Sorry for the long silence; I’ve been overwhelmed with trying to get things done–writing Shadow Walk and getting two short stories in shape for submission. Not to mention all the mundanities bedeviling my hours. So, enough of that. Below is a part of an unfinished sword and sorcery story for the fun of it. Don’t know if it’ll stay as written, but I sure like it.
CLOAK OF SHAR
The god Shar looked into the Mirror of Heaven and saw his face. Beneath his horns his eyes were thunder and sun. And there between thunder and sun a tiny fissure. A crack in his face like a crack in the earth. He frowned. Mortals. The mortals were losing hold once again.
Like wheat beneath the blade, the towns of Ayo and Deraje, and the villages in between, fell to the swords and flame-tipped arrows of Mathaniye of Gethay’s red-cloaked army of Sharic zealots. From wind-wracked north Ammar, out of the northern hills they came, riding beneath the silk banner of the Sharic Temen, the Holy Scroll of the Horned God, their swords primed to slay the faithless, their arrows tipped with righteous flame. The rumble of horse’s hooves, the marching feet of the Sons of Shar, as Gethay’s army styled themselves, shook the grasslands. They descended upon the dreaming towns of the Jezeret plain. By nightfall of the first day of Mathaniye’s War, the Cloak of Shar cast its shadow into every alley, every home, and every trembling soul.
In the house of the wealthiest wheat merchant in Deraje, Mathaniye of Gethay gave the next day’s strategy to his victorious priest-commanders. The wheat merchant’s head was one of many on a burning pile beyond the town. The wheat merchant’s wife and daughters were imprisoned in Deraje’s grain hall with all the other females of the town who’d survived the swords and arrows of Mathaniye’s soldiers.
Mathaniye of Gethay leaned over a map of Ammar. Standing with him around the table were his priest-commanders, his army’s generals.
“What news from the northeast?” he asked.
“Lamala has fallen, my lord,” replied a priest-commander.
“Shar be praised,” replied Mathaniye. The three priest-commanders echoed him. “The Jezeret is ours. We will strike south to Patra tomorrow. You, Dimelech,” he pointed at the bald man opposite him, “will take a contingent southwest to Bekele and you Gueda will go west and take Abirdad.”
“T’would be wise to take Fey-Hadiya before the city sends soldiers to Zaranawe.” The priest Labaan Meronike tapped on blue-inked lettering marking the location of the northeastern city. “I shall take my men there.”
Mathaniye nodded slowly. “Fey-Hadiya has close ties to Zaranawe. When the Whore of the South wakes from her sluttish sleep, she shall find herself surrounded.” His gaze raked them. “There has not been a king in Ammar for five hundred years. T’is time that was rectified.”
Deraje’s lord burned on the pyre of bodies. Deraje’s men knelt chained in the town square and a memdisa, a Sharic priest, read passages from the Sharic Temen over them. Nearby stood a soldier with a sword darkly edged and dripping. At his feet lay several beheaded men.
The farmer Cypri did not want to die. He averted his eyes from the bleeding bodies of the slain men and stared at the ground. Shifting breezes brought smoke stained with the stink of roasted flesh and burnt hair. His hands were chained and the chain was linked to that of the man kneeling next to him, and he linked to his neighbor, and thus it was down the line to his left. To his right lay the shackles of the man who had not passed the Flame of Shar. That one lay headless at the feet of the executioner. Cypri thought of his wife, pregnant with a son, he hoped, and their baby daughter, who’d only just learned to toddle about their cottage. Shar keep them safe. The memdisa came to the end of his reading of holy scripture. A red-cloaked soldier wheeled the Flame of Shar before Cypri. The Flame of Shar burned blue in its bowl and gave forth no warmth.
The memdisa asked, “Does thou accept Shar?”
Cypri straightened, wincing at the bite of gravel into the tender flesh of his knees. He raised his head and looked the priest in the face. “I am faithful to Shar the Compassionate,” he said.
