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The Fortress of Hestian


The Fortress of Hestian Copyright Douglas Ironside 2022

Anya teetered in the wind, holding her mother at the edge of the thin bridge, staring into the blue eyes of a Goslander.

His bright new uniform looked freshly pulled from a drawer, crisp, pleats still in his pants. The smell of the navy-hued dye from his wool jacket was fresh, the silvery buttons polished and gleaming. He was perhaps eighteen, his face plump and round, indicating fondness for milk-soaked bread. He eyes were unsure, trying hard to muster a man’s strength. He had drawn his sabre like a clumsy fool, fumbling with it, yanking on the hilt to clumsily jam the blade for a long moment where Anya could have simply stepped forward and shoved him over. He would have plunged with a piercing wail, down to the drained moat. The fall’s end would have shattered his bones.  

Anya had restrained that impulse. She and her elderly mother had only stood trembling, waiting for the bumbling lad to draw his weapon, a vibrating tingle of fright for all three. Once the blade was in the air the young soldier hadn’t struck. He merely brandished the sabre high, reflected in the sharp light of the morning sun. It was an unsullied piece of fine-crafted steel, perhaps to indicate this naïve man-boy was the son of someone important, the decorated sword a parting gift to go off to war. Find some glory, stoke your courage, live to return. Or simply carry this lovely blade for when you die. Now he threatened a young lady of twenty in a worn dress, with her weathered matron arm-in-arm.

Mama had her nails deep into her daughter’s arm, wrenching in frigid sweat, an ill-formed terror that drove her cold since last night, lingering hard and fast into the new day. Mama was ripe with anxiety, worn through from booming cannons in the dark. Anya was no less exhausted but stood firm in the face of a sharp blade held by an unpredictable hand. The boy’s voice was unsteady, yet he spoke the Broashin tongue with the thick accent of his home. Gosland, a country of aggressors and marauders, a place of ugly-toothed boars and spiced sausages and fat women eating butter. Now they came east and fired up their machines of battle as they were ever doing and redoing.


“Sneaky spies go to other side,” he said, his voice a mix of classroom and school yard. 

Anya almost said something defiant, but instead just looked at him as he waved his weapon about like he dreamed of staining it crimson, stupid. Seeing how deep it could cut. Testing it on bone and sinew together, he just might, as a child would ravage a toy.

“Y-yes,” stuttered Mama, still clenching, grasping harder, raking skin for her weary terror and her seething hatred of the Goslanders. She had always preached loathing as she worked in the kitchen. She had sung songs of venom, tunes of simmering rage on her lips while chopping onions. But then again, the Goslanders had invaded and plundered and fought with the Broashin, seemingly every generation. Pillage and rape, horror and plunder always spark up the heat for revenge. Mama had no shortage of latent flame, burning deep in her roots.


Anya nodded to the young soldier to confirm she and her mother had meant to cross. The Broashin remaining in the fort were barricaded on the far side, holding out, ready to starve. Everyone knew where they would be locked in, and in the early light of day Anya and Mama had made their brave little break. They had snuck around in the morning, up from the mess of rubble the Goslanders had made, trapping so many, families and soldiers alike, unexpecting, sleeping. Under the dust of explosions there were so many screams and feet scrambling for escape.


Hestian was a complex citadel even before it had been half knocked down and set to smoldering. It was full of twisting halls and long-lost passages, dungeons of yore with woven tunnels. Mama and Anya had hidden in the partial ruins of the west side, and now made for the towers of the centre island. They had dodged a half-dozen clusters of enemies, little hunting packs. So much luck to find the way only to be caught by a single blond soldier scared of the air, on the narrow derelict footbridge, leading to a tiny wicket on the second level. Safety beckoned if they could just get there. One boy away from freedom. Thirty strides from rejoining their countryfolk and kinsmen and having the chance to make away from the bombarded fortress. Run to the east, with refugees that would already be moving in desperate lines.  


“We are no spies,” said Anya. “We only mean to go home, far off, long away. We want to leave by the east road, if we can make it through the fort and over the river.”

“You will go,” said the boy.

Anya and Mama dared to almost smile. They took two steps to move beyond him, to shuffle past their flirtation with doom. 

