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The entire army did not show up. Polycate dispatched only five hundred men, three catapults, and a regimental captain named Ackows. It was enough. I try not to be judgmental in my writing, at least not aggressively so, but Ackows was a foul man, huge and bloodthirsty. His physique boasted nothing wrong, there were no abnormalities in his form or his movement. Indeed, he was very powerfully built, more like an ox than a man. Combined with his long olive-oiled blond hair, his square jaw, his muscles, and his white teeth, he was the very graven image of beauty. Yet, for all of his outward gross perfection, inward he stank of the very sewers of corruption vomiting out black bile with every word. A perfect commander for the job he was sent to do.
He rode up to both Yonas and myself, hardly paying any attention to the remains of the contingent that had as of late held the town, and speaking to us from upon his horse said, “Brother monks, I am glad to see you here. Tell me of what has happened in the town.”
We told him as best as our now three day old memories would allow. The commander of the contingent tried to issue a report as well, but Ackows wasn’t interested in hearing it. He said to the loyal commander “What could you have to say to me? You lost a town of peasants. I can see their defenses from here. Trenches. Only trenches. Do they have a spear among them? If not, then it is cowardice that made you run, and you abandoned the Faith to die in that city. Shame, humiliation, shame. If I had the authority, I would send you back into that town naked, and let them beat you. But I cannot do that. Do not speak to me again.”
He then summoned a soldier with a spyglass to get a closer look at the trenches the townsfolk had dug. He did not spend a long time looking. To the soldier he said, “Form the men up into ranks, bring the catapults so that they can hit those trenches. Load them up with the Triethylaluminium pots. We go on my signal. You look distressed, Brother monk. What is it?”
I said, “The heresy that they practice is very close to the Faith. It should be an easy matter to turn them back to the proper course. Surely, with the army behind us, they will find our arguments more compelling.”
Ackows laughed, “You mistake my duty, Brother monk. What do you think?” he asked Yonas.
“I do not believe they will be so easily turned,” Yonas said. “A good shock should convince them if reason cannot.”
“You mistake my duty, as well,” Ackows said. “I do not intend to burn the heresy out like a pestilence. I intend to amputate it. Even if my method is fire.” He laughed as if at a joke.
Reading about battles and watching them is as divergent a reality as any could hope to wish for, yet I will try to describe accurately the events of that day.
The villagers had dug their trenches well, for what they were: Narrow lanes in the earth some four feet deep from which they assembled makeshift atlatlmen, each armed with a spear-thrower that appeared to be improvised out of common household items or sticks pulled off of poplar trees (for I observed them in great detail after the battle). The trenches held about fifty men and blocked off the peninsula so that the town was only approachable by a narrow corridor by the sea. There were two ways to the town, either along the corridor or straight through the trenches. Additionally, the villagers had begun to set up small wooden fences in front of their trenches by the time Ackows arrived.
When the town saw the army amassed on the field, a bugle call went out from the town and bells began to ring. These noises came distantly across the plain, dimming down, and when they reached our position, the bells sounded soft like the tones of a small celesta. It seemed incredible to me from my observation point (set specifically aside for Yonas and myself) that the town with maybe fifty men in the trenches and maybe a hundred more in the town proper should fight on when faced with five hundred men, but their preparations went on unabated. From the hill, we could see men scurrying back and forth from the trench to the town carrying building material and weapons. All of the weapons were wooden spears, except for the rare club. I didn’t see a single sword. And afterwards, because it was a particular point of interest to me, I couldn’t find a single metal spear point.
Ackows left us with the instructions not to wander off either into the battle or away from it. He headed to his lieutenant, the soldier with the spyglass, and soon the ranks were formed up between the three catapults. These were heavy wooden engines that groaned when they moved. They took five soldiers to move them, and a mathematician– an army engineer– to position its angle correctly. Despite the trenches being far away, by my reckoning sixty spans, the catapults didn’t need to be moved much further than the hill.