His mouth went dry. The memdisa’s gaze upon him remained steady. Cypri listened to his words in the silence of his mind. Had defiance tainted his tone? Or, Shar forbid, sarcasm? He forced himself to return the memdisa’s stare.
“Take care, yeabo,” replied the memdisa. “The executioner’s sword is not yet sated.”
Cypri ducked his head. “I meant no disrespect, abadi.”
“The Flame knows thy heart.”
A soldier unshackled Cypri and pulled him to his feet. A spear pricked his back.
He felt the eyes of everyone upon him, the shackled and the blessed, those who had passed the Flame and waited their fate nearby guarded by soldiers. Cypri whispered a quick prayer and put his hands into the heart of the blue flame, every muscle tensed though he knew the Flame of Shar would only burn him if it found him untrue. The Flame licked his palms and fingers, the skin of his arms crawled, the Flame burned blue and steady, tasting the truth of his heart.
“Does thou swear to keep the commandments of the Sharic Temen?”
“I swear,” replied Cypri, watching the blue fire.
“Does thou swear to pray thrice every day as Holy Scripture commands?”
“I swear,” replied Cypri.
“Does thou swear to keep thy heart pure of fleshly desire, of lies, and sin?”
“As I swear, be it so,” replied Cypri. The Flame flickered, flared white, startling Cypri. He felt a trickle of urine ease from him. Tears of relief slid down his face.
“So be it,” replied the memdisa.
Cypri snatched his hands from the Flame. Prodded along by the spear, he joined the others who’d passed the Flame, and knelt, obeying the thump given him by the spear-wielding soldier. “Thanks be to Shar,” he murmured to the man next to him. The man did not respond. He stared at the beheaded bodies and said, “There lies my brother.”
The inquisition went through the night. By dawn more beheaded bodies lay in the square, the rays of the rising sun laid a pall of light over all. The ground blood-darkened, seeped with gore, and the first breath of the morning carried a coppery stink. Lord Mathaniye rode through the square, his scarlet cloak wrapped about him, his countenance righteous but not yet satisfied. Next to him rode the priest-commander Jomo, newly-made lord of Deraje.
“No more shall the north be the bastard child of Ammar,” said Mathaniye. “This land shall know the law of Shar.”
“And a king,” replied Jomo. “King Mathaniye the First.”
Those words pierced Mathaniye and sent a trembling through him. He spurred his stallion onward, eager to grasp all of Ammar.
At sight of his waiting army, outside the town, ranged on the trampled and burned wheatfields, mounted and ready, the Holy Scroll bright in the sun’s first rays, rippling in the dawn breeze, Mathaniye raised his iron-gloved fist. In answer the brass-throated call of ram’s horns rankled the air, and Mathaniye’s army began the march to Patra, and beyond, to Zaranawe, the Gilded City of the South.
The god Shar peered down upon the world and massaged the crack creeping down his brow. In the vast sweep of his mind, thunder rolled. Mortals. His sigh rippled through the deep reaches of Heaven.
A smell in the air distracted Kayin of Zaranawe from his work. He raised his head, the ink-tipped stylus lifted from ivory parchment, the progress of runes down the page halted. Kayin sniffed the air, tried to catch that repulsive odor. Something…smoke on the wind, a bitter rot that came and went like a whisper. But the morning sky was clear, sunshot, and blue.
He sat at work in the comfort of a silk-padded, moon-back chair beneath the branches of a flowering jela-tree, its tiny yellow blossoms dotted his work table. At his left lay a scroll of writing, the work of Tan-Obaye, a philosopher who’d lived a hundred years before Kayin’s birth, and at his right lay his parchment, translating Tan-Obaye’s work from Irenae, the philosopher’s native tongue, into Ammaru. Ordinarily nothing would have distracted him, but his mind snagged on an Irenae character of multiple meaning and the context was not clear to him. Thus he paused and the strange odor momentarily netted his attention.
