The Sound of Steel on Stone
General Kobrall stood overlooking the gray ramparts where his men shuffled back and forth like iron-plated pendulums. He watched the Endaar carefully. If they moved too slowly, or dropped one of the half-ton boulders they carried on their shoulders, he would give the order to have them shattered. Despite their mountainous size they were methodical, almost meticulous in their work. He had never seen the subjugated work so hard before.
The General’s army had cut a swath of conquest and ruin across the entire western region of Plarchos. Along with arduous campaigns that reduced the numbers of indigenous tribes to nearly nothing, they also dove deep into the vast expanse of underground networks in the mountain range of Tellagach. That is where they first found the Endaar.
Near sundown, just before the Endaar retired to their quarters, it was the General’s habit of watching them from the arched crenel of his tower. The walls remained steady. He scratched at his grizzled neck, squinting through dying rays at a cloud of dust that rumbled up the road to castle Corvotis.
Illio, the General’s counselor, rubbed sweet fruit wine between his lips as he swished his glass in small circles to free the aroma. “They’ve arrived,” he purred.
“Only half of them, by the looks of it.”
The troop of soldiers, weighed down by heaps of thick plate armor and the agony of defeat, gathered near the gates in a clamor of clangs and mourning. Their numbers had dwindled, yet the Endaar kept them marching.
“You wouldn’t need more of them if you’d stop killing the ones we have already,” slurred Illio.
General Kobrall glared at him, and the council room door creaked open. An Endaar servant draped in tattered red robing lurched inside. It was twice the size of any of the General’s men; dense rock within and without.
“Don’t they knock anymore?” barked the General.
“All the time, though they seem to prefer knocking on things made of stone. I believe they like the sound it makes against their knuckles.” Illio gestured to the servant, an easy pull of his unmarred fingers toward the table he sat at, as if encouraging a child to walk for the very first time. He smiled impishly.
A silver tray topped with vintage wine slid across the servant’s hardened palm and nearly fell to the floor. Steel and stone did not mix well.
The servant began to fumble, and General Kobrall gleamed with satisfaction; a thin grin peeling back upon yellow-stained teeth. He reached over and wrapped his callused fingers around the handle of a war-hammer that leaned against the wall.
Illio jolted up and steadied the tray as he leered at the diamond-tipped hammer.
He plucked the wine bottles and gently pushed the servant back in the direction of the chamber door, rapping his fingertips on a bottle as the Endaar exited. It paused outside the door, then descended.
“You pity them?” said the General as he eased his grip.
“Only as one pities a mountain…or a storm.” Illio blew into the top of an empty bottle he had just finished. Wooooot.
He teetered over to General Kobrall and stared out the tower. The Endaar trudged near the gates, pulling them back for the returning soldiers to enter the castle.
“They will heal the wounded tonight. I trust you’ve not cut all their tongues out?” said Illio.
“Some can still speak, yes—if you call that incessant song speech. It’s the only reason I don’t have them all smashed to bits.”
“Infinite numbers at your disposal for but the price of a bothered ear. If you crushed the Endaar…”
Illio sighed. He studied the outline of the Tellagach Mountains against the sky.
“…that would truly be a pity sir. We’ve only just begun to understand them. Theirs is a language long forgotten, before letters and writing and alphabets, something purely arcane. When we first brought them here—”
“They nearly slaughtered us!” The General ground his teeth, two lumps of muscle bulging from the sides of his bearded jaw.
“Have you forgotten what they brought with them? It was alive, the whole place was alive I swear it. I will not allow that to happen again, Illio. I took their tongues for a reason. The Endaar are just another casualty of our expansion; they have no Gods. Do you also yearn to understand the language of bugs beneath your boot?”
Illio stepped back toward the table.
“They are not bugs, sir. The sounds they make have the power to heal.”
“And the power to bring ruin on all who hear their songs. I’ll have no more of your pity for the Endaar, counselor. As soon as reinforcements arrive from the north, I’ll rid the castle, and the mountains, of all the Endaar. They’re rubble, Illio…walking, stinking rubble.”
“As you wish, General.”
Illio walked to the chamber door, his glass left empty next to the silver tray on the table in the center of the torch-lit keep. Two small figurines stood on the tray, a gift from the Endaar servant.
“I’ll see that the wounded are attended to, General.”
That night, beneath an orange and purple sky freckled with tiny diamonds, the Endaar sang.