The men stopped there and a calm fell over the scene. It is not easy to describe, but I’ve only experienced quiet like that once more in my life. Both sides held their breath to see what would happen next.
Then, Ackows’s lieutenant blew his whistle and the catapults were loaded up with ceramic vases. Each was painted with a red band, and each was placed in bundles of six into the basket.
The lieutenant’s whistle blew again and the catapults were released. Their charge flew out in an arc, they vases separating from each other in the air. The engineers’ aim was good. The Triethylaluminium splashed out and ignited. The trenches became one wavering ribbon of yellow light. There was no sound, the trenches burned silently.
Ackows ordered the catapults and soldiers forward. They advanced until the town was in range. The commander of the town had to be halfway clever, for the villagers did not wait for a second volley, instead they came out of their houses and crossed around the trenches through the narrow point.
Seeing this, Ackows had the catapult nearest him retreat. When it was in position, he had it launch Triethylaluminium at the gap, setting it aflame. The townsfolk who had charged onto the field were prevented from retreating as the remaining catapults bombarded the town. The soldiers, for their part, advanced into the field with their spears, swords, and shields. They advanced in rank and presented a wall of shields and spears to the wooden missiles hurtled from the atlatl.
From my vantage, I saw the villagers as a brown-black mob against the field’s green and the army as gleaming rows of silver and gold. Wherever the brown and black met the silver and gold, it was erased. I saw the mass break against the shields like water, splashing off in all directions. The retreating mob was forced up against the glittering ribbon of fire and was absorbed.
I tried to exchange a look with Yonas, but he was too absorbed with watching the field. His face was completely pale, the lines on his face caught the light from the fire (much brighter now, because the town had joined the trenches’ incandescence), making him look as if he were carved out of wood.
The catapults free from danger, continued forward, launching their vases at intervals. Ishopia grew in brightness until it was all one yellow winking eye. Lines of smoke began to rise, but visible behind it were the boats fleeing into the ocean. Soon distance and luminosity and haze obscured the merchants who were abandoning the city. How many of the citizens escaped with them, I wonder?
Prevailing winds swept the smoke out to sea, and as the soldiers and catapults kept advancing, Ackows returned.
“Brother monks,” he said, grinning, the lust of blood in his eyes, “you may go down into the field if you wish to consecrate the dead.”
Seeing Yonas’s face, he added, “Don’t be unhappy, brother monk. Now the heretics know if their gods are real or not.” And he laughed.
Picking through the field, I saw splintered wooden clubs and discarded kitchen knives. I saw ruined atlatls, and shattered spears. I saw twisted men bent double clutching their heads, their stomachs. I saw blood creating rivulets between bodies, a network, a tapestry with the village men and boys as bright crimson nodes. In life they were connected by community; in death, the same. Most died from Adean spear points. Metal blessed by the Square Temple. But closer to the trenches and they grew to resemble charcoal. These burned shapes, most did not look human, had a tangy pleasant odor, like that of roasting pork, and the tendency was to sniff and sniff until realizing what you were doing, you had to stop to wretch.
I did not see any imperial soldiers among the dead.
Nor any of our spears, or swords, or shields.
I did not see anything that suggested we lost a single man.
And there was something sad in this, even though I would have regretted any extra casualty. But, when watching a fight, wrestling or a street brawl, it is always regrettable when the losing side doesn’t get a punch in. I know a few people who take humor from this. They laugh and say, “Ha! He didn’t stand a chance. Ha!” But I find that stance unfortunate.
I did see something in the dust, later, before Yonas and I left to return to Adea. A single metal item from the opposing side. The only metal of theirs I saw that day. A circular amulet hanging from the neck of a dead man. The same sort that is sold for observances in Adean temples.
Yonas and I declined Ackows’s offer to go down into the town. I hoped seeing such pyrotechnic proselytizing had tempered Yonas’s approach somewhat.
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