It started with a dream, and Simon’s life would never be the same again.
The world was gray—not just the sky, but the field, the trees and the corpses. As if the life had been drained from both the land and his fallen comrades, leaving a pale imitation. Where was the green of the trees? The blue of the sky? The red of their legionary tunics?
Of their blood.
Gone too was the angry black of the arrows littering thousands of corpses. Only form remained, as if carved from pale lifeless stone. Where was the color? The soul?
His mind screamed out in opposition. He had to do something.
Heat trickled up from the ground between his hobnailed sandals, a gentle current escaping from a hole. A pale branch sprouted from the gap, growing up to touch his hand. Sparks of golden light flared from the contact, so warm as his fingers closed around the wood, the comforting radiance spreading down his arm to engulf his heart.
He had never felt so alive, so vibrant. He saw the world with new clarity: what was missing and how to bring it out. To bring it back.
The stick was above his head now, dancing in his hand through the air, colors leaping forth; swirling, splashing, beautiful colors. Vivid greens sprayed the ground, erupting into new life. The air buzzed around him in waves of azure glory as he spun, enraptured. Pure happiness shone yellow through his skin.
If only he could find his friends among the dead, and give them back their color, he could—
Sudden cold washed over him, raising the hairs on his other arm. He turned to face the source.
Darkness, an inky malignant blackness, billowed over the battleground toward him. Smoky wisps swirled around the bodies; seeking, searching, devouring.
The light in his hand flickered, frail and defenseless, shrinking from the advancing evil.
He had to get away. To protect the light. Or it would be lost.
He turned to run, but stumbled, the stick thrown from his grasp, skittering away across the gray scrub. On hands and knees he scrambled after the branch, but it continued to roll further and further from his reach.
Despairing, he looked back, and the darkness was nearer now, inhaling the last vestiges of color he had returned to the world.
He threw up his hands to ward the darkness away, but it surged around his fingers, enveloping them as it sought to extinguish his spark. He averted his face, turning back to the branch one last time.
A scream escaped his lips and the fiery blackness rushed in through his open mouth, burning and choking. The darkness reached the branch and the light winked out of existence, just as the black covered his eyes. The world became night and death and he was spiraling down, down, down…
Simon woke up, drenched with sweat and shivering against the cold. There will be no more sleep this night.
Squinting through the first rays of early morning light, Simon saw no sign of sinister Scentari horse archers lurking in the gloomy steppe below. Were they still out there, waiting to prey on the column once they got moving again? Yesterday’s attack had been the worst yet, and the most deadly. Simon would never forget the sightless eyes of the dead legionaries. Success no longer seemed assured as the legion struck north into this barbarian homeland, despite the superiority of their numbers, organization and weaponry.
Simon sat atop a small hill at the center of the 7th Legion’s temporary camp, looking north into the gray unknown. Tendrils of icy mist hung in the air, transforming the vast plains beyond the palisade wall into a ghostly forest. They seemed almost alive, reaching out to drain the blood from his fingers and leave only bones freezing in the wind. As he blew in his hands to try to coax back a spark of life, hope itself was fading.
Was this how every soldier felt? And was he even crazier to have chosen this? Wouldn’t he prefer to be warm in his own bed? Back in Pazh, his home city and the capital of the Republic. Where his biggest worry was enduring his father’s next wine-addled tongue lashing.
He was drawn to the legions by the promise of some greater destiny. He’d enlisted what, six months ago? The day after he turned twenty. He’d wanted to see the world and make a name for himself and his family, no longer content to cling desperately to the bottom rung of the mercati merchant class. His father may have stopped dreaming long ago, but Simon knew there was more in this world for him. And he meant to prove it.
The legions offered a man from any part of the Pazian Republic the chance for advancement, from the lowest freed slave or mundati worker to the wealthiest suprati and digniti. The legions were the embodiment of the Pazian ideals of devotion, duty, and success through personal achievement, ideals that every citizen held dear. Like every Pazian boy Simon idolized the noble legionary, defending the Republic from her enemies and bringing civilization to far flung provinces all around the Near Sea. To be a part of striking down tyrannical despots and bestowing upon new citizens the opportunity to vote for their rulers. The ideals of his father’s Republic were woven into the fabric of daily life in the legion. By comparison, his former life looked selfish and hollow; toiling in his father’s failing business for the hope of meager profit.
Noble idealism had burned bright through basic training and his subsequent assignment to the 7th Legion, garrisoning the peaceful province of Pelusia. The uneventful posting tested his resolve, since there appeared to be little chance to shine.
Until the Scentari decided they wanted their land back.
The horse nomads had attacked the border town of Jamad, and when word reached the provincial capital, Governor Jasun Suboras decided they needed to be taught a lesson. As the highest ranking official in the province, he declared himself general and drove the 7th Legion northeast to investigate. Instead of finding the city in Scentari hands, it had been razed to the ground, leaving only the burned and mangled remains of the men, women and children who had called it home. Furious, General Suboras ordered the attack, but the irksome Scentari fled. The General wouldn’t let the incursion go unpunished, and the legion crossed the northern border of the Republic into Scentar proper. For eight days they had marched across barren steppe, always two steps behind the riders. The barbarians knew their homeland and didn’t have to worry about protecting a wagon train.