Inside the cramped servant’s quarters, trotting around a fire pit surrounded by men with hammers hardened in the hottest kilns castle Corvotis had to offer, they sang. Only five tongued Endaar remained in the castle. Those were tolerated, kept with tongue long enough to quicken the wounded and half-dead soldiers that had returned.
Illio watched from the back of the room. He hoped the soldiers would not shatter them before the night was over.
Leading the fire’s circumnavigation was an Endaar whose outer crust was cracking. Thin lines spider-webbed across its entire body. A leather bonnet, draped with leaves and precious stones, was tied too tightly under its chin, which expanded with each sobbing syllable it sang. From its mouth, jagged quartz mixed with granite, a large cow-like tongue flickered. Its eyes, two ripe cherries, filled with warm tears as it swooned.
While singing, the Endaars’ breath was visible: blue and gray wisps that spiraled around the dancing flames. Each successive song’s breath carried the scent of soil after rain, mulch and marble dust. It thickened the air inside the room. The men twitched inside their suits of armor. The nearly-dead and wounded twitched also.
“Dead man’s dance!” shouted a soldier near the door.
“Sacrilege, the whole lot of um,” said another.
As gashes closed and hearts began to slowly pump again, the men went for their hammers. One of them pulled back and drove the diamond-tipped end of a hammer into an Endaar’s calf. It shattered and, falling to the ground, the song was interrupted.
“Wait!” said Illio. “It’s not complete. Let them finish.”
A second Endaar lost its tongue when the guard shouting ‘dead-man’s dance’ severed it with a single slash. There was no blood, only a plump tongue on the ground near the fire. Now only three sang, but it was enough to enliven the General’s fallen men.
“They’ve done what is required of them. Enough!” Illio stepped into the circle of Endaar, shielding them with outstretched arms.
The men stood with hammers at the ready.
The Endaar did not sing, only stood and stared at the waning fire and the last bits of song wisps that flowed up noses and ears and half-open mouths.
“The Gods will not forgive this,” said one of the men as he lowered his hammer. The others followed suit.
“It is on the General’s orders that it be done,” Illio gasped. “We have no relief from the north yet.”
“We’ll not march with the dead again. Step aside councilor,” said the man that had shattered the Endaar’s calf.
“Then you will march alone. Look around you men. Few remain of the brave souls we set out with, 50 at most. Weather beaten and wounded… unable to even hold their weapons, let alone push the front lines into the heart of Plarchos. They’ve given us a second chance.” Illio lowered his hands, nearly pleading. “Would you bite the hand that feeds you?”
Valin, the soldier that had removed the Endaar’s tongue, scoffed and turned to the rest.
“Feed us? This twig-of-a-man that sits inside the walls we hold up says the beasts feed us. He’d have the stony abominations lead us into battle with bellies full of poison then. Sillus knew it, he’d have crushed them the second they arrived and been half way to the capital by now.”
Beads of sweat ran down Illio’s brow. Swordplay, a brutish pursuit in his opinion, had never been Illio’s strong suit. He carried his brother’s blade only once a year, on the anniversary of his death. It had been so long since he had heard the name spoken aloud, the name that passed his lips in mumbled prayer only, the reason he endured the company of men like Valin and General Kobrall. Sillus the Red.
“Never speak his name again. You who call yourselves men of the Shielded Frontier—you’re nothing more than gaolers. Sillus would have removed your tongues and had them roasted over a spitfire, then toasted to your rotting bones with a chilled bottle of Vinegaurd.” He was twitching now, not as a man twitches from strain, but the twitch of action pent-up for far too long. He wrapped his thin fingers around the handle of a dagger snuggled inside his coat.
Valin lost his resolve.
“Give us the mute one then. Even…he…would have had the sense to keep his men in good spirits. Let us take out our rage on the beast.”
Illio looked to the remaining Endaar. Like frightened cattle they rubbed and rasped against each other, against the sweaty walls inside the quarters where the air was thick as sap. One lay in a pile of rubble and dust. One stood by the fire still, eyes fixed upon its own tongue on the ground. It somehow understood that it would not sing again, that offering itself up to the bloodthirsty men would somehow ease the blow to its own kind.
It drug its feet toward the flames, slouched over, picked up the tongue and handed it to Illio.
“What a beautiful sight,” said Valin. “Any idea where the counselor plans to put that tongue tonight?” He bellowed a guttural laugh that echoed inside the room and his men, like they always did, followed suit; a song of laughter to greet the fallen Endaar.
