By Ryan Schapals
Vanya strolled through Nandanna’s bustling war camp whistling “Dip in the Moaning Well.” Heads turned to regard him, but their interest quickly returned to their dinner. The day’s light dwindled and cook fires burned bright. He passed warriors draped in furs, covered in scars and tattoos: little appeared to unite them beyond violent intentions. Anywhere else, Vanya imagined, these barbarians would have been fighting over supper. Thick-armed and thick-witted, he mused, but they weren’t to be trifled with—well, not by any but a master trifler.
The army was situated just outside the batteries of a Durani fortress, just one of many along the Line. On this border between the Durani and the Gudanna there were fifteen castles, seven Gudanna and eight Durani, each built as a reflection of another. The shining citadel Tel Kuba loomed to the north, a jewel on the horizon.
Orders echoed through Nandanna’s camp, a warning to hold their positions. Beneath Vanya’s feet the ground shook. An immense shadow dropped from the sky, a Corpse Collector based on the unmistakable profile of its wings. Even at a distance it towered above the camp. Demon Lashes secured themselves to the Collector with their scourges before it took flight again. Wings outstretched, it blotted out the sky. Battle was as certain as sunrise.
His path led to the steps of a crumbling watchtower, where Nandanna’s banners flew overhead. The vines growing across its stony face seemed to be all that held it together. A young girl descended from the tower, catching Vanya’s attention. A strange sight in a war camp; her face was yet without the hardness won in battle, soft and innocent. He flashed a smile that had won him as many arguments as his sword.
Her expression turned sour as she approached. Though the path through the camp could fit a half-dozen men abreast, she marched directly at Vanya. “Out of my way.”
“There’s plenty of room for the two of us,” Vanya said, stepping aside. “But there could be much less, if you prefer.” He winked.
She barreled toward him, a bristling ball of spite. As she came within an arm’s length, she spat at his feet. “If you don’t move, I’ll pull your spine out of that pretty little mouth.” Though the top of her head barely reached his shoulders, she held herself as if she were as tall as a Dryad. A few warriors slowed as their paths intersected with Vanya and the girl.
“Now you’re in my way.”
Her hands reached for the pair of axes on her hips. A brute whose neck had all but disappeared in a tangle of shoulder muscles stepped up beside her. He smacked a steel-crowned cudgel against his palm. Vanya felt more eyes on his back.
The brute grunted and gestured to the crowd beginning to form. “You’re outnumbered.”
“Something tells me arithmetic isn’t your strength.”
As the girl and the brute raised their weapons, Vanya channeled mana into the earth. Foliage erupted at their feet. Vines exploded with new vitality, ensnaring them while throwing dirt and rocks in every direction.
More warriors joined the girl and the brute, rushing Vanya. He darted backward, pulling a knife from his boot and drawing the curved blade at his hip. Without pausing, he threw the knife. It found a new home in a fleshy shoulder. The target grunted but didn’t slow down.
Roaring, Vanya charged headlong at the warriors. For a brief moment they hesitated, and Vanya reached deeply into his reservoir of mana. He felt the roots in the earth wriggling as he commanded them. As he prepared the spell he screamed louder. In an instant, he would tear apart the earth and they would be swallowed by darkness.
Before he completed the spell another voice boomed like a thunderclap above the fray, commanding a halt. It was none other than Nandanna. She jumped between Vanya and her warriors. Vanya slid to a stop in front of her.
He tipped his head, smile returning. “Raja Nandanna, I presume.”
“Your reputation precedes you, Vanya, Voice of the Untamed.”
“One of many voices,” Vanya said. “Hence the name. I’m here to listen to your offer.”
“He’s no more than a wild cur,” the young girl snarled, hacking away at the vines wrapped around the brute’s feet. The snare that had caught her already lay in shreds. “It’s only by Nandanna’s favor that you’re not dangling over a fire by your short hairs.”
“Sarra the Young is not the kind of woman you want to cross.” Nandanna gave Sarra a look of approval, but raised a hand to stay the fiery warrior.
A hearty laugh traveled through the crowd of warriors. Vanya racked his memory: yes, he had heard that name before. She’d earned it at a young age by gruesomely killing her parents and leaving behind a trail of mangled corpses wherever she went.
“In my experience,” Vanya quipped, “you regret crossing all of them.” This earned more laughs from the warriors and they visibly relaxed.
Nandanna motioned for Vanya to follow as she headed toward the steps of the watchtower and pulled her wolf pelt tight against her shoulders. Her warriors formed up on either side of the path, straight-backed and regimented. “We have much to offer one another.”
As they climbed the ancient steps, Vanya asked, “What makes you think I will join you?”
“We have much in common,” she said. “The Durani invaded my home. It’s my duty to defend my father’s legacy.”
