For your reading pleasure, an excerpt from the novel I am currently working on (still figuring out a title…)
Dayevan surveyed the bodies strewn across the field with the grim look of satisfaction that came from a hard job well done. The air was thick with the smell of blood, sweat, piss and worse, and it wouldn’t be long before the stench of rotting flesh was added to the mix., He leaned against his spear, taking the weight off weary feet , allowing eyes to close as he snatched a moment’s respite from the mad insanity that had invaded his world and only recently come to an end
Living men moved among the dead, occasionally bending over to pick some choice bauble off a corpse, some keepsake or memento that in years to come would be brought on on the appropriate holy days and displayed before wide-eyed children as proof that Father had been there on that day, one of those moments when the fate of the world. Or at least the parts of it that mattered hung in the balance. But most were as Dayevan, embracing the fact that they were alive, and still coming to terms with that fact. They shouldn’t have been, that wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. Yet here they were. Sacrifice would have to be made when they returned to the city, offerings to the gods in thankful prayer for this most glorious occasion. Libations would be poured in remembrance of the feranmai for who could doubt that the spirits had marched this day with the men of Kavril? And of course, word of this would spread quickly across the length and breadth of Anvara, from North to South, to city and clan. All would know that on this day, the Kavrilai had faced down an army sent by the mightiest Empire the world had ever known. And won.
All this would be done, in due time. But for now, Dayevan simply wanted to rest and to mark the moment in his memory.
Vedarin. That was the name of the nearby fishing village a mile to the north. The fields around it were a good place for a fight, long and flat with a low hill rising to the west. And indeed, it had often served this purpose, the grass and scrub bushes silent witness to battles of one sort or another over the years. Why, only twenty years before, Ervanil had renounced its allegiance to Kavril, challenging them in the old way to settle once and for all who was the hegemon of Evrenna. Dayevan’s had been there, and for the rest of his life regaled his son with tales of that day and exhortations to do better, to exceed previous generations in renown and bring honor to their family and city. But what had happened today was an event of far greater magnitude. Not a fight between Anvarai, but a foreign invasion.
One could follow the course the battle had taken by examining the churning of the ground and patterns of dead bodies lying across the area, a silent testimony to a day of butchery written in blood, mud, and mangled flesh. There, on the beach, the deep scrapes in the earth where the enemy ships had landed, crossing the straits with a favorable wind to run their prows up the same. Further on it, the long line of trodden turf where the Orzaran infantry had gathered as they disembarked, stamping their feet as that alien warsong rose to the sky in defiance at the sight of the Kavrilai host emerging from the hills. Arrows had fallen then, striking shields like hailstones.
There the first line of the dead, where they crashed into the Kavrilai lines, followed by a thin scattered back as the defenders were first driven towards them hills, leaving behind clumps of their own dead, who were now being wrapped in cloth coverings for transport back to the city. Dayevan had been in the front line there, shields locked, shoulder to shoulder, warriors drawing strength and courage from their fellows. There had been an older fellow in the spot to his right, some farmer in from the backwoods, wrapped in armor dating from his grandfather’s time by the cut. The fellow went down at the beginning, some howling savage smashing an ax into his neck, spraying his comrades on both sides with blood. The body had been lost in the scrum, likely trampled to a pulp.
At the base of the hills the ground could not be seen, a marker of the counter attack on the enemy flank. The center of the Kavrilai bent back, forming a pocket, creating the opportunity. The Servari had rallied men on the verge of breaking, calling on them to find new courage, the itaeri manning the left swinging down like a closing door to take the Orzarans in the side….
And finally the endless scatterings of Orzaran dead left behind as they broke. He remembered the sight; thirty thousand men fleeing across the feet, their feet drumming on the ground, a massive many head beast stricken with the demons of panic, shedding pieces of itself in the wake of its passage. The Anvarai giving chase, victory giving new strength to their exhausted bodies bowed down by armor and shield and spear, killing until their arms ached, until the last of the survivor had climbed back aboard their ships and fled across the water towards the Long Coast. Victory.
The voice pulled him from the reverie, back into the here and now. He turned towards the speaker bowing his head with respect, fist thumping against his armored chest in salute. “Het, Servari!”
Metiran approached, stepping around corpses like they were stones in a field. An older man, well past sixty it was claimed, of an age where he would have been excused service in militia ranks on account of age. One Councilor, more foolish than wise, had actually made this suggestion to Metiran’s face. Afterward, he didn’t leave his house for three days from the shame. It was enough to earn respect from the younger men, enough for them to overlook other troublesome facts….
