Battle of the Kings

by Leo David Orionis

To all the Old Calafians who changed my dreams forever,
especially my college room-mate, Dave.

Table of Contents

1. The Once and Future King
2. Ducal Distrust
3. The Enemy Embassy
4. Treachery in Sitašai
5. A Desperate Race
6. Counsel of the Night
7. Dawn of Destruction
8. King to King
9. "Êstâz Lives!"

Chapter 1
The Once and Future King

Then that Êstâz who had reigned
In Elarâń a hundred years
Felt his time and doom draw near.
Three lives of tlâń he had them taught
The Verē speech and love of God;
Three lives of tlâń he'd Cundē fought.
The Girē hordes his troops had slain,
His sword drank deeply time and again.

In a sunlit room with a stone floor, surrounded by tapestried walls, a big man sits on a big throne, resting his chin on his clasped hands. He has neither beard nor mustache, but hair grows around his eyes, thick as a raccoon's mask. This hair, like his thick winged eyebrows, is blond. Straight blond hair sweeps down and out from his head and is cut off level, like a golden helm. His eyes are grey. From the top of his head two short black branches protrude, as though he were a four-point stag.

Around his brow is a crown, not of gold or silver, but black iron. It is simple and heavy, a circlet with raised straight edges, unrelieved by jewels, without points or embossing. He wears a plain robe that reaches the instep of his heavy prick-spurred boots, and on top of it a heavier robe that falls to his knees. The outermost robe is red velvet, beginning above his knees, cinched at his waist with a leather belt whose buckle is a dragon's head in gold. On the belt are a pouch at his left hand, and a knife at his right. The sleeves of the inner two robes, like shirt sleeves, follow the line of his powerful arms, the innermost sleeve going to the wrist, while the other is a couple of inches shorter. The outer sleeves are long and sweeping, like an angel's or a mandarin's.

The throne he sits in is stone, and so big it would dwarf a smaller man. It is plain and uncarved. But the back soars high above the arm rests which now support his elbows, widening as it rises, then swooping inwards to a point above his head. Unseen beneath his robes, he sits on a thick cushion.

Across his legs lies a sword. Its blade can't be seen, only its gold wire-wrapped hilt and round golden pommel. The scabbard is wood covered with heavy red leather. Black opals are set in it, eight on front and eight on back. The scabbard tip is gold.

In far Loraon did Morĝai seek him,
Who'd made the old kind keep their word.
To keep his own, he must refuse her.
But ever since that day she took him,
Bleeding of a fatal wound,
Off the field of Lores-Tara
And healed him, with Tlâńai arts,
He'd made her people's foes his own.

Snow falls softly on twisted bodies. Somewhere Krahos troops harry routed Verē; but here, where the armies broke, there is silence relieved only by the crunch of boots on crusted gore.

Mailed troops form a perimeter, their breath pluming in the icy air of the polar continent. Bows in hand, arrows nocked and ready, they scan for threats to their charges. They wear tall conical helms with bars protecting their noses, made not of iron but something lighter and stronger. Their armor is mail of the same metal. Swords hang belted at their sides, and round shields on their backs, to deal with any foe who survives the sleet of arrows they would send his way.

They are not human, not Mižinē, but Tlâńē, a mutation similar but not identical to the Verē being hunted and enslaved as they stand guard. Taller than human, though not so tall as Verē; stronger than human, though not so strong as Verē; four fingers on each hand, four toes on each foot, like the Verē.

Inside their perimeter lie two bodies. The younger has been thrust roughly to one side, regardless of the dignity due the dead. The body of the Verē who betrayed all his people, and opened the way for the Mižinē armies, flops in a graceless sprawl, mouth agape, the look of terror frozen on his face from the moment of his death.

Three Queens attend the body of his father, who struck him down. Thick furs and heavy cloaks hide the lines of their bodies, but the tendrils that rise from their foreheads are plain to see, marking them Tlâńē as they kneel in the blood around him. "He lives," says the black-haired queen. It sounds like a prayer. The blonde queen and the red-haired queen stand up and call the captain of their escort. A litter is made from broken spears, capes, and other battlefield debris, and the Tlâńē depart, bearing Êstâz with them.

The snow continues to fall on Madru's upturned face. Soon the scavengers will recover their nerve and begin to feast. When the Krahos kings take stock of the battle field, they won't be able to tell which corpse is the Speaker's, which his son's, or even whether either one of them is there.