Three days ago, the raids began.
The tail end of their force had been hit hard in the latest surprise attack. The Scentari horse archers were just too fast, and accurate from well beyond the range of the legionary javelins. They’d lost at least thirty-five men to those wicked barbed arrows before the charge of the auxiliary cavalry drove them off.
It was the first time Simon had been there when they buried the dead. Garas Numeno, the camp prefect, had sent Simon to make sure the equipment got back to the proper storage wagons. Garas counseled Simon: Never trust a soldier to bring back a shovel when he just buried the rest of his squad. Simon thought it was pretty practical advice, like everything he was learning from the veteran. Almost three decades in the legions had taught Garas much about how death affected men, even the men of the greatest military force the world had ever seen. Simon had barely been able to concentrate on the equipment manifest after seeing the lifeless eyes and twisted torsos of men his own age and younger disappear into the cold, unforgiving clay. At least the cold masked the smell of death.
I shouldn’t complain. I could be one of those unfortunate souls.
And likely would have been, if it weren’t for Garas. All because of the details.
Simon had seen from his father’s business how neglecting the details was disastrous in any sort of endeavor. When his father was sober, he was as fastidious as any. When he was sober… which was far too infrequent. Especially since Mother died. So Simon went easy on the drink and heavy on paying attention.
Garas had recognized that quality and elevated Simon from just another newly enlisted legionary to a junior aide in his prefectural retinue. While not the most glorious position, once in hostile territory it was far better to be making sure tents were straight and shovels accounted for than to be on the receiving end of a Scentari arrow. And there was far more to be learned at the table of Garas in his role as third in command of the entire army, than from nine other raw recruits around their nightly campfire.
The camp was stirring to life with the clanking of pots and armor and the smell of cooking fires for the morning porridge. Simon had been awake for an hour already, sunk deep in his melancholy reflection. As tired as he was, he didn’t want to face any more of those dreams. He’d climbed the hill to clear his head with a view of this grim, gray country. He shuddered, an unnatural chill amplifying the cold in his bones.
“Legionary Baroba?” said a familiar voice from behind him. “You are up early.”
“As are you, Tribune Scribora.”
Kyso Scribora was always so formal that it bordered on ridiculous. The tribune, one of the junior officers, was stiff with his friends, and positively wooden with superiors. He was five years older than Simon, with close-cropped sandy hair, a gray cast to his skin, and a bookish and unsmiling face.
“Unable to sleep?” Kyso asked.
Simon shook his head. “Does it get any easier? Seeing…” His voice trailed off as he thought again of those cold, dead eyes.
“I do not know. This was my first time in a hostile situation. My uncle said it haunts him still.”
Kyso didn’t mix well with the rest of the tribunes, but he and Simon were becoming fast friends. Kyso was a lot smarter than the others, and his uncommon diffidence was a result of his family’s very recent rise to the ranks of the suprati—new members of the senatorial class who had made it on the back of military, economic or other success. In Kyso’s case it was his uncle Akeri Scribora’s illustrious military career that paved the way, though his lower standing meant that he got the appointment at a more advanced age than more noble tribunes, and he had only been with the legion for a year. Kyso was determined to make good on the opportunity, and hearing the family story inspired Simon.
But now, across the sea from his home, out here on the wind-blown steppe of western Scentar—beyond the furthest borders of civilization—that spark of inspiration was as elusive as the warmth in his fingers.
Simon rubbed his hands together. “No wonder they attacked us. Who would ever want to live here in winter?”
Kyso shook his head. “They do not stand a chance.”
“Tell that to our dead brothers.”
“It was unfortunate, but these barbarians have no hope. As soon as we can fight them, they will fall. Do you think their camp would look like this?” He waved at the neat rows of tents surrounding them.
Normally Simon was too busy to appreciate the incredible logistical and engineering marvel of a Pazian legionary traveling camp, but that morning he had a view of its perfection. Six thousand men organized down to the last tent. The command tent stood in the middle of the hill, and next to it the quarters of the general, the legate as his second command, Garas as camp prefect, and Kyso and the other tribunes. The rank and file were housed in ten identical tent villages, one for each cohort. Even from up there, Simon could pick out the exact tent where his nine (or ten if he’d been replaced) former squadmates of the 9th squad, 6th century, 9th cohort were already moving in a flash of polished iron and red wool to tear down their tent for the day’s march.
“It is impressive,” Simon said.
“This is what the barbarians lack. The logistics of war depend on discipline, organization and order. Only with these can an army be prepared for the chaos of battle.” Whenever Kyso got going, he sounded like a textbook, only more earnest. “With a centurion enforcing that discipline in every century and squad—”
“Yes, I know all about that,” Simon said, his backside remembering one of several times the 6th century’s overzealous centurion had discouraged him from presenting new and creative ideas. Good thing Garas was different. “The centurions are important. But what about Garas? I don’t know what the legion would do without him. Especially here.”
Under Garas’ direction, several squads would march ahead of the main force and set up a complete fortified camp each night, surrounded by a freshly dug trench with the earth piled into an embankment and topped with sharpened stakes. At night at least, they were safe from attack.
