“The armies of Imperial Chahanesh seem like a sea of polished steel from the hilltop that His Divine Personage, Cyrus the Forty-Second, King-of-Kings and Lord-Of-All-He-Surveys, has chosen from which to enjoy his impending victory over the Heretics of Rea…”
The Historian paused, realizing he had forgotten a full-stop somewhere along the way. He read the sentence aloud and ran out of breath at ‘Surveys’. He clucked his tongue, then shrugged. If florid language was what the megalomaniac wanted, then florid language was what the megalomaniac got. He continued writing.
“The bright banners of the many regiments and legions are like the sails of ships upon the metal waves, flapping proudly in the gentle breeze, while thousands upon thousands of helms and spear points glitter in the bright morning sunlight…”
The Historian sat just outside the impervious human wall of the King’s Personal Guard, alongside the Imperial Baggage Handlers and the priests of the lesser Gods and Saints and assorted courtesans and hangers-on. He scribbled in his parchment notebook while he observed the disposition of the regiments below with an aged and cynical eye. He waxed lyrical about the stirring sight of sixty thousand terrified men and boys being herded to their brutal fates. And thanked all the Gods and Saints that his own grandsons had been saved by privilege and scholarly talent from participation in the approaching bloodbath.
He briefly listed a few provincial regiments whose banners he recognised, then gave most of his attention to the legions of “tall, handsome” Chahanen warriors. “The least and most common” of whom was “as a lord among the lesser folk of the Empire.” History, of course, is written by the winners and, cynic though he often was, the Historian was also Chahanen to the bone. His people had written the history of half the Western world for more than twelve centuries.
“The battle magicians, those paragons of Imperial might, prepare their potent sorceries while they are borne among the legions in their curtained litters or circle high overhead on their flying carpets, like eagles wheeling before the strike. The great siege engines and wheeled towers of the Imperial Engineers and mighty war elephants from Malgurya rise like breaching leviathans amid the metal waves…”
He savoured that simile for a moment, pleased with himself, before moving on to record by name those lords and generals whose stellae came close enough for him to identify.
“…Prince Uvash of Eshanth, youngest brother of Crown Prince Simesh, parades past with his brave captains and dips his banners before He-Who-Brings-The-Morning. The Prince is noted as a brilliant tactician and his inspired leadership was instrumental in the great Imperial victory at…”
The Historian’s pencil hovered above the parchment. He frowned. He couldn’t think of any previous military engagements at all – victorious or otherwise – that the fat dullard Prince Uvash had ever been even remotely associated with.
His brow cleared.
“...instrumental in the great Imperial victory at Brantohilde that saw the final extermination of the renascent Fazhgumackhid Assassins.”
He sniggered to himself, imagining the consternation this sentence would cause to future students of Imperial history. The Fazhgumackhid Assassins were the invention of an early predecessor, who had needed to add some respectability to the otherwise laughable military exploits of Cyrus the Thirteenth. It was an in-joke that separated the men from the boys in scholarly circles. Brantohilde was the name of the Historian’s blessedly departed mother-in-law.
Still chuckling, he took a moment to stretch his back, straightening for a moment from his habitual stoop. Then he noted in his book the continued absence of the legions from Ackaemenohn. “Delayed, so the farseers say, by an uprising in Sinridis.”
Strange news, the Historian thought, given that the rest of the King’s army had passed most recently through that northern province and seen no sign of unrest. Still, the magicians reported from their scrying bowls that the Ackaemen army was indeed busy torching fields and butchering Sinridish villagers.
The Divinely Blessed Personage was less than pleased with the tardiness of the Lord of Ackaemenohn. The Historian could hear He-Who-Commands-The-Tide’s petulant outbursts from within the wall of bodyguards every time he demanded to know where the Ackaemen army was – and was fretfully informed they still hadn’t shifted from the Sinridish border. The Historian wrote that “the displeasure of He-Who-Levels-Mountains-With-A-Glance is fearsome to behold and the cowardly Lord of Ackaemenohn will surely expire from sheer terror when the snivelling wretch is finally brought before his King.”
He set his book aside at this point, pleased with himself. Already he had the basis of an account that would, with only a little more embellishment, suit even the unexcelled hubris of He-Who-Scattered-The-Stars-Upon-The-Night. The Historian tucked his pencil behind his ear and tugged his tabac pouch from his belt, tamping his pipe with lead stained fingers. A click of thumb and fingertips produced a small spark. It was the full extent of his meagre magical talent – and the reason he had been quietly evicted from the College of Magicians all those years ago and sentenced to a life of scholarly rectitude. He sucked happily on his pipe.