He caught sight of a servant coming from the palace to him. The servant was followed by a woman. Kayin laid down the stylus and smothered a prickle of annoyance.
The servant bowed to him and said, “If you would, my lord, the lady Nirit of Temple Karys begs a moment.” He swept his hand toward the woman.
The woman was An-Karysae, a worshipper of the goddess Karys. A colony of An-Karysae lived in Zaranawe, a Sharic city, but as long as they did not proselytize Zaranawe’s faithful–and the An-Karysae were not known to do such–he did not object to their presence.
This woman, a Seer by the broken-circle scars branding each cheek, was, to his surprise, a Raevani. Not many Raevani lived in Zaranawe, or for that matter, Ammar. Few crossed the mountain barrier that separated Raeve from the rest of Gosse Arodd. Lady Nirit, brown of skin and green-eyed like all Raevani, wore the traditional shaomere of a Raevani woman, but her black hair was in Ammarei fashion, in loose braids, and unadorned as befits a holy woman.
He instructed the servant, “Bring refreshment and a chair for Lady Nirit.”
“There is no need, my lord, for either,” said Lady Nirit. “This is not a pleasure call.”
Kayin stood. “Let us walk then. What brings a temple seer to the palace?”
“I’ll not bandy words, my lord, nor play the enigmatic oracle. We’ve little time for dream-spawned riddles.”
Kayin guided her toward the contemplation pool tucked in a serene pocket of fragrant aranolia and willows. They strolled along a path that meandered around the pool. Kayin waited for her to continue, his gaze on the crystal surface of the pool’s olivine water. A part of his mind teased at the meaning of the Irenae character.
“Mathaniye of Gethay has risen in the north. He makes war and even as we speak the Jezeret plain is lost beneath the Cloak of Shar. You must stop him.”
Mathaniye. A name that was a thread in his cloth of worries. “What do you mean ‘lost beneath the Cloak of Shar’?”
“He’s taken the towns, even Lamala. You know as well as any that the north worships Shar in one way and the south another.”
“Indeed. But these differences are a matter of interpretation. Minor in the greater scheme. All Ammarei are Shar’s children.”
“Smell the wind, my lord. T’is tainted with the blood of Shar’s children. Zaranawe will not be spared.”
Her words fell like leaves about him, but his heart heard the anger and fear in her tone, and something else–a touch of scorn. For him, perhaps?
“Let us sit,” said Kayin. He rested on a bench beneath the willows and breathed in the wine-sweet fragrance of the aranolias.
Lady Nirit folded her arms and paced. “Zaranawe depends on you, Lord Kayin.”
“You are afraid for the An-Karysae.” His family had always tolerated other religions in Zaranawe, but should the Abasi be ousted from power, the worshippers of Karys and any other god would burn on the Sharic wheel.
“You brings ill news like rain.”
“Will thee call for arms? Or will thee return to thy idle amusements, scribbling about the past?”
He raised a hand, and Lady Nirit quieted herself. He’d hoped never to see this day, that he would be ashes on his pyre before the north rose to bring its dark brand of Sharic worship to the south. But his father had warned him about Gethay, that one day, out of the north, would come war.
“Perhaps there is something I can do that will not bring destruction to Zaranawe.”
“Let me speak to the Council, Lady.”
“That pride of petty lions? They will counsel tribute. Let him have the Jezeret.” Give him gold.” She gestured emphatically, first with one hand, then the other. “Mathaniye does not want peace, my lord. He wants Ammar.”
“Kingship.” Kayin almost laughed, but he knew better. “Zaranawe has strong allies.”
“Lamala was such an ally.” Her face was lost in tree gloom and the drapery of her indigo shaomere swallowed sunlight. She stood in shadow, a cypher of doom.
“Mathaniye may be a zealot, but even he will prefer peace to death.”