Kyso nodded, his eyes shining with pride. Even though his friend’s confidence came from books, it did make Simon feel better.
“So what’s the latest plan?” Simon asked. Garas hadn’t filled him in on last night’s council.
Kyso brightened, like he always did when speaking of strategy and tactics. “A brilliant plan by the general. It is pointless to keep chasing them, with their superior mobility. They have stayed ahead of us ever since we left Pelusia, and now are using their knowledge of the terrain to raid us with increasingly dire results.”
Simon knew all that, but nodded, encouraging his friend.
“General Suboras has decided to strike into the Sentusi River valley—the heart of Scentar. It is the best grazing land, with more moderate weather than up here on the steppe. With winter fast approaching, the Scentari women and children will be there with the flocks. That will force their warriors to meet us in battle to protect them, and our superior arms and discipline will carry the day. He hopes to force them to submit now, so we can be back before the snow comes.”
“It sounds like a good idea.”
“It is a much better prospect than either continuing the chase until supplies run short, or pulling back and encouraging these raiding parties to wreak havoc all over northern Pelusia.”
“But it used to be their land…”
Kyso resumed a very serious expression. “It was a grave mistake. They should not have broken the treaty. It very clearly marked the borders, and any breach of the line would be met with lethal force. It has held for twenty years. But word is the squabbling clans have united again, under a new grand thane.”
Simon swallowed his next question when he saw another tribune approaching behind Kyso: Persei Lokuta. The conceited second son a fabulously wealthy digniti family, Persei never tired of reminding others of his superiority, based on rank, wealth, lineage, swordsmanship, success with women or anything else. While Kyso was delightfully humble and earnest, Persei exemplified the worst of the haughty noble families of Pazh. The officers of the Pazian armies, and the lion’s share of the high elected officials, came from eminent families such as the house of Lokuta.
Simon tensed as Persei approached. He had little choice but to endure the coming barbs. One had to respect them, or else.
“Shouldn’t you be making sure the wagons are ready to move, Benjai?” said Persei, and his chiseled jaw settled into a self-satisfied smirk. Standing tall and muscular in the early morning light, with a head of blond curls, he looked ready to model for a painting of the quintessential Pazian hero.
Simon fought to hide his anger at the insult to his mother’s religion. Yet Persei’s vile epithet was technically accurate. Simon’s permanently bronzed skin, though lighter than his mother’s, betrayed him as half-Benjish among the much paler Pazians. But it wasn’t his color that made him the object of scorn, as the citizens of the Republic and especially the capital varied widely. It was his mother’s faith; common Pazians and especially the aristocrats scoffed at their veneration of one single god, a sharp contrast to the multitude of deities in the ever expanding Pazian pantheon.
“At least you’re all suited up,” Persei continued, looking with obvious disdain at the low quality of Simon’s equipment. In theory they all wore the same standard issue: red woolen tunic under armor of overlapping iron bands, topped off with a rounded helmet with plates that covered the cheeks and neck. Persei carried his under his arm, likely so he could let his hair fly free. But while Kyso gave the impression of a youth trying in vain to fit in his father’s armor, Persei’s fit perfectly, as if it were custom made for him. Which of course it was, with additional ornamentation rivaling that of the general’s. Any chance to show off his wealth. Only his javelin looked standard issue; the hilts of both his dagger and short sword glinted with hints of gold. The two legates couldn’t look more different, with only their matching red capes with thin purple borders delineating their rank. But Simon wasn’t jealous; he preferred the heavy woolen cloak he’d been issued for the coming winter.
Persei opened his mouth wide, in exaggeration of having some brilliant stroke of insight. “Oh, I know. You’ve decided to observe your day of rest?” He threw back his head and laughed, nudging Kyso in the side to join him, but he didn’t.
Observance of a scripturally mandated day of rest generally excluded the Benjish from public office and the military. Pazian generals considered this a dangerous tradition in times of war and devout Benjish men were exempted from mandatory military service. Most people branded them cowards.
Though Simon was only half-Benjish, with his Pazian father’s faith resting mainly in whoever was pouring the wine, Persei liked to remind him of what he considered an indelible stain. For the second time this morning Simon questioned why he had repudiated his late mother’s heritage and willingly enlisted in the service of his father’s.
But he would prove that he was as brave and as Pazian as any Lokuta.
Kyso backed off, looking past them to the command tent. “I was just leaving. I must meet with the prefect. Good day, Tribune Lokuta. Legionary Baroba.” He clasped his hands together before him. “For Pazh.”
Simon stood up, which meant he was now looking down at Persei. Though Persei was already tall at six feet, Simon had a couple of inches on him; no doubt another reason the tribune felt the need to knock him down at every opportunity.
“Good morning Tribune,” he responded with a slight bow of his head, the expected deference to a superior. “My only faith is in the glory of Pazh. Like many here, I did not sleep well last night, and was heading down to help break camp.”
Persei’s blue eyes betrayed an echo of Simon’s own mix of fear and exhaustion. He wasn’t the only one with nightmares. And no wonder, he and Persei had both joined the legion just three months before the attack on Jamad.
We are not as different as you believe.
Persei was also in his twentieth year, and neither man was ready for the grinding toll of their first real campaign.
