Conquest of Eretsu
by Martin Souza
Dasra willed back another shiver under her thick furs. The breath of the chill winds reached her even inside this grand, little-used holdfast on the Empire’s northern coast. If she shivered, the tiny golden bells lining her lush mantle chimed quietly, betraying her discomfort. Vairin knew she wasn’t comfortable in his cold climate, but Dasra refused to let it show.
Fortunately Marshal Vairin was momentarily preoccupied with Dusya, who rubbed affectionately against his leg. The horned lynx enjoyed the frigid seaside atmosphere, and Vairin was one of the very few whose attention Dasra’s pet sometimes preferred over her own. Vairin also seemed fond of the animal, and since Dusya’s presence eased the tension of this meeting with the quasi-independent northern Urugal leader, Dasra didn’t begrudge the creature’s partiality.
“So,” she said while Vairin scratched behind Dusya’s horns, “news of this uprising in the south has reached your people?”
“Hm,” Vairin acknowledged vaguely, not bothering to look up. Despite Dasra’s high standing and long reach, known even in the northern Urugal lands, the khan of Clan Jada regarded her simply as the leader of another clan, and thus an equal. His imperial title of marshal was a mere formality, a gesture he accepted from the Empire as a token of their alliance, but not an obligation to subordinate himself. Sometimes Dasra found this attitude impertinent, but it could also be a relief not to have to navigate the battlefield of niceties.
“Word of the Ascendant Wake spreads everywhere,” Vairin continued, straightening. “It echoes between the peaks, waking the clans from their slumber. Once again they will turn the mountain snow red with the blood of those who would stop the cycle.”
Dasra sighed. The last thing she needed was another battlefront in the north. “Is it possible the beats of Eretsu’s heart are just the drums of war? Tell me, Vairin: what would Eretsu be without so much fighting?”
“Life without dying is not life,” he answered, shooing Dusya away. “You know the Way of Bone. War reveals the true face of the world. Only a fool believes the cycle can be broken.”
“Thus teaches the Way of Bone, yes. It’s well I don’t subscribe to the Way’s teachings.” Dusya curled up at her feet, and Dasra lifted her mantle’s hem to drape it over the lynx.
“All things come to an end,” she said, locking eyes with Vairin. “So it will be with Eretsu’s wars. I will see to that.”
He said nothing, but nodded carefully, holding her gaze. “For now, the clans in the north only stir; but what of the burning forest? You already have enemies at your Line’s castles, and trying to sneak in through the trees. Will your strength hold if you must fight in the north as well?”
Now Vairin shot her his own meaningful look, but Dasra met his hard, bronze-colored eyes unwaveringly. “We have strength enough,” she answered softly, “but golems aren’t the only tools for shaping history. A quill is often much more effective.”
“Oh?” Vairin’s face went slightly askew as he almost smiled. “And where will you send the letters you write?”
“To the Wildwood,” Dasra answered, taking his jibe in stride. “Before now, which Zikia could you sue for peace? Now, you can talk to Vanya of the Samula.”
“Is not his unification a threat to you?”
“Quite the opposite.” Dasra showed a little smile of her own. “His Great Weald represents a wonderful opportunity. For the first time in the Empire’s history, a treaty could be made with all the Wildwood Zikia.”
“I know of Vanya. He won’t consent to be bound.”
Dasra shrugged. “He’s worked for us before. Despite appearances, he’s sensible.”
Vairin bobbed his head gently, but went on: “Even if he agrees, the tribes under him may ignore it.”
“Perhaps,” Dasra admitted, “but of late they may have more hate for Rudatha than even for me. Diplomacy, a compromise, something… something may be possible.”
Dasra’s own hate welled up, smoking hot, at the sound of Rudatha’s name on her own lips. For an instant, she remembered with full force the night after the reports came telling of Rudatha’s scout winging away a strange child from the Realm of Cinders. My child, my son. To lose sight of him again, after all the far-reaching effort to get him back, weighed on her more heavily than any of the past year’s setbacks in the new war against the Gudanna. She’d sent everyone away that night, even Ava, and lay wracked, anguished on the hard floor, as if pressed against a stone slab under the palm of some merciless Ancient.