“You surprise me, my lord. I did not think you a fool.”
Kayin found himself standing, although he didn’t quite recall making the effort. “You have ruffled my calm enough for one day, Lady. I’ve heard you well, and I’m not–“ he paused, peered into the willows. Lady Nirit was not there. “A fool,” he finished.
The Council meeting went as Lady Nirit predicted. It was decided to send a courier to Lord Mathaniye of Gethay with an invitation to meet on neutral ground of his choosing and talk peace. A day passed. Kayin waited for Mathaniye’s answer. It came on the third day in a box carrying the head of the courier and a single blood-stained scroll bearing the words “So speaks the King of Ammar.
In Zaranawe, lord Kayin of House Abasi, readied himself for battle.
“Last night I dreamed I was somebody else, somewhere else,” said Kayin.
“You would never leave Zaranawe, no matter your dreams, brother.” Jerusale, Lady of the House and captain of the city’s Archery Guard, fastened her brother’s cloak with a gold brooch and straightened it about his shoulders. “There,” she said.
“I’m afraid I gave her the wrong impression,” he said.
Jerusale checked the lacing of his vambraces. “Who?”
“It was rude of her to disappear like that.”
“I didn’t know they could do that.”
“The An-Karysae are surprising people.”
“She thinks I don’t care.”
“No one cares more for Zaranawe than you, Kayin.” She rested her hands on her shoulders and looked into his eyes. “I’m afraid,” she said. “But war has come. If Zaranawe falls, all Ammar is lost.”
Hearing his sister admit her fear sobered Kayin. He feared for her as he did for his city and its people, especially the women. He’d not forgotten the times he’d traveled through northern Ammar and seen the women covered from head to feet, like dark ghosts in the market place and fields. The northern Ammarei had always practiced a puritanical version of Sharic belief. A devout Sharic himself, Kayin had spent his life studying the Sharic Temen. Nowhere in the Holy Scrolls was the veiling and suppression of women pronounced, and no where did it say that men had to live in fear of the Horned God. The Holy One, who’d written the Sharic Temen, the teachings of the Horned God, had been southern born and had gifted all of Ammar with the enlightened Word Of God.
Yet between northern Ammar and southern the Word of God had become a light in the south and a sword in the north. For generations north and south made no bones over the One Faith. Until now.
“Did I ever tell you what happened on my first journey to Gethay?”
She shook her head, and went to pour them both a crystal of anike, the spicy liquor brought across the mountains from Raeve. Kayin accepted the crystal and taking his sister’s hand, he led her to the balconied window that overlooked Zaranawe.
“Mathaniye of Gethay is a man of narrow heart. He neither forgets nor forgives a slight, Father told me once. If ever you travel through his land, remember that,” he said to me. I remembered.” He sat down in the window’s embrasure and Jerusale sat opposite.
“Faro was with me,” he said. “We were crossing Mathaniye’s domain. Our caravan was seen, of course, and a horseman came bearing an invitation to share meat and bread with the lord. We could not decline.”
Kayin, seated cross-legged on a layering of carpets, before the feast set out by Gethay’s lord, wished they had taken a route, could have taken a route, that did not bring them through Mathaniye’s domain.
He and Faro dined surrounded by Mathaniye’s men. Kayin’s face was fair stiff from smiling, his throat ached from forced laughter, and his stomach was not happy with the bleeding slices of northern meat on his platter. He glanced at Faro who murmured, “Eat before it jumps up and runs away.”
Kayin hid his grin in a swallow of harsh northern wine. He caught the eye of their host and toasted him. Mathaniye accepted with a nod, and raised his cup in return, but his eyes were sharp and cold as a sword edge, and Kayin noticed how his courtiers watched their lord slyly and followed his lead, laughing and scowling as suited.
The sun had long set by the time Mathaniye rose from his chair and announced an end to the evening.
“Your chambers are ready, masters,” a servant told Kayin and Faro.
