Toy Soldiers is an excerpt from my novel, "Lords of the Kreyml".
©2011 Andrew Thompson
SAVE four girls standing at rigid attention, the Star Chamber was empty.
One stood by each wall, a short blade in one hand and a shield in the other, white sandalled with a cloth about their waists. Pretty and flat-chested in the prelude to puberty, they looked like toy soldiers, and indeed they were.
Not yet twelve, they were too young to join the armies, but with the privilege of birth right and lineage, their presence was permitted by the King at formal meetings, and encouraged by parents eager to launch their children's careers.
It was the way of things in the armies. Heroics and valour were fine attributes for the grunts who fought on the lines, but lineage was a steadfast requirement for joining the echelons of power.
With parents well placed in cabinet and trade, these girls would be Officers one day.
Outside, the spiral stairwell began to hum, resonating like the sound of bees as soldiers climbed the rungs with choreographed steps. Shadows skipped across the window and the first man appeared, a Guardsman adorned in full royal attire.
He scanned the room with an avid eye paying no attention to the girls, then signalled his men to enter. They poured in en masse and stood like sentries around the long table. A second passed and then another. A shadow flittered past the window again and King Stavius entered. Behind him, his advisors followed like ants, obedient and silent.
They took their seats at the table while Stavius remained standing. He waited patiently then eyed a man at the end.
"Scobachi – You lead."
The stringy Lieutenant stood. His demeanour was smug and officious. Prince Tamaq's departure had created a power vacuum, a predicament that had worked in Scobachi's favour. His posting of Royal Mercury was new. And understated.
Amongst his duties was that of gathering intelligence. He was the King's spy-master. Amongst his privileges though, was access to the King at whim. In a few short weeks he had elevated from an obscure military advisor to the absolute hub of power.
"I have news from Althase," he began, "An armed gathering occurred in Liliquon City demanding independence. The threat was eliminated but two of our men were killed."
Stavius rumbled. "Is it quashed?"
"There is more, my liege. We also have news from Caryllius. Another armed gathering.
"Stavius looked at him bewildered. "Caryllius? What gripe do they have in Caryllius?"
Scobachi appeared sheepish. "My liege, they share a common border with Althase, and indeed Caryllius was born of the Althasian state. Their populations intertwine and interbreed without distinction. We should consider the events directly linked, and I venture co-organised. Alas further, I must also report a second protest in Althase."
Stavius glowered. "Three events is not the act of disorganised rabble. It is rebellion."
"I can draw no other conclusion, my liege."
Stavius looked at his advisors around the table. "We must quell this uprising. Now is the time to speak if we are disagreed."
One man tentatively raised his hand. It was Kubala, Base Captain of Central Fleet.
"Talk, Captain," Stavius commanded.
Kubala stood. "Lord King, I too have heard these reports. I presented to Lord Bataq to share them and he has a different view."
"Then why is he not at this meeting?"
"If I may say, Lord King, the Prince seems ill – perhaps of heart and spirit …"
"Bah! Spare me your sentiment! What does he have to say?"
"He believes we should send mediators. And for myself, I have to concur."
"Cowardice! Get out of my sight!"
Kubala swallowed hard but held his ground. "With respect, my liege, it is not cowardice but logic. For one, an attack could just worsen the situation. If we fail, the uprising could spread across the empire."
"Then we will not fail – One single massive show of force. We will crush them, not quell them."
Kubala faltered. "Again with respect, we do not have the manpower to fight on two fronts."
Stavius stewed at the words but kept his mouth shut. The soldier was right. He regarded his other advisors coldly.
Another man stood. It was Jonx Zi of Warship Pretoria.
"My liege, my fellow Officers. If war we decide, then I am fine for that. As you know, I have just returned from Althase. But we cannot conscript the masses. If we command every youth to join the armies, then we will surely see an uprising. Not only in the north, but at home. There is, as I see it, another option."
Stavius eyed the man curiously. "Go on."
"Lower the entry age, Lord King. Target the poorer districts. A gold piece for their service. It will bolster the armies and lower crime in one fell swoop."
"A gold piece," Stavius echoed, "That's roughly a year's wage for a soldier. Aye it could work."
Kubala stood again. "My liege, I must protest. Six years ago the entry age was fifteen, and now it is twelve. Can we in good conscience, as leaders of people, reduce it any further?"
Stavius stared at him blankly. His mind was made up.
"You shame our fighting men Kubala. Look to our young sentries by the walls. Do you not see warriors in the making? They want this. Their mothers and fathers want this."
Kubala looked at the nearest girl. She was surely no more than ten. Her hair was blonde, tied into piggy tales, and her hand was trembling. She should not be here in this place of horrid violence.
"My liege, please …"
Stavius stood. He pointed to the trembling girl and another across the room.
"Come forward. My Captain wishes me to validate my point. Stand front and centre."
They obeyed fearfully, each looking to the other for support. Stavius stood by them and placed a paternal hand on each of their shoulders.
"War has come," he said, "Your house is burned, your father wounded, your mother about to be raped. You alone stand facing off. Whose family will survive, and whose will not?"
Kubala ran forward. "My liege, no!"
A fist struck his jaw, one of the King's guards, and he fell in a heap to the floor. Stavius ignored the interruption.
"Fight," he commanded.
The blonde girl took half a step back, her short-blade loose in her hand. Her opponent, perhaps a year older, made a half-hearted thrust with her blade.
Terrified, the blonde girl lunged. Her blade struck flesh. The older girl limped away, clutching her bloodied ribs. She fell to the floor and the blonde girl stood over her.
Half-mad with shock, the older girl cried, not sure if she would die, and then suddenly her eyes glazed over. The fear was gone. She thrust up hard and slashed the blond girl's belly. Blood sprayed like a fountain and she stabbed her again, but a shield struck her head and she sprawled. The blond girl was not yet done for.
The older girl screamed as the short-blade hacked savagely at her spine until finally it was severed. She fell limp, paralysed and twitching in a pool of blood. The blond girl rolled her over and slit her throat to make sure that she was dead then stood victorious on shaking legs. Her stomach was open, and her intestines spilled down her thighs. She looked to her King, then her eyes rolled back and she fell down dead on the floor.
Stavius stared at the corpses blankly. No one dared make a sound. He heard a girl whimper, one of the two who were spared. The noise roused him. He looked back at his advisors.
"Convinced? Or would you like another demonstration?"