“There is much to do,” Simon said. “The general wants us to make the Sentusi by nightfall.”
A scowl crossed Persei’s face. He probably assumed he knew more than this poor merchant’s son, with only a lucky accident elevating him above his rightful place as a common soldier. While Simon’s service in Garas’ personal retinue afforded him an uncommon status overall, he had to tread carefully to make sure he didn’t anger these spoiled sons that had the ear of the general. How that irked him.
Persei scoffed. “You’d best be going to your labor. I must meet General Suboras and the rest of the commanders for one last council before we march.” The smirk returned, with the young nobleman satisfied that he had twisted a barb in the upstart’s side.
Simon nodded. “Good day, Tribune. For Pazh.”
Oh to have all the doors in the world opened by your ancestors. He reaffirmed his vow to one day see his name, Baroba, in the annals with names like Sarrinai and Lokuta, Pollian and Marcona. He was no less Pazian than the others, and the Republic and its ideals were his birthright too.
How would he make his mark? If his mother’s god knew, he’d never given Simon even a hint.
But some good came from the exchange; the spark of rekindled ambition would keep Simon warm on the day’s march.
The light of the central fire cast its flickering glow on the collected throng of Scentari warriors as they sat under the stars of their ancestral homeland. The Sentusi River flowed past them, the rippling of the water joining the crackle of flame to pierce the silence of night.
Shadush, Grand Thane of the Scentari, looked on his people with pride. These were hardened men of the steppe, living their lives on horseback in the open air, faces weathered like the fur-trimmed leathers they wore. Before him sat all the power of his people: the thanes as heads of each clan with their banners, the generals and captains of his army including his five adult sons, his closest bloodriders, and the spiritual heads—the high priests of Mija, goddess of the flame who watched over her people. All were here, answering his call.
But not yet united. It was mere months since he was elected as their leader, the first grand thane in twenty years, in a long and difficult contest. Even his election was a breach of the treaty with the Pazian Republic. That hated treaty would bind him and his people no longer, keeping them fractured, divided, and weak. He had already completed the first step, pushing past internal opposition to bring them together once more.
Next he would avenge their humiliation at the hands of the Pazians twenty years ago. The dishonor of his uncle’s capitulation. The loss of the fertile grazing land in what the Pazians now called their province of Pelusia. Shadush would lead his people to reclaim their land. And more.
His people only knew he burned for revenge. They weren’t ready to see the glory that was possible. To bequeath a new and glorious Scentar to his children. His oldest son, now twenty-five, was just a boy when they suffered the humiliating defeat. He had never known anything but captivity. So Shadush did this for them. For their future.
Nervous shouts from the edge of the circle announced the return of the scouts with news of the Pazian legion that had been following them north. Shadush looked up from his maps just as Kazash, his most favored captain, reached his side. Well over six feet of solid muscle, Kazash stood more than a head taller than Shadush. Kazash’s lip curled in a vicious broken-toothed smile under his long black mustache, the ends braided together below his chin, marking him as a captain among their people.
“The Pazian legion continues to follow us,” Kazash said, “but we stay out of reach. Our raids bleed them, inflicting minor casualties, and they’re too slow to cause us any losses. They will descend into the upper reaches of the Sentusi tomorrow, my lord.” His dark eyes burned with the bloodlust that had simmered dully within them for far too long. “Just as you prophesied they would. They are following us right into the river valley. Right where you want them. We will make it the largest Pazian grave ever seen.”
He was a good warrior, but impatient, and like many of the assembled war leaders was ready to charge out to meet the Pazians here and now, while others looked like beaten dogs cowering from the return of a cruel master.
“We must have patience,” Shadush replied in that cold, deep voice that chilled the hearts of any who heard him. “The trap is set, but we must stay upwind of the hare until he sets his foot in the noose.” It was the voice of one supremely confident in his power. Though he preached cool restraint, Shadush’s blood also boiled at the prospect of the coming slaughter.
Many years of preparation were finally nearing fruition. His submission, his sacrifice, everything had worked toward this end. Tonight he would reveal his power to his people. Tomorrow he would turn it on his enemies, with the victory heralding the dawn of a golden future for the Scentari.
Shadush stood up at the edge of the fire, his long bearskin cape cascading behind him. The flames glinted off the iron breastplate he wore over the traditional studded leathers of his people, reflecting flickering shafts of light onto his own braids, two strands of mustache worked into two more from his beard, signifying his position as ruler over all the Scentari clans. He did not tower over his captains in stature, but their fire-illuminated eyes belied their mixed feelings: respect for their grand thane, but trepidation for the plan he had yet to reveal.
To succeed, he needed them to each do their part exactly, to become warriors once again, and not degenerate into a mangy pack of ravening wolves. These were men who had lived their adult lives in fear of the Pazian legions, slinking around these wild plains that were but a shadow of their former range.
Time to show them who was worthy of respect. And fear.
“My brothers,” Shadush said, his words reverberating around the throng of collected warriors. He withdrew a scroll from a case by his chair. He projected his voice with almost supernatural authority. “Do you know what this is?” He sneered. “This is the treaty signed twenty years ago by my uncle Gazush when he submitted like a dog at the foot of the Pazian master. When he gave up not just our lands and our vassals, but our dignity. While too many of our people accept these chains, skulking about in the muck, I have burned to restore our glory. And with our new might, we shall throw off the yoke and take back what is rightfully ours. We are great warriors, but now we are much more.”
