Author Topic: Faction Stories: A League of Her Own  (Read 1136 times)

Offline Red Cedar

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Faction Stories: A League of Her Own
« on: September 06, 2016, 10:49:18 pm »
I've been working on a series of short stories about a character from each faction and this is the first one I've got partway finished. If there's any interest, I'll write the rest of it. And regardless, thoughtful criticism is always appreciated. I made the League with a Spanish-Arabic flavor. The names of their settlements on the map seem Spanish-inspired, and combine that with the theme of Moorish Valencia in the south of Spain for the desert setting and it seems to work pretty well.

Ever after, Zoraida would remember the silence the most, when God came to Caldera.

God’s Wrathful Eye, burning bright in the cloudless sky, smote the land with fire, so hot that a man could spit upon the rock and watch it sizzle away before he took his next scorching breath. The air shimmered with heat, and the unceasing smoke that rose from the town’s foundries and machine shops hung in a haze in the still, cloudless sky. It was the height of the dry season in the desert. It was a good time to go Outside.

Zoraida was at work, ignoring the complaints of her near-empty stomach and the half-full bowl of greasy sludge that passed for a meal on the walkway behind her. Warm gun oil smeared her hands as she carefully slid the iron guts of a Torbellino rotary gun back into place. Like all things of the desert that were precious, the town’s little shipyard was hidden. Along with the rest of the town, it sat within the vast stone bowl that gave the place its name. Adobe mud-brick columns supported dusty, tattered hides to make pathways of shade across the caldera slopes so that even the poorest could walk about without searing the flesh from their feet. Little pinpricks of darkness marked where the entrances to the real dwellings and shops were, hacked deep into the volcanic rock where God’s Eye never reached.

“Ay, Zora, you could have built a new gun with how long it is taking to fix that one!” came the laughing voice of her crewmate.

Zoraida considered turning the weapon upon him once she had finished. Ah, but then I only have to patch the bullet holes in her skin. Again. O God, I pray you make this day my destiny, I have endured trials to make me strong enough for anything, does not this man prove as much?

“That I could do,” she agreed quietly, without taking her eyes off her work. “Give me ten pesetas and I will make for you the finest gun in all Arashi.”

She grinned at the sounds of strangled outrage from behind her.

“Ten pesetas? No gun is worth that much!”

She grunted as she forced the final piece into place and reached back to grasp her wrench.

“Mine are! The guns of Zoraida are made of scrap metal and goat droppings, yet they are as good as those of the Outsider nations. Imagine what I might do with proper coin and metal. Ah, but I forget myself, that would require having a chieftain who is not content with giving us only goat droppings, no doubt from being half goat himself, the way he digs in his hooves to keep this one ship weak and the women on it weak and the tribe weak and all Arashi weak along with us!” On the last word, she gave the final twist to the stubborn bolt, then let out a satisfied sigh. Tossing down the wrench, she slammed the gun’s cowling back into place, then began fastening it there with leather strips. Look at this! Bits of worn leather where there should be a catch and bolts! It still has bullet holes from the last battle! And will there be metal to patch them? No! It will all go to keep the rest of our fleet whole while my ship is left wounded! Curse the rule of command, the rule of one in three, and the goat-kissing elders who made them! May their souls be devoured by scorpions!

She heard footsteps and then her crewmate was close behind her, speaking in a low, nervous voice.

“I wish you would not speak so loudly, Zora! You are no swordswoman, nor do you have one to match Gervasio for all your talk. One day he will hear you and he will kill you. And then we would not have such fine guns to shoot, how could I live with myself?”

Tying the final knot, she wiped her hands on a rag already soaked with grease, then turned around to lean back against the gun, her head dropping with a sigh as she looked down at herself. Zoraida was many things, but no sword-swinger. She was a short woman, with the lean, wiry muscles of a mechanic and tiny, thin-fingered hands, and the loose, sweat-stained clothes she wore did nothing to flatter her. Like most who worked with machinery, she cut her hair short, the black locks only barely covering the tops of her ears. In contrast, her crewmate, Feliciano, was tall and strong, the sort of smug handsome she sometimes wanted to punch in the face and dressed in the red and gold of the League. But then, she was a gunner and he helmsman, she would only get fine clothes stained with ash and grease.