A shadow fell across him. He squinted up into the acne-infested face of an Imperial Messenger.
“His Imperial Majesty requires your presence, Historian” the youth said, conspicuously omitting the ‘My Lord’ from in front of ‘Historian’.
The Historian sighed and smothered his pipe. “Of course he does,” he muttered. “What for?”
The Messenger only sneered – meaning he hadn’t being paying attention enough to know the answer.
Arrogant whelp, the Historian thought. The boy’s ugly mug was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place which lord of the Empire had spawned the insolent sprog. He gathered his staff from the grass beside him and, with creaking knees, hauled himself to his feet.
“Bring my stool,” he commanded the Messenger. The boy made no move to comply, so the Historian smacked him viciously across the shins with his staff. Amid the amused titters of the nearby courtiers and priests, and without waiting to see if the boy followed, the old man hobbled off in the direction of his liege.
The Personal Guard shuffled aside to let the Historian and the limping Messenger pass. They were the finest troops in the Imperial Army. The finest Chahanen troops, anyway, and as far as history was concerned, that was the same thing. Sadly, their armour was so ornate they could barely walk, let alone raise arms to defend themselves – even if the oversized ironmongery they had been given to lug about wasn’t just as absurd as their armour. They looked, the Historian thought, like they had been dressed by a mad cake decorator gone berserk in a blacksmith’s forge. His Impervious Ignorance had, naturally, designed the armour himself.
The Historian passed through the circle of incapacitated Guards and approached the huge, gold-leafed and silk-curtained litter that bore The Blessed Imbecile. The clutch of people around the litter included the most senior generals and magicians, their staff officers and an assortment of body slaves, plus the high priests of the eight Greater Gods of the Chahanen Pantheon. The generals had, with vast satisfaction, cited the exigencies of the battlefield and evicted the usual circus of painted sycophants from the makeshift inner sanctum.
Also present, hovering most closely beside the royal litter, was the Sumoran Ambassador, dressed in functional black armour and looking comfortable wearing it. The dwarf – again, much to the generals’ satisfaction – had been stripped of his weapons. His usual retinue of guards had been evicted along with the rest.
The Historian noted with interest a Gar dwarf slave – a gift from the Ambassador’s predecessor – glaring daggers at the Mor’s back. The Gar, wearing nothing but a slave’s vest and short kilt, had muscles on his muscles and bore a fighter’s scars on his face, chest and arms. Even shaved and tortured into submission, he struck the Historian as a formidable figure.
The Gar was not the only vanquished foe among the King’s slaves. The litter itself was so big it took eight burly men to lift it. It was a conceit of this particular Son of Heaven that his litter should be borne by captured enemy warriors – a proclivity that made his Guards and generals distinctly nervous. At each of the rear corners of the litter loomed a tusked, yellow-skinned ogre from the southern continent. At one front corner was a black-skinned djinn, elvish kin from the fierce desert across the Summer Sea. The remaining litter bearers were pale, bearded MagNordain barbarians from the northern plains, alike in colouring and features to men of Chahanesh, but taller and half-again as broad. One of the MagNordain, older than the others, wore the facial scars of a tribal chieftain and bulked larger than even the two ogres.
The King’s slaves were supposed to be mind-broken and submissive. Certainly the gaggle of young halfling girls who saw to the most intimate bodily needs of He-Who-Is-Excessively-Pampered appeared to be so. But the MagNordain chief in particular observed the Historian’s approach with a disquieting alertness. The Historian wondered if the standards of the Imperial Torturers had slipped in recent times.
The Warlord of Imperial Chahanesh was talking urgently to the young King-of-Kings. From the thunderous expression on what little could be seen of the Mor’s face above his enormous silver-shot beard, the Historian guessed that the Warlord and the Ambassador were at odds yet again.
The figure reclining in the gauzy shade of the litter silenced the Warlord with a languid flick of the wrist when the Historian arrived. Veins popped out on the old soldier’s temple and his jaw muscles bulged as he clamped his teeth abruptly shut. The Historian hid a grin by bowing as low as his arthritis would allow.
He-Who-Raises-Insufferability-To-An-Artform left him there an inordinately long time before commanding, “Rise, Historian.”
Now it was the Warlord’s turn to smirk from behind the King’s back. The Historian ignored him and contrived to gaze worshipfully upon the chinless, watery-eyed visage of the inbred little streak of piss who was his monarch. The Blessed Imbecile’s beloved father had been an inbred little streak of piss too. But he at least had possessed the grace and wit to let the generals and senate run the Empire while he whiled away his days in the Royal Harem having sex with his sisters.
