Out of The Ashes – Chapter 8

[THE CLANS SEEK RESHANESE PATRONAGE. WHAT IS YOUR REPLY?]

“Good luck, Ambassador,” you say. “You’ll need it.”

Ambassador Yesui gives you an amused look. “There is no luck in my line of work. Only opportunity. Those who seize it prosper, and those who let it slip…” she trails off, then changes the subject. “I find it strange that an enemy would wish me well.”

You shrug. “As strange as an enemies sitting at the same table and having a pleasant conversation?”

Yesui smiles. “Just so.”

“If today’s ally may be tomorrow’s enemy,” Adrian cuts in, “perhaps the reverse can be true as well.”

Zhenjin’s face clouds over, and Yesui’s other bodyguards begin to mutter angrily. “You would have us be allies? After what your people have inflicted on mine? After–”

“Zhenjin,” Yesui says warningly. He shoots you an incensed look, but falls silent. “My bodyguard has no tact, but he speaks truth. Your people have wronged us greatly–” she raises a hand to forestall Adrian’s rebuttal. “–and we have wronged you in turn.”

“I cannot dispute that,” you say, “but–”

Yesui shakes her head slowly. “It is not so easy to forgive, Knight of Imvarr. It is not so easy to forget.”

You nod. “One of the first Knights wrote: ‘The tree of violence grows swift and strong; its roots gorge themselves with blood. But its branches cast a dark shadow, and it bears only bitter fruit.

The tree of mercy is delicate and fragile; it must be tended with care, kept safe from worms and rot and frost. But its blossoms are fragrant, its fruit is rich and sweet.’ ”

“I would not have thought to hear this from a warrior,” Yesui says.

You nod again. “A lord commands,” you say. “A general directs. A soldier fights and kills. But a surgeon saves those that can be saved, and eases the passing of those who cannot. All place a different value on life, and I cannot say who is right or wrong.”

Out of the corner of your eye, you see Lord Anselm and Lady Jin returning from their meeting with Reshan’s Finance Minister. Your superior looks inordinately pleased with himself, your host wary, and the black-robed Minister looks like someone who’s been convinced to do something unpleasant.

“Ambassador!” Lord Anselm says brightly. “Good to see you at our table. Is something the matter?”

“I was hoping to discuss the river tariffs,” Yesui says without preamble. “Nine parts in a hundred?”

“Nine? They’ll have my head on a pike,” your superior shoots back, sitting down and pulling a plate towards him. “Twelve, and I’ll put in a good word with the new Duke…”

~~

Zhenjin’s ire subsides as Ambassador Yesui wheedles Lord Anselm down to one part in ten, and he begins to move restlessly as they make small talk. You watch him impassively in case he tries anything, but he doesn’t seem to have violence on his mind. In fact…

“Is there something you want to say to me?” you ask Zhenjin. He has promised you a tale – perhaps he means to tell it now?

“Yes,” he says, and the conversations die down. “I will tell it now, if there are no objections.” He looks around the table for approval, then clears his throat.

“It was at Krakov,” he begins, and you know who he is talking about.

“Sixteen,” you say. “His name was Johannes.”

Zhenjin’s lips are a thin line as he gazes over your shoulder and into the past, putting a name to the face of his past opponent. Then eyes harden, and the young man steels himself against the unwanted connection. “You knew him?”

You nod. Then: “Tell me how he died. I will bring your tale back to the Order, so his successor may learn the truth.”

Zhenjin’s nod is jerky. Out of the corner of your eye, Yesui’s gaze flickers to your face for a moment. Then she coughs and looks away, and Zhenjin obliges.

“It was Krakov where I first fought one of your kind,” he says again. “Where we first learnt that Knights could be killed.” He leans back slightly, casting his gaze about the table. “How much do you know?”

“I am told it was a battle of some import,” Lady Jin says with a shrug. “Heavy losses on both sides, but eventual victory for the clans.”

Yesui nods. “Overwhelming victory in the field – our first – followed by a six-month siege. An Imvarri army dead, along with two Knights.”

