The end, when it came, came quickly. For a long time the Sun Empire had dismissed us as savages, treated us cruelly, kept us behind a wall in the northernmost outposts of their Empire.
My father and his father before him had both led armies against that wall. Both had failed. My Grandfather died falling from the wall. Only he and twelve of his greatest warriors had reached the top of the wall.
None of them lived to see what lay beyond the wall.
My father, when his turn came as leader of the Twenty Tribes, did see what lay on the other side of the wall. But only as a slave. Not many slaves escaped the Sun Empire and came back to our cold Northern lands. But one did. She told the story of my father paraded around Sun City, naked and chained. The savage tribal leader painted in unearthly dyes with wild, ragged hair and beard.
My time came eventually. The chieftains of the twenty tribes came to the Great Moon Meeting and sat at my feet. Each of them lay their swords down on the step to my throne. Each stepped back, each watching and waiting.
Sometimes even the King has no choice.
They watched me.
I watched them.
I drew my sword and laid it on top of theirs.
The great cheer reached beyond the rafters of my great hall. Perhaps it reached up to the paradise where all warriors go when they die. Perhaps my father and his father sitting in their great chairs in the heavenly feast hall heard that cheer and knew what it meant.
I did not expect to live. Still we marched, all the warriors from the twenty tribes. We marched with the great siege ladders, the ballistae and other siege engines. Hauling them through the great forests, through the mud of winter and down towards that wall that lies like some great mountain range across lands that were once ours.
We made our camps and waited for the stragglers and the war machines to catch up. All across the five valleys around that part of the wall, our campfires turned the black night orange and red.
I did not notice until Hagra pointed it out.
‘Look Lord. The wall.’
‘Yes, it is a mighty….’ The words died on my lips. Many times we’d come sneaking down into the valleys to study the wall, look for weaknesses, decide how to breach it, climb it, destroy it. Each time there were fires, beacons, torches illuminating the top of the wall. Flickering shadows where the patrols and the guards keep their empire safe from us.
Now there was nothing. Only more darkness on the wall’s top.
At dawn, we ran for the wall carrying the ladders. Behind us the siege engines waited for my signal. We ran expecting the rain of missiles, the arrows turning the sky black, the falling fire, hot oil.
There was nothing.
We ran to the wall, dropping the now pointless ladders in the mud.
The gates were open.
I expected a trick, an ambush.
There was no one there waiting to kill us.
Nothing left of the Empire at all.
Through the gates, inside the barrack walls we found only stray dogs, thin, their ribs visible under their shrunken skin. They had eaten everything the soldiers had left behind, even the rats.
The Sun Empire had gone.