The Museum of the Battle: A Tale From the Royal Road
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The Museum of the Battle
A Tale From The Royal Road
By J.M. Thompson
Copyright 2014 J.M. Thompson
In an old warehouse between the town and the Royal Road, Rollin the Kobold-slayer dreamed of a museum of the Battle of Malandren.
Aeric helped him build it. So did Nadeon, the widowed baker of Skara Station. Nadeon brought bread and brooms and showed Rollin how to organize counters and displays. Mathian the butcher brought paint and helped Rollin make the old walls look new. Galal and Metsus, the day laborers, carried ancient abandoned crates, jugs and sacks from the warehouse's floors to Skara's junk pile. Netron the lamplighter cleared cobwebs from the rafters and set candleholders into the walls.
"What will you keep here?" Nadeon asked as she and Rollin swept dust from the floor.
"Memories," Rollin said. "Terrors. Honor for my comrades."
Ulric the scribe noticed the friends at work one morning during a walk from his copy-house in the town of Skara to his bookseller in Skara Station, the local waystation on the Royal Road. Activity was unusual at the warehouse in daylight.
The warehouse district was a little grid of streets on the paved road that linked the town to the station, opposite an ancient hillock once inhabited by blacksmiths and black magics. A dozen buildings were in the district, put up a century before by investors from Roxen who had decided Skara's time had come. Skara, after all, was one of the original Kestevan Settlements, founded on the south shore of the river during Aelfric and Aelin's march from the mountains to the sea. The land around Skara was fertile, and the river provided an outlet for the town's food surplus. But two centuries later, after the Royal Road was built, regional trade blossomed, and it was here the investors saw an opportunity. The small warehouse district on the shore and the limited warehouse space in the Royal Road station would be insufficient for the coming trade explosion, they decided, and so they laid out a new warehouse district between the two, half a mile from the station and half a mile from Skara.
The old warehouse district proved adequate for the town's needs after all. A century passed with limited use by cloth merchants and grain distributors on their way to the fairs. Eventually, all were abandoned and weather washed their bright white paint to the dull grays and browns of the boards underneath. Within, they were largely unoccupied save for ghosts, perhaps; certainly, it had become haunted in the minds of local children: old, faded, weather-stricken, home to cobwebs and probably on dark nights home to spirits.
When Rollin set about looking for a place to locate his museum of the battle, a descendant of one of the warehouse investors in Roxen compared the building's revenue intake with its tax outtake and accepted the money Rollin had accumulated from a foot soldier's pay. Malandren was 500 miles southwest of Skara, but the investor wasn't concerned about viability once it was off his books.
"As a warehouse it is worthless," the investor said later to a business associate. "As a war museum - never heard of such a thing. But it's worth a sale to someone who wants it, no matter what he wants it for.
Rollin found no spirits inside. Only broken bottles and a floor of packed earth. He kept the floor as it was and threw out the bottles. In their place, he brought a bundle of artifacts from the battle. These in ones and twos he distributed throughout the warehouse's vast rooms.
Ulric wrote about the museum for his weekly one-sheet of Skara news and released the edition from his copy-house the same morning Merek the painter and Fendrel the carpenter raised a wooden sign over the museum's entrance. In gold-painted letters, the sign read:
The Museum of the Battle of Malandren
A counter inside the door held a jar and another, smaller sign:
Price 1 kroner. Free to any soldier of a foreign war.
The first visitors, readers of Ulric's piece, showed up that afternoon. What they got was a walking tour through dim and empty halls, a cabinet of curiosities, with each room containing no more than one or two artifacts.
"It was 50 years ago," Rollin said, gesturing into the dark and dusty spaces. "Our regiment, Avestour's own, marched into one of the clearings at Malandren, looking for the enemy. We found him - at least his vanguard, a pack of kobold mercenaries. Their skin was blue, and their sharp teeth were white and horrid."
Then Rollin pulled a matted, twisted object from a box inside the room, held it up for his tour guests and said it was a kobold's ear. On the first tour, one man in the group gasped, and another tilted his head and frowned. On the second, a child asked to hold the ear. On the third, there was nothing but wide-eyed silence. ?
A spear was in another room, and Rollin used it to illustrate the ancient phalanx tactics of armies past, mock jabbing at his crowd and describing in painful detail heavy with deep, fluid reds and ashen grays what a cut from one of these weapons could do to a soldier. Another room contained only a torn banner, a relic of the formations defeated in the great battle of Malandren. Rollin let each tour group feel the fabric, and if ever there was a child of about 10 or so present, he let the youngster hold the banner on its staff to feel the weight the child would have felt had he been an ensign marching to war.
"When I was your age," Rollin would say, "I played at war. All of my friends did. And we'd charge and retreat, charge and retreat. Our side would always win, and everyone wanted to be the great general of the day. But this was years before the statute of Kesteva - years before the kingdom had any militia at all, and years before the battle. In the battle, we learned the difference between playing at war and going to war."
These differences he detailed as he walked his audience through more rooms, more artifacts and finally to the vast loading floor, lit by the lamplighter's candles and holes in the raftered roof high above. Rollin took a stick and scratched a rude map into the earthen floor.
"For me, even after the training, this was where my war began: on the battlefield of Malandren. Where it became real. Our regiment, Avestour's own, approached from the north, here, to the river's. We were one of dozens of regiments.
