A scream came from the depths of the canyon.
General Wulf Rome held up a hand and the forty mounted soldiers strung out on the ridge behind him came to a halt. He stared down into the narrow canyon and swore softly.
“So they got Myles after all,” he said bleakly. Myles was their scout. Rome turned to look at the man riding behind him. Tall and lean, with a narrow, hatchet face and a perpetually sour look, Quyloc was his oldest friend. They’d grown up in the slums of Qarath together and they’d joined the army together, more than fifteen years ago. “Now they’re using him as bait to draw the rest of us into their ambush.”
Quyloc didn’t meet his gaze. He wasn’t much for direct eye contact. “It’s what I would do.”
Which was true. Quyloc was ruthless. When it came to a fight, all that mattered was winning, whatever it took.
The canyon was a sharp gash cut deep into the sandstone, sheer cliffs making it inaccessible for most of its length. But below them the cliffs had collapsed, providing a way in, though a treacherous one that was little more than a long scree slope of loose stones. A turn in the canyon made it impossible to see the wounded man.
Behind them the other soldiers sat their mounts uneasily, their heads turning, eyes moving, watching. Towering sandstone buttes and mesas in every direction. They were three days deep in Crodin territory. Every man there knew the axe was going to fall. It was just a matter of when.
There was another scream from the depths of the canyon, fading slowly.
“What do you think, Quyloc?” Rome asked.
Quyloc shrugged. “We go back.”
“I can’t do that,” Rome said. “You know what the Crodin do to their prisoners.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I’ve fought beside the man, Quyloc. I led him in here. I can’t just leave him to die. You know that.”
“So do they,” Quyloc replied. He gave Rome a sidelong glance, then quickly turned his face away.
“We’re going in.” Rome turned in the saddle and spoke to the men he led. “Look sharp.” Some faces registered fear, but on most there was only resignation mixed with bleak approval. Each man there knew if he was in Myles’ place, he’d want Rome to make the same decision. Not only that, he’d count on it. Rome took care of his men.
Rome drew the battle axe that hung on his saddle and started down into the canyon, his horse picking its way carefully through the loose rock. He entered the canyon knowing that the orders he followed, the orders that sent him deep into enemy territory with an insufficient force, were not about running down one troublesome band of Crodin raiders. No, those orders were all about making sure one man died.
And that man was Wulf Rome.
╬ ╬ ╬
The orders had come in just days ago to the dusty little outpost Rome commanded. He’d paced the tiny room that was his office, cursing, while Quyloc read the orders aloud. He was to lead his meager force of men in pursuit of Trakar Cornash and his band of raiders. They were to kill Cornash and send his head back to the king in Qarath. No matter what it took. Failure was not an option.
“So that’s it, then.” Quyloc set the orders down on Rome’s desk. “Rix is finally getting rid of you.” He said nothing else and he kept his face expressionless, but nevertheless Rome saw something—or thought he did—and he set his jaw stubbornly.
“Go ahead and say it. You know you want to.”
“Say what?” Quyloc took out the long dagger he always wore on his belt and picked at his fingernails.
“Say I told you so.”
Quyloc’s gaze flicked to Rome, then away. Rome had his fists bunched and that glint he got in his eye when he was feeling belligerent.
“Just say it. We’ll both feel better.”
Quyloc gave in. There was no arguing with Rome when he got like this. “Okay. I told you so.”
With the words some of the steam went out of Rome and he sat down at his desk and put his head in his hands. “You were right. I should have listened to you. You told me to keep my mouth shut, but I didn’t. And now men, my men, are going to die on this suicide mission.”
Quyloc put his knife away.
“I just couldn’t help myself. You know how I get.”
“Yes, Rome. I know how you get.”
“It wasn’t right!” Rome exploded, slapping the desk top with one thick hand. Rome was a big man, only a little bit shorter than Quyloc, but broad through the chest and thickly muscled, and the table jumped when he hit it. “It’s still not right.”
Quyloc clasped his hands behind his back.
“They sit there in their fancy chairs wearing their gold and silk and they talk about war and killing like it’s this noble, glorious game.”