He unrolled the scroll in the air in front of him, turning it to face the crowd. What began as a low rumble in his throat came out as a guttural, spidery incantation in a language that none of them understood. He felt the seductive warmth smolder deep in his heart before shooting down his arms into his hands with a mix of searing pain and ecstasy. Wisps of black flame crackled out from his fingertips to devour the hated document.
The more fearful among them erupted in wide-eyed gasps. None had ever witnessed these dark arts, which were the stuff of stories told by old crones to scare children into obedience. His inner circle looked on in admiration and even awe of their dark deliverer. At least two looked furious, the Mijazi—high priests of Mija. He had anticipated the challenge, and relished what was to come. Their grip on the people was the last bond holding them captive. Jagaz, the senior of the two priests, stood and pointed toward the dark flames burning through the script.
“What manner of dark sorcery is this?” Jagaz asked. He wore the red cassock of his station with authority and confidence, as one who communed with nature itself and could call forth the power of the flames. Natural flames. He stabbed a finger toward the burning document. “You are not one of Mija’s faithful, and that is not the work of our goddess!”
Shadush wore an evil smile. Jagaz turned to his comrade and then to the rest of the warriors, his hands indicating the fire before them. His voice pinched with furious condemnation. “Will you allow this blasphemy to violate Mija’s sacred hearth of war?”
“You are correct,” Shadush said. “This is not Mija’s work. Mija’s work has led us into a cage. A cage of Pazian manufacture. We should all be ashamed as we huddle around a fading fire that can hardly keep our women and children warm. We have followed your ways too long.”
Jagaz’ eyes burned with a rage of their own, and his fellow Mijazi rose, shaking, to join him in confronting Shadush. More than a few other faces reflected their shock and outrage. The two Mijazi extended their hands to draw on the power of the sacred fire at the center of the circle, their eyes burning like the flames flickering at their fingertips. A corona of fire blazed forth around their hands.
“Blasphemer!” they cried out. “Mija, burn this heretic!” A streak of fire sizzled toward Shadush, and he raised the remains of the burning scroll to meet the hurtling fireballs, which struck with a thunderclap that shook the ground beneath them. Black sparks sprayed outward, searing the faces and singeing the hair of the nearest warriors, as the fireballs and the scroll disappeared in a cloud of oily black smoke. The fury in Jagaz’ face drained away, replaced with powerless terror.
“Mija’s flames won’t save you now,” Shadush said, shaking his head in mock sadness. He continued on in that unknown tongue, faster than before, while pointing his now empty hands at the faces of the two priests. Their pupils first widened, then darkened, melting into pools of burning agony as they clutched at the pain. The sickening aroma of scorching fat permeated the air; a sibilant hiss erupting from their eyes as the black conflagration boiled within their sockets. Spreading to their faces and beyond, the unholy dark flames burned flesh and bone as easily as they had consumed the scroll. With a final blood-curdling scream, their lungs were consumed from within, and the two men fell silent, their remains crumpling to the ground.
A hush fell over the mix of cowed and exultant faces, broken only by the low crackle of dark flames burning away the remnants.
Shadush basked in the exhilaration of this demonstration of power, a power that coursed fiercely through his body like new life. His strength was growing, and demanded to be fed. And feed it he would. There would be no more opposition among his people.
“Tomorrow, we burn Pazians.”
Simon stood high on the escarpment with Garas and Kyso, watching the last of the general’s force wind down the path into the basin of the Sentusi, like a serpent flashing red and metallic gray. Creases of worry intersected with the scar across Garas’ brow, one of many he bore after thirty years of active duty. Simon had never seen him this concerned, and it set him on edge.
“This is too easy,” Garas said. “I would have expected serious opposition, or at least more raids. General Suboras assumes that the herdsmen are fleeing only as we advance on their grazing lands, and that the Scentari would have evacuated the women and children much earlier if they intended to fight us here. But it doesn’t feel right to me.”
The anxiety made Garas look older than his forty-six years. He could still keep pace with the best of them with sword or javelin, as he kept his stocky build in impeccable shape. His hair was still thick and dark, and he might even be handsome if he ever smiled, but lines in his face betrayed too many years of experience.
General Suboras had taken the first seven cohorts into the river valley, and the slow descent took them most of the day. They needed to move fast to put pressure on the main herds before the Scentari could withdraw them.
Along with Kyso as his lone tribune, that left Garas in command of the remaining three cohorts of the 7th and the Kawanian auxiliary cavalry. Their orders were to guard the southern passes of the escarpment and the main wagon train.
“Think of the victory over the western Macatri from the Campaigns of Porruna Macator,” Kyso said. “His use of the river to limit their cavalry was genius, and Suboras is right to use the same tactics here to the benefit of our heavy infantry.” He never missed a chance to demonstrate his knowledge of military history and the tactics of the great generals of the past. Simon didn’t mind the lesson, but Persei might have decked him for it.