Illio pulled an empty wine bottle from his pocket and rapped a hollow cadence. The remaining Endaar followed him out the door, their hairless heads scrapping wood off the threshold as they filed through.
He stood in the doorway as the men picked up their hammers and inched toward the Endaar. The sound of steel on stone echoed from the quarters.
It was nearing midnight when Illio returned to his room: four stone walls, some covered with intricate tapestries, red and purple velvet furnishings appropriate for the comfort he sought while the world outside toiled and hammered away, an oak desk covered with inkwells and parchments and quills from at least 7 different birds, an iron rack loaded with his favorite wines and a curious cove in the corner covered by a dusty red cloak.
“Come out now. I have something for you. A gift.”
Had castle Corvotis been made of anything save for thick stone and rock hewn by master craftsman’s hands, the Endaar servant that awoke behind the crimson cloak would have fallen through the floor. Its porous, ashen palm pulled away the cloak and it stepped out of the darkness of the cove. Illio smiled at the familiarity of its eyes. He pulled out the swollen tongue.
“You’re supposed to chew it for a while.” He feigned dropping a morsel into his own mouth, then ground his teeth exaggeratedly.
The servant took the tongue and dropped it into its mouth.
“Now we shall see,” said Illio. He sat down at his desk, popped the cork of a dark wine and fingered through the ledger before him.
“You’ll not be what you were before, I’ve come to understand that part. Maybe it’s a blessing, maybe the gods of the Shielded Frontier have a sense of humor after all. Were you so righteous in your former state?” Illio reveled.
The Endaar belched, light blue wisps escaping the gaps between its jagged teeth.
“It’s not your fault at all—I knew what I was getting in to. When I found you in that mountain cave, thrashed beyond recognition, I nearly prayed. Laughable, I know, but it’s as they say: ‘There is no disbelief on the battlefield.’”
The Endaar servant rubbed its belly, a paunch boulder that rumbled as it chewed. It pulled the red cloak from the cove and draped it over its back. Illio coughed-up a glob of wine onto the ledger.
“If only I had a mirror. It doesn’t fit anymore. Sillus the Bald…Sillus the Silent…Sillus the small-caped.” He guffawed and took another guzzle of wine.
“We’ll have our own castle soon enough. Gods…what do the gods know of subjugation? Before you fell I might have believed in divine justice, I might have thought that men, flesh and bone, were the rightful bearers of truth.”
Sillus hung his maw low, and the mended tongue began to writhe.
“Easy,” whispered Illio. “I’ve grown impatient as well, but hold your song brother. Hold your song for an occasion such as the castle walls have never seen.” Illio raised his glass. “To brotherhood,” he cheered.
Sillus cracked a smile. He swallowed his tongue and ducked back inside the cover of his cove.
The Shielded Frontier messenger arrived early the next morning. Reinforcements from the north would arrive in three days’ time and General Kobrall would be relieved of his post and moved westward near the front lines of battle. He ordered the recently healed soldiers, as much as their hardening ears could comprehend, to remain in the Endaar’s quarters while the messenger gave the good news.
It was difficult, at first, to see the subtle change in the quickened soldiers. For days after hearing the song, nothing was different about them. But as days turned to weeks, so too, they began to outgrow their boots and chest plates and helmets. Most of them could not even grip their weapons now for their hands had become more than callused; they had become thick clutches of porous stone. It would have stirred caution in the messenger to see such hybridized men. So the General hid them.
While the remaining soldiers left their suits of armor and weapons behind to don wears appropriate for a night of celebration and revelry, Illio donned the polished shell of a crimson ghost.
Shifting his gauntleted hands along the walls as he descended the stairs to meet the General and his men for a feast, Illio nearly stumbled. He wasn’t used to his brother's former uniform: the blade-tipped boots jutting out at each step, the jeweled scabbard that scraped along the narrow corridor like a whining pet begging for table scraps, the barreled chest plate that bulged a full foot free of his own scrawny rib cage. These he wore for effect. Not for comfort. Not for accolades. He was a conductor on his way to meet the orchestra.
A hush fell over the dining hall as Illio approached, his red cloak catching burs on the floor behind him as he strode confidently. Not a single seat was empty at the table.
“You’ve started without me.”
General Kobrall let the chunk of spitfire flesh dangle from his mouth, his eyes pinned across the room at the shimmering figure approaching. He dropped his fork with a ting, grunted and continued gnawing. One of the men, a thin reed among trees, blasted back in his seat and pulled it aside for Illio to sit. Valin pounded the table.