As its princess she already faced many enemies of the Empire, but Rudatha had become an enemy of Dasra’s very own. Her fists clenched beneath her furs, and Dusya suddenly looked up, alert.
Vairin’s voice brought her back to the cold hall. “Hold the north steady, Vairin,” she sighed, relaxing her hands. “I’ll see to things in the woods.”
“Who do I have to kick around here,” Vanya yelled at no one in particular, “to find out who’s looking after these people?”
The Preveza bustled on around its nominal leader. The members of the Great Weald had gathered to it as their de facto capital in the aftermath of the carnage. Refugees from dozens of broken tribes now thronged there, forming a patchwork tribe of their own. Finding out who led the new group was a good excuse to slip away from the Circle, but now Vanya had spent the better part of the morning poking into tents, dodging children, and ducking between market stalls in a fruitless search — though he had got some surprisingly fresh lut fruit from one of the peddlers.
“Sir,” came a hoarse voice from behind him. “Patriarch Vanya?”
Vanya turned to find a hunched man missing one arm looking up at him with a mix of profound weariness and hopeful vigor. “Huh?” Vanya answered.
“This way,” the man said, and moved off without waiting. Vanya followed, curious, to a lopsided tent pitched at the edge of the refugee encampment.
“He leads us,” the hunched man said, his one hand pointing to the tent.
“Who?” Vanya asked. He’d already met more than one false chief this morning.
His guide saw Vanya’s doubt. “He took us from the Realm of Cinders, led us here, helped us find each other to bind new roots together. Thus we take his name.”
As the refugee pronounced the name, a slender, fine-skinned Zikia man emerged from the lean-to. His noble features, showing only faintly his middle age, were plainly darkened with sorrow. His bright eyes recognized Vanya immediately.
“Patriarch,” he said softly, with a small bow, “I’m honored by your presence.”
“Please stop calling me that,” Vanya muttered. “Thanks,” he said to the hunched man, who gave Vanya a nod, and Vitta a reverential bow.
“Were you looking for me?” Vitta asked.
“Might be.” Vanya sized up the taller man. “Who are you?”
“My name is Kopa Vitta,” he replied, his voice low and gentle.
“You in charge of these people?”
Kopa shook his head. “I helped some as we fled the fires, and suggested we seek shelter with the Great Weald, but that’s all.”
“Funny,” Vanya said, “that sounds like leading. The refugees seem to think someone’s leading them, and I’ve been hearing them call themselves ‘Vitta’ all morning. Looks like you’ve got yourself a tribe.” Before Kopa could object, Vanya continued: “Where’d you come from?”
Kopa hesitated. “I recently came back from outside the Wildwood. There and here, I survived by focusing on the future, and what I might do to lighten the past’s burden.”
Vanya felt himself stir at the depth of feeling behind Kopa’s quiet words. “I know something about that,” he said, stepping closer. “The invasion, the fire—it didn’t just burn the trees. It left scars on all Zikia.” Kopa looked aside, his gaze shifting somewhere far away.
“The war is far from over,” Vanya continued, “and we owe it to each other to hold together. That’s why these people need someone. If they let you make them a tribe, you owe that to them.”
Kopa’s eyes cleared. “Very well.”
A few minutes later, Vanya and Kopa stood in the heart of the Preveza. The meeting place of the Circle had become the center of the Great Weald’s military planning. The statuary hand Ziksana used to sit upon now held a large map of Eretsu, weighed down with markers representing the disposition of armies. Vanya wouldn’t sit on the hand, and was glad to find another use for it.
“There it all is,” Vanya declared with a sweeping gesture at the map, “in all its bloody glory.”
Kopa scanned the map. “The Empire’s withdrawn to regroup behind their border, and the Gudanna have almost all pulled back to the south. So it’s true, then? They gave up the Mahatavi?”
“Yes, what’s left of it. The tree lives, but the Cinderborn keep lurking, and there’s no telling how much Rudatha’s little spiders made off with from the Mahatavi’s runes before scuttling off.”
“We face two fronts, then: north and south.” Kopa knotted his brow. “We should consolidate as quickly as we can, to prepare against a second invasion. What’s the strength of your company?”