It had been that way among the Kings of Chahanesh for about twenty generations now, ever since the infamous Cyrus the Thirteenth decided he rather fancied the look of his sister and contrived to have himself exempted from the laws governing incest. Or, as the Royal Historian of the day had rationalised it, he had taken the action “in order to ensure the preservation of the pure blood of Cyrus the Great in the veins of the Kings of the Eternal Empire”.
The lords and mages of Chahanesh and its provinces had found, after a time, that the results of severe inbreeding in the royal family rather suited them, leaving them relatively free to run the Empire as they pleased and reap the profits of doing so. Unfortunately, the present Cyrus – having impatiently murdered his docile sire – had rather different ideas and fancied he was the reincarnation of Cyrus the Great.
“What humble service may it be my eternal pleasure to provide Your Most Divinely Ordained Majesty?” the Historian asked.
“That,” the boy exclaimed nasally to the Warlord and assembled generals, magicians and priests, “is the appropriate way to address one’s monarch.” He turned back to the Historian, head jiggling on his scrawny neck. Stoned as a menhir, the Historian thought.
“The Heretics wish to parley,” said the King. “You will parley with them on Our behalf.”
The Historian was mildly surprised at the astuteness of the command. As a student of languages and cultures past and present, he was without doubt the best qualified of the King’s retainers to communicate effectively with persons from an unknown foreign culture. From the satisfied expression on the face of the Warlord, the Historian surmised that the idea had come from him. The sour expression of the Sumoran Ambassador confirmed it.
The High Priest of the Guardian of the Source, a cadaverous old stick of enormous dignity and rigid conservatism, ventured forward. Striking a pose that somehow managed to convey both diffidence and condescension, he said, “Most Majestic, might I suggest that it would be better for we clergy to conduct the negotiation. We are, after all, the best equipped to defend Your Holiness’s purity of mind from the ungodly perversions of these heretics…”
The Blessed Imbecile hissed at him irritably and said, “No, you mightn’t suggest! Now bugger off!”
Several magicians and generals smothered sudden coughing fits. The High Priest’s already wrinkled face puckered up like a prune at He-Who-Wouldn’t-Know-A-Dangerous-Enemy-If-They-Stuck-A-Dagger-In-His-Back’s rudeness. He bowed his head stiffly and muttered something that sounded like, “Yes Omnipotence”, but could have been, “Yes, Incontinence”, instead.
The Blessed Imbecile didn’t notice. With an offended sniff, the High Priest stalked back to his fellow clerics.
“Do they come for parley already, Omnipotence?” the Historian asked, pronouncing the honorific with exaggerated clarity. The High Priest of the Guardian sneered at him.
The King had lapsed back on his cushions, exhausted by his confrontation with the High Priest, and was calling for wine. He waved a limp-jointed arm, indicating that the Historian should pursue his conversation with the Warlord.
With the barest arching of his brows, the Warlord said levelly, “They approach as we speak. They came from the city in a floating contrivance under a flag of truce, but were forced by our troops to abandon it and are being conveyed here on foot.”
The Warlord took the Historian aside then, to stand facing the domes of Rea, so their faces were obscured from the view of the Mor and the priests.
“Get us out of this, old friend,” the Warlord murmured, “so that we can go deal with that Ackaemen upstart.”
Old friend, eh? The Historian thought to himself. He and the Warlord had known each other for many years but, while there was no antipathy between them, they had never developed any deep friendship either.
“It is rebellion then?” the Historian asked, equally quietly, and when the Warlord nodded he muttered, “Still, it was only a matter of time.”
“Before someone decided the possible rewards of raising a rebel flag were worth the risk of being stabbed in the back by his fellow lords.”
The Warlord flashed him a wry grin, quickly smothered.
“But I would not have expected it to be that toad Ackaemenohn to take the lead,” the Historian mused, “nor did I expect a move so soon.”
“Who did you think it would be?” the Warlord asked.
Now it was the Historian’s turn to flash a grin. “You.”
The Warlord allowed himself a brief bark of laughter and clapped the Historian on the back. The old scholar knew then he had not been too far from the mark: Ackaemenohn had only just stolen the march on the Warlord of Chahanesh.
“Ackaemenohn would be little more than a nuisance,” said the Warlord, “if His Inflexible Recalcitrance were not so determined to smash this army to pieces on the anvil of Rea. It helps not at all that the thrice-cursed dwarf keeps egging him on. Did you notice, Historian, that the provincial lords have sent to this fight the paltriest contingents of half-trained conscripts they could get away with?”