“Where’s that servant of yours? My glass is empty.”
Illio swept his hand in a low arch and bowed sarcastically. “Ah, a man after my own drowning heart. Always best to get the juices flowing first, am I right? Let me get that for you.” Illio slunk to the table, gently patting the man that had offered his seat on the shoulder. “Sit, I insist.”
He eyed the man’s full glass, then snatched it. He took Valin’s empty glass also and compared the two, then drank deeply, swished the yellow fermentation for a while and spit it into Valin’s glass. “Bitter on the back end, but I’ve primed it for you my friend.”
The table erupted in laughter, spittle, metal, wood and flesh colliding. Valin stood and slapped the empty glass from Illio’s wavering hand. The laughter died, but General Kobrall was not amused.
Yes, he had been at the hammers-handle end when many an Endaar fell inside the castle walls—had even given the order to have their tongues removed. But behind the General’s every sadistic order was a kind of logic; a twisted tree of life that had the well-being of his men at the very top of the food chain, among the carnivores. Eat or be eaten might have been his creed. But Valin hadn’t a drop of the General’s reserve. Unrestrained, he would have been happy to cut down that tree of life and devour the world, along with Illio and his sentiments toward the Endaar slaves.
Illio picked up an empty bottle from the table, spun round on his brother’s boot heels and began to blow softly. Wooooot. Another couple of steps toward the staircase and, wooooot.
The General tugged Valin’s shoulder, easing him back into his seat. “He’s drunk, captain. Pay no mind. Sit and celebrate and let Illio return to his books. Castle Corvotis will be charged to you very soon. Tell me, what plans do you have after my departure?”
Valin wiped the back of his hand across trembling lips that slowly steeled into a boastful smirk. His answer to the General’s question would no doubt be directed at the drunken counselor. Illio stopped mid-gait and dropped the empty bottle to the ground. It shattered just as a 9 foot tall Endaar entered from the kitchen.
“You’ll entrust the castle to him?!” Illio clenched the handle of his blade as the Endaar approached. Valin rose from his seat again.
“Does the General’s decision not bode well with you, Illio? I am, logically, the next in line to lead the men of this castle to victory.” Valin scanned the scarred faces at the table. “Were you somehow misled to believe that the position would fall to you?”
The power of men like captain Valin always lies in the support given to them by the masses. Either they are ruthless beyond mere malice, in which case their support is given reluctantly, in fear of retribution, or they are just, and their supporters entrust to them the promise that they will create a better future for all to bask in. Valin was neither of these; he was a lightning rod, an extension of hatred and intolerance focused on a single goal: to destroy that which is not human, godly, or made of the same steel that drives the machine of war.
Illio drew his brother’s sword and stood before the Endaar. Its eyes were vacant as Illio drew back and slammed the blade into its shoulder, bits of rubble ricocheting round the hall. The men cheered him on. “Now that’s the spirit,” said Valin. “Let it out—let it all out, you drunken fool.”
“Illio. What’s taken hold of you?” the General queried.
Illio heaved inside his armor. He drew back his arm to strike the bewildered Endaar again. Before his sword came down, the sound of steel on stone echoed from the top of the staircase. Illio froze.
They all remembered the sound. It was not the familiar sound of labor or the sound that Illio’s blade made when he struck the behemoth Endaar from the kitchen. It was the sound the General recognized after first bringing the Endaar to castle Corvotis; the sound that the diamond-tipped hammers made when they shattered the Endaar. It was the sound of the subjugated dying. But the Endaar were hidden, tucked away inside their quarters along with the hybridized men. They had all left their weapons behind. Except for Valin.
As the sound grew louder, red and gold wisps crept down the staircase and saturated the space inside the dining hall. Illio turned and faced the table. The sound of steel on stone belted behind him, whipping his tattered cloak into a tempest wave of blood-red ripples.
“Logically, Valin…you were never next in line to lead the men of this castle,” said Illio.
“On the table, all of you!” General Kobrall ordered. “Stay away from the walls.”
And the orchestra began to play.
The first Endaar came from the floor near the long end of the table. The General and his men climbed up, Valin pulling diamond-tipped steel from beneath his fineries. The Endaar’s monstrous arms reached up first from the stone flooring, grabbed hold of one of the men and crushed him round the torso. It tossed the man’s limp body into the small crowd perched upon the table. The table teetered, creaked and crashed down beneath the weight of the Shielded Frontier. The walls glowed a fell, phosphorescent shade of sepia as the sound of steel on stone pounded in their eardrums.
