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The Cities Rise Up on Legs of Lead

Daniel Ausema's fiction has appeared in Diabolical Plots and Strange Horizons, as well as previously in Daily Science Fiction. His high fantasy, The Arcist Chronicles is published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.

We, the citizenry of the city Letura, form up our lines in the amber grass while our home shakes itself free of its foundations.
It's real, what the old books say. Had we thought the claims of streets becoming legs some primitive misunderstanding? Had we thought the lines about the buildings coming together to tower above the countryside some kind of religious symbolism? Our caution proves itself merited. The city draws its buildings together into a vast body. A domed shrine becomes its head. Its paving stones bind building to building as they rise upward.
I give a wordless shout, and others take it up. The cries echo in angry violence from the barren places where there once were streets. It's a shout of pride in Letura, a shout of defiance against other cities.
A shout of bluster to cover our uncertainty.
Because what happens next, the old books don't tell.
Grave warnings to leave the city at the given time. Strange claims about the cycle of the city's uncanny powers, ideas that we almost dismissed as metaphor. How did a city manifest as a living being? Surely those ancient writers hadn't meant....
Those crumbling books had meant for us to take them literally--and it was fortunate that, even as we doubted, we had done as they instructed. Because of that, here we stand--safe--and there rises Letura. I find my house, tucked into an elbow. My parents' home has become a part of the lower limb. One of many leaden roofs that now encase Letura's legs. Buildings and streets rise high above us, rippling as the city stretches to its full height. Letura's face is a fountain where I drank just yesterday. Its domed head is crowned with the peaks of many roofs.
Letura begins to lurch away from its foundations, and we cheer. It leaves behind cellars, storerooms, the buried dead, and sets off across fields.
We join at a distance, keeping pace.
Letura makes its slow way toward our neighbors in Dahlet, a lazy city whose citizens don't have to work for the grain they farm or the trade that passes through. While we work every day for our city.
What will our Letura do to those sluggards?
Excitement builds as we follow. Let it crush their buildings. Let it take revenge for the riches Dahlet has stolen from us, our avatar of jealousy and vengeance. Our marching turns martial. Soldiers and bakers, children and elderly, we form ranks and urge our city toward its pitiful prey. We burst into a bloodthirsty song.
The first houses of Dahlet come into view too soon. A steeple appears over the rise when we are still far from the city.
Far from where the city should be.
The steeple is followed by other buildings, by cobbled streets cobbling together a vast and terrible conglomerate monster. This is why our Letura has taken its shape. To fight the evil that is Dahlet. To vanquish the enemy city before it can spoil the land. Of course it was necessary, the rising of our city to protect us and proclaim our status above the avatars of other cities.
On the far side of the valley, the lazy people of Dahlet fall into uneven ranks. Their voices raise an uncouth song of wickedness.
It falls to us to defend the world, to cleanse the land for our children's children.
The cities stomp down the hillsides toward each other.
We hold our breaths.
What will it sound like when they battle? I imagine a great storm, with the patter of raindrops replaced by falling rocks. I imagine an earthquake, tearing stone from stone. The buildings of Dahlet will crumble. Some of our own buildings will likely fall as well, walls that will never hold up a roof, streets that will require new paving stones. But Letura is just and will surely triumph. Then the people of Dahlet will be crushed for their lazy, wicked ways.
That last part is up to us. We surge to the crest, ready to charge, as they clamor opposite us.
Letura reaches the rill at the bottom of the slopes first. It plants its feet. I can scarcely breathe through anticipation. Its legs, cased in lead, surely give it the solid base it needs to wrestle Dahlet into submission. I fix my gaze on its arms, willing them to rise, grapple, throw the enemy to the ground.
Instead, Letura bows. The plazas of its waist bend, flex, as it abases itself before the other city. Our eager anger drains away. Are we to serve them, those lazy ones? We grumble in shock, and the people opposite us crow as if in victory.
What will Dahlet do to our abased city? It could pummel Letura into the dirt from this angle. It could scatter the stones of our homes throughout the valley, so that our city will never rise again.
A cry of mourning rises in my throat, a terror of uncertainty and loss.
By then, Dahlet has reached the bottom.
That other city bows as well. A bow of greeting, a bow of recognition and camaraderie.
They rise from their deep bows and pass each other, each heading onward. Each making straight for the scars on the land where the other has been these many generations, for the cellars left behind when the other rose to its feet.
What does it mean? The ancient books gave us no guidance, no warning for this. We humans are left stranded, uncertain. Do we fight? Do we continue to follow our city as it moves? Do we go back to the place where our homes had been, soon to be occupied by a new city?
There is no grand moment of realization, of us all doing the same thing at once. Instead we trickle away from the field of no-battle, each making our own choices. I slink back the way I'd come. There is a house above the cellar I once owned. It's larger than my old house, though an awkward fit for the foundation it has claimed.
Now, a citizen of Dahlet, I work as hard as before. My neighbors are a mix of those who'd lived here as part of Letura and those who'd come later, following the new city. But all are people of Dahlet, and we welcome new trade and gather in grain and other crops. And make our city better than the lazy people of Letura could ever achieve.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 15th, 2022


Author Comments

This story began as a title swap. Another writer gave me the title (slightly different from the published version). I interpreted it, perhaps, more literally than intended and ran with the underlying idea of a city that can rise up in this way.

- Daniel Ausema
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