The Historian was chagrined that he had not – having been too enamoured with the cleverness of his own prose – but he shrugged non-committally rather than admit his failure of perception.
The Warlord continued, “The other lords have held back. They wait to see which way the contest between Chahanesh and Ackaemenohn goes before they commit to either cause. This army is the main strength of Chahanesh proper. Should this battle go ill, we will struggle to contain Ackaemenohn’s ambitions.”
“What of the College?”
“The magicians are split. Ackaemenohn has suborned perhaps one in ten.”
“And the rest?”
“Most stand aside, as the lords do, for now. More are with us than against, though. We think most of the temples have gone over to Ackaemenohn.” The Warlord looked directly at the Historian. “Get us out of this, old friend.”
So, the Historian thought, it is time to take sides.
He met the other man’s gaze squarely. “Be assured, I will do my utmost,” he replied.
The Warlord gave a sharp nod and returned to his generals to discuss the disposition of his army. The Historian beckoned to the recalcitrant Messenger, still holding his stool, and bade him set down the seat and fetch a cup of water. He retrieved his pipe and was pleased to find the half-burnt plug hadn’t spilled out while it was in his pocket.
Holding his pipe between his teeth, he opened his book and took his pencil from behind his ear to jot a few more notes. He recorded the presence in the army of three regiments of Mor dwarves, commanded, so the Historian understood, by the Ambassador’s brother: “hook faced and bristle bearded, stark in their black robes and black-metal armour, like grim harbingers among the brightly coloured ranks of the Imperial legions. Allies, these, rather than subjects; from Sumor across the Inland Sea. Fell and frightful friends for even one so great and divinely blessed as the King of Chahanesh.” And worse enemies, the Historian thought to himself, though he did not write it. He shuddered to think what perverse treasures the Mors hoped to find inside Rea.
He scanned the army, squinting to make out the most distant units. The Warlord was right about the paltry contributions of the provinces. The Sumorans were probably the largest contingent after the Chahanen troops. Even so, the army comprised the strength of an empire, brought to destroy a single city.
Overkill, he thought.
Of course, this was no ordinary city.
His gaze travelled past the Imperial host to the clutch of low white domes nestled against the feet of the mountains across the valley. “Rea: City of Heretics. Where a strange and secretive folk hide their faces from the light of the sun and work their furtive and ungodly alchemies.”
Or so it was said, anyway. No-one had seen a denizen of Rea in generations. The Historian was aware of a handful of ancient and contradictory tablets from the long defunct and mostly forgotten Sinridish kingdom. These described the Rea variously: as bloodless beings, ghostlike and pale of skin, eye and hair; as giants encased in armour who hurled lightning from their hands; as gods who ascended into the heavens upon pillars of fire; or as elvish-kin, who rode about in magical horseless carriages rather than upon the backs of wyverns and stranger beasts, as the elf lords were wont to do.
The Sinridishmen of old had worshipped the Rea as gods until Cyrus the Great, founder of the Eternal Empire of Chahanesh, had razed their kingdom and put their apostasy to the sword. In the centuries since, Cyrus’ successors had found neither the opportunity nor the inclination to deal with Rea itself. They were far more interested in conquering their neighbours and exchanging petty raids with the MagNordain giants and the halfling folk of Gil’gamech. And they were far more worried by the Witch-Kings of Yngrehl and the possibility of a union among the Mor nations than they were by the reclusive folk of Rea in their solitary city.
Of course, the Historian didn’t write any of this in his book, either. Nor did he write that this most recent Cyrus had, immediately upon ascending to the throne and against the advice of all his generals, foolishly embarked on a massive but ultimately unsuccessful pogrom against the MagNordain. Having thoroughly irritated the barbarian tribes, He-Of-Unrivalled-Imprudence had stripped his empire’s borders of half their defenders and marched them here – to destroy a city on the edge of the world, that bothered no-one and which few remembered as anything other than a fairy tale. Unfortunately, this most spoiled and coddled of all the Cyruses to have succeeded the First had little concept that his Empire was, not only finite, but surrounded by enemies both immediately and potentially great.
It took nearly an hour for the Heretics to be conveyed on foot to the presence of The Blessed Imbecile. The Historian snapped out of a light doze when they arrived, to observe with considerable fascination the two pallid, oddly dressed people thrust forward by a squad of Chahanen infantrymen and made to kneel before His Incestuousness.
The Historian hauled himself to his feet and hustled over on creaky legs to confront the Heretics before any of the priests could jump in and spoil everything.
