War on the Plains, part two
by Laurence J Sinclair
Alexa Genecourt suppressed the urge to curse as her ungainly steed refused to turn at the sting of her spurs. Her fellow knights were having similar problems, unable to bring their camels to bear on the attackers screaming down the dunes toward them. More than one beast had toppled to the ground with crossbow bolts piercing its hide, rider trapped beneath the bulk.
The ambush would have seen the death of each and every Deverenian in the patrol, had it not been for the wizard by her side. Having complained of the unrelenting heat throughout the journey so far, now he was more than willing to channel his power to explode fireballs amongst the enemy, blasting a spray of corpses into the air. That provided time enough to devise an appropriate response.
“Dismount!” Alexa shouted. “Form up in a defensive line, and we’ll give these undeserving wretches the honour of death at a paladin’s hand! For The Storm!” Each warrior smoothly slid to the sand, impeded neither by their all-enclosing plate armour nor the burning sun above. Of course, the knights of the Black Sun were forged in sterner flames than the cringing sorcerer, even now holding a wide-brimmed hat tight to his head. “Stay close to me, Dautien,” she hissed, “and maintain thine arcane barrage. Falter not; these Nothrog foemen be not nearly so fearsome as we.”
He tutted under his breath but followed her order, trotting at her heel like a child amongst his mother’s skirts. Yet his harsh features registered only hate as lightning lashed from his fingers to strike down the partially-armoured green barbarians as they neared the Deverenian line. The Nothrog, perhaps two-dozen remaining to the ten knights, only roared louder as they brought their serated blades to bear.
The beasts lacked even the simplest wit, Alexa thought to herself. The idea of lying in wait for a target was the limit of their forward planning; now, clearly outmatched by a superior force, they could do nothing but die.
She was still smiling to herself inside her helm when the rumbling at her feet became too great to be ignored. Glancing around for the source, she saw the sand erupt around her and the wizard as more roaring warriors tore themselves free from concealed hiding holes. Immediately, they struck for the Deverenian rear, several remaining behind to deal with the expedition’s leader. Alexa’s shield fended off one spiked mace, but at her side Dautien screamed as his right hand was severed at the wrist, blood spraying into the hungry maw of the Nothrog legionnaire.
“There can have been no way for the Nothrog to have planned such an attack unless they knew beforehand where we were to be,” Alexa said, on one knee before the priest, helm under her arm. “Treachery.”
Cardinal Scelus chuckled, placing one hand on the paladin’s shaven head. “Nonsense. An there were one such amongst us, wouldst not our noble Inquisitor Dmitir have forseseen such? Is he not the greatest seer that the Empire hath boasted for a generation? Happenstance favoured the mongrels, ’tis all; thou wert ill-fortuned to have passed in that direction at that time.”
“As thou sayest, your eminence,” Alexa said, raising her eyes to regard him. “Were it not for the camels, we could not have ranged so far - the creatures are much more durable than our warhorses, for all their uselessness in combat.”
“Careful, thou art beginning to sound like unto one of the tribesmen from whom we purchase the beasts!” Scelus maintained his smile upon noticing the anger that flashed across the paladin’s countenance.
“‘Tis my thinking that we should not be trading with them at all, your eminence. As Signon instructs, should we not take what we desire from lesser men, for ’tis ours by right of birth?”
“An we desired war ‘gainst all the peoples of this land, mayhap we should. Yet I fear that thou hast been cloistered within the walls of d’Ilchant Keep for far too long. Is Deverenia not rife with merchants? Didst thou think they traded solely within the borders of the Empire? Nay, ’tis to the advantage of all to turn a blind eye to a certain level of dealings with outsiders. Faith without flexibility is rigid and brittle, liable to shatter. Have not these desert scum been useful to us thus far?”
“New sources of food and water have been exactly where they have directed us. But still, conflict with the Nothrog hath been far too frequent, and we have lost too many good men…”
“Hush now, child. Thou art still disquieted from thy recent brush with death. Allow prayer to calm thy nerves, and give thanks to The Storm that thou didst triumph at the last.” Leaving Alexa to her solitary vigil, Scelus headed toward the courtyard. Distasteful as it was, he had another meeting with their ally arranged.
“Azam!” The cardinal’s warm tones gathered confused looks from training warriors around him. “‘Tis, as ever, most joyful to see thee again!”
Even the tribal leader himself seemed surprised by Scelus’ greeting, awkwardly accepting the brotherly hug offered. “My lord, there is no need to welcome me yourself; I am merely here to collect our payment.”
“Of course! Of course! Thou hast done much to deserve it, as well!”
“Also, I think that your fellows do not appreciate my presence here.”
“They are merely wary of any outsider, Azam. You must understand this?”
“Simple suspicion would not account for their spitting at my men, and the insults they level when they think I cannot hear them.”
“Yes… There will always be differences between our peoples, yet with every effort made on your part, those differences are eroded that little bit more. Perhaps in time they will even come to see as I do, that thy people are a worthy addition to the Deverenian Empire.”
“You flatter me with these words, my lord.”
“Nonsense! Thou dost deserve such accolades and more! However, to truly prove thyself, if thou couldst only deliver a truly worthy prize to us… The location of a settlement of desert natives hereabouts, hm?”
