Darklaw – Episode 36


LOOKS A FEW divisions short of a legion.” Rook squinted, and his head moved back and forth as he peered through the brush. He and Kami were traveling back to Koledoon when they discovered scouts, part of an army moving toward the coast.

They lay gazing in the same direction. “You have good eyes, Rook,” she said. “All I see is a fuzzy column of men. They don’t even look like men. More like a giant caterpillar inching its way toward the coast.”

“Looks like they’re heading for battle. Wait.” He squinted. “I don’t believe it.”

“What?”

“I think that’s the Black Tide.”

“What’s that?”

“Her legion, the Emperor’s Legion. She trained that legion from the day her father rewarded her with it when she was sixteen.”

“She commanded a legion at sixteen? A reward for what? A match in the arena?”

He shook his head. “Killing slaves doesn’t prepare you for war.”

“What prepares you for war?”

He glanced sideways at Kami. “Obedience and ruthlessness.”

“Ruthless I see. Can’t imagine her obedient.”

“Oh yes. To her father. No matter what.”

Kami continued to look at him. “What are you loathe to say?”

Kami sat up. Rook sat up, too, keeping his eyes on her. “Her mother was caught with a man. Humiliating for any man, but for an emperor, it was treason. You have to realize such betrayal was unthinkable to the Architect, a god on earth. But the Architect took pity on her.”

“Pity?”

“The lover was impaled.”

“And her mother?”

“Beheaded.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The Architect commuted her impaling to a beheading, but only if her daughter carried out the sentence.”

Kami’s mouth parted in disbelief.

“Her reward was the Black Tide. She took it into the Khaimeign, put down an army three times its size, and secured for Darklaw the richest farmlands in the world.”

“He truly was a monster.” 

“He knew the world would come looking for his children some day, so he taught them to be strong. He taught them how to survive.”

Kami released a cynical laugh.

“You don’t know what it was like.”

“I know his daughter.”

“Those years, like living under siege. Any man might hide a dagger. Any woman might hide poison. Trust was granted only to family. Only to some family. Everything with the Architect was in service to strength. Every punishment had one purpose: to make us stronger and more careful. And we were. We were invincible. Darklaw roamed the world like a beast in his domain, taking anything it wanted for its own.”

“Why would you want even the smallest comfort at such a price?”

“Not me. Not Essanti. It’s what men want. To be envied.”

“I’d rather sleep in a tree than have a palace if it feeds every man’s envy against me.”

“That’s because you’re Essanti, Kami. Envy is what drives normal men, but you and I are people of the Gift. Envy finally came between father and son when the Architect began to dismantle everything he had done. He recalled his legions from the Demon Quarter. Turned over garrisons to local cities. Returned tribute he had stored away. Even opened the temples of Arujan, distributing the grain to the countryside.”

“Why?”

“No one knows.” Rook turned back to watch the distant legion. “But Avestar thought his father was a coward in his old age, scared of his dreams, of the gods. The Architect had always taught that the weak must be culled from the herd.”

“I wondered why the Architect never pushed beyond the Khaimeign, never moved into the Demonforest.”

“He wanted to isolate the villages, build garrisons at their back and come from the sea. He spent years planning that invasion, but insurrections in Marhash and a war with the Castle Alliance preoccupied him.”

“Why was he afraid of the Demonforest?”

“Essanti, of course.”

“As if the forest was full of them.”

“You don’t realize how many have been killed.”

“How many?”

“Thousands over the last twenty years. I don’t think there was a time that Darklaw didn’t have roving hunters looking for them. Then, after the Architect’s death, Avestar launched expedition-after-expedition to wipe the Essanti from the world. Not small companies like the Architect had sent, but divisions with no concern for the villages or the forest. They murdered and burned everything. Avestar thought once the forest was empty, he would just march to the coast. Of course, he had to give up on that. Sailed to Agate Bay instead. Not as patient as his father. That’s her weakness, too.”

He looked out across the plain at the legion again and began to reminisce. “The Khaimeign was the frontier when the Architect died. The farms came to supply a good portion of the empire’s grain. Avestar didn’t get much farther.” Rook’s voice softened as he began to muse, “Beautiful country, the Khaimeign. Stede was a hill-top fortress surrounded by river valleys. The Architect had tried three different times to take it, but the fortress wouldn’t surrender. She had boasted in front of the generals that she could make it surrender and he finally gave her a chance after she showed her loyalty.”

Rook paused to laugh. “But it was her disloyalty that gained her the most. She went with three legions, including the Black Tide. She ordered the construction of a great wall to surround the fortress, so it couldn’t get supplies in. The Architect’s generals ridiculed her when she brought engineers into her army, but because of them, her men managed to construct a wall twelve feet high and fifteen miles around in less than four weeks. Inside this wall they dug a ditch and rerouted a local river to create a moat. Stede’s cavalry tried to prevent the completion of the wall, but they failed.

“Anticipating reinforcements, she had a second wall constructed, but this one was behind her. Her legions would live inside those two walls, and in time, starvation and disease caused Stede’s king to expel the women and children. He thought he would save food for his army and assumed she would allow the civilians past the walls. What a fool! She refused to allow anyone through. Nor would she allow her men to send help past the wall. The women and children starved on that plain between fortress and wall, while Stede’s soldiers watched from their walls as their families died.

“A relief force arrived, but Darklaw’s lines held. Finally, she had to ration food, too, and Stede managed to exploit a weakness in the wall, but she rallied a small force of cavalry and held. Stede’s men were exhausted and demoralized. They retreated, and her soldiers tracked them down and killed them to a man. Stede surrendered the following day.”

Kami sat staring at Rook, mouth open. “That’s the most horrible story I’ve ever heard.”

He shrugged. “For her victory there, she received a farm of her own, two-hundred slaves, and the title most people know her by, ‘Avestine of the Hunt.’ But she refused to relinquish the town until the Architect granted her the title of ‘warmaster.’ It was a great victory. Brilliant politics.”

When Rook rolled onto his back, he was startled by Wolf, who stood between him and Kami, his tongue out and drooling. Sliding away slowly, Rook made it to a rock and sat down. Wolf also sat down and continued to stare and drool. “I’m not sure I can get used to him.”

Kami sat up. “Doesn’t he remind you of someone?”

“Why does he stay with you?”

“He came to me first in my dream.”

“I saw him there, too, but animals don’t dream.”

Wolf stretched his mouth so Kami could pick his teeth. He sat panting, ears folded back, eyes mostly closed.

As he watched Kami’s gentleness with Wolf, Rook recalled the intimacy they had shared in their thoughts and wondered how much better it might be to feel each other in the flesh. Kami’s beauty wasn’t lost on him. She wasn’t voluptuous like the women he paid for, nor was she forthright in the way Avestine was, but she was passionate. Her desires were palpable. He had shared her lusts and found the pleasures of her small body bewitching.

Kami shot Rook a look of alarm. Wolf growled nervously. Rook was about to ask what concerned Kami, but the world exploded.

As if it were hemorrhaging, the forest ruptured with black-clad bodies spilling into the clearing. Rook and Kami scrambled away, leaping over rocks and stumbling down the hillside so fast they fell and rolled most of the way. 

Rook made it to his feet first. Looking back up the hill, he saw a dozen soldiers racing toward them on foot, waving their swords and hooting with excitement, as if their hunt were mere sport.

Rook did some damage with his studded wrist caps, but soon, he saw more bodies than sky, and then Kami disappeared along with the sun.


Published in Darklaw |
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