, that held authentication markers, so the government simply insisted they were very clever forgeries. The majority of Chon’ith saw the message and the reports and rejected them anyway. Seluban’s reputation preceded him. However, all across Oanerath, seeds had been planted. Those who served found a certain measure of truth to the military reports, if not Seluban’s words. Waning naval strength was too much a reality for everyone to ignore.
The image of Zarthara, a woman, lent spiritual weight to Seluban’s claims, yet some chose to ignore them, or at least, bury them. The harsh truth, that Chon’ith strength was not prevailing, was more than simply unpalatable. It was, in the eyes of the priestesses and commanders, heresy. Within hours, efforts were under way to erase Seluban’s transmission from the records, and enforcers broadcast their own message, warning the public against sharing or even speaking of the heretical claims. Within a few more hours, preparations were underway to remove Seluban and his followers from Coward’s Forge.
“We shall sweep Tre’vik, no matter how long it takes, until the traitor Seluban and all his cohorts are found and made… examples of.” Superior Enforcer J’rekarath proclaimed before the assembled legion, now gathered at the northern frontier of the wretched place. His voice was enhanced by speakers, to ensure it carried across the barren field. It had taken just under a day to gather the troop of two thousand men, clad in the bone armour of soldiers, armed with powerful rifles and equipped with small, hand-thrown explosives, at the gates of Tre’vik. The show of force – to both support the beleaguered guards, and to put down the Resistance in no uncertain terms – their blasphemous claims would no longer be tolerated.
Gold and blue armour gleamed in the setting sun as J’rekarath turned his gaze to the gates of the Forge. His red skin itched under the solid metal plates, particularly on his shoulders, as it had done every time he’d donned his armour, for the past twenty-seven years. Age would not catch up with him, not yet, not whilst there were those who openly defied the Makers. His eyes narrowed. “If we meet the Resistance in combat, do not hesitate to kill. It is better than they deserve, but they will not spread their filthy lies any longer!”
His exclamation met with cheers from the assembled soldiers. J’rekarath blew upon his ceremonial horn, and the troop began to march forward.
“We should take it as inevitable that more Enforcers will come from the south, and the west and the east.” Remarked Acklaran, overlooking the large paper map on the table. His finger settled on a point to the east. “So far, our scouts say only the northern force has arrived.”
“An oversight on the Council’s part.” Replied Faratarath. “I would imagine they wished to act quickly, decisively.”
“Has there been any word on Seluban and Zarthara?” Enquired the younger Chon’ith.
“None. Had they been captured, there would have been much fanfare. I can only imagine they escaped the outpost. I would hope they had enough sense not to return here.”
Acklaran looked troubled. “Knowing Seluban as I do, I can imagine he would return.”
“To what end?” Asked Faratarath, confusion entering his gravely voice.
“Because he would want to help the people he is close to, even at great risk to himself.”
“Noble, yet in light of what needs to be done, foolish.”
“We are trying to overturn millennia of indoctrination, from a ramshackle hut, surrounded by other ramshackle huts, in the heartland of what our people consider to be pariahs and cowards.” Remarked Acklaran drily.
“Noted, yet in some matters, good sense should prevail eh?” Faratarath smiled, then coughed. He waved the younger man away. “I am fine, though I would suggest you make to leave this place, before those troops sweep the area.”
“You do of course, mean ‘we’.” Acklaran insisted.
Faratarath gently shook his head. “I am too old to be leading rebellions, and certainly too old to be running. For years I have led a different kind of revolt. It is one I know very well, one I am good at, and it would be fitting if it died so your cause would live.”
“What are you saying?” Asked Acklaran, suddenly concerned.
“For decades, centuries, those of us confined to the Forge have been condemned as cowards. The soldiers that are about to storm the gates believe that. It would be ironic if those of us who are here because we care about more than brute strength, gave them a test of strength like no other.”
“You plan to fight!”
“Yes Acklaran, I do, as to many in the Resistance. Some – the ones most closely aligned to your way of thinking, will go with you. The old guard, it will be purged, and in doing so, provide you and the others with cover to make your escape. Perhaps the sight of raging fires and the sound of pitched battle will make it clear to Zarthara and Seluban they should stay away eh?” Faratarath peered at the window. “We have spent some time building tunnels, pathways that will get you near to the south wall. With luck, once the battle starts, the guards there will be drawn away. Be careful Acklaran, and if you should find Seluban, tell him… I believe the Makers stand with him.”
Despite himself, Acklaran could feel his emotions threatening to overcome him. “Good luck.”
“And to you. Now go.”
Woven within the ordinary protesters and downtrodden (some of whom had decided they would not accept being driven even further down), members of Faratarath’s Resistance concealed weaponry and laid in wait. Some were embedded in the angry mobs, whipping up passions. Others had secreted themselves in alleys and doorways, or taken up positions on the second and third floors of some of the more robust structures in Tre’vik. It was a long way on foot, especially via tunnels, to the ‘city’ nearest the southern border, so the Resistance had to create the impression of large numbers. As the gates opened and the Enforcers began to swarm into Tre’vik, barking orders, demanding the people stand down, the first shots were fired.
