The Bull and the Hyena, Part 19

Pvt. Ascora shielded his eyes as a massive fireball flared up in front of him about a mile away, just as he climbed up on top of a large pile of rubble. As someone who was born and raised in Selorin, he’d always assumed that provincial cities were small and somewhat feeble things, but he was rethinking that assessment. There was nothing like trudging through a city on foot while bombs fell from space to make a person realize just how big that city was.

There were only two other soldiers left in his platoon. One was a stocky, dark-complexioned young man, Private Gareg Foldren, and the other was a slightly older red-haired woman, Corporal Vedra Chalix. He didn’t know either one of them well. He’d been assigned to this unit the day before the fleet left Medradi, so he’d only met them a few days ago.

“I don’t like this, Ascora,” Foldren grumbled as they slid and stumbled together down the other side of the rubble hill. “We should be looking for a place underground to wait out the bombing. Trying to move through this mess is just begging for the Midigalans to kill us.”

“I’m not thrilled about it either, Foldren,” Ascora replied, trying to watch the sky for falling bombs at the same time as he was watching the ground so he didn’t trip on anything. “But those are our orders. Get out of the city. Take any civilians we find with us. Maybe there isn’t anywhere in Grendemar deep enough or fortified enough to stand up to an orbital bombardment.” He brushed a strand of stringy blond hair off of his face with a dirty hand and sighed.

“Foldren, how many times have I told you to shut up?” Chalix said behind them. As the highest ranked remaining member of the platoon, she was technically in command, but Foldren so far had balked at following the orders of a fellow soldier who barely outranked him. “Whining about our orders isn’t going to help us survive right now.” Foldren scowled at her, but he held his tongue.

Behind Chalix, there was a small group of civilians, about a dozen of them. They spanned a wide range of ages, from a white-haired old man with a cane, to a little girl who couldn’t have been more than three years old, clinging to her mother’s hand. The expressions on their faces ranged from stunned to resigned to utterly terrified. Ascora couldn’t blame them. It must be horrible to think that your own leaders were dropping on bombs on you from orbit. At least if Ascora died here, it would be at the hands of an enemy.

One moment they were trudging along wearily, and then the next they were suddenly knocked to the ground by the concussive force of another nearby explosion. For a brief moment that stretched on for eternity, everything ceased to exist for Mekin Ascora. He lay on the ground, all of his senses completely numbed by massive blast of energy. Then slowly, painfully, he returned to life, and began the agonizing process of rising to his feet and trying to figure out what was going on around him.

Chalix and Foldren were okay, as were most of the civilians, but there was one exception. A young woman had been thrown against a protruding spike of debris, and it had pierced her back and punched through her abdomen. Ascora sighed heavily when he realized it was the mother of the little girl. The child seemed okay physically, but she was pulling on her mother’s leg, crying for her to stand up, or even say something. Ruthlessly shoving down his emotions, Ascora immediately went over to the little girl, grabbed her by the waist, and slung her over his shoulder. Her cries immediately became shrill and desperately frantic, which Ascora found extremely difficult to ignore.

“By the One, man,” said Foldren, appalled. “Give the kid a chance to grieve.”

“We don’t have time, Foldren,” Ascora shot back, more harsh than he intended. “Another bomb could drop here any second. We need to keep moving!”

“Ascora’s right,” said Chalix. “We can’t stop. There will be time to mourn if any of us survive this.” There was some grumbling from the other civilians, but it was too low for Ascora to make out any specifics. Chalix fixed them with a hard stare, which silenced them, but most of them still had resentful looks on their faces. “Look, I don’t really care if you people follow us or not,” she said angrily. “I have orders to try and save any civilians I come across, but if you don’t want to be saved, that’s not my problem. Stay here and die, for all I care. But if you want to live, you’d better come with us.” She turned and trudged off. Ascora and Foldren followed her, the child beating her little fists on Ascora’s back.

After a few minutes, Ascora looked back and, somewhat to his surprise, all of the civilians were still following. He wondered about that. Despite Chalix’s words, their chances of survival really weren’t likely to increase if they followed the Imperial soldiers. It wasn’t as if the three of them had any sort of defense against orbital bombardment, or any idea of what to do or where to go.

Maybe just the thought that somebody, somewhere, had some sort of plan was motivating them. After all, the universe had been flipped upside down completely within the last few years. The people of Midigal probably had no great love for the Empire, but it wasn’t as if they chose to become a separate kingdom either. Ascora highly doubted that Ventelin and the Merchants’ Council held any sort of referendum to let the citizens of Midigal decide whether or not to secede from the Empire. They just did it, and now the people were living with the consequences, which, in this case, meant getting bombed from orbit by their own fleet. In those circumstances, Ascora could see how a person would cling to any thread of hope, no matter how flimsy it might turn out to be.

To be continued…

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