Azam made to hide it, and the turban and scarves that he wore aided greatly, but Scelus saw it in his eyes: the worry. “My apologies lord, but I must have failed to properly explain this to you before. The people of the sands are nomadic by nature, and while I could tell you of a camp, by the time your knights were to be sent forth it would be gone, swallowed again by the desert.”
“Then worry not. Take thy gold, and be of good cheer! I am sure there are still many more wonders that thou canst reveal to us!”
Mindful of Azam’s earlier words, Scelus waited until the desert warrior had left the fortress completely before addressing the Deverenians standing nearby. “I know not what our lord Inquisitor doth think to so encourage such barbarians!” Grumbles of dissent were his only reply, no single knight or squire willing to risk the wrath of a superior by speaking out openly. The cardinal could read the general mood quite easily however, and his impassive face as he returned to the chapel did not truly reflect the triumph in his soul.
His eyes never strayed to the window of the building’s tallest surviving tower, where a single figure stood. Chest bared to a harsh wind that brought grains of sand to catch in the runic scars carved there, unblinking eyes glowered down at Scelus, before rising to where Azam and his entourage gathered to depart. Inquisitor Dmitir continued to stare long after they had passed the horizon.
“It is not a decision at all, Azam,” soft-spoken Zendik said, his earnest face thin by the fire’s shadows. “The knights want proof of our loyalty, and the Fire People have bedevilled us for twelve generations and more. I say we let the one kill the other.”
“You make it sound more simple than it is,” Azam replied, placing his bowl at his feet. His hands, now free, began to gesture as he spoke, reinforcing his words. Every man sitting around the darkened tent paid renewed attention. “The Nothrog are invaders, as much as these Deverenians are. Both pay well for our services, and in return we guide them to that which we don’t use: the sparser oases, the ruins with their cursed relics, lands which the hopeful may think to farm. We do not give them our loyalty. Should they fight over spoils, we allow them to do so, for we love neither side in our hearts. And we are blameless should they meet at all, for how is a simple people like ourselves meant to recall the complex arrangements we have made?”
There was general laughter at the chieftain’s joke, many raising their bowls in salute. Once it had ceased, Azam continued. “But the Fire People? They may be out enemies and competitors, but they remain of this land. They are as much a part of the plains as the sun and the camels, the sand and the hyenas. To betray them to the newcomers would make us no better than The Chosen. We who are free should endeavour to remain so, but not at the price of another’s liberty.”
“Well spoken,” Zendik said, nodding once. “I presume that this means you have refused the attentions of their mistress ambassador?”
“Of course,” Azam said grimly. “We will not be entertaining thoughts of such matters, and I will have no more mention of her in this camp!”
“Then how will we placate the Deverenians?” whispered another voice.
“Let the Nothrog be the ones to be ambushed this time - that should settle the knights’ nerves. While the Fire People would no doubt betray us given the opportunity, we shall once more prove our nobility to the Lost Gods by not doing the same.”
“Bah!” All turned to regard Unuz as he rose to his feet, shaking a fist at Azam. “You have said it yourself: they are a danger to us! It is for the good of all that we destroy them first! You are a fool not to see this!”
Actions answered for the chieftain, the scimitar drawn from his sash even as he stood, slicing neatly through Unuz’s neck, the head not even bouncing as it hit the ground. “No one shall question my decisions in my own tent.” The other men made no dissenting noise, the corpse crumpling along with any thought of rebellion. “If there are no more words to be said, then it is time to divide the spoils.”
Cardinal Scelus backed away from the font, the image upon its meniscus already beginning to blur. It had shown him all that he needed to know, and the words that it had bubbled confirmed much that he suspected. He allowed his hands to drop into the blessed water, ending the ritual.
“Dost thou see, my friend?” he called back to the other occupant of the dim chamber. “Thou art to be betrayed as much as we. ‘Tis fortunate indeed that I wert able to forsee such troubles for us.”
The second man, shorter and leaner, muscular beneath his heavy leathers and furs, snorted. “This is not trouble. Those weaklings have never been a threat to the mighty Fire People. We merely let them live in the hope that they will one day learn respect.”
“A noble sentiment, indeed. Now, as thou dost carry this news back to thy people, thou wilt also convey mine best wishes to my countryman?”
“I am not sure that Yavlo will even care that familiar faces have shown themselves here,” the tribesman shrugged. “He is content to indulge his own excesses, and my people grow stronger while led by his power.”
“He had better be content to support us here when the time comes,” Scelus hissed. “‘Twill not be long afore true war replaces these skirmishes, and I would have thee and thine at my side, since Azam would court two masters.”
“The Deverenian Empire and the Storm may rely upon the people of the fire and the sand,” the warrior replied, nodding. “But what of you? How will your lord inquisitor respond to these events?”
“Dmitir? I shan’t be informing him. Already the troops doubt his decision to ally with these pathetic camel merchants, and a sudden betrayal on their part will do more to sway the faithful to my side. After all, ’tis not proper that a man who clothes himself in darkness and hides in his tower should command. Such a task rightly falls upon he who knows the heart of the people. These plains shall make for a fine diocese, indeed.”
Filling two goblets with sacramental wine, the cardinal smiled at the tribesman. “A drink, to celebrate our inevitable victories?”