Ten companies to a regiment, 12 regiments to a division - in theory. Five divisions fielded that day. We sent out scouts here and here."
The maps were at once in Rollin's head, and on the floor, and in the minds of his listeners. Rollin drew more lines, more positions, more deployments, and the picture grew clearer.
"We crossed the river, here, at night, and pitched camp. We thought the enemy was far to the south, to our actual objective, the city of Cora. We were to capture Cora. That was why we were there. But the enemy had left Cora days before.
"Morning of the next day, one of our scouting parties made contact with the enemy in the clearing here. The enemy was ready, and attacked. So it began."
The battle continued with more lines in the dirt, punctuated with bits of chain mail dangled in front of the visitors. Here the armies met. Here the battle lines formed. Here the king's army advanced. Here it fell back. Darkness advanced, and the enemy approached with formations of archers and batteries of catapults to the outskirts of the field of battle, as Rollin and the king's army huddled in the cold night.
"Through the long night," Rollin intoned. "The enemy lobbed shaped rocks the size of boulders onto our positions as we lay in terror."
A friend was lost. A unit was destroyed. Two brothers from Kesteva fell here. A general there. A knight there. Three knights there.
Rollin's listeners shuddered.
At this point in the tour, Rollin explained how kobolds came into service with the enemy. Then he reached deeper into history and explained the origins of the Great War and why so many were called to fight for king and kingdom: a misunders
tanding, an invasion, a raising of armies, the Battle of Malandren, the first great battle of the Great War. Rollin conjured the combatants: kobolds and goblins and vicious knights of the Southern Kingdoms, and his neighbors and fellow soldiers of a half-century before.
The tour moved into another nearly empty room, and here Rollin told of the Hornet's Nest.
"The enemy loosed 10,000 arrows against us that day. The arrows whistled through the sky and fell as a thousand deaths upon us.
Then he reached into a dark closet and retrieved two arrows with different styles of fletching. As he let his visitors hold the arrows and pass them from one to the other, he continued.
"Imagine a thousand of these falling from the darkness. It was as though death fell from the sky. Each dart came at us as fast as a hawk swooping down onto its prey."
Before they left the room, he showed how the different fletchings indicated which was a Kestevan arrow, and which was of the enemy's.
On and on he went, room by room.
Morning of the next day, the king's army rallied and charged. Here fell Mitchell. Here fell Rudolph, a prince of the realm. Here the king's army broke through the enemy's line on the momentous third day.
Until victory was secured and the dead lay silent on the fields of Malandren. And an altar of peace was found among the bracken, a monument from a distant age, and carried back to the capital of Kesteva and set upon a grander altar in the Royal Library, carried by survivors of the battle, as a casket is carried by pallbearers. Rollin's voice was hushed at this moment, and the visitors' questions had long stopped. Here he pulled from a pocket the medal his regimental commander gave him after the battle. He passed around a jar of earth collected from the battlefield.
After several turns of the hourglass, the tour was ended. Rollin waved farewell to the departing guests, stood a moment in silence in the loading room and returned to the entrance hall for the next group.
Ulric took the tour once himself. Over the next few years, he stopped in from time to time and wrote updates about Rollin and the Museum of the Battle for his widely distributed one-sheet of Skara news and happenings. Visitors came from all over Skara. Rollin placed a message on Skara Station's milestone, and visitors began coming from the Royal Road. Ulric made mention of the museum in his Guide to the Royal Road, and visitors began coming from all over the kingdom, if they happened to have business in Skara. Through donations, the museum gained a helmet, a broken shield and a tattered battle flag, all of which or none of which might have been used at the Battle of Malandren. It gained another, larger jar of earth removed from the field 50 years after the battle by an adventuring party, and arrow heads, too, and a service medal donated by a veteran of the battle who had long since retired to Marchtown and gone to Skara to see the museum one summer. Each year, the entries in the museum's guestbook grew.
Rollin died six years after starting the museum. Merek and Fendrel hung black bunting over the museum entrance. Aeric and Nadeon arranged his burial, and people from all over Skara spoke kind words.
Rollin left the museum to Nadeon, who for reasons outside the scope of this account reluctantly placed it for sale at auction. The buyer was the investor from Roxen who had sold it to Rollin. He paid twice what he'd sold it to Rollin for, but the investor had taken the tour himself a year before and reckoned it to be a good price.
In each of the display rooms, the investor installed boxy whitewashed stands and mounted each of the museum's dozen artifacts to these. The dirt packing floor he had covered over with fine wooden boards. He put more counter space into the entrance and stocked it with guidebooks and clay souvenirs and trinkets imported from Roxen. He hired a Roxen woman to run the sales counter, made the tour self-guided and eliminated the soldiers' discount.
The day before reopening the museum, the investor walked through the dim rooms alone. The museum seemed emptier than ever. He snorted and ordered the candles in each room lit. Much better, he thought, and he pushed aside a nagging feeling that had been growing in his head. No, all it needed was light, he thought.
"If I hadn't seen it," he said as he reopened the museum. "I never would have imagined a museum to be so profitable.
Also in The Royal Road series:
The Wizard's Box
A Knight of the Pantry
Wallik, a Hedge Wizard
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