Fast, dense, super-heated bullets easily punctured the armour of the Enforcers, putting small yet fatal holes in Chon’ith flesh. The Resistance fighters bellowed their defiance and urged the mob forward, even as the troops began to scatter to take defensive positions, and even as they returned fire. Scores of unarmed civilians were cut down, but they kept coming, taking advantage of the chaos. Soldiers cracked the butts of their heavy rifles across the faces of would-be attackers, but found themselves swiftly overcome by numbers. Resistance fighters kept picking off targets, even as they began to become exposed. More civilians, angered by the violent intrusion of their home and encouraged to frenzy by Fartarath’s people, began to add to the crowds, throwing rocks, masonry and anything they could at the Enforcers.
Grenades were thrown. People scattered and others screamed as shrapnel sliced into their flesh. Some of the civilians began to scatter, taking refuge whether they could, and the soldiers gave chase, drawn further into Tre’vik’s labyrinth. J’rekarath, leading, as all good Superiors did, from the front, snarled as the flash of rifle fire from a nearby building cut down two of his men. He bellowed to one of his troops to bring out heavier firepower – the equivalent of what humans would have called an RPG – rocket-propelled-grenade – turned the assailant and the front of the building into a burning, charred mess.
Acklaran had been right. Seluban had insisted that Zarthara and himself return to Tre’vik. Zarthara had refused to even consider heading back, instead setting off in a different direction, heading east, but not before she had carefully and cleverly raided the outpost for food and water.
“It would appear you have a talent for thievery.” He had remarked sardonically.
“When you have lived in the Forge for many years, you acquire skills out of necessity.” Had been her brief explanation.
“If you are truly determined to lead us across these dry plains, am I to take it it is for a reason?” He had asked.
“We should expect an assault upon the north gate, should we not? Patrols will be stepped up and they will be looking for us. We evade them by not being anywhere near them. There are… contingencies, near the southern wall of the city. It will be a long voyage on foot, but trust me, it can be made.”
Seluban was learning to trust Zarthara’s judgement, a lesson made even clearer when the troop carriers had been spotted surging across the plains. The glistening silver vehicles had deposited their troops and shortly after, even at some distance, the sound of gunfire and the plumes of smoke had made it clear Zarthara had been wise to avoid returning. After many hours, Seluban was tiring. The humidity was rising, and once again he found himself short of breath. Zarthara appeared less affected, though she too had slowed her pace as they moved across the rocks and dry earth. He had no idea how much longer their journey would last, but forced his legs to continue moving him forward.
In the distance the troop carriers were starting to move into the city. The auto-cannons mounted on their roofs were whirring into life, spraying bullets liberally into the swarm of protesters, who now dispersed at a faster rate.
“What are we, as a people?” Seluban muttered to himself.
“We are warriors, misguided but strong.” Replied Zarthara.
“Misguided?! Zarthara, you have a gift for understatement. I had never imagined one day we should wage pitched battle against unarmed civilians.”
“It will feed the flames of rebellion. Everyone will know – must know, what’s transpired here, and they must know why, so these deaths are not in vain. That is why we must hurry. There will be transportation waiting.”
A different kind of weariness took hold of Seluban. “And what then? Our people, are barbarians. For so long we’ve – I’ve – believed in Requeteran and the Makers, believed that strength and power gave us authority and moral certainty. Now I see our strong, brave warriors – slaughtering the unarmed. And for what? To ‘fan the flames’? The more we kill each other, the more our true enemies will easily destroy us!”
Zarthara turned back, shooting Seluban an angry stare. “You wanted this! You wanted to change our people; you knew who and what our philosophies were! What possible reaction did you expect from the Council? To play nicely and let you undermine them? Death is part of any war, is it not?”
“No buts.” Interrupted Zarthara. “Rebellion will inevitably mean Chon’ith against Chon’ith. Words alone will not convert the masses from their most aggressive beliefs. How can they?”
Silence greeted her. Seluban could not help but be sullen. He knew it was not dignified but the sight and sounds of the Enforcers and their violence was getting to him. Nor was it the only article to disturb him.
“Deep down…” He began, with difficulty. “I knew there would be conflict. To ask Chon’ith to reinterpret the Makers, the Holy Words… it is to ask much. I had hoped, somehow, to not have this kind of bloodshed, at least, not yet. I wanted to show our people another way… and what have I done? Taken a life and seen to it the Enforcers looking for me slaughter others.”
Zarthara took a step closer to him. “I was condemned to the Forge because I reject the Council’s interpretation of the Words as extremism; for this, they call me extreme. For joining with you, they call me terrorist and heretic, even though I believe in Requeteran and the Makers. I know there can be another way… but when war and violence and aggressive are seen as moderate, even noble, we will have no choice to employ those means, at least, at times. A revolution cannot be bloodless Seluban, not for us. Change will come, but it will be gradual.”
Seluban looked Zarthara squarely in the eyes. “I’m not sure it can be gradual. We are losing one war, and in the end, we’ll lose two. We cannot afford to lose either.”
“Then any revolution must be on the terms Faratarath and his followers envisioned, rather than yours. Come, we must keep moving.”