In the tongue of the old Sinridish kingdom, he said, “Abase yourselves, Heretics. Your lives are at stake.”
The Heretics – they were a man and a woman, the Historian saw on closer inspection, both apparently of late middle-age – lifted their heads. “I can speak Chahanen,” the male said, in that language.
The Historian sighed and swore softly under his breath. The High Priest of the Guardian leapt forward, preceded by an accusing claw. “Heretic! Do you come before the Son of Heaven to deny the existence of the Gods?”
The Heretic frowned at him in bemusement. “No, of course not. The beings you call gods are quite real.”
“Ah.” The High Priest blinked, nonplussed. His finger sagged.
The High Priestess of the Keeper of Knowledge came to his rescue. In a dangerously nonchalant drawl she asked the Heretic, “Do you, then, acknowledge the sovereignty of the Gods over mortal beings?”
The Heretic licked his lips. “We believe that mortals hold their destiny in their own hands and are ruled only by their own self-imposed limitations,” he replied.
The High Priest of the Guardian took a moment to work through the Heretic’s response, then his face lit up in triumph. The finger lashed out once more. “He dares utter his heresy before The Divine Personage! Death, I say!”
The Historian looked to the Warlord for assistance, but the old warrior only shrugged.
“Oh, very well,” came a weary voice from the royal litter, “if it will make you happy. Kill him.”
The Historian noted the quick glance the infantry captain shot towards the Warlord, and the slight nod he received in response, before he obeyed the royal command. The Heretic had barely opened his mouth to protest when the sword came down on the back of his neck.
The Historian turned his face away, not wishing to see the blow. “What a waste,” he murmured to himself.
He turned back to the remaining Heretic. The woman was staring open-mouthed, goggle-eyed and white-faced in horror at the twitching corpse of her compatriot. The Historian tapped her on the arm with the butt of his staff.
She looked unsteadily up at him.
“Speak to me in Old Sinridish,” he said.
“I too speak Chahanen,” the Heretic stammered, but in Old Sinridish.
“Speak Chahanen and you will end up the same way, fool,” the Historian growled. The Heretic’s eyes flickered down and back again. The Historian went on. “You and I are the only ones here who speak Old Sinridish. Things are afoot of which you know nothing. Speak to me only in Old Sinridish and you and your city may live beyond this day.”
The Heretic nodded mutely. The Historian turned his back on her then and approached the King’s litter. After bowing low again, he said, “Forgive me, O He-Who-Bestrides-The-Globe-And-Holds-Up-The-Sky, but this poor Heretic speaks no word of Chahanen.”
He-Who-Possesses-The-Concentration-Of-A-Gnat sighed. “How tiresome.”
The Historian ignored the suspicious glowers of the priests and the Sumoran Ambassador. “Indeed, Most Majestic, I would be most hesitant to subject you to the tedium of translating the entire negotiation. Might I be so bold as to suggest that I converse with the Heretic directly in Old Sinridish and with your authority, Your Beautificence…” The Historian hesitated for a couple of heartbeats, realising he had just invented a word. He shrugged to himself and swept on. “Ah, to negotiate the surrender of the City of Heretics to Your Imperial Righteousness.”
The Mor looked like he was about to speak, but the Warlord stepped in smoothly. “Perhaps Your Divinity would prefer to take an early luncheon while this tiresome matter is resolved?”
“Excellent idea!” The-Anus-From-Whence-The-Sun-Doth-Shine exclaimed. “We have decided that We will take an early luncheon.”
Amid the sudden flurry of activity around the litter, the Historian gestured to a pair of infantrymen to bring the surviving Heretic. He led them over to where he had left his stool and sank gratefully back onto his seat. At a second gesture from the Historian, the soldiers released the Heretic’s arms and retreated a few paces.
“Sit,” the Historian bade her, retrieving his pipe.
The Heretic dropped cross-legged onto the grass. She watched in some amazement as the Historian lit the pipeweed with his finger. With a sudden, shuddering breath, tears came. She lowered her head and retreated into her grief. The Historian puffed on his pipe and waited for her to regain her composure.
“We have the means to defend ourselves,” the Heretic said, after a while and without raising her head.
“I rather suspected as much,” said the Historian.
“Many of your people will perish if you attack.”
“Mm,” the Historian agreed.
The Heretic fell silent. The Historian fancied he could almost see the thoughts flying around inside her head. Abruptly, she looked up at him, eyes burning with a sudden intensity. “Why must you attack us? We are no threat to you.”