The red tassels on Metiran’s spear were caked with blood and dust. Dayevan had been there on the day the Paravet had affixed them, telling the world that the Thirty-and-One had overcome it’s misgivings about the man and appointed him, Servari, commander of the militia in the coming battle. It only made sense, given that the battle plan was his. More than a few angry voiced pointed out at the time that the war was also his doing, but by that point, coast watchers had spotted the enemy fleet coming from the south and recriminations had to step aside for necessity. “Are you hurt?” Metiran asked, nodding at the massive blood stain covering Dayevans left side.
A gift from that near-decapitated farmer…blood had sprayed out like water from a dropped cut, given strength by the beating of the human heart in battle. “I am well, Servari. It is not my blood.”
“Good, good.” Metiran nodded absently, and for the first time, Dayevan noticed that he was favoring his right leg, that there was a damp stain running down the trousers under the skirt of his voron. “I have heard a good report of your actions, Dayevan. They say you fought with honor, and inspired the men around you to do the same. You have gained much renown this day, I should think.”
Pride swelled in Dayevan’s heart. Any Anvarai dreamed of hearing such words, they were more precious than gold. “Much renown was gained by all men who stood here today.”
“False modesty is not pleasing to Heaven, Dayevan, nor to me.”
“Yes, Servari.” An awkward pause. “Are you well?”
Metiran glanced at his leg. “This? Nothing…an arrow got through the gap. Barely scratched the skin. It will take more than this to bring down Metiran.”
The accent in his voice became somewhat more noticeable. Metiran was not from Kavril, though the Thirty-and-One had voted him the honor of citizenship since no tavret could hold the rank of Servari. He came from the Long Coast, from some city that had fallen to the Orzarans. It was known, though never stated publicly these days, that before he fought against the Great King, Metiran had served him as a mercenary, and been richly rewarded. The details of his falling out were somewhat obscure…something about a failed plot and the picking of the wrong side within it…normal behavior for degenerate Orzarans, to be expected.
Metiran had fled one step ahead of the assassins, fomented revolt among the Anvarai cities of the Long Coast, who still chafed under the Great Kings hand. Kavril had send support. It hadn’t been enough. Metiran’s home city was destroyed, the inhabitants dead or sold into slavery, and he’d crossed the straits to Anvara itself, bent on revenge. Dubious loyalties aside, his knowledge of the enemy proved useful today. Those who still held him in suspicion would hold their words now…or at least for a while.
“Did you know him, Servari? The enemy commander?”
Metiran nodded. “Aye. Markhaniush.” A barbaric name that he said with ease. Long Coast folk had that facility with foreigners, something that made them suspect in the eyes of other Anvarai. “I knew him from the old days. Good fighter. Prudent in all things.”
“Didn’t hep him much today,” Dayevan sad with a grin, quickly fading as Metiran fixed a gimlet gaze on him.
“We were lucky. The Orzarans only brought infantry across on their ships. The advantage was ours…if they had brought cavalry in large numbers matters would have swung the other way.”
Dayevan nodded, flushing for a moment. Pride, ever a hidden danger, only wisdom could quell it. “Yes, Servari.”
Another hidden moment. “We must see to these bodies,” Metiran said. “In a day’s time, they will begin to stink. Disease will soon follow. Heaven and Earth do not favor those who disrespect the dead.”
“We have no wood to burn them, Servari.”
“Then we bury them. We shall let the men rest for a few hours more. Then they must start digging. The Thirty-and-One will no doubt want to raise a monument to this victory, but to my mind a mound for the Orzaran dead is the best mark of all.”
“It shall be done.” Dayevan permitted himself a smile. “Word will have reached Kavril by now. They will be dancing in the streets.”
“Yes…dancing.” Metiran looked back across the sea, towards the homeland he would never see again. There was no smile on his face, only grim determination.
The wind had shifted about, coming from the northeast, making the return trip across the Straits even more unpleasant. There was a hint of weather in the air, old sea hands sniffing the breeze with anxious looks on their faces. Storms had a way of blowing up quickly this time of year, and no one wanted to be caught in the middle of a midsummer squall. Though the rain, at least, would wash the decks free of blood, of which there as far too many.
