Authors: Col Buchanan
For my brothers
The good man and the evil man are
but one man, standing as
shadow between day and night.
The Shining Way
It was like being at sea, this plain of grasses that stretched to the brink of the horizon and beyond; the eyes filled with sky wherever they looked. In the milky brightness of day the twin moons hung lonely and high, the smaller of the two a pale white, the larger a pale blue, each cupped in darkness and clearly spherical in form; reminders, to any observer with knowledge or imagination, that the world of Er
s too was a monstrous ball tumbling through the nothingness, and that they were spinning with it.
‘Thank the Fool there’s no wind today,’ remarked Kosh, sitting poised in the saddle of his prized war-zel. ‘I haven’t the stomach for another burning.’
‘Nor I,’ replied Ash, and tore his gaze from the far moons, blinking as though returning to himself and the world of man. The air lay thick and hot today, shimmering above the stubby grasses that stretched between the two armies. The heat waves were causing the dark, glittering massif of enemy riders to loom with an unreal closeness.
Ash clucked his tongue as his own zel tossed its head again, jittery. He was a lesser rider than Kosh, and his zel was young and still untested. Ash had not given this one a name yet. His previous mount, old Asa, had fallen with a ruptured heart in their last skirmish just east of Car; a day in which the smell of roasting meat had hung like a pall above their fighting, while the enemy Yashi were burned alive in the great wind-driven conflagration Ash and his comrades had sent gusting into their ranks. Later, his soot-stained face streaked with tears, he had mourned for his dead zel as much as for his comrades fallen that day.
Ash bent forward and stroked his young zel’s neck with a gloved hand.
Look at that pair
, he tried to communicate to the animal by thought alone, eying the still form of Kosh and his trusted mount.
See how proud they look together
The young zel skipped once on its hind legs.
‘Easy, boy,’ Ash soothed, still stroking the muscular neck of the animal, flattening the grain of its coarse hair, black as pitch between the bands of white. At last the zel began to settle, began to snort the fear from its lungs and calm itself.
Leather creaked as Ash straightened in his saddle. Beside him, Kosh uncorked a waterskin and took a long drink. He gasped and wiped his mouth dry. ‘I could do with something a little stronger,’ he complained, and pointedly offered none to Ash. Instead he tossed it back to his son, his battlesquire, standing barefoot next to him.
‘You’re still sore at that?’ asked Ash.
‘You could have left me some, is all I’m saying.’
Ash grunted, leaned between their mounts to spit upon the ground. Blades of tindergrass popped and crackled as they absorbed the sudden moisture. It was the same all across the plain; a constant background noise could be heard – like uncooked rice raining down on far shingles, as the secretions of the two armies wrought a chorus of similar minute reactions from the grasses beneath their feet.
He looked right, over the head of his own son and battlesquire Lin, the boy standing there in his usual quiet absorption. Along the line, other mounts were prancing edgily beneath their riders’ attentions. The zels could smell the enemy war-panthers in the odd scrap of breeze, leashed within the distant ranks facing them in this nameless spot in the Sea of Wind and Grasses.
The People’s Revolutionary Army were outnumbered today. But then they were always outnumbered, a fact that hadn’t stopped them from learning how to win against an enemy overly reliant on grumbling conscripts and the established hierarchical forms of warfare as laid out in the ancient Venerable Treatise of War. Today, the confidence of the old campaigners was apparent as they waited for the fighting to begin. This was it, they all knew, the big throw of the die; everything that either side could muster had been committed to this final confrontation.
A cry rose up and spread along the ranks; General Osh
, leader of the Shining Way, cantering on his pure black zel, Chancer, past the lines of the Wing, the men who today would anchor the left flank of the main formation. A lance bobbed upright in his hand, a red flag trailing from it above the dust that coiled from his mount’s hooves. An image was stitched across the cloth: one-eyed Ninshi, protectress of the dispossessed. It was snapping and fluttering like a flame.
rode with the easy grace of a man taking an early morning ride for the pleasure of it, as confident as the rest of the veterans of the Wing. Their strategy for this battle was a sound one, and it had been proposed by General Nisan himself, overall leader of the army and military hero of the revolution. They had voted overwhelmingly in its favour when the army had held its general assembly during the night.