Garas kept an eye out for Kyso, since his uncle Akeri had been the prefect’s commanding tribune in his earlier campaigns under General Marcus Sarrinai. Relationships were as important in the hierarchy of the Pazian legions as they were in the Senate or the markets. Simon stood with both of his allies.
“Is it truly a good plan if it doesn’t sit well with the gut of an old veteran?” asked Simon with a wink to Garas.
“Their behavior just doesn’t make sense,” Garas said. “We left them alone for twenty years. Pelusia was our province, and it was common knowledge that there was a legion at Sal Dar, not just the usual garrisons. Why burn a town to the ground, and make such a spectacle of it, then turn around and run home? They’d have to know we’d come after them in force, to make them pay for breaking the treaty.”
“You think they want us to come after them?” Simon asked.
“If they do, they’ve got a death wish. I just hope everything goes according to the general’s plan. Well, let’s get the boys to work on extra fortifications. If those horse riding bastards decide to hit us up here, I want to be ready for them. Simon, when you’re finished drawing up a better picture of those new traps you came up with, show each centurion and direct them to have their men build them out in the tall grass outside the camp—but just inside arrow range. We’ve got to get this right if we want a chance against another surprise attack. Or at least a better chance than your mates who fell in the raid.”
Simon enjoyed drawing sketches of whatever Garas needed, whether a camp plan, fortifications or the inner workings of a siege engine. They especially praised his maps, like the rough one they pored over to review the impact of the terrain on the plans the general had set in motion.
While nice to be respected as a draftsman, it was so boring and technical compared to the joyful sketches he used to create. Still, getting any respect for his artistic talent was something new. When he was in school, he filled his margins with fanciful drawings. His father never had any time for it. “No money in your kind of art,” was his usual mocking refrain whenever he caught Simon doodling creatures of legend. But that was still better than the rap on the knuckles, or full paddling he’d get if the teacher went through his schoolbooks. With its focus on the mundane subjects needed by a merchant’s son, his school left him little time for the arts. When he did get to draw, they demanded rote copying of the designs of the ancient masters. Simon knew he could do so much more, but why bother, when it went unappreciated?
At least here a little creativity proved useful, as long as you stayed within the parameters. And being able to communicate visually sure did help with the tasks Garas assigned him. I don’t mind this kind of labor one bit.
“After that, ride down to let the general know we’re all set up here, and to send you back when he’s ready to move on.”
It was with more than a little pride that Simon rode down into the valley with his message for the general. The traps were coming together exactly as he drew them out, with that familiar sense of wonder as he transferred something from his mind, onto parchment, and from there to reality. Even though it wasn’t his hands that brought it together in the physical world, he felt the thrill of creation. And to be entrusted with a message for the general himself? This was shaping up to be a very good day.
He looked down at his map, amazed by just how accurately it described his descent. It was as if he could see himself on the craggy sloping track in his drawing. The area was picturesque in its barren beauty, with interesting rock formations intermittently flanked by patches of low vegetation and not a tree in sight. Their view of the troops at the bottom was blocked, but in the distance they could see the Sentusi. The cold late autumn sun shone on the fast-flowing river, reflecting like countless sapphires.
“Unnatural,” said Jarom, one of the two legionaries sent as extra muscle on this little courier mission. His mouth turned down at the corners, giving him a permanent frown. He had the golden skin of a Maruthan, but not the sunny disposition to match. Jarom put that stereotype to rest. “I feel like these cliffs are closing in on me.”
“Quit your whining, Jarom,” said Tark, the swarthy Myraki, “or would you rather be breaking your back making Simon’s new fortifications all day? I don’t mind the chance to get away from camp for a bit.”
“Garas thought the general would set up his command center here,” Simon said, indicating a rocky outcropping drawn in on the map, on the near shore of the river. “It gives a good vantage point across the whole valley, and since the river is too wide at this point their back is covered. The scouts report the nearest ford is almost a day’s journey downstream.”
It’s a shame Kyso can’t see the setup, and compare it to the classical tactics he holds so dear.
After a few minutes ride the path opened up and the full valley and their forces came into view. Black mist blanketed the river, obscuring the far side.
“Does that mist look strange to you?” Simon said.
The cry of a distant horn echoed off the cliff face, spooking Jarom’s pony. “That’s not one of ours,” he said as he righted himself. The three of them exchanged worried glances and drew their swords.
“We should get down there right away, shouldn’t we?” Simon said, nominally in charge. His eyes sought out their destination. “What is that?” He pointed to the rocky promontory that housed the command tents, bustling with activity and giving the general staff a good view of the surrounding area. A strange moving shadow covered the wall that faced the river, and was… growing? Flickering like black… flames? The sight of it filled him with dread. It was unnatural—an abomination. The other two strained to follow what he indicated but looked blank. Why can’t they see it?
Inky fire continued to pour forth, angry and devouring. It exploded in a thunderclap that shook the entire valley with deafening echoes. A dark plume of smoke shot up in front of the command center, obscuring it from view.
Everything went to hell.
A hail of arrows burst through the mist on the river, raining death on the legionaries as they scrambled into battle formations.
Further down the Pazian side of the river, a storm of dust whirling in the air announced a charging horde of Scentari riders screaming in unison as they crashed into the disorganized front lines. From Simon’s vantage point, the threat was clear. The general and his staff have a good view and will—
“Salar save them,” said Tark, pointing back to the cloud where the command tent had stood.