Valin came down upon the Endaar: a wild, two-handed stroke that turned its head to dust. “Find your weapons! Get the General to his keep,” he shrieked. Illio shuddered and dashed to the table.
On all sides of the dining hall, the walls became outlined with the silhouettes of Endaar slaves. Like molten rock, they leapt from their shapes and joined the fray. It was as if the very walls came to life, indistinguishable from the beasts born of them.
Three men pulled the General from the back wall where his broach, and his throat, were nearly ripped away from jutting Endaar clutches. They shot through the hall toward the staircase. The kitchen Endaar threw itself on the small band, crushing two of the men on its way down. The last man shoved the General to the first step of the ascent.
“Your hammer,” gurgled the man before being pulled into the wall, his jaw tweaked sideways against cold stone. General Kobrall slipped and slid and fumbled up the staircase to his keep.
He slammed into the chamber door, entered, and scanned the room for the hammer that leaned against the wall near the tower opening. It was gone. The small figurines, two roughly hewn, stone soldiers that might have been molded from petrified Endaar dung, were also gone.
The red-robed servant…
The figurines, now nearly four-foot tall with ragged claws of sharp stone, dropped from the rafters of the keep. Slashing a fury so fierce it forced the General to his knees, the two denizens pinned him to the floor as he struggled helplessly. From the shadowy borders of the room, two ripe cherries burned like embers from a pyre. General Kobrall’s eyes bulged as the torch light reflected the end of his hammer piercing through the darkness. Sillus emerged.
The red and gold breath, Sillus’s song, filled the keep. The once human General of the Shielded Frontier loomed over General Kobrall. The song streamed from the Endaar servant like steam screaming from white hot steel extinguished. It was a song of pure rage, raw and abysmal.
As Sillus roared and heaved the hammer high, General Kobrall saw that the beast before him was no mere Endaar servant. He saw, in the seconds before his reign of castle Corvotis was violently torn from his clutches, the man he once admired. Behind the burning embers; beneath the dense rock; within the fury of the sound of steel on stone, the General recognized the man he’d left to die in Tellagach.
The men trapped inside the dining hall lost their lives. When the castle was quickened the number of Endaar that fought were just too many for the unarmed men to stop. Valin, however, found his final victim.
When General Kobrall escaped to his keep, Illio charged Valin amidst a storm of falling Endaar. He fared well for himself, shattering four beasts, before Illio embraced him—thrusting his brother’s sword through Valin’s heart. But Illio’s killing blow did not go unanswered. Valin swung his arms around the counselor as they met, and plunged a daggered fist into the unprotected side of Illio’s neck. Upon the crumbled table, surrounded by fallen men and Endaar alike, he bled.
When the sun began to rise, the Endaar emerged from castle Corvotis to count their number. Three tongued Endaar remained, and the hybridized men—men healed and transformed by blue and gray wisps—would soon be counted among the tribe. Illio, too, was counted.
Sillus lifted his brother and carried him out to the courtyard where nascent rays of light warmed the chill of his impending demise. He had lost too much blood and would be dead by the time the sun set itself high above the castle.
Sillus laid him down on the soft dirt and began to pull away pieces of the armor he was so proud to wear before he was left for dead by the men he had trusted most. What he had before spent hours cleaning and polishing, the shell that had given him an identity—a stalwart soldier of the Shielded Frontier—he now tossed aside like a stain he wished to erase.
Illio had not abandoned him.
It was of his own accord that Illio had brought his half-dead brother deep inside the mountain’s belly, where the Endaar sang the life back into him. It was out of love, and much wine, that Illio had kept his brother safe inside the cove of his quarters. ‘To brotherhood,’ he had cheered.
Sillus gathered wood and stacked it high near the castle gates. He pulled the red cloak from among the scattered remnants of his armor and covered Illio’s quivering body. Three tongued Endaar approached and dipped their torches into the growing pyre. The Endaar looked to Sillus the Red. The light in Illio’s eyes began to wane as he opened his mouth and whispered to the sky.
“Sillus the Bald…Sillus the Silent…Sillus…my brother.”
“Now, you are safe.”
Sillus closed his eyes and began to sing. The Endaar circled the crackling fire and wisps of blue and gray crawled beneath the crimson cloak that covered Illio.
In two days’ time, reinforcements would arrive from the north. And the sound of steel on stone would once again echo through the halls.