“Well, as to that… There’s something else.” Vanya nudged a blood-red token sitting on an island near the map’s eastern edge. “I sent the Untamed there.”
“Tarkara? The pirate stronghold?”
“Apparently Nandanna’s set on taking the island to make a base for another attack route into the Empire. My… dear friend, Tapya, sent word and asked we come to the aid of the free people of his little island paradise.”
Kopa gave Vanya a flat stare. “You know Tapya, the Pirate King of Tarkara?”
“I knew him in his early days.”
“And you’ve sent aid to this merciless, rot-hearted brigand?”
Vanya raised his palms defensively. “Tapya’s among the worst, and don’t think I have any love for him after our splendid time together—but what’s the saying? The enemy of our enemy… is our enemy’s enemy, right?”
Kopa squinted, trying to parse Vanya’s reasoning.
“Listen, Tapya may be no good, but I’ve met Nandanna, too. Interesting company, but I tell you, she’s worse trouble.”
Sharp, salty beach gravel crunched under Nandanna’s boots. One of the pirates’ pathetic little fortifications blazed upon the clifftop before her, while the wreckage of most of the ships that’d resisted her fleet still belched a smoky pall over the bay.
Nandanna despised sea travel, yet arriving on this unfamiliar beach felt like coming home. The battlefield is home, she reflected, savoring a lungful of the tangy, smoke-stained air. This is where I do my best work.
Beside her stood Raja-Khan U’ta Gati. Nandanna could see he too enjoyed the work of making war, but his pleasure was staging and preparing, and the anticipation of readying to crush the enemy utterly. He wore a look of pride and bated excitement, watching his Drought Tempest disembark from their beached ships, leading their golems ashore.
“Come,” Nandanna called, breaking into a hungry stride across the rocky beach, into the hasty encampment her soldiers had set up. As they passed a group of knights gathering to let blood upon some of the scant grey sand, one of U’ta’s runners approached and handed him a small scroll.
Nandanna paused while he read. “What’s it say?”
“The Durani are here, on the north end of the island. Not clear whether they mean to attack or reinforce the pirates.” He looked up from the message, lips pursed. “Either way, their presence complicates things.”
“Sudhamra.” Nandanna rolled the name in her mouth like wine. “We’ve beaten him before. We’ll beat him again.” She cast her gaze back to the blood-dark waves, across the camp, and ahead toward the next battlefield, somewhere beyond the jagged cliffs.
“I’ll make that lowborn bastard pay for the humiliating my father at Ru. His corpse will ride before me on parade through Kutastha’s streets when I come to claim the Saddle Throne.”
“Surely the Dominion invading suffices for you to consider accepting the Empire’s help?”
Sudhamra’s lilting words met with a spat “Feh!” from Tapya. The self-styled lord of Tarkara, a spindly, ragged-looking man, chewed a lump of denya root while picking his fingernails with a knife. After an hour of insult and ill manners, Sudhamra’s patience was wearing thin—yet Tapya hadn’t sent him away outright. Sudhamra suspected Tapya didn’t want to completely reject assistance, but couldn’t be seen to accept it, either.
“I’ll say again, friend prince: your oil won’t mix with my water. I heard how it went when you hired my old friend Vanya, and I’m hardly like to fall for the same twice-around as that leafy weasel, am I?” Tapya paused to spurt some of the foul-smelling root juice into a corner. “Besides, my people wouldn’t see it as help. Empires are out to rule, not to help, and Tarkara shan’t abide Durani masters.”
Sitting back with a sigh, Sudhamra rested his hands flat on the rough table. “Will not your people heed you if we make a formal agreement for a limited alliance?”
Tapya’s gaunt frame shook with a grim laugh. “You miscomprehend the free society of Tarkara. You are a true lord over subject people, so how would you understand, indeed?” He lowered his voice, and went on: “My people, the other captains and crews, hardly heed my order unquestioningly, like your well-kept knights. My people are free and hungry, and they submit to me because I provide what they want, and keep them from each others’ throats. My kingship doesn’t come by birth. I wring it out of these motherless curs day by day.”
“I see.” Sudhamra leaned in, matching Tapya’s conspiratorial posture. “So, you can’t well be seen becoming friendly with the Empire.”