Upon the ruined and shattered land
He set his mark.
The spur and steed he introduced
To folk who'd long their use forgotten,
The make and draw of the bow and arrow.
Alone he climbed T́ulańē cliffs
And won their service in single combat.
The High Tlâń trained and rode with him.

With blazing sword, fair Morĝai's gift,
He saved the lords of the fallen cities.
Dukes and Counts they then became,
Who took his language and his faith.
The savages who drank men's blood
They drove beyond the Peril Gate,
Axes abandoned in their flight.
Elarâń they made a Kingdom, and Êstâz King.

The attack on the fort began just before Volai-dawn, when the night was almost over. Now Volai and Trânis descend in the west, red Ťirai nears the zenith, yellow Lua climbs the eastern sky, and blue Řênai is under the World; and still the fight rages on. Tired defenders on the fighting steps behind the wooden palisade hack with spears at the howling savages beyond, or seek to push down the wooden ladders they climb. The Tlâńē behind the peeled logs are clothed, the savages sport necklaces of human teeth and ears upon bare chests; but the difference that counts is the heavy battle-axes in the savages' hands, that shear through the spear shafts, or chop foot- and hand-holds in the massive logs.

The fort defends the only bridge for eights of miles in either direction over the mighty Raros river. To cross it by boat would mean fighting the great current all the way across and arriving exhausted on the other shore, easy prey for the patrols of the city folk, even if the savages knew how to build boats. To swim across would be throwing themselves into the maws of the carnivorous river serpents.

On the other side of the river rises a mighty city. Its own wooden palisade contrasts strongly with the shining material of its soaring towers, not brick or stone or wood or any natural substance. A savage groping for a comparison might liken them first to the metal of an axe blade, or the sheen of a fine pot; then give up, baffled. Baffled, too, in all efforts to set the city afire, cut through its walls, or even break the glasslike windows that stare upon the fight. Neither savage nor city man knows how to make a mark on the material the city's buildings were made of, before Herâk the star burst and the cities fell to earth.

But though the city is invulnerable, its inhabitants are not. They must farm outside the city for food, graze their herds beyond its towers, and bring in water to drink and wash, laying them open to the savages without. Now a shout goes up the length of the palisade as a red-haired savage chief, naked but for scar-tattoos and the skirt of scalps around his waist, gains a foothold on the wall. He lays about him with a great two-handed double axe, and the defenders fall back in panic. His followers race up the ladders, and new ladders go up.

Then a strange sound is heard, and a stranger sight seen. The great bridge behind the fort booms like a drum, shocking savage and city man alike. Over the bridge come strange creatures, running on four legs and carrying things in two others. Faster than a man could run, they race up behind the defenders. Then they split in two; the top parts, now separate, make strange motions with their arms, and suddently the air is full of little spears. One catches the chief in the eye, and he screams in pain and outrage. Then another pierces his heart, and he topples off the wall in silence. His surviving followers try to climb down the ladders to get away, but they are packed with others still coming up; so they throw themselves off the wall. Some even survive the fall.

Êstâz barks an order. His men sling their bows again, and remount their steeds. The fort gate swings wide. Shields high, lances couched, they spur through and begin the bloody business of chasing down and butchering the fleeing savages.

A hundred years, as Verē counted,
They kept the savages at bay.
The sons of Mayors were raised as Dukes,
The sons of Dukes succeeded them,
Their sons in turn bore flaming swords.
Still Êstâz sat the royal throne,
Or rode to staunch some battle-breach,
War-hounds keening at his side.

For a moment the issue hung on a sword edge, ready to go either way. In a noise so great that it seemed like silence to battle-stunned ears, the lines were motionless. Cundē warriors, armored in leather coats with metal rings sewn on, swung great two-handed axes at their enemy. Others made do with axes they could wield one-handed, so they could carry round shields on their other arms. Heads were mostly bare, but here and there a helmet gleamed, crude Cundai iron-work, or spoils from an earlier battle.

The Râńē men wore true mail under surcoats showing the badges of their lords, torn now and splashed with blood. Every head was helmeted, and the edges of the helmets hung with mail curtains to protect their necks. Battered the helmets now, and often torn the mail, warding the wearer from swift death.