Vanya snorted. “You’re preparing for a siege. Hardly an act of self-defense.”
“You see much, but it’s the unseen that I plan for. The Durani have called my bluff: the towers to the north are unmanned but for a few scouts. As we speak, a second army moves to flank me. I have no choice but to strike before I am caught between the hammer and the anvil.”
“You best ally is surprise,” Vanya said. “Well, besides myself.” As he climbed, he studied the cracked walls of the tower. Loose chunks of stone broke underfoot. The stone echoed as it bounced down the steps. This tower had been erected before the Gudanna claimed it. He paused, looking through an arrow slit at the camp below. The lights were no more than the glimmer of fireflies. He wondered how many had walked these steps before him. Those who came before, did they ascend these heights to protect or exploit the fortress in the distance?
“When you traveled here, did you see how Sudhamra has garrisoned the outlying peoples inside the walls of his fortress?”
“Among other things.”
“You’re likely to get a closer look, if I know you, Vanya. Any mercenary of your stature would be wise to play each side against the other. And rightfully so. I see no fault in you getting your fair share.”
“Are we talking enough gold to build an army of Durani golems or enough to buy a seat alongside the Ancient Ones?”
“Sudhamra has too many mouths to feed. Under siege, their stores will quickly run out, and when his fortress falls those who could have otherwise escaped will suffer terribly.”
“By your hands.”
“By his pride,” Nandanna said. “His shortsightedness.”
The wind whipped through the opening at the top as they rounded the final set of steps. As soon as they emerged, Nandanna led him to the edge of the tower. The protective walls were worn down and moss covered most of the stonework. Vanya followed Nandanna’s gaze. Her eyes were fixed on the citadel, lit only by the pale moonlight and the flickering torches along the ramparts. From this vantage point, the fortress looked as fragile as a child’s toy. He could scoop it up in his hands.
“Sudhamra paints the future of Eretsu in dazzling colors and impossible light. He will distract you from your senses, fill you with hope. Hope doesn’t build nations.”
“Listen, I’ve got nothing to gain from peace,” Vanya replied. “The cost of food for three hundred men alone is staggering. But add in the cost for good drink, and of course of that leads to an exponential rise in—”
Nandanna interrupted. “Who will uphold Sudhamra’s vision? It will be built on the backs of the poor, the weak, and the gullible. But blood is what my father built the Dominion on, a resource more precious than gold. As long as I live, his blood, his legacy still flows through Eretsu. Blood is freedom. Blood is sacrifice. Blood will bring you profit.”
“What will you give up?” Vanya asked.
Nandanna turned to face Vanya. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I don’t shy away from the ugliness in Eretsu. I harness it and guide it, shape it into the steel that will forge a new and just Dominion. Do you want my brother to control your Zikia tribesmen?”
“No one can tame the Zikia. Not him. Not even you.”
“The strong must not allow cowards to domesticate them. Don’t be fooled by Sudhamra’s splendid cage. Even now the Durani hold Zikia lands, hold your people hostage as they negotiate with you.”
“And you wouldn’t?” Vanya countered.
“Join me. You will command my forces. You’ll have more gold than you know what to do with. Eretsu will be yours for the taking. Are there any riches more worthy of plundering than Durani jewels? All of this can be yours, if you are willing to imagine it.”
“You’d be surprised just how imaginative I can be,” Vanya said with a sly smile. “I want a number when I return.”
Atop the battlements overlooking a vast steppe and the horde that occupied it, Vanya cleared cobwebs out of a murder-hole while his host chattered on. Maybe he was groggy from poor sleep in Nandanna’s camp or maybe he was already growing weary of the negotiation process, but he had lagged behind Sudhamra when the Durani leader had begun describing the living conditions of the refugees in the fortress. Living is a conditionI’ve grown overly fond of, Vanya mused as he squatted down and peered through the hole at Nandanna’s forces below.
Sudhamra was outnumbered, but his defensive position gave him a considerable advantage. In Nandanna’s ranks, Vanya had spied a regiment of Demon Lashes for scaling the walls. Just one of them making it over the walls could wreak havoc. A siege was a game of numbers, and the current odds were right down the middle. Vanya’s hand would be the deciding one. If this knowledge caused Sudhamra any distress, the stillness in his voice betrayed no hint of it.
Catching up to Sudhamra, Vanya realized that they had been alone for quite some time. There was not a single guard in view. “When was the last time this fortress was defended against invaders?”
“More importantly, when was the last time it fell?” Sudhamra replied, as if it the question was no more pressing than asking what he had had for lunch.
Vanya leaned over the parapet, searching for guards hidden below the ledge. This has to be a trap, or a test, there’s no way Sudhamra would be this foolish. He scrutinized the battlements. There were no guards hidden above them on the inner wall, no shadows peeking out beyond the next corner. Vanya was alone with one of the most powerful men in Eretsu. And he still had his hidden knives.