“One hardly becomes the king of pirates by making friends.”
“In that case,” Sudhamra asked, “how will Tarkara protect itself from the Dominion without us?”
Tapya scoffed, turning his head to spit again. “You think overmuch of yourself and your terrible enemy, friend prince. The Empire and Dominion aren’t Eretsu’s only great powers any longer. In true, I little worry about the Gudanna now. That horse-born brat Nandanna will soon be caught between the sea and a rising tide of bone. She’ll hardly have much choice between my little island and saving her Dominion from the Ascendant Wake.” His sneering grin broke across Tapya’s face. “You, of course, have experience firsthand with this new Mother Wing, Izvari of Sunu, haven’t you, friend prince?”
“I have.” Sudhamra’s face fell and his voice darkened. “You can’t imagine what we saw at Libir.”
“I imagine you saw plenty worth a pretty price.”
Sudhamra’s jaw tightened. “You would pay any price not to face what Izvari raised from the cursed city.”
“Feh,” Tapya huffed, glancing away nervously. “Heard of her great bone beast. Hardly aught but rumors.”
“You have my assurance it is no rumor. Ashmogh is real, and the terror of it is real. Once Izvari called it forth, her Wake bested five armies trying to take the city.”
Tapya spat halfheartedly.
“Listen, Tapya,” Sudhamra continued, “I never thought to fear much of anything again after Ru. Izvari’s monster, this Ashmogh—I fear this thing, not for myself, but for my people. The Ascendant Wake is a tide of mad zeal, and you’re a fool if you believe for an instant it will stop at the Dominion’s borders. If you’re any kind of leader of Tarkara, you should fear for its survival.”
Izvari couldn’t stop sniffing the damp, rich air of the marsh where her Wake had paused these last few days. The Glades of Kaccha were redolent with unfamiliar smells, and a particularly different scent of decay, a sweet note with more depth than the dry smell of decomposition in the Hataza.
Raza Osa bin Beleem, seated at her right, discreetly touched her arm, bringing her attention back to the last report one of her scout messengers presented in her court tent. She glanced over, and Raza Osa’s good eye met hers with a knowing twinkle. His strange associate, Vittorio, stood silently behind them, arms crossed, observing carefully.
“…We’re certain this attack came from Rudatha’s Black Widows,” the messenger continued, “and they’re almost surely the ones behind the other attacks from unseen assailants.”
The fighting since departing Libir had been almost nonstop. The Gudanna made constant harrying attacks in hopes of slowing the Wake’s march toward the Dominion heartland. The swamps of Kaccha had proved sufficiently difficult terrain to reduce the Wake’s progress to a slog.
“How bad this time?” Raza Osa asked.
“Worse than before,” the messenger replied grimly. “The scout golems are lost, along with their riders; several larger golems damaged in the counterattack; a whole sledge of supplies destroyed in the raid.”
Izvari saw the messenger’s uncertain look, and held her gaze. Weariness and concern were there, but also fervor, and something like love. She’s one of my people, Izvari reminded herself. Sunu.
She only thanked the messenger briefly, and dismissed her with a small gesture, but Izvari hoped her eyes said what her heart wished to: I hear you, I’m with you. Don’t despair.
“Mother Wing.” With real reverence, the messenger steepled her fingers and raised them to her head, then stepped out, leaving Izvari alone with Raza Osa and Vittorio in her broad tent. With a long sigh, she slumped in her folding camp seat.
Vittorio emerged from the shadow of his place behind her to examine the maps unfurled over a side table, reconsidering their position in light of these latest reports. Raza Osa leaned over the arm of his chair, which creaked a little under his weight. “What moves in your thoughts, Little Crow?”
She closed her eyes and let her head roll back. “All this fighting, and it seems like we’ve barely made it away from Libir. We’ve barely made it anywhere.” She remembered the otherworldly power of the crow-god Bala, and the unshakable majesty of her kingly ancestor Mujin, and wondered again how she would live up to the legacy she’d taken on. Opening her eyes, she flexed her hand, and watched the Inks of Ebon slide across the bones beneath her skin. How will I be enough?