Quyloc sat down in the room’s other chair. He’d heard this rant many times. It would take a while.
“It’s so easy for them,” Rome continued. “It’s not their blood being spilled, is it?” He glowered at Quyloc.
“No. It’s not.”
“Was I just supposed to do nothing?”
“It’s what most people do.”
“Well I’m not made like that.”
“I just couldn’t sit there and say nothing, Quyloc. Surely you can see that.”
Quyloc sighed. “Did it make any difference, Rome? Did anything change?”
Rome slumped in his chair.
╬ ╬ ╬
On the day in question Rome was summoned to a meeting with King Rix, his chief advisors, and a handful of the most powerful nobles.
Rome hated those meetings. They were one of the worst parts about his rank. Full of overdressed, preening bootlickers. None of them, aside from Rome, had a lick of real military experience. All of them came from wealth and privilege.
Rome had risen to general two years earlier, when Qarath was embroiled in yet another of the seemingly endless wars against Thrikyl, her neighbor to the south. Thrikyl was winning that war. They broke the gates of Qarath and they were pouring into the city in a flood when Rome rallied the broken Qarathian army and drove the invaders out. The city witnessed the act and her citizens raised Rome to the status of legend overnight. King Rix had no choice but to promote Rome to general, though he clearly hated doing so.
When Rome got the summons he was on the practice field drilling his men. He handed his practice axe to the sergeant and went straight away, not bothering to change clothes or clean up. The order came and he answered it. It was who he was.
The contempt in the nobles’ eyes when he entered the opulent room in the palace was palpable. They resented the rise of this commoner into their ranks. Eyes rolled and noses wrinkled as they held perfumed kerchiefs to their faces. Rome had a thick beard and wild, bushy black hair that seemed to sprout everywhere. He’d been sweating and he stank. He knew that and he didn’t care. Offending their delicate sensibilities was one small way for him to jab them back. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t make up for the hundred petty humiliations they visited on him whenever they could, but it was something.
There was no chair for him, of course, so he stood against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, as Rix began to speak.
“We are going to war with Thrikyl,” Rix said without preamble.
The nobles smiled. They congratulated the king and each other. There was talk of reclaiming Qarath’s honor, talk of glory to be earned.
Every bit of it sickened Rome. Not a man there would actually face another man across a blade. They would command from the rear as they always did, looking like brightly colored birds in their useless, cumbersome, ornate armor and weapons, watching as real soldiers and conscripts died.
As a soldier, Rome understood that soldiers died. But he hated when they died for no reason. Suddenly, he had had enough.
“What is it this time, Rix?” he growled, pushing away from the wall and advancing on them. He did not miss the way they shied away from him. Though he carried no weapon, his armor spoke of heavy use and calculated violence.
“Did his ambassador fail to bow low enough in the court? Or are you just bored with your wives?”
The room went deathly still while King Rix’s color slowly turned from white to purple. “What did you just say to me?” he said in a strangled voice.
“You heard me,” Rome said harshly. He was surprised to feel a twinge of regret. He should have listened to Quyloc. This wasn’t going to change anything and there would be a heavy price to pay. But it was too late now. He was committed and he might as well go through with it. “You sit here and talk of war and glory. You know as well as I do that the walls of Thrikyl will not fall, but a lot of men will. Men with families to feed. If you want a war so bad, why don’t you go fight?”
“I should have you arrested right now,” Rix managed to spit out. “Publicly executed at dawn.”
“You could try,” Rome replied, once again calm. He didn’t lose his temper easily, but once he did, he got it back quickly. He looked at the guards who were edging closer as he spoke. They hesitated visibly and turned questioning looks to the king.
Shaking with suppressed emotion, Rix raised one hand, the order on his lips. But the order didn’t come and slowly he regained control of himself. Every man in the room knew what would happen if he tried to have Rome publicly executed. There would be riots in the streets. The army itself might turn on him.
“This is not done,” Rix said at last.
“No,” Rome agreed.