Above the battle hung the banners like smoke from a raging fire; Êstâz' white streamer, with a red dragon between three red crowns, in the center; In the Mountain's Shadow on the right, an ermine field bearing a blue mountain charged with a white tower; Sitašai on the left, a red field with a golden šâigē rampant bearing a sword and trampling a double-bladed axe underfoot. Other counts, earls, barons, knights flew banners or pennants, so that from a distance it might seem that flags, not men, did battle.

But not on the battle line. The savages roared with one voice and surged forward. Angar's totem, a golden axe on a tall blood-red pole, came more slowly. The scalps, hands, and less easily identified body parts tied to the cross-staff below the axe swayed with the motion. For a moment it seemed the Râńai lines would break. The battle noise rose to an even higher level than before, an impossible feat.

Êstâz watched the battle keenly, judging the moment. Under him his steed moved restlessly. It was a řobē, like a deer bred to the size and strength of a horse, and trained to battle since birth; but the noise and the smell of this one were beyond its experience.

Êstâz' personal guard waited like so many statues of noble barbarians. T́ulańē warriors wore their finest garments in battle, showing contempt for the enemy: soft hide pants with lines of colored quills and fine beadwork down the legs, beaded head bands around their foreheads. Their feet stayed bare and clean; their chests, arms, and long flowing hair were oiled to deny an enemy a grip. Their arms were folded now, for they carried no weapons; a T́ulańē went to battle empty-handed, and took his weapons from the foe.

One of the King's war-hounds wheeped nervously, and Êstâz reached down to stroke it, his eyes never leaving the fray. The long-haired beast, almost as tall as the King's steed, flicked its forward-curling ears in pleasure. Black markings circled its eyes, contrasting with the red-brown fur of its body.

"Now!" shouted Êstâz. "Hit them now!" A trumpeter lifted his war horn and blew with all his might. But the wings were already moving, the great Dukes there having sensed the same quality of the battle.

One moment the Cundē blood-drinkers stood toe to toe with their enemies, neither savage nor civilized giving an inch; then everything changed. The war horns sounded, and the Râńai front line opened, leaving aisles for their enemies to enter. But even as a shout went up from the invaders, Êstâz' slingers took a step forward and loosed their last bullets. In an instant, the lead shot sped through the open spaces and killed the Cundē at the front.

On the wings, the more numerous archers had the same effect, making up with numbers the lesser impact of their arrows; and there the knights couched lances and spurred forward, the lanes letting them build momentum before they hit like hammers. Three times they struck and withdrew, the foot soldiers taking the ground they won; and the right wing and the left wing curled around the faltering enemy, until all the invaders were in a circle of steel.

"Now finish it!" Êstâz cried. He drew his sword from its opalled sheath. As he drew it, it caught fire, becoming a brand of plasma above his hand. He pointed at the enemy with a sword of fire. "Forward!" His bodyguard smiled and uncrossed their arms; his hounds keened like banshees, or jet engines, and sprang to their feet. Êstâz kicked his steed into motion, and entered the battle personally.

Kings arose beyond the Mountains,
And fought each other for primacy.
Angar crushed the priest-kings' hopes
And first made Cunda into kingdom.
Andar slew his brothers three
And sought to sneak into Elarâń.
Angar his son the Girē broke,
And even sent heralds to Êstâz King.

"A hundred years ago," he said,
"The savages were all but naked,
Their battle-axes their only prizes.
No steeds they had, but fought on foot;
No bowmen either, but only spears.
Well enough to threaten cities
Powerless since their fall from heaven,
Or seize a victim from the fields."

Êstâz sat, as he spoke these words,
In Eokantos, his capital,
Alone of the cities of Elarâń
Built of stone and mortar and wood.
All the others had once flown
Their prescribed orbits above the land,
And bore those stresses and took their strength
With walls unbreakable in Êstâz's day.

Alone of the cities of Elarâń, Eokantos was built of everyday materials. All the old cities had their own lords, loathe to share their seats of power; conversely, to choose one city over the others would grant favor to that one's lord. The vast and grassy plain now dissected by roads had seen centuries of agriculture and battle, but never a city until Êstâz, after sealing the borders of his new kingdom against the last bloodthirsty horde, placed his capital at the center of Elarâń.

So T́ebai shone pink in the bright sun by the river's great bend, at the foot of Kalama the mountain; and the azure towers of T́ula lay atop it, shattered by their fall from on high. But no means known to this lesser age could so much as scratch the material of which they were made, let alone mine them for building stones. Riverine Hath was famous for the green flash by which merchants steered to it from a distance, and Mena's towers were a purple which couldn't be duplicated in cloth or tile, try as the guilds might. But Eokantos, greatest city of the new age in population, in commerce, and in influence, was built of stone and tile, rubble-filled concrete and wood, like any baron's castle or duke's stronghold.