Raza Osa raised himself out of his seat, regarding her sidelong. “It’s been hard going, especially because we succeeded in Libir. Those wise enough to fear your ascendancy now see their fears becoming real, and will resist with all their might. Yet already your Wake’s victories have stirred something behind the ribs of Urugal across all Eretsu. They’ve heard the call of the Mother Wing, and begin waking from long sleep and idleness.”
“What have they heard?” Izvari asked, partly wondering to herself.
“They have heard you restored Clan Sunu to the Sunu way. They have heard you are the Great Thread. They have heard you called Ashmogh up from forgotten depths.”
“It’s not enough for them to hear,” Izvari said, pushing herself forward out of the folding chair. She remembered the surge of righteousness when she emerged from the Now-Becoming, and when, at her summons, the terrible colossus rose from beneath the catacombs of Libir. Her weariness remained, but that terrible determination returned, pushing aside all else.
“If the Wake is to keep growing, we must earn the faith that’s been placed in us. We must let nothing hold us down, here or anyplace.” She turned to face Raza Osa, her eyes hard. “We must turn Prishta to ash.”
Vittorio looked up from his maps. Raza Osa smiled, showing his filed teeth. “So we shall, Mother Wing. So we shall.”
Rudatha turned an ageworn page, then let his fingers find their way back to his wine cup while his eyes continued along the old text. The histories telling of Gur-Khan Mujin and his rebellious Great Wake read like epic dramas—in fact, Rudatha realized a certain genre of historical romance he occasionally enjoyed must be informed by tales of the time of Mujin’s insurrection. He made a mental note to research and catalog the parallels.
Across the table, Ilkhan Lup sat nervously at attention. He waited another few minutes, trying not to stare as Rudatha read in silence. At last, he finished the chapter, marked his place, and softly set the book down. After savoring a sip of wine, he sat back contentedly.
“So, Ilkhan—you said you had something urgent?”
“My prince.” Lup felt a bead of sweat slide down the back of his neck. “The main column of the Ascendant Wake has crossed into Kaccha. They’re definitely making for Prishta.” Laying a leather-wrapped parcel on the table, he added “I have our latest on their movements.”
Rudatha eyed the packet as if it were a spoiled fish, then looked back to Lup and gave a hollow smile. “My little sister’s uprising is hardly urgent news. I’m well aware of her Urugal mob’s doings.” Lup swallowed tensely as Rudatha languidly took up his wine cup. “What’s more,” he continued, “we must keep ourselves from narrowing our perspective to any single front. I must attend to Tel Kubra and the situation beyond The Line; Two Rock, and our northeastern borders; events unfolding in the Wildwood; even Nandanna’s little expedition to Tarkara—all this, as well as Izvari’s movements.”
He leaned over the table, looking Lup square in the face. “Yet none of these fronts is the center of my concern.” He set down his wine carefully and lowered his voice. “Would you like to know, Ilkhan, my main concern?”
Lup wanted to swallow again, but his mouth had gone dry as the pages of Rudatha’s book. “My prince?” he managed.
“I worry,” Rudatha almost whispered, “the Dominion will undo itself from within before any army has a chance to destroy us. More than a year has gone since my father’s death, and we have yet to establish a successor. With no clear leader, the true threats to the Dominion are within.”
Rudatha rose, and Lup pushed back his seat to stand at attention as the prince began pacing. “The Speaker of the Law grows more influential by the day as people turn to the Way of Blood for guidance in a time of turmoil. Nandanna thinks she can fight her way to the Saddle Throne, and perhaps she could, but if she starts a civil war for succession she’ll have little left to rule. And of course, our dear sister Tsantha has yet to set in motion so much as a single marble, though her influence extends everywhere.”
He paused to drain his wine. However,he thought, I have special influence of my own, and none of them know. That uncanny child who must be Dasra’s son… what a perfect lever to keep the Empire at bay while I settle things here… and until I learn what the child is…
“Rudatha Khan,” Lup interjected, “my allegiance, and that of my knights, is unshakably yours.”
“I know, good Ilkhan, I know.” Rudatha smiled indulgently. “Don’t despair. All things lie in reach of my webs.”
Illustration: Joel DuQue