╬ ╬ ╬
Rome and his men were halfway down the side of the steep canyon when the first arrows struck their line. The first volley targeted the horses and better than half went down, crushing men beneath them, knocking down others. Chaos reigned. Those men who got free of their horses found themselves fighting uphill against a surefooted enemy who was unencumbered by armor. Another volley of arrows and more men went down. Then the Crodin charged, stabbing with their spears.
Rome’s horse went down in the second volley, an arrow sticking out of its neck right behind the jaw. Two warriors came at Rome with eager cries as he fell. Eagerness turned to surprise as Rome rolled and came to his feet faster than they expected. The axe hissed and the first Crodin fell back, his chest spouting blood. Rome shifted to strike the other one but a rock slid under his foot and he slipped. As he went down he threw up the axe, just blocking the nomad’s spear thrust.
The nomad’s next thrust glanced off Rome’s chest plate, buying him a moment that was all he needed. He swung the axe and took the man just below the knee. Bone crunched and the man went down with a scream. Rome got up, slipped on the loose stone again, almost lost his balance, recovered, ducked a spear thrust and brought the axe around in a deadly sweep. The axe bit deep into flesh and bone.
He caught a glimpse of Quyloc to his right. Unlike the rest of the Qarathian soldiers, Quyloc wore no armor and on his feet were leather moccasins instead of heavy boots. His movements were swift and sure on the steep hillside. A Crodin stabbed at him with his spear but Quyloc slid easily to the side, letting the thrust go by. Quick as a striking snake, his right hand snapped out, grabbing the spear. He jerked the man forward and killed him with the short sword in his other hand.
A Crodin howled and leapt down onto Rome. Rome twisted just enough to make the spear thrust skip off his armor, then simply bear-hugged the smaller man and let his momentum carry them both down the hill. He swiveled as they fell so that the Crodin was on the bottom and was rewarded with the sound of cracking ribs. He smashed a gauntleted fist into the man’s throat, crushing his windpipe, and got back to his feet.
This was a fight they couldn’t win. Only a handful of the Qarathian soldiers were still on their feet. They were outnumbered and fighting uphill against a foe with maneuverability and footing on his side.
“Fall back!” Rome roared, his voice easily cutting through the din. “Down the hill!”
A spear thrust came from the side, too fast for him to dodge even if he did have somewhere to set his feet. So he just let go and fell backwards.
He tumbled and slid halfway down the hill before he slammed up against a boulder hard enough that he thought the sudden hot burst of pain in his chest might be a broken rib. Other than Quyloc, the rest did no better. Only nine Qarathians survived to make it to the canyon floor.
╬ ╬ ╬
“Why aren’t they coming after us?” Fouts asked. He was an older man who walked with a limp. There was blood on his face and he’d lost his helmet. The surviving soldiers were standing in the bottom of the canyon. Only one horse was still alive. The Crodin were still up on the hillside, amongst the bodies of men and horses.
“They don’t have to,” Quyloc replied. “Look.”
They could see down the canyon now. Lying in the bottom a short way further on was the body of Myles, blood running from the gaping wound in his throat. A Crodin warrior was scaling a cliff out of the canyon, a bow strung over one shoulder, his knife in his teeth.
But that wasn’t what made the soldiers stand and stare, a sick feeling growing inside each one. It was what lay further on, where the canyon ended.
Endless, towering ranks of bleached red and orange sand dunes.
The Gur al Krin.
“Oh, god,” Darin muttered. He was a thin, nervous youth with a meager beard. “We’re going to die here.”
“Not yet we’re not,” Rome said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Take a look up the canyon. See if there’s a way out that way.” He already knew there wasn’t. The Crodin had planned their trap too well. But it would give Darin something to do and they needed to know all their options.
Darin took off up the canyon, looking anxiously up at the Crodin as he went. It was a long shot for a bow, but not an impossible one. However, the nomads were just standing there, watching.
Rome walked over to Quyloc, who was still looking down the canyon. “It looks like they’re just going to wait us out.”
Quyloc made no reply. He was staring intently at the dunes.