A huge smoking gash covered the far face of the rocky promontory, and the top listed badly toward the river. With a terrible crack it broke loose and skated down to splash like a giant ship dropping into the water. Terrified horses thrashed about, dragging officers and fallen tents over the side into the roiling river.
“That would make a good… bridge,” Simon said. No sooner had the word escaped his mouth, when arrows filled the air on the rocky bridge, piercing officers, tents and horses alike. Torrents of swirling water washed away more of the tents, and Scentari riders surged out of the mist, hewing down any Pazians who had found their feet.
The surprise assault hit every part of the Pazian camp at once. Hundreds of Scentari riders galloped over the bridge, cutting into the confusion of the Pazian rear.
Simon broke free of his shocked paralysis. Battered by this scene he could barely comprehend, he defaulted to his orders. “We must get the message to the general!” He kicked his mount to go forward, but both soldiers hung back.
Jarom put up his hand. “We’d be dead long before we reach him. If he even lives.”
“We must observe and report back to Garas,” said Tark. “That bridge is overrun. We have to hope the others can form their lines and give them a chance to get out of there.”
Simon surveyed the scene, looking for glimmers of hope. He found few. The screaming Scentari force was tearing through terrified new recruits at the original front. The veterans behind them would normally enforce discipline, but the sheer volume of routed soldiers shattered even their lines. The unrelenting rain of arrows felled legionaries everywhere Simon looked. Without commanders to coordinate the legion as a whole, each century—each individual squad—was fighting their own battle, to predictably poor results. A few small islands were holding their own, but would soon be engulfed by the Scentari tide.
This was slaughter on a grand scale.
“You think they’ll be able to get up these paths?” asked Jarom. He pointed to where riders were tearing through the rear. “They’ll be surrounded in minutes, cutting off any escape. Look at that group breaking off, they’re heading for the bottom of this path!”
Tark nodded. “We have to move before they come for us too. They know these routes far better than we do, and their horses are faster both on the trails and in the open. I don’t want one of those arrows in my back. Simon? Are you with us?”
“The mist… those flames… the earthquake… can the Scentari move nature against us?” It was impossible—magic was a myth. But how else could he explain what his eyes had seen?
And it was far too similar to his terrible dream, only with no light to show him the way, just his mind screaming for escape. Fall back… run!
“Whatever it is, Garas needs to know,” Jarom said. “I’m going. I hope you can join me so I’m not in breach of any orders.”
Simon nodded. “But we tell only Garas. If the men panic, we’re all dead. Understood?” The two men exchanged a worried look, then nodded. They started up the treacherous path back to their camp.
One final scan of the scene burned an image of the horror into Simon’s mind. Would Garas be able to lead us to safety, or are we doomed like our fallen brothers?
~ ~ ~
Shadush surveyed the valley, Kazash at his right hand. Much was already aflame, lighting up the dusk. His plan had worked almost to perfection and caused such chaos as even the vaunted discipline of the Pazian legions could not overcome. Scentar will know a new glory, but we all must bear the cost.
He nodded his assent for Kazash to begin directing the men. “Tents, bodies, everything we don’t need, pile it high. Our grand thane wants the biggest fire this valley has ever seen! And he wants any survivors brought in chains to enjoy the heat.”
Shadush turned his horse and rode back to the bridge that had featured so decisively in the battle. Given some time, the river had diverted around it on both sides, turning it into more of an island, but enough debris littered the banks that it could be forded on horseback.
Shadush mounted the highest point, and called out to the assembled warlords, survivors and selected few who had distinguished themselves in battle.
“Noble warriors of Scentar, today you have won a great victory for our homeland. The Sentusi runs freely over our fallen enemies, as is right and good. This would be enough to please Mija. But we must do more.” He nodded to Kazash, who signaled to the warriors holding the most important captives. They brought the prisoners forth, forcing them to kneel. Shadush approached the Pazian general, still wearing his breastplate and long red cape. He held his head high in proud defiance. A shame I can’t save the armor. Such craftsmanship. But a small sacrifice for the greater show.
“General Suboras.” Shadush rolled his tongue over the sounds of the foreign name, then continued in his own language. “Your name will not be one raised in the pantheon of Pazian heroes, I’m afraid. Instead, your honor and passion will burn for the glory of Scentar!”
Understanding in this one’s eyes?Clever, learning the language of the enemy. Which traitor to our people assisted him?Let him understand the cost of failure.
He pointed three fingers at the head of one of the general’s aides. Shadush savored the words of that dark ancient tongue as the power escaped through his hand and into the aide. A bloodcurdling scream emanated from the man’s lips as black flames licked out from inside his eyes, burning him from within.
The previously composed general blanched. “You monster!” he said in rough Scentari. “Perversion of Mij—” Kazash’s fist smacked the back of his head.
The aide’s torso blazed with black fire, his life force draining away from the charred husk of a body to flow unseen through the air into Shadush, filling him with power.
Shadush beckoned to his warrior, then pointed at the pyre. “Light this beacon for the new Scentar!” he cried out, and the warrior tossed the corpse onto the tower. The flames licked greedily across tent, equipment and bodies alike, rising into a terrible black inferno. The surge of energy into Shadush was like downing a full jug of fiery spirits. And he thirsted for more.
