The Empire

Among the fields, the stream hissed and flashed beneath the silver half-moon. Shouldering muskets and hemmed in by towering cavalry, the white-clad Empire marched between the gloomy mountains. And hushed words, bouncing from one man to the next, grew to frenzied yells in every tongue of Europe.

And now clouds cover the moon, and the night becomes intense and wraps tighter around the valley.

A soldier emerges from the dark, staggering as a drunkard and holding his entrails in his stomach. He collapses, pale and shaking, and his shallow breaths become frantic and then slow to a stop. More men throw themselves to the ground among a shower of canister shot, and then lift themselves to their feet, their perfect white uniforms now covered with mud, as they run into the distance. One stumbles on a dead horse, and then falls with blood spreading across his chest.

A block of silhouettes, screaming in strange languages, emerges, faint in the dark, lets loose a volley of gunfire, and scatters as cannon balls blast the ground before them and behind them.

Swinging a sabre back and forth, a shadowy hussar yells into a shadowy mass of bayonets. His words become indistinct amid a successive bursts of artillery from somewhere in the midnight.

A musket ball comes from behind, and he lurches backwards and falls. Limp and unconscious and caught on a stirrup, he bounces along behind his startled horse.

The Enemy is in the Dark. Unseen. Under carts and behind bushes. Disappearing. Entering. Disappearing. But always somewhere.

The ground is blue and black and grey. The white uniforms of the dead can be seen in a paler grey. Three dishevelled infantrymen wander among the twisted carcasses. They do not speak. They would not understand one another if they did, enlisted as they are in the Imperial Army of Babel. But every so often, one of them looks around to the other two, as if to make sure they aren’t looking at him, before bending down to search the pockets of a sprawling and broken comrade. And as the line begins to retreat, the three of them look round to one another for one last time, and vanish into the all-forgetting night.

The enemy tears through the ranks. Each soldier peers through to the indistinct faces of his comrades.

And there is a gunshot. A man collapses. Nothing is seen. Such is the night.

And there is Caesar. Staggering to his feet as his horse kicks mud behind its hooves and rushes into the night. His jacket is torn and down his mud-streaked, sweat-streaked forehead runs a drop of the blood of Charlemagne, a thousand years old. The silver sun of the Order of Saint Stephen hangs loosely now, just about held to his chest by  a single thread.

The Divine Augustus looks around blankly at the frontier of his Imperial domain, churned with hooves and wagon wheels and cannon balls, rows of groaning bodies and abandoned carts receding into the darkness. In a fleeting moment of quiet, the rushing river is still audible, spiralling through the night as always. And the Emperor of the Romans reaches down and feels in the dirt for something. He gives up, and stands upright once more.

He bundles his jacket to hide the marks of his ancient office, and, head down, limping, tries to find his way to the road.

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