“You are Heretics,” said the Historian. “The Gods command that you must submit or be destroyed. I am afraid I am not the arbiter of such matters.”
“Do you truly believe it is the will of your gods that drives this army and not mortal ambition?”
The Historian allowed himself a slight smile. “When one is in the service of a divinely inspired King, the two are not mutually exclusive.”
“Are you not, then, a god-fearing person?”
The Historian arched an eyebrow. “I don’t wear a copper hat in the middle of the Temple Quarter and stand decrying the Gods as frauds. The Gods of Chahanesh are real.” He clicked his fingers to make a spark leap towards the Heretic’s face. She flinched. “They repay our fealty with tangible gifts.” He sat back. “And I would much rather bend my back to Chahanen Gods than to the Underlords of Mor or the Witch-Gods of Yngrehl.”
The Heretic hung her head again. “Your nation is threatened,” she said. “But not by us. The tribes of the MagNordain…”
“Yes, there are the barbarians. And there are the Yngrehl and the Gil’gadin and the Gars and the bloody Mors,” said the Historian, cutting her off. He deemed it better not to mention the Empire’s present internal difficulties. “Chahanesh has not endured so long because we are complete fools.”
Not all of us, anyway, he amended under his breath.
“There is an army at your rear.”
The Historian managed to keep his surprise off his face. How did she know about Ackaemenohn? Perhaps, he guessed, the folk of Rea had devised some way of scrying that was not a gift from the Gods.
“Yes, we know,” he said.
The Heretic seemed nonplussed. “You do? Then why do you not leave to confront it?”
The Historian laughed harshly. “Because to do so would be the action of reasonable men,” he said. “And reasonable men are badly outnumbered here today.”
“We could force you to fight,” she whispered.
The Historian had been around long enough to know an empty threat when he heard it. “And this army will roll over your city and it will be no more.”
“You know nothing of our defences. The carnage will be terrible.”
“Are your defences enough to save you?”
The Heretic’s teary-eyed stare was filled with hate and helpless anger.
“I thought not,” said the Historian.
“You said before, when…” Her voice faltered as she gestured toward the spot where her dead countryman still lay. “You spoke of things afoot of which we know nothing, but it is you who do not even begin to grasp the extent of your ignorance.”
“My people have harnessed the energies of the universe.” The Heretic thumped her thin chest for emphasis, her voice finding sudden strength. “We have done this for ourselves. Our knowledge is hard-earned, but the power it has provided us reduces even the greatest of your god-given gifts to mere party tricks.”
“Party tricks that can level your city,” the Historian reminded her, mildly.
She jabbed a finger at him. “We could have striven with the gods for mastery of this world, had we so chosen!”
The Historian leaned forward on his stool. “Then why did you not?”
The Heretic subsided under the intensity of his glare, the fire going out of her as quickly as it had come. She sighed heavily. “Because we had no stomach for genocide. Instead, we built machines to carry us up, above the sky. On this earth we left just one small outpost, to harvest the things only a living world can provide. The lights you see on the moon are not the palaces of the gods, but the great cities of my people.”
The Historian glanced up automatically, although it was the middle of the day. “Now that,” he said, “is a heresy that would have you executed as quick as your comrade.”
He fell silent. Despite his quip, his gut told him the Heretic spoke in earnest. His thoughts went to the mad writings of old Sinridis. Beings who ascended to heaven on pillars of fire… He tried to imagine cities on the moon and nights lit by earthlight; to imagine the machines that would take men there.
The Historian licked his lips. “And if we destroy your outpost, will your countrymen rain death on us from the moon?”
The Heretic replied, softly, “We forswore that option long ago.”
Not that you could not, the Historian thought, but that you have chosen not to do so. Such power…
He did not realise he had spoken this last aloud until the Heretic said, “We could share it with you.”
The Historian’s mind snapped back into sharp focus. “Share it?”
He leapt to his feet with unaccustomed agility, dragging the Heretic up with him. The Historian pointed. “Do you see those black regiments? They are Mors, here to take everything you have, not accept whatever tidbits you might offer. Can you imagine what such as they would do with your knowledge?”
The Heretic watched him, thoughtfully, as he trembled with sudden passion. She nodded.
The Historian’s gaze drifted upwards, to the battle mages circling on their flying carpets. “Like eagles wheeling before the strike,” he had written earlier. Like crows waiting to feast on the carrion, he thought, now.
He twisted to look at the royal party. The Ruler of the World was shamelessly fucking one of his slave girls while the generals, priests and magicians feasted. Only a couple of yards from the royal litter and the trestles around which lords of the Empire gathered, the dead Heretic still lay where he had been struck down.