“No!” he shouted, waggling the sabre. “Only you go.” He was speaking to Anya with hard eyes. He was turning pinky red in trying to be fearsome, when he might just as easily pee himself, or cry for his pet dog.

“Your Mama stays with me,” he said. “You go to the Broashin and tell them surrender. Tell them their lives will be spared if they lay down weapons and open main gate. Your Mama stay with me, so you come back. Or else bad things. Maybe worst.”

Anya heard his words, roughly composed as they were, and knew Mama had caught them.

“I need my Mama…” Anya said.

“You heard me speak. No bargain,” he said, “Or I cut you both now.” Anya contemplated a fight. She would be cut, and Mama would fall. Hands against a sharp sword would do no good.

She and Mama looked at each other, youth to age, each set of eyes the same hazel, echoing each other’s face by thirty years. They each welled with emotion and held a quick embrace. It was Mama who pushed her off.

“No more now…” Mama said, steeling herself, pushing off, shaking her chin.

“Go. Tell our soldiers what the Goslander says. Tell them, and then…”  She nodded, leaving the unknown unsaid. But she was firm, swallowing her fear and fatigue. She backed away and gestured for Anya to go, the taught thin muscles of Mama’s neck unyielding.

The wind blew in a gust, whipping Anya’s long hair across her face. As she pulled the black strands away, the soldier had edged past her and snatched Mama, gripping her brown dress with his off hand. His leather boots edged back to the door on the west side, sitting ajar and waving on squeaking rusty hinges.

“Go to Broashin, I tell you!” the blond boy commanded.

Anya looked at Mama, but Mama would not raise her eyes, her face away, her braided half-grey hair coming undone.

“Mama, I will go…” Anya said, but perhaps not loud enough to be heard in the new rush of air. She looked at the lad and she nodded. She would do as he said. Her face likely betrayed the rage at her centre, the seed of vengeance that would grow in her heart. She turned and hustled for the small door, taking one last glance at Mama being dragged back inside.

The wicket gate was all that was left of a past larger entrance, narrowed with brick to make sure only a single person could pass. The ancient wood shod with black metal appeared medieval, like the sally port of a dark-ages castle. It was locked or barred from the other side and would not open. Anya banged and called, waiting in the wind, alone high above the dry moat. From here, she could see other parts of the fort, movement of soldiers, forces gathering. Not too far was the Vistac, the river, freedom, or perhaps what had become the edge of a front, enemies on the west side, her own people on the east. 

Then she heard faint shot of cannons thundering in the far distance. They were fighting on the other side of the river! The fort had been surrounded. There was the acrid smell of burnt powder, the waft of fires and weaving smoke. The Broashin soldiers still inside had been subsumed by an enemy army that had passed them by, charging forward to the capital of Plinska, leaving Hestian Fortress in the wake of their death-making. Any in the Imperial Army who remained in the fort were not holding back the tip of an invasion by any stretch. Rather they were surrounded and under siege. The wicket had a spy hole that slid open with a flick. 

“No!” said the voice inside, a single wide eye on the other side of a small square frame of black iron, fearing a stabbing knife.

“Let me in,” said Anya. “I am alone. The Goslanders have given me a message for the commander.”

The man on the other side laughed a dark chortle so full of irony that it made him cough. The eye filled the spy hole again and peered out, noticing wind-whipped hair, a ragged yellow dress, and Anya’s struck face, emotionless.

“You want to die in here instead of over there?” the eye asked.

Anya nodded.

“I see. You’d rather starve than open your legs to the Goslanders. No want to make a chunky little half-breed bastard to suck your teats dry.” This time he was being sardonic.

Anya only nodded again, keeping the hair from her face. The spy hole slapped shut. There was a gap of ten seconds while she doubted.

The thought to jump had crudely formed in her mind’s eye. She imagined mercy, the ceasing of pain. Then again, it wasn’t far enough down to be certain. She could land too soft and live for who knows how long, broken in pieces.

The door opened and he let her in with a rush, saying nothing. He slammed the opening shut and replaced a metal bar with muscle and precision. Only then did he look at her.


“What is your name?”

“Anya Sarkofka.”

“Oh,” he said, showing his knotted teeth in the dim light, “a farmer’s girl.”