Kayin stepped into his room and paused, letting his eyes adjust to the soft blend of lamplight and shadow, and the young girl waiting on the bed.
“Thee may go,” he said to her.
She rose from the bed, but didn’t leave the room. Instead she knelt before him, trembling even in the warmth cast by the braziers. She couldn’t be more than fourteen summers old. Her hair was unbound, and fell in black ripples to her slender hips, and the amber drapery wrapped about her was as thin as mist. Northern females had none of the freedoms common for southern women. This girl was barely out of childhood. Kayin thought of the recent spring festival in Zaranawe when young girls such as this one carried boughs of blooming flowers during Serete’s Festival, their laughter ringing merrily in the bright air.
Kayin knelt on one knee and lifted her chin. “How many brothers and sisters have thee?”
“We are thirteen, my lord.”
“Art thou the youngest?”
She shook her head no. However new she was to the life of a tamsyn, a pleasure slave, she could see by his expression that he would not take her to bed.
“Does my lord not find me pleasing?”
Kayin used a corner of his shirt to pat away the tears in her eyes. “Thou art lovely and far too young for me.”
He rose, stepped around her, and shucked his cloak, dropping it onto a bench.
“Please, my lord, if thee send me away…” Her voice trembled.
“No need for tears,” he said. “Thee can sleep in the bed. I’ll take the floor.”
“Oh no, my lord.”
“Oh yes,” said Kayin. “I’d wager thee does not have a bed of thine own yet?”
“No, my lord.”
She’d take her rest, what little she’d receive, on a pallet in the women’s quarters.
“Let it be our secret then.” Taking one of the blankets off the bed, he laid it on the floor, and retrieved his cloak, folding it into a pillow.
“There be two pillows, my lord.” She held one out to him. Her gaze was shy, but tear-less, and she’d stopped trembling.
He took the pillow. “Douse the lamps, little one.”
“I forgot to ask her name,” Kayin said to Faro as they set out from Mathaniye’s compound at dawn the next morning.
“The one in my room was called Mariama, and suitable, most suitable, but I couldn’t get your sister’s face out of my head. I slept on the floor.”
“Jeru would be pleased to know that,” replied Kayin. “As am I.”
“It did pose a problem. The house mistress checks each girl and if she bears no evidence of a bedding, she is whipped.”
A chill ran through Kayin. “But you–“
“T’was necessary for Mariama to,” he lifted a hand and let it fall. “This morning. So that she could pass inspection.”
“The little one…she was too new to know, and I didn’t think…I thought to spare her.”
“T’is not your fault. Nor hers, poor child.”
Kayin rode silently for a moment, then said, “As long as the Abasi rule in Zaranawe, our women will never suffer such a life.”
Jerusale shook her head. “Poor child,” she said, echoing her lover Faro’s words.
Kayin finished his anike. “We cannot let him win.”
“My archers should go with you.”
“Someone must defend the city, should the enemy reach Zaranawe.”
“I’ll not fail you or our city,” said Jerusale.
Rising dawn bled vermilion into the bare blue heaven, and for a breath, a sweet wind stirred against Lord Kayin’s face, the kiss of a new day that he prayed would not be his last. Behind him stood all that Zaranawe and her allies had to offer, sons, brothers, and husbands, each willing to spill their blood in Zaranawe’s defense, each life a debt Kayin knew could never be repaid. Across the plain, Mathaniye’s army. Red cloaks bright as blood, sunglow caught on their silver breastplates, emblazoned the copper horns of Shar inlaid, curving left and right as their warrior ranks curved left and right in a pincer formation. Neither man nor horse of them moved. The sun was fully risen, its burgeoning heat fell upon them. Through the warming air came a note, a single elongated note blown from the brass throat of a ram’s horn, picked up and repeated, echoing endlessly across the plain. As one the host of Gethay began to move toward the Zaranawen forces.