“A city razed,” Adrian growls. “Its inhabitants put to the sword.” Yesui’s bodyguards bristle at the accusation in his words, but decorum keeps them in check.

“Unfortunate. But – alas – all too common in war.” Lord Anselm leans back in his seat, ignoring Adrian’s look of betrayal. “Forty-Seven?” he asks.

“I was there,” you say, and you remember.

~~

You remember the disastrous rout; the Second Army caught on the march just as it left Krakov – a volley of arrows followed by a wedge of elite troops and heavy cavalry punching through Lord-Commander Gregor’s weakened center, splitting the army in half and encircling its thirty thousand soldiers to be butchered like sheep.

Then signal banners wavering over the carnage for brief moments, standard-bearers fighting tooth and nail for a few more seconds to pass on the Lord-Commander’s last message:

Retreat.

A desperate push for freedom, agonized screams tearing through the air behind you; some are cut off by choked gurgling, others go on and on and on…

Columns of panicking men and women struggling to maintain formation at a dead sprint, slipping and sliding in the mud while arrows fall like hissing rain and howling half-men tear into the rear…

But Imvarri discipline holds. Your force takes grievous losses, dozens of men dying in agony for every foot of ground you take, but they fix their eyes on your back as you cut through the encircling clansmen, carving a path to salvation with steel and fire.

Nothing stands in your way for more than a moment, enemy rank-and-file fleeing in the face of inevitability – a pack of shapeshifters hurls themselves into the melee in a cacophony of howls and roars; a cumulative ton of feral strength and bestial fury seeking your death, but you cut them apart in the blink of an eye.

A spearhead of grim-faced soldiers widens your breach for their comrades to pass, and your ragged division tears its way out of the killing field step by bloody step. The few surviving mages churn the soil and mud behind the rearguard into quicksand, stymieing your enemy’s pursuit.

After what feels like an eternity, a ragged cheer goes up from the Imvarri as you break out of the encirclement, the last enemies finally breaking and scattering. The city of Krakov sits barely a mile ahead of you, its walls the only safe haven within a day’s travel.

But you have so few soldiers left – two thousand, if your eyes can still be trusted – and more clansmen are surely be on their way. A competent commander would send shapeshifters and cavalry to catch up to you before all two thousand men can find shelter in the city, and the Khagan is nothing if not competent.

A full retreat is suicide, you think. We won’t get everyone into the city in time, and the enemy will attack when Krakov’s gates open to let us through. If we fight and lose, they’ll take the city in a day.

You traverse the length of the column, loping past exhausted troops in an attempt to consult a surviving officer on strategy, but your efforts are in vain. Not a single red armband remains – it seems the clansmen focused on finishing off the chain of command after killing mages.

Two thousand is not nearly enough, you think as your soldiers stumble and limp past you, too tired to do anything but put one foot in front of another. Ten thousand would not be enough.

You consider your options, then make your decision…

~~

WHAT DID YOU CHOOSE?
1. [Sacrifice. You bought time with the lives of your soldiers. Five hundred men and women in ambush a distance from the city walls were no match for the best warriors the plains had to offer, but they blunted the Khagan’s advance enough for you to evacuate everyone else.]

2. [Endurance. You organized a fighting withdrawal into Krakov. The Khagan hammered your forces between his elite troops and the anvil of the city gates, but you held your ground in the face of heavy losses. Imvarri steel may bend, but it does not break easily.]

3. [Aggression. You feigned retreat, then fell upon your pursuers. The Khagan’s elite soldiers were deadly and swift, but in their minds they had already won. After all, how much fight could a routed foe possibly put up?]

~~

“–we cut down almost all the Imvarri, but the Alukhai and Tariat were too eager for glory and spoils. Their ranks thinned, and they let a handful of soldiers escape,” Zhenjin is saying. “Four– five thousand?”

“Closer to five,” you say. “Two thousand from the western pocket, a little more than two and a half from the east. The eastern breakout was able to pull away and flee. Those from the west… not so much.”