“No. I was married until yesterday. Sarkofka was the farmer’s boy. And a rifleman. He is dead now.”

She looked at his scarlet uniform with the white accents on the shoulders, and the simple black hat. It all looked too big for him, even though he was a good-sized man, tall with strong shoulders, short hair, thick moustache as black as a new moon. Perhaps he had shrunk recently, or the Imperial army had misplaced the clothes that should fit him. 

“I am Kolench. Pavel Kolench.”

“Where is your gun, soldier Kolench?” she asked.

“What good is a gun with no shot or powder? Come,” he said. And he grabbed a stinking lantern from the floor, reeking of bad oil, and led them on into a maze of tunnels and stairs. There was the sound of misery as soon as they descended a single floor, young men moaning, one howling as they took one of his limbs perhaps, clawing the air with screams for mercy.

Bodies were stacked, smelling of meat, blood and bone, piled together. The place was a collage of red bricks and dead men, scattered through dust and rubble. Anya tracked quick behind Pavel, thinking he must be leading her deeper into the broken bits of hell. Turn the corner and the devil would be sitting on his throne with a wicked grin, the master of every bit of darkness and suffering, with air too thick to breathe. Anya coughed up dust and spit and endeavored not to think.

“Ignore all this,” Kolench said, muttering to himself, twisting and turning, finally seeing another man on his feet, smoking. The sentry with the tiny cigar turned with a lurch, surprised, emerging from the clutches of cold shadow into the hissing light of the lantern. 

“Who is this?” he asked, exhaling a thin column of ashen grey.

“A messenger. Sarkofka was her man’s name.”

The man with the smoke laughed a stupid little laugh.

“God sends odd messengers. A farmer’s widow in a yellow dress is suddenly our angel.”

“No, Andrei. He sends only Goslanders. Blond eagles with sharp talons. Where is Morouzits?”

Andrei gestured with his chin. They moved onward, as Andrei went back to his smoking, whispering something morose in the old tongue.

“Never mind him,” said Pavel. “He is a fatalist.”

Anya made no response and followed tightly, again through another bunch of weaving turns and small rooms, knowing she would be hopelessly lost if she somehow failed to follow. At last they breached a curtain of rancid cloth into a room that miraculously had candles. And an officer. A short wide man, in a tight uniform with a big fancy hat. He looked up from the ruins of a stone table that had been cracked in half, leaning in on itself, threatening to crash any moment.

“Captain Morouzits,” said soldier Kolench, saluting with languor, “this Broashin woman brings terms from the Goslanders. A messenger from the west side.”

The captain peered with black eyes, shining with pinpoints of candlelight.

“Ah,” the captain spoke, “You did well to survive the night. But there will be no terms. We are doomed in every case, the line of the Goslanders behind us, gone east as far as the sunrise. But please…” He moved out from behind his ruined desk, striding in high-heeled boots, doubtless to make him seem taller. 

“Tell me anyway, if only to delay the very end of our spirits. What does the enemy say?”

Anya explained what the Goslander dictated on the second-floor bridge, the young blonde soldier with the circle-face. Lives assured in exchange for surrender. At this the Captain smiled wryly, his jaw strained to contain contempt. Then Anya added in details about the uniform, the silver buttons, the waggling sabre.

“This boy, though very young, is surely an officer, so perhaps his offer comes from their commander.”

Then Anya explained that the boy-officer stole her Mama, leverage employed to ensure delivery of the message. The face of the Broashin Captain turned quite grave, all but dourness evaporated.

“For this, I extend condolences. He had no right to keep your mother, against the conventions of war and a blight to his honour. But it is done. And such it is borne, I suspect, from the mutual hatred we bear for history, race, ideology. In truth, one emperor can never endure another’s success. Bickering children fighting over trinkets.”

He coughed and paused, postponing the unpleasant. 

“…and for this, I suspect your mother may be… she is… forfeit.”

Anya nodded ever so slightly.

The captain took a few slow steps forward, each click of his tall heels clacking against the heavy floorboards.

“I think you might understand our predicament,” he said.

Anya flinched.