“Let him hear,” she murmured. “I am tired of pretending. Every woman in this town is tired of pretending. We live, but that is all. We spend the blood and honor of our daughters like water upon the sands, thinking that one day it will wash away our tribe’s weakness, but we could drown all Arashi in a red sea and still the desert would stay weak and die that way. It is not just that, either, anyone, man or woman, who tries to speak of claiming land and wealth Outside is condemned or slain. How many have died at the hands of their sworn comrades, hm?” She leaned in, forcing him back. “How many times have you watched the wailing of those who have lost all and been as moved by it as the mountain stone because it happens all the time? The Outsider nations, for all their weakness, are not so blind, they know what it means to conquer! Arashi could be the strongest nation in this world if we did the same, for have we not already been tested! We would have the numbers and the strength to push out and take what we wish, to challenge the might of the jailers of Yesha and the vultures of the Guild and win! God has tested us and found us strong, all of us, and we should use that strength! There is a world out there, waiting for the strong to seize it!”

Whatever Feliciano might have said was interrupted. A high, wailing note sounded far above them, the call of a warhorn. It was echoed by many more shortly afterwards, and Caldera boiled like a kicked hornet’s nest as its warriors hurried to prepare. Zoraida sighed.

“Ah, and we are out of time, or near enough. Our petty thieving begins again. Well then, if you would make up for watching the suffering of my sisters in arms and watching our nation continue ruling over only the dust of the earth, now is the time. Will you join me?”

“Zoraida,” he said quietly, “You frighten me worse than the Death of the Eye. What is it you are planning?”

She let out a mirthless chuckle.

“Planning?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

His eyes went wide and his mouth hung open for a long moment.

“What have you done?” he breathed.

“I?” she asked, her bitter smile spreading wider, and he reeled back, holding onto the walkway railing for support.

“Who else have you persuaded to join you in this folly? How many? God grant me strength, Zora, what have you done?”

Her laughter was the sound of breaking glass.

“And again, the wrong questions? Done? It is what I am about to do that should concern you, Feli.” With her callused hands, she reached behind her and grasped the handles of the Whirlwind, then spun about, swinging the big gun completely around so that she hung suspended over the rocky ground forty paces below, her feet scraping the edge of the gunner’s post and only her grip on the trigger handles keeping her alive. Feliciano froze as the muzzle came to rest pointed squarely at his chest.

“In case you are thinking I am bluffing because the autoloaders are not connected, there is a single round loaded,” she told him, cursing the waver in her voice and the way her grip tightened on the braided leather handles. “I am sorry, but what I do here today is too important. Today, this ship flies under a woman’s command. Are you with me?”

“And if I say no?” he asked, his breaths coming fast and shallow, eyes fixed upon the dark maw of the gun barrel in front of him.

“Then we wait until they arrive and you will be bound and put off the ship. If you try to cry out and warn someone…” She took a shuddering breath. “Tears of the sky, Feli, I don’t know! I do not want to kill you! But you stand atop the bodies of a thousand women, in the way of glory and greatness for Arashi. I…I don’t know. Please…let us not find out.”

“You would trust me if I said yes?” he asked.

“Of course! You saved my life,” she said. “I would have killed myself trying to get to Gervasio had you not stopped me. You are a man of honor and I will trust you to speak the truth here. If it means my life and that of those who trusted me, so be it. But I am Arashi and Calderana and a warrior and I will not let you outdo me in matters of honor.” An absurd, nervous giggle escaped her lips at the pathetic joke and she swore silently again. Fool that I am!

Although the air was full of noise, the sound of running feet, airship crewmen shouting, and warhorns still wildly blowing, all Zoraida could hear was the silence between them. At last, Feliciano nodded slowly.

“I will follow,” he said, hanging his head. “You knew it would be so before you began to speak.”

She immediately swung back around onto the walkway proper, putting the gun back in its proper position, and practically collapsed onto the railing, her legs shaking as relief flooded through her.

“I am sorry,” she whispered.

He nodded miserably.

