The front lawn was a couple of acres deep, hemmed in on either side by dark, overbearing trees, heavy with beards of moss. Indeterminable age held in check by selectively meticulous gardening. Craws flitted from one pool of shadowy darkness to another, singing their mournful songs as they did, their metallic blue carapaces catching in stray shafts of sunlight.
This was old country, even by Opstelan standards, heavy with unspeakable wealth and powerful heritage. Admiral Koning should have been awed by the history surrounding him, but he wasn’t. He had no love for the founding families and that was probably why he had been chosen for this job. Hell, he’d all but volunteered.
The chance to address an old problem, as old as his career, was just too good to pass up. Since the Bleak Pass incident a lot had changed and the focus of the war had shifted. Relics of the old order would have to be left behind if they were to step closer to victory, even if that victory were a political one rather than a song of blood.
Peace was a real possibility now and it couldn’t be put into jeopardy by the monsters that had led the charge for so long. Koning was a practical man with sensible political ideals that had kept him at a remove from the battlefield. He had never really cared for the violence of war, but it had been the world he was born into, so he worked with what he was given. Now he had a chance to realise his ambitions.
It also meant that he could remove one of the greatest symbols of a dying era and a personal enemy.
The house was big. Long yards of white clapboard shone in the lowering afternoon sun as tall, narrow windows glinted darkly. The house even had what Koning understood to be a front porch, a long wooden platform with a roof held up at intervals by white wooden posts. It ran the length of the house and was populated by scatterings of furniture that created islands of occupied space. Curtains hung heavy in the still air, offering primitive shade here and there.
The parade of cars followed the long drive under the heavy, ancient trees that crowded the edges of the pristine space, wheels turning sharply at the last moment to travel across the lawn in front of the house. The idea of so much damage being done to the lush turf brought a small smile to Koning’s lips.
The moment they came to a halt the side door opened and Koning stepped out. The wall of heat that assaulted him was almost overwhelming. He had heard that the farming belt was hot, but this was incredible; a combination of powerful sun and oppressive humidity nearly knocked him off his feet.
He fought the urge to retreat back into his temperature controlled car and tugged his uniform into place before taking a look at his show of force. He couldn’t deny the sense of irony afforded by such an action – using violence to abandon the path of war – but when you were putting down a rabid dog you didn’t turn up with treats.
There was a moment of noise and commotion that died down as his soldiers stepped down onto the lawn and organised themselves into neat squads. As Koning stepped forward, his footfall muted on the soft ground, the only sound he could hear was the chirping of the craws.
Craaaaaaaaawwwwwww tick tick tick craaaawwww.
The melancholy sound passed from tree to tree. It was as if, he fancied, they were mourning the imminent loss of their keeper.
And there she was. General Ilsa Botha, granddaughter of the illustrious Commander in Chief Alexander Botha, leader of the first rebellion, long dead, but never, ever forgotten. She sat, apparently relaxed in a low and comfortable looking chair in the shade of the porch. Her face was hard, made so by an untouchable sense of purpose and an eight inch scar she had refused to have removed. It was, she had said, the price of victory, to be changed irrevocably by sacrifice.
Her words had rung through the halls of Command, cementing her position as one of the most respected and feared officers in the Vorstaat. Her heritage wasn’t enough for her, she had always wanted more, but worse than that, she had always wanted to remain on the front line.
She had refused every promotion that threatened to take her away from her troops and that had bought their undying loyalty. Even before Bleak Pass it had become something of a concern for Command – no one was entitled to that level of personal power.
Ilsa Botha was committed to an ideal of the Vorstaat, a concept of dominance that had no place in the modern world. She believed that you could just stamp on anyone and anything that got in your way; she believed that this was the basic entitlement of the Vorstaat.
It made Koning sick to think about it. Such arrogance – arrogance born of privilege.
She seemed not to notice him at first, choosing to sip at a tall glass of something pale brown and cool as she continued to sit, staring past the parade of cars and soldiers that had dared her front lawn. She smoothed a hand over her short cropped grey hair, allowing her fingers to linger on the brittle stubble of a military buzzcut, as she sipped her drink again. The chinking sound of melting ice travelled across the still air to where Koning stood, forcing him to lick his suddenly dry lips.
Painful moments passed as Koning’s troops waited, motionless, apparently indifferent to the scorching sun. It was a deadly show of force and a clear affront, but General Ilsa Botha didn’t seem particularly concerned and she certainly wasn’t in a hurry to get up and say hello.
She took a long pull on her glass, causing a drip of condensation to fall carelessly to the ground, before placing the glass on the table beside her and rising effortlessly out of her chair. She moved slowly through the heavy air, adjusting her cuffs and staring down the length of the porch with an intensity that brought a flash of nerves into Koning’s stomach. He wondered briefly if he was doing the right thing, but he only had to look at the hardened soldiers to his left and right to know that his course was true.
Ilsa continued to walk along the porch until she was level with Koning, then she turned and seemed to notice the damage to the lawn for the first time as a small frown settled on her face. She stared at the scarred turf for a long while. Koning fought with his impatience and the impossible discomfort brought on by the heat that was almost panic inducing. If he had known it would be like this he would have worn a climate suit, but where he was from you didn’t need that kind of thing.
She met his eyes just as a rivulet of sweat tickled the side of his face. He ignored it and summoned up every ounce of defiance he could muster. Most other officers would have wilted under her gaze, especially in this heat, but not Koning. There was far too much at stake.