The clansman nods. “I heard the tales of your flight,” he says. “The Khagan sent sixty of his finest warriors and ten thousand men to bar your path to the city, but they returned without success.”

You remain silent.

“Truly, a cornered foe is capable of anything,” Zhenjin continues, and you can tell from his grimace that the words are bitter on his tongue.

Lady Jin nods. “A trapped beast will gnaw its own leg off to gain freedom; a man can escape almost any snare, if he has wits and strength and composure in equal measure.”

“Beyond that,” Lord Anselm says, “killing the hunter tends to be a valid – if somewhat more bloodthirsty – option.”

I did what was necessary, you think. I did what I had to–

Yesui interrupts your thoughts. “Those of my people who fought at Krakov have a name for you,” she says. “For all three of you. They call the archer Khar Sumnuud, the assassin Olon Sün. Black Arrow and Hungry Ghost.”

She pauses for a moment. Looks you up and down, gaze keen and appraising and just the slightest bit wary.

“They call you Yargachin,” she says finally. “Butcher.”

You incline your head in acceptance as Zhenjin continues his tale. War is war, after all.

~~

Zhenjin’s tale of the siege is, unsurprisingly, a grim one. Taking a city tends to be as messy and lethal as it is long, especially one as well defended as Krakov.

“The defenders refused to surrender, so we camped a third of a mile away from the city walls,” he says. “Far enough to keep us safe from the stone-hurlers, but not far enough for Khar Sumnuud. Two hundred dead on the first day – pack leaders, shamans, medicine-bearers, picked off one by one. Strong warriors or wise healers, youthful or battle-hardened, brave or cowardly… all dead the same way.”

Zhenjin purses his lips and whistles, and Yesui’s bodyguards begin to fidget.

“First a faint whistle getting louder and louder. Then–”

He claps his hands abruptly, and the bodyguards jump and shoot him reproachful looks.

“Another one gone,” he says, scowling. “Just like that. No honor in their deaths – not even the chance of retaliation. We moved the camp three times, back and back and back. But we were never far enough, and could not retreat further without dangerously thinning our lines. So we grit our teeth and watched good men and women die as we felled trees and dug into the earth to form the circumvallation – watchtowers and barracks ringing a ten-foot earthen wall.”

You remember Thirty-Five casually loosing arrow after arrow from the city walls. “It’s like killing ants,” she’d said. “No matter how many you squash, there are a thousand more.”

Zhenjin goes on:

“We completed the wall six days and nine hundred men later. It should have taken us two weeks, but we worked ourselves to the bone. We would be safe once it was up, after all.

Olon Sün had been busy, as it turned out. The night the earthworks were complete and we toasted our success, he slit four dozen throats – medicine men, experienced fighters, pack leaders… important men and women whose loss would be felt most keenly.

From then on, his targets slept together, packed into great tents ringed with keen-nosed shapeshifters. But Olon Sün never so much as tested the sentries.

He knew we couldn’t guard everything at once, so he switched to sabotage. No-one so much as caught a glimpse of him in action – all we ever saw was the trail of destruction he left behind: siege engines and tents in flames, food and water laced with slow-acting poison that took its toll over weeks…”

The plainsman grins.

“Then he slipped up. We held a clandestine meeting of most of the surviving medicine-men – the bait was too tempting for him to pass up. He was expecting four or five shapeshifters, maybe eight at most, but we had two dozen lying in wait.

We fell upon him when he tried to silence the sentries – his ungodly power made him almost invisible in the dim light, but we sniffed him out and tore him to pieces.”

Zhenjin pauses for a moment, then continues: “For what it’s worth, Olon Sün went down fighting. He killed six of us, and left me with this.” He pulls at his collar, revealing a jagged scar across one side of his neck and part of his chest.

“I… see,” you say. “He…”

What else do I say? You wonder, a vague sense of unease crawling up your spine. What do I say in memory of a fellow warrior who gave his life in battle? What do I say to his killer?

What will they say about me?

“He will be missed,” you say at last.

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