“We are surrounded. And if we are taken prisoner, the fate shall be much worse than death, no matter what they pretend. To them, we are nothing. And should the fort fall, it would worse for you, to survive it. Yet, I cannot give you a gun to fight even if you could shoot it. Plus, starvation will come for us all. My men are stretched to their limit and I will not be able to trust them, or anyone… even my own judgement, in the hard days to come… you understand.”

Anya held his gaze, holding fast. 

He sighed, and turned away, an expression of anguish on his face. Then something occurred to him. He looked down and said, “I must tell you, your arrival here is… I take it as a sign, I think.”

“A sign?” Anya asked.

The Captain made a little wave with two fingers of his left hand, his eyes calculating, suddenly embroiled in expansive thought. He chewed his lip.

“First, the choice. It belongs to you. I can do nothing further until you decide.”

“Alright,” said Anya, “but I do not know quite what you mean.”

“Of course. You must understand that I cannot accept any terms or negotiate. I have nothing to offer the Goslanders except resistance, on the hope that the lines are broken to the East, reinforcements and relief to come to the fort, our single hope. Barring that, the Emperor commands we hold in place, and as I said, to surrender…”

“I understand now,” said Anya, feeling the hot copper of blood upon her teeth, grinding, biting the inside of her cheek, anticipating the atrocious.

“Knowing this,” said the Captain, “I give you the option to remain or to return to the Goslanders. See if your mother…”

Anya turned away, her breathing unsteady, her eyes scanning over the profanity and shameful images carved and drawn onto red brick walls by past generations of soldiers. Some were dreadful. Some were morbidly comic. One said, I yet live, with the words etched over a crude skeleton image with a knife embedded in its skull. 


“You must forgive me again,” said the Captain, noticing her darting eyes and shaking chin. “This room was not historically an officer’s quarters. And further I must ask for your decision, this moment.”

“…I will stay,” said Anya, so low that she could not be heard.

“I’m sorry?”

“I will stay,” Anya repeated. A grotesque resignation coursed through her.  




Anya had completely forgot Pavel was there, silent and still as he was, standing right behind her.

“Bring our young lady to the old armoury.”

“The armoury, Captain?” Kolench asked, as if it were a bizarre request.

The Captain cleared his throat with a dry cough. Kolench saluted with a touch of vigor and gently reached for Anya’s arm, his confusion erased. He pulled as gently as he could, considering he meant to exit with haste.

“Wait,” said Anya, holding in place.

Kolench froze.

“Captain Morouzits,” she said, pulling his dark eyes to hers.

She nodded silently, mouthing ‘thank you’.

The Captain nodded back, and Kolench led them deeper into the central fortress, evidently to the armoury. They scampered down more shadowed steps and narrow stretches, past a few startled men who uttered nasty things. Kolench told them to eat shit, or slapped them, or shoved them, as he needed to make his way. A couple others were sharing the tough rind of a dry loaf of bread, seemingly ashamed, trying to hide their food. Kolench ignored them and shuttled Anya quickly past.


Once again alone, they turned and made to descend a very narrow set of steps into a profound murk, stinking of mold. Kolench went first with his buzzing lantern. The entrance was so full of cold wet shadows, and on such a plunging angle that Anya paused. 

“Pavel,” she said, wavering at the top, where a tiny bit of sunlight intruded from a crack in the wall. Kolench turned and looked up. The light shone down to pierce the stairwell, a sharp ray to cut across his rough face like the yellow stripe of a painter’s brush. She had thought to ask if he meant to kill her. But the beam shining across his eyes revealed deep green, two windows on his soul the colour of fertile fields. He bore an innocence, his expression bearing some lingering fragment of hope.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “Lead on, and be wary, the stairs are steep.”

“It is right here,” he said, resuming his measured down steps, one hand against the wall. Anya used both to ensure she did not topple forward, following one or two treads behind. The landing below held another light, cast out with a dull flicker. There were voices.

Two young Broashin soldiers were at the bottom, one maybe just turned a man if viewed generously, and the other was a youth volunteer, a child in a uniform, a small cadet, maybe fourteen. They had no weapons between them. Instead, the younger one was cradling a tiny child. It was a baby, wrapped in a rough wool blanket and sucking on the cadet’s finger.