What savages we are.
The slave girl was facing towards the Historian and her eyes met his. He turned away in shame and disgust and sank back to his seat.
He was silent again for a long time. Eventually, he said, “Would you flee, if I could give you the chance?”
“In truth, we are already preparing to do so,” the Heretic replied. “We need only a little more time.”
Feeling a new resolve, the Historian nodded. “We must speak to the Warlord.”
As though anticipating the Historian’s need, the old warrior arrived beside them at that moment.
“It would be well if the surrender of Rea were resolved quickly,” he rumbled. “His Phenomenal Intemperance has eaten his fill and sown his seed and will soon become impatient.”
The Historian rose to face him. “The Heretics must not surrender,” he said. “Nor must we take the city by force.”
The Warlord raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Indeed. Why not?”
“Have you considered,” said the Historian, “that the fabled alchemies of Rea are real?”
The Warlord glanced down at the Heretic, still seated near their feet. “Do you believe so?”
“I am certain of it,” said the Historian. “What of the consequences if Sumor got hold of that knowledge?”
The Warlord stroked his chin, staring out at the domes of Rea. Or if anyone else got hold of it, the Historian could imagine him thinking, other than the Warlord of Chahanesh.
“What, then,” said the Warlord, “do you propose?”
“We must allow the Heretics to escape.”
The Warlord shook his head. “Impossible. The damage to my reputation would be irreparable.”
The damage to your ambitions, you mean, thought the Historian. He said, “Not if you immediately seized power.”
“You push me into treason, Historian,” the Warlord said, his tone dangerous.
“That you were plotting already,” the Historian countered.
The Warlord growled deep in his throat. He decided quickly.
“So be it. I will endeavour to distract…” He trailed off, his gaze caught by something in the distance. Colour drained from his face. “What the..?”
Alarmed, the Historian turned to see what had shocked him so. The Heretic rose beside them.
The army of Chahanesh was on the move.
“I gave no order,” the Warlord spluttered, then bellowed, “I gave no order!”
He spun to face the royal litter and roared, “What in the name of all the Gods and Saints is going on?”
“How dare you speak to Us that way!” the King of Chahanesh shrieked. “We have ordered Our army to attack, while you were stuffing your fat face and while the Heretics think we are still negotiating!”
“Stop them!” the Heretic cried. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
“No!” The Historian restrained her as she made to push past him.
“You did this!” the Warlord thundered at the Sumoran Ambassador, ignoring both the Heretic and the Blessed Imbecile.
“We did this!” the King screamed. “We, We, We! Dare you challenge Our right?”
Everyone froze and all eyes fixed on the Warlord. The tableau held for a breathless minute. The Warlord raised his chin and drew himself up. He pointed at the King. “You: be silent, or I will have you killed this minute.” Then at the Mor. “Seize him.”
The Blessed Imbecile’s eyes bulged so far from his head the Historian thought they might actually pop out. The boy sputtered incoherently. The Ambassador submitted silently as two soldiers pushed him to the ground.
To the priests the Warlord said, “Any objections?”
As one, the clerics mutely shook their heads. The Warlord glanced at the magicians. With a slight smile, the Chancellor of the College of Magicians shook his head as well. The Warlord swept his gaze across the surrounding ranks of the Personal Guard. Not a man moved.
“Find me messengers!” the Warlord bellowed, and started firing off instructions. The soldiers who had brought the Heretics began shedding their heavier accoutrements, the better to aid their running. The magicians ran for their carpets and launched themselves skyward.
Too late, the Historian thought, as he turned again to watch the Chahanen army advance. Too late.
An instant later his fears were confirmed. A bolt of blue flame lashed out from the top of a dome and detonated amid one of the foremost regiments. Men and broken bits of men were flung into the air. The magicians responded in kind, pasting the domes with a storm of sorcerous energy. The catapults of the Imperial Engineers launched their missiles. The city retaliated with more fire. Catapults were smashed apart and flying carpets blasted out of the sky. Amongst it all, the common soldiers of Chahanesh surged forward in blind terror and were slaughtered in their hundreds.
A well-aimed spell struck a point already badly weakened on one of the domes. With a thunderous boom, the whole side of the dome collapsed inward. The leading regiments charged forward over the rubble and into the city. Moments later a second dome was punctured by a hail of stones from a catapult battery.
No metal giants from legend came out to meet the soldiers at either breach. As the minutes passed, the blue fire from the domes grew sporadic and soon ceased altogether. The Historian felt oddly and uncomfortably disappointed that the city seemed to be succumbing so easily.
