I still remember the excitement over the bear traps. Without the traps, the War might've taken a different direction. But our blacksmiths worked ceaselessly, and we managed to get our trappers into position in time. We massed our troops outside the Border Forest and waited, and when the Southies came charging into the trees on snarling grizzlies, the sound of snapping metal latches and bellowing bears chilled and elated us. We managed to take down most of the invaders before they broke through, and the few who avoided the traps were easy targets for our musketeers, who picked off the riders one by one as they emerged from the thicket. The beasts became confused and disoriented, and some turned on their fallen masters and began to devour them before we moved in with our fire nets and finished the job.
We rejoiced when the news reached our cities. Children in playgrounds were crawling around on all fours and growling, then jerking to a whimpering halt with an imaginary trapped leg or writhing on the ground as if on fire. My friends and I were too old for these games, but though we laughed and shook our heads as we watched, I'm sure I was not alone in feeling a rush of exhilaration and pride.
Of course, we would've never known about the bears without our balloon scouts. We'd kept the Southlands under close observation for years, even before they showed any signs of hostility, and in fact a dispute over the scouts played a large role in instigating the violence. The Southies complained about the constant presence of our great red balloons in their skies, and there was one regrettable incident involving a sand bag falling on and killing a Southie child after a scout cut it loose to gain altitude. But once the War started, the scouts proved to be our greatest asset. They observed enemy training and troop formations with their monoculars, and passed intelligence between each other and back to us using Carrier pigeons. Southie technology was mostly barbaric, but they did manage to construct primitive rock launchers that took down a small number of scouts who descended too close to the ground. For the most part, however, the scouts stayed at a safe distance and were instrumental in keeping us a step ahead of the Southies.
Now that the War is long over, it's strange to look out on empty skies where before magnificent red balloons were always leaving or returning, casting shadows over our streets while children looked up and waved. But there is no one left to observe. The seas stretch endlessly to the east, west, and north, and the Southlands are barren and charred. Once or twice a year, a balloon is sent to look for bands of Southies hiding in the ruins, but the scouts see nothing but rubble and empty plains.
There was debate after the bear attack about whether or not to mount our own offensive. A small portion of our citizens expressed the opinion that once the Southies' original assault had been repelled, they would return to a state of reluctant submission and resume their tribute payments and taxes. It would be monstrous, some said, to march down from our great cities and demolish their towns, to set fire to their crops and slit the throats of their cattle. But the majority decided that a thorough retaliation was our only sensible option, and after the Calliope Crisis, it became clear that the Southies were too dangerous to be let off with a warning.
The Crisis took place shortly after the bear attack, which we thought would demoralize the Southies enough to put a quick end to the War. In fact, they offered to surrender under the conditions that we lower their land tax and decrease balloon observations after one year of peace. Our leaders held a meeting in the capital to discuss our response. We let our guard down, I suppose, but even if we'd been on high alert, it would have been difficult to anticipate what the Southies had planned. We assumed that Calliope, our jeweled city on the western coast, home of our renowned Glass Gardens and towering Spire Library, would be off limits in any conflict. After all, as our cultural and artistic center, and housing no military compounds, it seemed an unlikely target. But just as our leaders sat down at the capital to discuss the Southies' surrender, the streets of Calliope exploded.
The tunnel, we later learned, stretched over fifty kilometers from Calliope back to the northernmost stronghold in the Southlands. It was a feat of such precision and ingenuity that even through our anger we couldn't help being impressed. With the bulk of our troops stationed near the capital, hundreds of earth-blackened Southies swarmed up from the hole in the city center and stormed through Calliope almost without resistance. By the time a Carrier pigeon brought the news, the Southies had killed the few soldiers guarding the city and taken a great number of civilians hostage. This was our lowest moment in the War, and though our forces responded quickly and decisively, we suffered heavy civilian losses and extensive damage to our prized city.
Those were somber days. We spoke little and exchanged solemn nods when we passed in the streets. And yet, this common grief united us. We shared a solidarity then that we had not known before. Strangers brushing past each other at the market would meet eyes and know what the other was thinking. There was something empowering in knowing that we all shared the same sadness, the same rage. Today, in this time of peace and security, what do we share?
It took several more weeks, notable only for light skirmishes around our border towns, for our leaders to decide to invade the Southlands. We would make our campaign methodical, and we would make it final. We sent our troops south, tramping through the Border Forest, hacking their way across the sprawling Calamari Fields where the Southies had planted tentacles that wrapped around our soldiers' legs and dragged them under the soil. They marched south, over plains and rivers, through towns and cities, orchards and farmland, burning, chopping, razing. For three months our troops were gone, and we eagerly awaited news of their progress each morning, scanned the skies for pigeons swooping down to our communication towers, the white parchments tied to their ankles glinting in the new day's sun.
How can I describe those three months? I can think of no greater time in the history of our nation. Never before or since has such a great swelling of pride come over our people as when our troops marched through enemy territory and eliminated forever the threat of violence from the south. We cheered together at the news of victories, mourned together when the skies brought us names of the fallen. Even the dissenters soon had to agree that the invasion would make our nation safer and stronger. Young men, I among them, spent hours on the training field, honing their skills, imagining a Southie at the tip of their swords or in the crosshairs of their guns, while the more mature allowed themselves to dream of days with no conflict, no violence or feuds between nations. It was a time of nervous excitement, almost elation. If I remember correctly, the sun shone every day our troops were gone and brightest on the day they returned.
Now those troops are old, many dead, the rest nearing the end of their lives. On the outskirts of our cities we have centers for the elderly, and walking through the corridors of these buildings, looking into the rooms, you can see the heroes from years ago resting in chairs by their windows, staring at the countryside. You will often find the greatest gatherings in the southward-facing rooms, where old War comrades sit together and gaze out toward the land where, years ago, their bravery assured our peace.
I, too, sometimes look to the south. And I am not alone. We who still remember those days reflect on them often, discussing them endlessly to the annoyance of younger generations. Our nation is a prosperous, harmonious land, and for those too young to remember, the War is nothing more than a topic in history classes, divested from the reality of their lives. But those of us who lived through those days are unable to put the War from our thoughts.
Because there will never be another War. The Southies are all dead, and our nation will forever know nothing but peace. And who could say that this is not ideal? It was toward this goal, after all, that we fought. And yet we who still remember the War look to the south and long for a feeling that even we are forgetting, and that will soon be lost from the memory of everyone in our land.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Robert Hinderliter. All rights reserved.