Challenge Two

They blamed it on the floods, of course they did. It was such an easy lie.

It had been dry for most of the year, and hotter than usual, leaving the ground cracked and solid. When the rains finally came, they took everything with them, leaving a mess of trees, rocks and other debris clogged along the border valleys.

The few crops that had managed to grow in the heat had been damaged by the sudden rain, leaving precious little food to go around. Most people fled further east, hoping to find land undamaged by the floods. What they found instead was a fleet of enemy ships waiting on the nearby shore.

A handful of the ships amongst the hundreds there took prisoners rather than killing outright. I don’t know what their orders were. Maybe they were supposed to round people up for torture, or to sell as slaves. Maybe the attack had been a facade all along, for the whole fleet or just those few ships. I only know that they rescued some of Cinion’s people. Not many. A few hundred or so. I think only a dozen survived the journey. Maybe it was my mother’s Ythian blood that saved her, because most of Cinion was wiped out in a matter of months.

Ythith themselves didn’t raise so much as a hand to help their ally. They claimed they couldn’t cross the border. The floods had taken down the main bridges – there was no way for them to send help.

It hadn’t stopped other kingdoms sending their armies, but I suppose it must have been so much harder to send food and medicine. They were busy dealing with three of their villages that had been caught in the flood, taking the occupants to higher ground.

Cinion did the same, but the people knew that higher ground wouldn’t save them from enemy swords. Too busy attempting to defend their other borders, they didn’t have the time or resources to rebuild what had already been lost. The flooded areas became a part of the landscape.

In the end, they went back on their word, sacrificing several abandoned southern towns and attempting to rebuild a makeshift bridge across the flooded border. It didn’t take them long to realise that without a border to connect them, Ythith no longer considered them a worthwhile ally.

A messenger was sent to Ythith with a request for them to begin building from the other side. The quicker the bridge was built, the fewer people would die. Cinion’s defences, already pulled back several miles from the original borders, couldn’t hold for long. Everybody knew it. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not the country would fall, but when, and how many might survive.

The messenger never returned, and nobody questioned it. It wasn’t unthinkable that, finding refuge, she’d stayed there. Even across the miles of flooded land that separated the two countries, it was clear that Ythith had begun construction. Even in the midst of despair, the people of Cinion began to hope.

It didn’t last for long.

Barely a week afterward, those still living near the flooded areas began to fall ill, developing rashes and blurred vision. It was barely noticeable at first. A few people here and there, spread across towns so that it hardly seemed a threat at all. Then came the swelling, and the fevers. Incapable of building up any resistance to the disease, hundreds fell, and then thousands. It swept through the cities, breaching the capital quickly and mercilessly.

Bodies were thrown into pits and burned. As the plague spread further, entire cities became burial sites, sent up in flames and razed to the ground.

Those who had been defending the borders so valiantly became infected by the very people they were fighting to protect. Cinion’s only comfort was that the enemy soldiers weren’t immune either.

As the two sides of the bridge came within a stone’s throw of each other, those as yet unaffected by the plague lined up to escape, fleeing not only the invading armies but their own neighbours and friends. Even as they crowded together on the edges of the river, they sickened. It might have been from the floods. It might have been from carriers amongst them, nearby animals, or simply delayed symptoms. Either way, they fell.

The following night, the sky was lit with sparks. By the morning, the bridge had burned.

It could easily have been accidental, triggered by one of the many burial fires nearby. But in their anger and desperation, they chose to blame Ythith. The ally that had been so slow to respond had torched their only way out, leaving them trapped and dying.

I wasn’t there. I think that’s maybe the only reason I can see Ythith as justified. When it comes down to history, Ythith might not even have been responsible. And if they were, then they saved their own people. Cinion was already beyond rescue. The fire only stopped the disease from spreading any further.

But others were there. Crying children who didn’t understand, mothers trying to console them, bitter young men knowing there would be no future for them – all huddled together in a mass on the flood banks, watching their world and their hope burn around them. Ythith’s actions were never justified.

My mother always swore my father hadn’t been among the dead, and for a long time I believed her. The war died down, and the flooding was gradually dealt with, but Cinion was still a political and geographical mess. Of course some of its people had stayed to help rebuild it. My father was close to the king, so she told me, and it was only natural that his duty came before family.

At other times, racked with guilt, she apologised to me over and over again, believing it was her that had kept him away. She thought that might have been why he never came back, that he couldn’t bear to look her in the eye knowing that her country had betrayed his. I tried to close my ears to that one. I didn’t want to think about what that made me, the bastard child of that betrayal.

The End

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