Quyloc shook himself and turned to Rome. “What did you say?”
“It looks like we can either wait down here and die of thirst—” Most of their water was still tied to their dead horses. “—or we can charge uphill at an enemy we won’t even get close to.”
Quyloc looked up the steep hillside at the Crodin. They still hadn’t moved. Then he looked back at the dunes. “Or we go out into the Krin,” he said softly.
Rome looked out at the dunes. It seemed he could feel their heat from here. “How long do you think we’ll last out there?”
“Not long,” Quyloc replied. “But all we have to do is get out of sight. Then we can circle back, come out where they don’t expect.”
“But won’t they just follow us? Kill us out there?”
Something cold and contemptuous crossed Quyloc’s face. “Not a chance.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Pirnu.” Pirnu was a ragged old Crodin who lived at the Qarathian outpost, earning his keep by occasionally tracking for the Qarathians. Quyloc had spent a lot of time talking to him. “The Crodin fear the Gur al Krin. It is where their god, Gomen nai, lives, and he hates them. They won’t go there.”
“You’re sure of that?”
But Quyloc had already turned away and was once again staring out into the dunes as if entranced. It almost seemed to Rome as if he was listening to something. Rome had to grab his shoulder to get his attention. “I asked you if you’re sure.”
Quyloc scowled and there was an edge to his voice when he replied. “Of course I’m sure. I wouldn’t have said it if I wasn’t.” He shoved Rome’s hand off his shoulder. “It’s not like we have a lot of choices.”
Rome had to agree with him there. He stared out at the dunes, wondering at the irrational fear that welled up inside him at the thought of going in there. Maybe the Crodin god did live in there. “It would be better if we waited for dark. We don’t have much water.”
“If they let us wait,” Quyloc replied.
The Crodin were nocking arrows and beginning to move down the hillside. Rome looked around. There was no cover here in the bottom of the canyon and they didn’t have a bow among them, another item still tied on the dead horses. The Crodin could just pick them off at their leisure.
“All right,” he said, coming to a decision. He turned to the surviving soldiers. “We’re going into the Krin.” He started unbuckling his chest plate.
“Lose the armor,” Quyloc told them. “It’s not going to help you where we’re going, but it might just get you killed faster.”
“Uh, sir, what about the firestorms?” asked Linul, a stout man who was sweating badly. His eyes were wide and there was a tremor in his voice. “Pirnu says sklath live in the desert. They spin the sand into tornadoes and then the tornadoes burn.”
“That’s just something he says to scare you,” Rome replied. “Right, Quyloc?”
Quyloc shrugged. “Who knows better than the Crodin what goes on in the Gur al Krin?” Only the Crodin lived near the mighty desert. The only thing in the Gur al Krin was the dead city of Kaetria, long since buried by the sands.
Rome stepped in close to Quyloc and lowered his voice. “That’s not helping,” he growled.
Quyloc shrugged again. “If they’re scared, let them stay here and die. I’m going into the desert.”
Their armor shed, the Qarathians started for the dunes. That was when a strange thing happened. The Crodin fell to their knees and began wailing, their hands held up to the sky.
“Why are they doing that?” Fouts asked.
“They think we’re going to die,” Quyloc said, ignoring a warning look from Rome. “Maybe they’re praying for us.”
╬ ╬ ╬
As hot as they’d been before, it was nothing compared to the heat they encountered when they took their first steps out onto the sand. It was early afternoon and the dunes were a forge, though it was winter time. Heat radiated at them from all sides and the sand was so hot they could feel it through their boots.
Right away a high dune blocked their way and they started up it, but each step filled their boots with sand and for every two steps up, they slid back one. Quyloc alone seemed unaffected, practically skimming along the surface of the sand. He reached the top of the dune before the others were halfway up and he stood there, looking into the distance.
When he started to walk down the far side Rome called out to him to wait, and though he did, Rome could sense his impatience. It was like the man wanted to go into the desert. It made no sense to Rome, but then much of what Quyloc did made no sense to him.