The horns of Kayin’s army answered. Zaranawen foot soldiers canted their spears and the archers behind readied their bows. Kayin drew his sword and murmured a prayer to Shar.
The Gethayans galloped into the spears of Zaranawen foot soldiers, their horses leaping up and over, coming down upon thickets of men and iron. Blood spewed in misty sprays. The air thickened with the stink of slaughter. Kayin, sword raised, spurred into the roiling fray, his war cry pulled his cavalry forward in a closing sweep upon the Gethayans. And then he was aware of nothing more than the flex and twist of muscle in his sword arm, the swinging weight and hiss of his sword, cutting air, cleaving flesh, cracking bone, blood spray in his face, horse screams, and the liquid grunts and yells and cries of the wounded and the dying beneath the hooves of his stallion.
There came a moment when he was clear, a quick blink in time, when he’d slain every man who’d raised iron at him, and he felt the thump of his heart and the ache in his sword arm. He heard the singing whisper of arrows from Zaranawen archers under Faro’s command, winging toward an oncoming wedge of Getheyan cavalry.
“Forward!” He waved his sword, urging the cavalry on. He caught sight of Faro’s mounted archers at the edge and ahead of the horse soldiers galloping toward the Gethayans, letting fly hail after hail of arrows. Gethayan archers answered the Zaranawen volleys with flying fire, arrows tipped with flame. And then he glimpsed the mounting of a Gethayan dervish.
An evil weapon, the dervish. Worse even than flame arrows. It was a great spinning barrel that spit out pods that blew apart on landing and sent spinning blades into flesh.
“Shields!” shouted Kayin. “Shields!” He pulled his own shield forward. “Fall back!” he commanded. He galloped to the rear of the foot soldiers, seeking Faro. Behind him he heard a terrible crack, a bursting, a hissing as if an army of serpents had been released. He wheeled his horse about, brought his shield up. A pod exploded amid the front line of foot soldiers. The spinning blades decapitated some, mortally wounded others.
From the Gethayans came victorious shouts and ram’s horns sent forth a brassy skirling upon the air. Kayin and the men near him looked toward the enemy.
“They shout as if they have won the battle,” said a foot soldier.
No more dervish balls came their way. “They have fallen back,” said Kayin. What could that mean?
A rider galloped from the Gethayan lines carrying a green standard. At sight of it all fighting stilled, grappling men fell apart, leaving bare a middle area. The rider paused there and shouted, “Let it be known to all that Zaranawe has fallen! Mathaniye of Gethay commands surrender of Lord Kayin of Zaranawe! Let it be known!”
The messenger’s words sent a ripple of shock through the Zaranawens. They stood, their weapons held loosely in their fists, and gazed dumbfounded one at another.
“Liars!” Kayin shouted. He spurred his stallion to the front of the line and faced the messenger. “Mathaniye lies! Zaranawe has not fallen! We fight on!”
Faro rode up to his side. “It cannot be true,” he said.
Gethayan horns sang out, the call to round, and Mathaniye’s soldiers began to assemble themselves. Mathaniye himself rode to the front and faced Kayin across the patch of bloodied ground.
Behind Kayin and Faro, the Zaranawen line drew to ragged formation.
“Zaranawe is mine as all of Ammar shall be mine,” said Mathaniye. “Surrender.”
“We’ll not fall for trickery,” said Kayin.
Mathaniye tossed something on the sand. Kayin caught the flash of sun against gold and his gaze followed the thing to the sand. He nodded curtly to a foot soldier and the man ran out, retrieved the item, and brought it back to Kayin.
“T’is a ring, my lord,” he said, handing it up to Kayin.
He heard Faro curse. He gazed at Jerusale’s ring with its insignia of House Abasi.
“Labaan Meronike who has taken Zaranawe in my name said thee would know that ring and would know there would be but one way for it to be taken.”
Kayin’s heart fell. He looked at Faro. “It cannot be true,” he whispered.