One ship in particular held to the middle of the fleet. Larger than the others, the prow painted with a stripe of purple, signifying that at least one of the passengers onboard was a man who could boast a measure of royal blood in his veins, a claim of descent from Darietelekh the Great, and through him ultimately the Mighty Zarthekiut, first of the Great Kings. The banner flapping from the mast and stern carried on it the symbol of the Royal Heron, Messenger of the Gods, further proof of the exalted status of the one aboard who at a single word could command thousands of men to battle, order the death of entire cities with a flick of his finger. Only three men in the world could gainsay his commands. One of them was far to the east. The other lay dead on the battlefield so recently and ingloriously vacated.
“Reports have arrived from the other ships.” Shuruppa stood against the portside rail for support, looking green around the gills, as he always did when aboard a ship. He was a Haggigan, and viewed the sea with terror at the best of times, The fine silk robes that normally covered his corpulent form were stained with sweat and dust, a complete loss in by any reckoning. But at the moment the remains of his clothes were the last thing on his mind, his attention focused solely on the man sitting on an upended packing crate, a far cry from the silver throne that was his normal perch. The bejeweled breastplate had long since been taken away, the padded linen undergarment soaked with sweat and blood. A hand bedecked with rings pressed a cloth against his forehead, putting pressure on a shallow wound that came courtesy of an Anvarai spearhead. A few inches closer and it would have gone into his eye.
“Continue,” Markeniush said. His free hand brushed back the long hair that had come undone from its ceremonial braid, revealing the gently pointed ears that were the hallmark of the Fireborn races.
“Perhaps half the men escaped back onto the ships. We left the remainder behind on the beach. Every contingent reports losses…the detachment of Faceless was almost completely wiped out.”
“How many dead?”
“Fifteen thousand at least…unless some were taken prisoner by the Anvarai.”
“Unlikely. They don’t keep slaves.” Markhaniush pulled away the cloth. “Do I still bleed?”
Shurrupa looked closely. “No, Magnificent One. The wound had closed.”
“How long until we reach land?”
“Hard to say. The wind is pushing us to the south. We’ll likely make landfall near the mouth of the Iltuva within the next day or two.”
Markhaniush turned away for a moment, lips moving in silent prayer. Fists beat against his breast five times, and he bowed his head in silence.
Then came the hard question. “What do I tell the Great King?”
And there was the problem rendered down to base simplicity. Two thousand miles to the east, the Great King Eberzaiim ruled the mightiest Empire the world had ever known. At his command armies numbering in the tens of thousands marched, ancient kingdoms conquered, cities whose walls were rooted in the bones of time overthrown, their peoples paying tribute to the Lord of the Eight Directions. Boundaries between states that had existed for so long they might as well have been drawn by the pens of the gods themselves (indeed, in some places this was considered to be the truth) were washed away with a single decree, replaced by new boundaries, that of the ranzhata, the provinces of the Empire. And ruling over each one, a ranzhash, a governer of the Great King.
Markhaniush was named ranzhash of the West two years previously; as was customary he would hold the post for five years before being summoned back to the capital to account for his actions. If good, he could expect further reward and promotion, if bad, only punishment, The fact that he was a cousin to Eberzaiim counted for little – most ranzhashi were of royal blood in one way or another. While in his realm and holding his position, Markhaniushs power was absolute, none could gainsay his will except the Great King, and two officials who accompanied him on his journey west. The parvastas acted as the Great Kings eyes and ears, watching over his officials, and given the authority to countermand any ranzhash’s orders that were seen as going beyond the Great Kings desires.
Markhaniush accepted their presence grudgingly,k as did most officials. Now they were dead, and rightly so in his unspoken view They wanted this war, had ultimately forced his hand. Before elevation to the rank of ranzhash, Markhaniush had spent much of his life in the barbarous provinces of the west, far from the plains and mountains of his beloved Orza, leading armies in the name of his blessed cousin, conquering the Runizians, forcing the submission of Kheshem, and bringing the Anvarai of the Long Coast under some semblance of Orzaran control. It was the last of these that proved to the cause of so much irritation. The Anvarai, as more than one astute observer had found over the years, were a quarrelsome folk, who eagerly fought amongst each other for the most trivial of reasons. In that regard they were no different than many other lesser peoples around the world, it was a quality much appreciated by the Orzarans, as it made the business of building an Empire all the easier. But no matter how much they hated each other, Anvarai hated foreigners telling them what to do even more. The conquest of the Long Coast proved to be a slow, bitter affair, ever inch of ground contested at spearpoint. Cities submitted grudgingly, resistance spring up as soon as Orzaran backs were turned. Several places still held out, most notably Berkaven, greatest of all the Long Coast cities.