High was Volai overhead,
Trânis looming large behind it,
Rêna setting in the west,
Bloody Ťirai about to rise.
Brightest noon, with only Lua
Nearing nadir beneath the World.
But in that room where Êstâz brooded
It seemed like dusk, Night close behind.

"They march in columns, armor-laden,
They know the use of bow and sling.
They've nobles now, who ride in battle
With spur and stirrup, lance and shield.
The Girē serve as mounted scouts.
Where once a charge could scatter them,
They set themselves and lock their shields.
So well we've taught them all these years!"

"And lost so much," the King lamented.
"Where are the swords sweet Morĝai gave,
That, borne in battle, blazed so brightly?
Lost, or broken, or even stolen.
There is but one now in this kingdom,
The one that never leaves my side,
And Angar bears its double with him,
Lasting fruit of his father's schemes."

"Sire", said his seneschal,
"I have no answer for these fears.
But if we have the Cundē tamed,
By just that measure haven't we won?
The foe no longer breaks like waves
Against our walls, nor daily bastes
His filthy meat with our life's blood,
Polluting heaven with the smoke."

The savages worshipped the suns; and they worshipped them with blood. The nationless gangs and hordes that surged back and forth across Elarâń after the Fall fought each other as often as they besieged a city; it was far easier to ambush another gang than to meet the organized resistance of the city folk. Afterwards, the victors would torture the menfolk of the losers, then cut their throats and drink their blood. Captured women had to eat and drink also, making them part of the winning gang. Those who did so were raped, but no more than the women already in the gang; those who refused were killed, as were all male children.

As the pickings got slimmer and slimmer outside the cities, the gangs grew fewer but bigger, true tribes with chiefs, and priests presiding over the more complex rites. Now there was an altar, with gutters to direct the blood to cups held by waiting acolytes. The greatest feasts required five priests, one for each sun, five acolytes, five male victims, and five female victims. First the female victims were raped, tortured, and killed; then the male victims. Then their flesh was eaten and their blood drunk by all present. Finally the bodies were burned, to send the remainder to the gods, or suns. At various points in the ceremony the blood was painted on the priests, or the chiefs, or sprinkled over the audience.

"Not in Elarâń, it's true.
But out beyond the Sealed Mountains
Those hateful fires daily burn.
Rape, and pillage, and brutal oppression
The king of Cunda visits daily
On those I swore I would protect.
All of Kantos is open to him,
Except this corner, mountain-warded."

He beat his hand upon the stone
That formed the arms of his wingéd throne.
"Elarâń was never meant
To be an end, but war-camp only!
People suffer, people die,
Who hope to heaven someday we'll come.
We must regain the edge we've lost
In our crusade against the foe."

"If we don't stop them now," King Êstâz said, "I fear we never will. Our only contact with them is the battle field, and in battle they've learned all we have to teach. If they were to take the initiative now, the whole kingdom could be lost; or worse."

"Worse, Sir? What could be worse?"

Êstâz looked at his servant squarely. "I know not how it is with you Tlâńē," he said, "but all Verē are connected in our minds. I can't talk to my people, but I feel them, and it has kept me from being too lonely all these years away from them."

"And they can feel me; and know that I'm not dead. Whatever lies the old kind tell about my death on Ekodraθ, above Lores-Tara, my people know that I'm alive. They hope, as I hope, that I will return one day, to lead them to freedom again."

"And there lies the danger. If they rise in rebellion, hearing that a ship from Kantos has come in embassy to Loraon, and tear the nations of that continent apart, and come down to greet the ship, and a Cundai king of Kantos steps out of the cabin—!"

Too many years alone of his kind,
Too many years the iron crown's burden.
Too many years no woman's love
Lest favored family their power abuse.
Strong is Êstâz, young his body,
But old the cares upon his head,
Strange the people all around him,
Strange the kingdom he founded himself.

The castellan listens, all aghast,
To dire visions that he propounds
Of blood and horror and evil triumphant
Over Kantos and even Loraon.
No heir has Êstâz, no lieutenant
To carry his work on after his death.
He shivers, and prays these fears are baseless,
Born of loneliness and grief.

To be continued.

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