“Ay, so am I, but not for what you think. I am sorry this is the only way for me to see that you live. But you will not be Isabella, not while I draw breath.”

The arrival of many clattering feet caused both of them to look down towards the docks, where a group of people approached, all swathed in robes and head-wraps. Getting to her feet, Zoraida hurried to the ladder to the main deck and slid down it, followed closely by Feliciano.

“Is it done?” she demanded of the new arrivals, “Are they all dealt with?”

The foremost stranger pushed back her head-wrap to reveal the leathery features of Beatrice, engineer’s mate.

“All of them!” she replied, grinning back. “And the ships have been dealt with.”

“The ships?” Feliciano asked.

“Nothing serious,” Zoraida hastened to assure him, “But we cannot be pursued while the fleet is still within patrolling distance of Caldera.” Then she turned back to her crew, the rest of whom were now shedding their head-wraps and shrugging off robes to reveal all of them were women as well.

“Feliciano is coming with us,” she said, clapping her friend -if she could still call him that after today – on the shoulder. “If any should look upon us with far-eyes, he will wear the captain’s clothes and bark orders so they think a man commands. But when battle comes, he will pilot as he has done before.” She held up a hand before the pilot among the crowd could protest. “He is the best among us and you all know it, there is no shame in that. But I am glad to have another pilot with us, should he fall. Now, to your posts! We go to plunder the wealth of the Outside and I will not see us fall behind!”

The crew – her crew – scattered, quickly moving to their stations. Zoraida did so as well, moving up to the captain’s post in the center of the main deck, just behind the helmsman.

Outsiders named their ships after many things: flowers, virtues, ideas, beasts. The Arashi League named theirs after women, for an airship was a living thing, as any airman knew, one that all those who flew upon it treasured as they would a wife. They named it for the woman that the crew most agreed resembled it. Those poor, brave pilots of the flea-craft swarm named theirs after sisters for the most part, being too young to marry. Zoraida’s ship was the greatest that Caldera could boast of, having started life as a Pyramidion hull in the service of the Guildsmen to the far east. She was old now, even in the lives of men rather than ships, and all the more loved for that. She had been named after the most respected female elder of the town at the time and so the name Azucena was painted upon her bow, after the rarest of the delicate flowers that could be coaxed to life by the oases of the Arashi. Now she came to life once more to serve her people.

The engineers worked their magic and the main engine coughed grudgingly into life, sputtering at first, then rising to a healthy rumble. The two turning engines came next, and that was less difficult, for she knew the soul of the ship was roused and battle-hungry even as she herself was. Zoraida listened to the calls of the crew, one by one, as they reported in.

“Engines ready!” said Beatrice, patting the worn wood of the hull with one gnarled hand and the biggest smile Zoraida had ever seen on her.

“Guns ready!” came the shout of Emperatriz from the high gun platforms. Just afterwards, Zoraida heard the distinctive click-clack of the autoloaders locking into place and shook her head slightly. Anticipating, as usual.

“Helm ready!” Feliciano’s comparatively deep voice carried across the deck as he spun the wheel back and forth, listening to the turning engines purr in answer.

Azucena awaits your command, captain,” said Juanita, her second. The other woman was a bronze tower who had somewhere found an enormous scimitar, just as she had always wanted.

“Cast off!” Zoraida ordered, and the command was promptly obeyed. The moment the last of the thick ropes were untied and flung to the stone docks, she looked to Feliciano and bellowed, “Helm! Ahead slow, raise ship to one thousand paces! Course, north-north-east! Form up with the fleet!”

“Ahead slow, one thousand, north-north-east, aye, captain!” he replied, and reached over to shove the tarnished brass throttle upwards. The quiet rumble of the engines became a blaring drone as the propellers spun up. Azucena was moving.

“Today we teach the Outsiders that only the Arashi know true strength!” Zoraida shouted to her crew, striding back and forth along the deck with a furious energy. “The lands that have made them soft, we will water with their blood! All that they have, the strongest shall take and they will know that their days are at an end! Outsiders, Beware!

The battle cry of the League was echoed by those upon the other ships and from there to the town itself until all Caldera resounded with it. Even Zoraida screamed it into the din. Her heart hammered like a war drum. Battle was coming.