A tower arose among the domes and levitated on a pillar of fire. The Historian heard a collective gasp of wonder and terror that seemed to come from every throat in the Chahanen host. With ponderous grace, the flying tower moved out over the battlefield. A trio of magicians swooped towards it on their carpets, but the great machine incinerated them all with bolts of blue, swatting them as a man might swat a fly.
The Heretic, half-forgotten at the Historian’s side while he watched the battle, turned to him and said, “I tried to warn you, though you didn’t deserve it. And you wouldn’t listen, in any case. I tried to reason with you, but you know too little of reason.
“We will not destroy you from the heavens – there is no need. You will reap the harvest of your own ignorance.”
She touched the bracelet on her wrist. The Historian stumbled back in alarm as her body started to shimmer. A soldier leapt forward and swung his sword, but the Heretic had already vanished from sight.
The burning tail of the Heretics’ flying machine blasted downward to strike the earth, vaporising a regiment at the foot of the hill on which the royal party stood. The Historian and all those around him staggered and raised their arms to protect themselves as hot air scorched their skins.
The Historian watched numbly as the flying tower rose swiftly into the sky and dwindled in the distance above.
Then the city exploded.
Hundreds of soldiers both inside and out died at once. An instant later the Historian staggered again as the blast wave hit the hilltop. He would have fallen if the Warlord had not caught his elbow. Together, they watched in horror as whole regiments broke and ran while fiery debris rained down on their heads. Terrified elephants and horses trampled fleeing soldiers underfoot in their haste to escape.
A horn sounded. The Historian felt icy fingers run down his spine: the sound had come from behind him.
Beside him, the Warlord whispered, “Ackaemenohn.”
Together, they turned to face this new threat. Dazed, they watched an ocean of mounted warriors pour down the side of the valley and fall like a tsunami upon the Chahanen rear guard. The Warlord was wrong. The newcomers were not squat, ruddy skinned Ackaemen. These warriors were tall and fair, broad and wild.
“Damn me,” the Historian said. “There must be every bloody barbarian off the plains in that lot.”
“There is an army at your back,” he recalled the Heretic’s words. She had played him like a virtuoso, he realised. She had given him every opportunity to save the situation, but the Heretics had planned for this outcome all along.
And we were all too busy stabbing each other in the back to notice the hammer about to fall on our heads. He felt a chuckle bubble up inside his throat. The Historian started to laugh.
The Warlord jerked into action. “To me! To me! Retreat!” he cried. The Personal Guards struggled to comply, frantically casting off the most inconvenient bits of their armour. The generals and priests stampeded after the Warlord.
Still laughing helplessly, the Historian saw the oldest of the MagNordain litter bearers reach out a long arm and casually break the neck of a passing guardsman. The ceremonial broadsword, so cumbersome in Chahanen hands, proved deadly when wielded by a giant such as he.
A running body bowled the Historian off his feet. He landed face down, the impact knocking both the wind and the hysteria out of him. Sprawled on his stomach, he watched while the other litter bearers armed themselves and set about the fleeing Chahanen soldiers. He watched the Gar slave pounce on top of the Sumoran Ambassador and beat him to death with his fists. He watched the halfling body slaves leap upon the King of Chahanesh and tear the screaming wretch apart.
The Historian buried his face in the grass and wished for a quick and painless death.
An eternity later, a foot shoved under his ribs and tipped him unceremoniously onto his back. He looked up into the grinning, blood-spattered face of the newly liberated MagNordain chieftain. The other former slaves stood behind him, united in that moment by hatred of their former masters. The giant pointed at the Historian with his bloody sword and said in accented Chahanen, “You are storyteller, yes?”
“I am an Historian, yes,” he managed in response.
“Ha!” The barbarian reached down and grabbed him by the front of his robe. With no apparent effort, he lifted the Historian to his feet.
Sweeping the field with an extravagant gesture, the giant said, “Then write this his-story, storyteller.”
MagNordain horsemen thundered past on either side of the hill, their great shaggy mounts bearing them towards the last remnants of the army of Chahanesh, gathered forlornly around the Warlord’s banner.
In the distance, a thick column of black smoke billowed up from the shattered ruins of Rea. The Historian looked skyward. The Heretics were gone, leaving the rest of them to flounder in the dirt.
“Write this history,” the giant said again.
“So, with its dying gasp, once-mighty Chahanesh drives the Heretics of Rea from the world. And from its ashes arises a new empire…”
Ian McHugh, (c) 2006