Ten years ago, a major revolt broke out. As was the practice in other ranzhata’s, Orzaran colonies were planted in Anvarai lands, as a way to keep subject populations under control. Makhaniush remembered speaking out against this at the time, sensing that the already tenuous hold they had over the region would shatter over the issue. Anvarai protests were brushed aside. Anvarai notables – like the accursed Metiran! – who had entered Orzaran service, renounced their oath. The ranzhash of the time, a foolish man as he remembered, brushed aside these remonstrance’s as though they were the buzzing of flies, and seemed genuinely surprised when his subjects rebelled. No doubt he gained some measure of understanding when he was ambushed along the banks of the Iltuva and beheaded.
The men who came after fared little better, the Anvarai of the Long Coast appealing to their free brethren across the straits. Kavril sent men, money, and supplies. When Markhaniush was finally sent west with a mandate to restore order and an army of fifty thousand men, the Orzaran colonies in the Lea Aresa had long since fled or been massacred, the remaining garrisons penned up in forts or friendly cities. Markhaniush brought them to heel with a few well-placed massacres of his own, cajolery where appropriate, bribery when necessary. By the end of his first year, the revolt burnt itself out. Those Anvarai who had crossed the straits to aid in the fighting returned home, and for his part, Markhaniush was willing to leave it at that. But the Great King had other ideas. Angered at the thought of anyone giving aid to his enemies, he sent a letter west to his ranzhash. The first part congratulated him on a successful pacification of the Long Coast, something which made Markhaniush beam with pride. The second part commanded him to punish the Kavrilai for their insolence.
Markhaniush was appalled. The Long Coast was barely under Orzaran control, it took every measure of resource at his command to prevent smoldering hatred from bursting forth into new revolt. For a brief moment, he considered doing the unthinkable; replying with a letter of his own stating why such an expedition was impossible at this time. Fortunately, common sense prevailed. Eberzaiim would only hear news of victory, anything else would mean a death sentence. So an army was gathered, Markhaniush summoning what troops he could spare, packing them onto ships manned by Kheshemi sailors pressed into service. They had crossed the straits separating Anvara from the continent praying to innumerable gods for victory; they sailed back praying for the souls of the dead, for those suffering from wounds likely to kill them before long. Praying for help during the reckoning that was sure to follow.
Shurrupa could offer his master no words of wisdom at this moment. His fingers idly stroked the curling dark beard that tumbled down his chest. Markhaniush stared at him with s minor sense of bitterness. His face was bare, like all Orzarans he never grew more than a few stray hairs on his face. Any more than that was taken as a sign of crossbreeding, which was to be viewed with horror. But Markhaniush could only look upon his servant with a sense of envy, at the way it hid his face, hid his thoughts, a vital shield in a dangerous world of secrets.
“Both Parvasta’s are dead,” Shurrupa finally said.
“One blessing at least.” Both the fools hounded Markhaniush the moment he received the Kings instructions, from the way they were carrying on an onlooker would have been forgiven for thinking they had been personally insulted by every Anvarai in existence. Markhaniush rewarded their zeal by placing both men among the first units to head into battle.
“So, despite the recent…losses, you find yourself in something of an unusual position.” As always, Shurrupa proved himself the master of understatement.
The lapping of the waves against the hill of the ship, the faint thump of the drummer marking time for the oarsmen below decks seemed to give his words an ominous weight. “With the parvasta’s gone, you alone are the supreme authority in your ranzhata. You control everything…including what messages are sent to the Great King when they are sent, and what is in them.”
Markhaniush nodded. “Indeed.” A very good point. He could seal the borders of the ranzhata, prevent word of this disaster from reaching the Great King. It was a long way to the capital, and there was no telling if Eberzaiim was even there, he did spend much of his time down in the Bowers of the Seven Enchantments, that palace of delights built by his grandfather in the foothills of the mountains.