“What’s this supposed to be?” Anya asked, still on the steps, trembling for the sight. 

Pavel exhaled some words to the boys that Anya didn’t catch. The cradled child was less than a year, ten months perhaps, Anya could see from where she was still perched and wary. Pavel sidled beside the boys and peered at the little creature. They gawked over the babe like a trio of fools, but the cadet held it with great care. He was even younger than Anya first thought, as his smooth teenage face looked up, eyes spun with apprehension and expectation both.  

“I… what? I…cannot…” Anya stammered, refusing to take the last two steps. “What is this child doing here?” she demanded.

Pavel took off his hat, scrunching it in clumsy hands. Suddenly he was a child too, the leader of three whelps, and his eyes glistened.

“You must,” he said. “Like you, this one is trapped here, like many families, caught when the bombs and cannons came.” Anya looked at Pavel, seeing his failed attempt at restraint, welling like he was looking at his mother, the face of an ill-fated young man unready for consequences.

The two lads approached nervously to the base of the stairs to present the babe, as it gurgled. The young cadet, getting somehow younger with every subtle improvement of light, turning up his broad face, his little shoulders thin and strained, the chubby babe with the big head almost too much for him to hold.

“I am Hendlen, and this is my big brother, the soldier, Gregar. We live on the other side of the river. In the Hestian-town.”

Anya almost retreated a step, almost shook her head.

“You must,” Pavel said again, rattling with his emotion. He snorted and cursed himself as he stood close. Anya saw the shimmering lines under his eyes as he dried the drops with his sleeves. For the sight of him, she cracked. 

“Cry not, no.” Anya reached to brush Pavel’s face. And he grabbed her hand like it was living mercy and he kissed it, seeming to believe right then that she would do what was asked.

“And you, Hendlen. Why have you been given that babe to carry?” she asked, still hovering above the three, barely composed.


“Because, well, because I found it… in the rubble,” he admitted, smothering other painful details by the sound of his shaking voice. “I was looking for… I…”

“Our sister is gone,” said Gregar, absent of feeling.


Anya nodded and saw the cherub, the fat little thing, squirming and still covered in quite a bit of dust. It sneezed just then, attracting Hendlen’s concern.

“You have done a good job,” she said, sweetening her tone. There was a moment of silence. Then with surprise for her own words she offered to take the babe. She stepped down at last. Hendlen overcame a certain reluctance, then ever so carefully she and the lad made the pass.

“What is the name of this strong boy?” Anya asked, wiping away flecks of dust from chubby cheeks.

“It is a girl,” said Hendlen. “And she has no name, or rather, no one knows it in any case. The mother… she…” he looked at Pavel. “I call her Doroteya. That was our sister...and…”

“We know. It is okay. You are done now lads. Your job is done. You go,” Pavel said, and the boys gave the babe one more glance, Hendlen looking longer and relenting as Gregar nudged forward. The boys moved to the stairs, their own lantern guiding them. Anya could hear the elder boy consoling the younger as they ascended.  

“So many families trapped in the fort, maybe none sadder than this tiny one,” Kolench said sniffling, prompting himself back to toughness, trying to reapply his veneer. 

“Whose child is this?” Anya asked. The baby squirmed, restless until she adjusted and held it close, where it settled some, nestled to her shoulder.

“No one’s. Not anymore. But it does not cry, hardly at all. And therefore, you have a chance.”

“What chance?”

“There is a way,” he said. “A way to get out, that the two boys discovered. But it might also be a way in for the Goslanders. But one time the boys showed it to me. You can take that babe out of here and save yourself.”

Anya contemplated this for a moment, cradling the baby, realizing there was no option. She had been ordered here by the Captain she understood now, to play a part in the plan these men had concocted. Then she realized she had taken Hendlen’s place in the whole scheme.

“Are you sure you don’t want to send the boy?” she asked. “He might be quicker, or stronger. He might know the way.”

The sputtering light of the lantern fluttered on Pavel’s face. He was laden with gravity. He held her by the shoulders gently, his face oddly underlit and animated, all pretense of stoicism melted away, just a man and his heaving heart. 