With the main body of their forces acting as bait for the overwhelming numbers of enemy Pulses, and with feints to the flanks designed to entangle the overlords’ predictable Swan’s Wings, the real killing stroke would be delivered by the heavy cavalry of General Shin’s Wing, the Black Stars, hidden in the long grasses to the south-west, directly behind the position of the Shining Way. With every Wing of the enemy engaged and ensnared in the action, they would sweep around long and fast, and in all the confusion take the centre of the enemy from behind, hoping to create the type of rout they had seen countless times before.
‘Today is the day, brothers!’ General Osh
roared with passion. ‘Today is the day!’
Men raised lances and hollered as he passed by. Even Ash, not one for outward displays of enthusiasm, felt a rousing of pride as the men cheered and pumped their fists in reply. His son was one of them.
A plume of dust rose around the general as he drew his war-zel to a halt. With dancing steps he turned the mount to face the far ranks of the enemy. At the sight of them the zel snorted and swiped its tail. Together, Osh
and Chancer waited as silence fell.
‘By the Fool’s balls I hope he’s right,’ grumbled Kosh with a nod to their charismatic leader. ‘It’s time we brought these boys home to their mothers, don’t you think?’
It was a question hardly needing a reply.
Around them, ranging through the ranks, the daojos whipped at the rumps of zels and shouted for the men to draw tighter in their formations, reminding them of their orders and the basic preparations for the fight.
‘I hear the overlords offered a casket of diamonds to any general willing to turn tail.’
Ash flicked a grassfly from his cheek. ‘
. When haven’t they tried to buy us out? Today is hardly different.’
‘Ah. But today is the day.’
They both chuckled, their throats hoarse from the smoke of the pipes and the campfires of the night before.
It was true, what Ash had said. In the early days of the revolution, when the People’s Revolutionary Army was little more than a rag-tag force lacking confidence, cohesion or any notable victories to call its own, the overlords had offered each fighter in the army a small fortune in unchipped diamonds if they would desert to the other side.
Some had defected to the overlords’ ranks – a great number in fact. But those who had refused the offer, who remained to fight on despite the sudden impossibility of their position, had found an unexpected strength in their collective refusal to sell out to those who would own and exploit it all. Amongst the ranks, where many had become demoralized by hunger, bitter losses, and the constant threats of capture or death, a renewal of spirit came upon them all, a sense of righteous brotherhood. It was the true beginning of the cause. From that time onwards, slowly but surely, they had begun to turn back the tide.
‘It does feel like an end to things, don’t you think?’ Kosh asked.
‘One way or the other,’ Ash replied, glancing down at his son.
Lin was unaware of his scrutiny. The boy supported the upright bundle of spare lances in his hands, and the spare wicker shield upon his back. His eyes were wide with a fourteen-year-old’s sense of wonder. Specks of reflected sunlight shone in his dark pupils, the whites bloodshot from the heavy drinking of the night before. The boy had sat up late around one of the campfires, joking and throat-singing with the older battlesquires of their Wing.
A different person, Ash now thought, to the half-starved urchin who had stumbled into their base-camp two years ago, having run away to join his father as his battlesquire. The boy’s bare feet had been shredded from a trek that most grown men would have baulked at.
And for what? For the love and respect of a father who could no longer tolerate the sight of him.
Ash felt a sudden kindling of pain in his chest; a sense of overwhelming shame. In that moment he felt the need to touch his son, to reassure him with the press of a hand, as he had with the zel a few moments before. He lifted his gloved hand from the pommel of the saddle and reached out with it.
Lin glanced up. Ash gazed down upon the heavy brows and the turned-up nose that reminded him so much of the boy’s mother, and of her family, whom he’d grown so much to despise. Features that seemed not in any way to be his own.