Even so… “That may buy us some time, but word of this will reach him eventually. And his wrath at the loss will be compounded by the knowledge that I tried to hide it from him. I will be brought to him in chains, for what will likely be a short and unpleasant discussion.” He had a fair guess that the Great King – or more than likely the minister performing the interrogation – would only bother to ask three questions. The first would be.’ Why didn’t you bring any cavalry?’ To which he’d answer that there was none to spare, all his horsemen were engaged putting down resistance across the ranzhata, Not to mention the rebellions that broke every fall and winter in Runizia, springing up like mushrooms after the rain. The second would be, ‘Why did you lose?’ And while he could point out the lack of manpower, supplies, or the fact that attacking Anvara was a bad idea in an of itself, the only answer they would want to hear was , ‘Because I am incompetent/a traitor/a coward.’ Lastly, they would ask, ‘What should your punishment be?’ to which there was only one possible answer.
Mercy was not a quality the Great King Eberzaiim was known to possess in abundance. He’d risen to the throne after his father’s death in a fratricidal free-for-all that had pitted him against two brothers, three half-brothers, four uncles and an assortment of cousins, nephews, and various other relations, all trying desperately to scheme and murder their way to supreme power. Eberzaiim won through a combination of luck, raw courage and a sheer ruthlessness that terrified even the most hardened of his opponents. Appeals for clemency by those who failed him would be answered with a visit to the Royal Strangler. To do otherwise might be seen as a sign of weakness.
There was only one way this situation could end. Shurrupa knew this but was far too wise to say it out loud. Once again, Markhaniush appreciated the subtlety of his advisor’s mind and praised the gods for the day he found the man, lifting him from obscurity in his Haggigan home city.
Nonetheless, there was a difference between subtle and evasive. “Continue, Shurrupa.” He waved a hand, causing all other on that part of the ship to pull away. Best not have any prying ears. “I would hear your thoughts,” he said, this time speaking Haggigan, a language he was fairly certain no one else on the ship could understand.
“You must seal the borders of your ranzhata,” came the reply. “Delay news of this reaching the Great King for as long as possible, while you muster your strength.”
“And when he finally sends for me?”
Shurrupa shrugged. “The Lord of the Nine Directions may decide to be lenient, and declare this loss to be nothing more than the will of fate, which no man may gainsay, not even royalty.”
“But if he does not?”
A momentous pause. “Then you must decide where events should take you.”
Markhaniush slowly got his feet. “You realize what you are saying what…I must do.”
“I say nothing. I am your servant, merely an extension of your will. You must decide. But when all other paths are blocked, the way that remains may be chosen for you. To not follow it would mean your own destruction.”
A difficult choice…yet, in the end, the only choice he could make. Perhaps it was the invisible hand of fate, the Silent Weaver from the myths, plucking at the strings that bound together the destinies of men, placing his feet on this path, taking away all other options until only one remained. The hand of fate, the will of the gods…at the very least it is a useful lie he could tell himself, something to put steel in his spine when the inevitable moments of doubt emerged. There was no going back now. He could only press forward, come what may in the end.
“Send a lighter ahead of the fleet. Use only men you can trust. The parvasta’s staffs are to be placed under heavy guard and isolated. All Royal Couriers are to be confined to barracks until further notice. The borders of the ranzhata are to be sealed tighter than a virgins slit until I say otherwise.”
“And your family?”
“They should still be in Mokuraz. Double the guard around them. Where is Arkanemhet?” His eldest son.
“Still in Runizia.”
“Send him a message. He is to head back to Mokuraz and meet there. Also send summons to these men.” He rattled off a list of officials, men he had fought alongside, whose worth he knew and whose measure he had taken and found good.
Shurrupa nodded, writing nothing down, committing it all to his excellent memory. “And what of the others, the ones you haven’t mentioned?” There was a moment’s silence, ending with Shurrupa’s nod. “I understand. It will be taken care of.”
“We have very little room for error and even less time. Discretion is called for, as well as speed.”
“Understood, Magnificent One. And when it is done? What then?”
“Well.” At that, a bitter smile crossed Markhaniush’s face. “As you say, we shall see where events take us.” He switched back to Orzaran. “See that it is done.”
“As you command.” Shurrupa turned about and began barking orders. Within moments the deck was a hive of activity.
Markhaniush sat back down, allowing himself a moment to consider the decision just made, the implications of success, the penalty for failure. He closed his eyes and offered three prayers. One to his ancestors for guidance. One to the gods, for victory in his endeavors. And one to the Lord of the Silent Passage that, if he should fail, then at least it would be with honor.