Shadush walked down the line of captives, and each jerk of his head toward the pyre committed another screaming and terrified man to the unholy flames. The ecstasy threatened to knock Shadush off his feet, and twice he almost fell, unnoticed, as all eyes were on the burning men.
Only the general and a young officer remained. A tribune, in the Pazian tongue. Shadush stopped in front of the quivering man.
Weak. All of them. “Name?” he said in Pazian.
The young man’s head snapped up. “Tribune Persei Lokuta.”
Too much pride here. He would burn all the same.
“Wait,” said his daughter Mirasha, forestalling his order.
He acknowledged her with surprise. Only sixteen, yet she never shies from the grim reality of conquest. Dressed elegantly in fox furs, she strode like a queen through the staring Scentari leaders.
“Grand Thane!” she said, all eyes fixed on her. She evaluated the young Pazian officer with strange intensity before looking back to her father. “Keep him alive.”
His warrior, grabbing Persei’s quivering shoulders, looked to Shadush for instructions.
Even though she was his daughter, his favorite, she should not be challenging his orders in front of the men. Shadush gritted his teeth, the volatile mix of dark power and anger churning inside him. “Why?”
“They need to know of our power. He will do.”
She walked to the fire and grabbed the end of a tent pole that now made a slender torch. She carried it to Persei. Shadush watched in silence, nodding at his daughter’s leadership and foresight, but filled with foreboding. It was moments like this that reminded him of what he’d done. Of what had changed. What he’d forced himself to forget. He blinked away the memory, focusing on what she had in store for them.
She addressed the prisoner. “You have never been so scared, yet your eyes betray your own thirst for power. And more. Let me give you a taste.” She licked her lips. The terrified tribune looked on, uncomprehending, but animal desire shone through in his eyes. Shadush wanted to throw him into the fire himself for his temerity, but deferred to his daughter’s performance. He marveled at the crudity of such a man; even when faced with death, he was still thinking with his loins.
Mirasha tore open Persei’s tunic and slowly traced the burning pole across his chest, leaving a cruel black mark. The man steeled himself against the pain, never looking away from his tormentor. Mirasha smiled at him again, now an enchanting young woman, then finished with a kiss on his cheek. She turned to her father. “Make him watch the general’s death, then let him go.”
Shadush saw the wisdom in her plan. He was proud. So precocious. And more beautiful by the day. The Pazian prisoner wasn’t the only one who noticed. Even Kazash looked on her as a woman now. She was already starting to cause him worry.
He walked over to the general, and Kazash jerked his head up by the hair.
“So you see, general, that you got more than you bargained for when you trespassed in our homeland. No awards for you. You’re just fodder for our fire, and my power.”
“Your dark sorcery will damn you to destruction!” the general responded, spitting in his face.
Snarling, Shadush grabbed the bound general and tossed him into the center of the pyre. He sat for a while, watching him burn, the warmth of power pouring into him from the heat of the black flames.
Finally he turned back to the lone remaining Pazian. The fear was still there, but Shadush saw something more, something base. She’s right. This one thirsts for power, power such as I have.
Shadush stepped forward to address him, knowing that none of his words would be understood. “You enjoyed our little show! Well that is enough for you. You have seen our power, and it only grows after consuming so many of your people. We have our homeland. Soon we will recover what you stole. Then we will come for more.” He switched to broken Pazian for the last command. “Go, now, tell them what you saw.”
He waved his hand, dismissing Persei to be lashed to of one of the Pazian horses. His man slapped the terrified beast on the rump to send it galloping up the winding path to the remaining Pazian camp.
Shadush motioned for Mirasha, Kazash and his warriors to follow him down the hill to the shore. As they crossed the waters, the rock itself began to smoke, and with a huge crack, it split asunder and the river flowed free once more.
~ ~ ~
Persei’s head jostled painfully against his horse’s galloping flank as it fled the evil scene. He couldn’t believe he was still alive. But he wouldn’t question why. That wasn’t his nature.
No, he planned his revenge. Personal revenge. The deaths of generals, officers and soldiers he’d known for months registered with him, but were no longer his focus.
No pagan barbarians with their dark sorcery could do this to a son of the house of Lokuta. Not without suffering his wrath.
But the sorcerer’s might left him impressed. If I wielded such magic, the world would be mine. The thought fueled his burning ambition. He would return, discover the source of their power, claim it as his own, and make them suffer.
All of them except the girl with those dark eyes; captivating, smoldering with an intensity that he yearned to explore. She looked young, but there was more than enough body there to provide nights of pleasure. He would find her, and he would take her as his prize. He didn’t know who she was and he didn’t understand anything she said, but he could tell she wanted him. Didn’t they all? He smiled to himself. That’s why she kept me alive.
He twisted against his bonds to try to get free, but instead was forced to bite his lip against the pain; his charred chest flared in agony with each galloping stride. She’d have to pay for what she had done to him. But in a very different way. His vivid imagination conjured thoughts of what he would make her do, stirring his loins to keep him warm on the cold ride back.
Copyright 2014 Jamie Maltman
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