“No. This babe. It should not have survived for the rubble and the dust, the explosions and falling brick. Hendlen, where he found it, only because he is tiny himself. The babe did not once wail. How the boy… you don’t understand. Then you show up on my rounds, where I was only truly there a second for a breath of air. Exactly when we thought all were dead or taken on the other side. Don’t you see?”

Anya did not see. She comforted the child as it trembled for Pavel’s emoting. Yet it did not cry. His eyes beheld her soothing the babe and he whispered, “You. This. This is the making of a miracle. This is the hand of God.”

Anya only shook her head. God had not saved her mother from the Goslanders. No miracle was assured here either, despite the ramblings of a doomed soul, clamoring for a last bit of meaning. She bit the inside of her cheek again, more blood in her mouth.

“Show me the way,” she said.

Pavel pulled up the lantern and revealed they were standing on a stone floor, with a sharp ledge ten feet further on. An earthen pathway, a dry river, was down below and led off past the light, disappearing beyond into a rugged gape of total blackness.

“An extension of the moat when it held water. In past times, boats would enter here from the river. Smugglers, they say. Hendlen discovered the tunnel ends in brick, but there is a hole to the outside made by trickling water and winter ice. You can crawl through. From there, look for an old set of stone steps left by the builders. If you can make it up from the moat you will be able to get to the river through whatever remains of the town. At the river, a bridge, then onward to freedom and the east. A chance. A small one.” He showed a bare half-smile, the speck of a dream.

Then the fort shook with the rumble of explosions. Dust fell like powdered rain. The babe shuddered yet did not bawl, even as flecks of crumble fell on its head. The faint sounds of yelling came from the stairs and Anya heard the distant patter of gun fire, no more than the farthest popping sounds but there were hundreds.

“Quick now,” said Pavel. He grabbed the babe from Anya, setting the child down on the cold stone where it fussed only for a moment. Then he led Anya to the edge and lowered her down by the arms, her feet scrambling until she at last stood on the compacted mud of the abandoned moat. Pavel then lowered the lantern.

“Won’t you need this?” she asked, grabbing the base at the very extent of her reach, nearly burning her hands to put it on the ground.

“You will need it more. I know this place even blind.”

Then at last he lied flat and carefully passed down the child, each of them straining, stretched to the limit to make the exchange. Once Anya had the little girl in hand, the child settled almost immediately. Then Pavel tossed her down a heel of hard bread, which Anya intercepted with one hand, a fine catch. Pavel stood. He then pulled from his jacket a small wrap of cloth and this too he threw down, which Anya retrieved. 

“A piece of cheese. I would give you my knife, but if they catch you, they will know from where it came.”

The cannons fired again, terrible resounding booms coursing through the bricks. Anya could barely see Pavel’s face as she held the baby in one arm, starting to wriggle, soon to feel heavy.

“Go now,” he said, gesturing. “Look for the light of the hole at the tunnel’s end. God will be with you.”

“Wait, Pavel. Will you not tell me whose child this is?”

Pavel shook his head, retreating from the edge, submerged in shadow.

“None of that matters now,” he said softly. “Go Anya Sarkofka, widow of the farmer’s boy, angel in yellow dress. You will take that child to salvation, I believe, as only an angel could.”

She heard his turn, steps rustling upward and away. 

Alone in the long dark tunnel, the oppressive dark pressed inward. There it reeked of dust and old mud while dampness clung to skin. The sounds of battle faded completely, making way for banal noises to be amplified, transformed into the foreboding calls of baleful ghosts. Yet she was certain that rats shuffled and squeaked just there, accented by the drip, drip, drip of moisture. The flutter perhaps, of a leathery bat. The slither of something unseen just beyond the glow.


She plodded over uneven ground, taking careful steps, holding the lantern high. This prompted the aching of her shoulder, even as the babe settled against her neck, warm, barely making a snuffle. Amazingly, it made to sleep. If this was God’s child, perchance some aura would protect them. Then Anya felt washed in foolishness for imagining she might be the means of the divine. Any tatters of the sacred that remained in the world, she didn’t know. She gasped as the lantern wavered then recovered, unsteady. Her small demi-sphere of fluttering light went forward into utter gloom, dreadful sounds at every degree. She thought it might be wise to utter a prayer.


If only she could remember one.


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