“Sorry about the lawn, Ilsa.”
“You could call me general, you know.”
“I’ll call you general when you call me sir.” Said Koning, smiling. An empty gesture.
She laughed at that, a surprisingly warm sound.
“Really, Koning.” She said, chiding him. “I’ll call you sir when you get out in the field and actually shoot at someone.”
“Soldiering isn’t about murder – “
“You wouldn’t know the first thing about soldiering, Koning.” Ilsa’s tone remained even as she stepped down from the porch. Her arms swung lazily as she landed on the grass, she looked relaxed. Koning knew this was a deception – Ilsa Botha was never relaxed.
She strolled across to where he stood. As she drew close Koning could feel his soldiers tensing. They were ready to act on his command. He kept his composure, though. The orders had been clear – no bloodshed unless absolutely necessary.
The humiliation would be more than enough for him.
“Speaking of soldiering, General, I bring news from Command. In light of your exceptional and overly long record of service they have decided to award you the Walter Kruis.”
“If you like. With the highest commendation – “
“And your entourage? A salute?”
“You’re not a politician, Ilsa. If you’d kept your opinions to yourself and just done your job maybe it wouldn’t have come to this.”
“I never pretended to be anything other than what I am, Charles.” Ilsa Botha took a step back then and Koning tensed inside. His soldiers started to raise their weapons, but he waved them down. They really were only there for show, his fuck-you for the Grey Lady.
What harm could one old dog do?
She regarded him closely, studying his face as the heat closed in on them all, forcing a prickling sensation to bloom across Koning’s skin. He could only imagine what his soldiers must be feeling in their full armour. She didn’t speak for some time and Koning had drawn a breath to break the silence when something caught his attention.
The craws had stopped singing.
It wasn’t important and he tried to dismiss it, but the silence was almost overwhelming. Only in that moment did he realise how constant their chorus had been and despite the heat he felt a chill pass down his spine.
The sounds of muted movement snapped him out of his reverie. His own soldiers were changing position, but he hadn’t issued any command. He tore his eyes away from Ilsa to see what was happening. As he looked over to the trees his mouth dropped open in disbelief, more from the audacity of what he was seeing than the scale of it.
From the forbidding darkness of the trees line after line of Ilsa Botha’s loyal guard quietly marched onto the lawn. Within moments his once powerful collection of soldiers were hopelessly outnumbered by some of the war’s finest veterans. They all carried the Vlaagtroep insignia, a sea of orange badges arrayed in perfect parade formation, evidence of their pedigree.
He looked left and then right again as he took in the muted spectacle and returned his gaze to face Ilsa, shaking his head in a gesture of confusion.
“I – I don’t understand, what are you hoping to achieve with this?” He shrugged then, raising his hands to encompass the show of force around him. “Are you going to take on the entire Vorstaat with your company?”
“No. The Vorstaat has become soft. It’s doing a perfectly good job of destroying itself. I intend to put a stop to that.”
“I don’t understand – “
“You don’t have to.” With that Ilsa raised one hand slightly and an appalling cacophony of sound assaulted Koning’s ears. He crouched from it reflexively, covering his head in a defensive movement. When it ended he looked up. The first thing he saw was a light spattering of what looked like blood on Ilsa’s jacket and face.
For a fleeting moment he imagined that his soldiers had opened fire and she had been shot, but as her gaze remained steady, mildly accusing, he realised it was quite the opposite. He turned slowly and gasped despite himself at the site. His soldiers lay on the ground, decimated by precise incoming fire. Not one bullet had touched him or Ilsa, but there could be no question of the absolute nature of the destruction.
He was on his own.
He snapped back round to face Ilsa, terrified of what she might do while his back was turned, the sum total of all his buried fears rising up to face him at last. Whatever she was planning it couldn’t be good for the Vorstaat.
“I still don’t understand. What does this achieve?” His voice felt small as he stood there in the heat and smoke of a massacre now passed.
“It proves that we agree on one thing at least.” In one fluid movement she drew a handgun from the holster on her hip and aimed it squarely at the centre of Koning’s forehead. “Change is coming.”
Koning opened his mouth to speak, his eyes fixed comically on the gun, slightly cross-eyed, white and wide with fear. She pulled the trigger and with a dull crack Koning fell to the ground, dead.
Ilsa pulled a small medal from her pocket then and considered it for a moment, running her thumb over the now smooth surface where there had once lain deep ridges outlining Vorstaat’s emblem, a secretary bird with its wings outspread, encompassing the Vorstaat’s motto:
Oorwinning Ten Alle Koste – victory at any cost.
She had considered the words every day since her grandfather had given it to her as a child. It was the greatest gift she had ever received and the words had burned in her mind with a brilliance that obscured all other things.
Where she was going now, though, there was no room for sentimentality. She looked at it one more time, regarding the dull glow of worn gold in the lowering sun, pursing her lips briefly before throwing it casually at Koning’s prone form. It landed with a sickly plop in a pool of gore that had settled on his chest, floating momentarily before becoming enrobed in the dark blood of the dead admiral, disappearing forever.
“Fourie, clear this mess up, and tell Edward that the lawn will need some attention. We leave in the morning.”
The Vorstaat had forgotten itself, forgotten what it was fighting for; forgotten how to fight for it. Ilsa was going to remind them.
Victory at any cost.