Quyloc had never been like the other soldiers in the army. When the others took their pay and headed out to drink and whore, Quyloc stayed behind, reading one of the books that he always seemed to be able to acquire. The simple fact that he could read at all was basically unheard of amongst the mass of illiterate soldiers. That he chose to waste his money and time reading made him incomprehensible to them. When he wasn’t reading, he was pumping strangers for information, plying them with ale, gathering old stories and lost legends.
Rome had asked him about it more than once. What was he looking for? Quyloc always replied the same. “You already have everything, Rome,” he’d say. “There’s no way for you to understand.”
When Rome got to the top of the dune, he walked over to Quyloc. “I’m thinking we walk along the top of this dune for a while, maybe drop off the far side a bit so they can’t see us. Then, we find some place to sit down and wait for it to get dark.” He waited, but Quyloc didn’t respond. He was staring into the heart of the desert, seemingly lost in thought. “Are you listening to me?” he asked finally.
“Can you hear it?” Quyloc asked. “I hear something out there.” He frowned. “It’s a voice…I think.”
“Hear what?” Rome listened. He could hear the men laboring up the dune behind them, but that was it. “I don’t hear anything.”
Quyloc’s mouth quirked with an odd smile. “Maybe it’s meant for me.”
“Maybe what’s meant for you? What’s wrong with you?”
Quyloc gave him a scathing look, but said nothing. Rome walked back to see how the others were doing. Fouts’ wound was still bleeding. The man was practically crawling up the dune. Rome didn’t know how much longer he’d make it. He went back down and helped him make it the rest of the way to the top. Once they were all on top of the dune, Rome saw that Quyloc was gone. Muttering a curse, Rome went to look for him. Quyloc had already made it down the far side of the dune and was starting into a gap between two other dunes that led deeper into the Gur al Krin. Yelling had no effect. Either Quyloc couldn’t hear him, or he was choosing not to.
“What now, sir?” asked Linul. He was pale and breathing hard.
For a moment Rome wanted to just let Quyloc go. But he knew he couldn’t. The two men had been through too much together. Rome couldn’t just leave him out here in the desert to die.
He looked back the way they’d come. The Crodin warriors were arrayed along the top of the canyon, staring out at them. If he and the others just walked along the top of the dune, the Crodin would simply mirror them. They might be able to slip by them once it got dark, but that still left them deep in Crodin territory and outnumbered. The smart thing to do was go deep enough into the dunes so that they were out of sight, then cut one way or the other and circle back around.
“We’re going after him,” Rome said. “We have to get deep enough into the Krin that the Crodin can’t see us.”
The men didn’t like it, but they could see the Crodin as well as he could, so they fell in behind him with only a minimum of grumbling. By the time they got to the bottom of the dune, a wind had begun to blow. Sand swirled from the tops of the dunes.
“That wind doesn’t help at all,” Darin said. “I swear it’s hotter than the sand.”
It was true. The wind felt like it was searing bare skin, and the dust it raised reduced visibility.
“Pick it up,” Rome said. “I want to catch up to Quyloc before he gets out of sight.” Quyloc was just visible in the distance.
As fast as they walked though, they never seemed to gain on Quyloc. Yelling did no good. Time passed and the heat became even more murderous. Rome squinted through the blowing sand, which was growing harder to see through as the wind increased. Quyloc might have been a mirage, his form shimmering and insubstantial in the waves of heat that rose off the sand.
For a time, he didn’t know how long, Rome seemed to lose track of himself. His body felt distant, his thoughts trapped within themselves. Someone seemed to be talking to him, but he couldn’t tell what the voice said, only that he wanted very badly to hear it better. He forgot about the Crodin. He forgot about King Rix and the vow he had made to himself to bring his men out of the desert and make the king pay. There was only the blistering heat, the wind, and placing one foot after the other, always in pursuit of the ghostlike figure of Quyloc in the distance.
The first boom echoing across the dunes was like a slap in the face. Rome stopped in mid-stride and at first he was like a man awakening from a dream: he had no idea where he was or what he was doing. Then it came flooding back and he spun.
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