“I could end this right now,” Vanya said. “There’s no one to stop me from killing you.”
Sudhamra turned to consider Vanya, appearing almost to glide as his robes barely moved. From beneath his hood, his golden eyes shone. They were clear tranquil pools, warm and inviting like the springs near the Sleeping Ridges.
Finally, with a gentle smile he said, “I have all the protection I need.” Unlike other Durani officials, Sudhamra wasn’t lavishly decorated in jewels and riches. There was no hint of scale mail hidden under his saffron robes.
“Last I checked, I wasn’t on your ledger yet.” Vanya patted his coin purse, which sounded with a sad thump of emptiness.
“A good heart requires little but the satisfaction in knowing the world is better for its deeds. You can’t hide who you are behind your name, Vanya, Wildest of the Untamed. That’s why I summoned you.”
Vanya snorted. “There’s no discount for flattery in my line of work.”
“And that is why I also summoned five hundred gold talons.” Sudhamra folded his hands behind his back, his smile widened. “Durani mark, of course.”
“Not unreasonable,” Vanya said. “For an opening offer.”
“By all accounts, that would be enough for a man of your stature to retire safely, buy an entire village, and have enough left over to smelt yourself a throne.”
“Maybe a stool,” Vanya said. “That’s a pittance compared to what you have in your coffers.”
“I assure you, this is a most generous offer.”
“Nandanna offered eight hundred.” Vanya measured Sudhamra’s reaction.
His expression remained thoughtful as he responded, no hint of doubt clouded his eyes. “Unfortunately, I can’t offer you as much as Nandanna.”
Not again, Vanya thought. This is no way to gain sway with a sell-sword. Sudhamra and Nandanna both seemed strangely honest in their dealings. They really must be desperate.
Spreading his arms wide, Sudhamra continued. “As you can see, I don’t have Nandanna’s plundered riches. What I do have is refugees, families fearing for their lives, common folk hoping for peace. A peace I have promised them. A peace they deserve.”
“You’re promising to put me out of business.”
“I would give you every last talon in my holdings if it meant I could count on you in battle, but I must hold some back in order to fill hundreds of empty bellies and provide safety for those we shelter. What can Nandanna offer? Wealth? Power? These offerings may appease the flesh, but they do nothing for the spirit. The ache in your heart will remain. You long for more than endless war. You see the suffering all around you, and deep down, like me, you can’t allow it to continue.”
The wind whipped through the whispering leaves the night of my disgrace. Punishment given to me for taking the protection of our people into my own hands, for becoming a hunter of hunters, for breaking from the path. “The Forest of Forests survives because it grows as one,” Elder Loira said. “It takes but one branch out of place to starve the undergrowth below.” I fought back, arguing that tradition bound our hands and clouded our senses, but they wouldn’t listen. For my success, they allowed me exile—but leaving was far more painful than execution.
“You have no idea who I am,” Vanya said. His hands were clenched as he stepped close to Sudhamra. “Nandanna was right.”
Sudhamra rested a hand on Vanya’s shoulder. “And if I were to ensure the Zikia lands we hold are released, would you still claim to be that man?”
“You never know a man until you face him on the battlefield.” Vanya pushed the hand away. “Meet my price or you shall get to know me very well.”
Atop the crumbling tower again, Vanya rested in Nandanna’s quarters. Maps hung from every wall, large leather tarps were draped over the towers ruined walls to form the rooms ceiling. Seated on a pillow as if it were the Saddle Throne, Nandanna extended her wine glass toward Vanya with the grace and poise truly befitting a Raja. For once he found himself studying the person holding the glass more than its contents. Her wolf pelt slipped to the floor, baring her shoulders. He refilled his drink and considered her toast. “To victory,” she had said. He echoed her words.
“I always pick the winning side.” Vanya clinked his glass against hers. He half-suspected that one of the most brilliant minds in Eretsu was trying the age-old tactic of getting him drunk enough to get her way. She was in for a surprise if she thought she could easily bend him to her will. He’d spent too many nights playing Shifting Sands and subsequently fighting his way out of taverns to fall for that old trick. He slurred his words slightly. Discretion was the key to deception. “Or rather, the winning side always pays well.”
“I have promised to pay handsomely.”
“You have promised to pay the handsome me,” he corrected, smiling devilishly. “But promises don’t put a woman on my lap and a drink in my hand.”
“And yet you’ve already acquired half of those requirements without pledging yourself to me.”
Vanya looked down at his glass, drained it, and looked back to Nandanna. He arched a brow and further slurred his words. “You’re saying there’s more to come?”
“I promised to give you more than you can imagine.” The scar marring her bottom lip danced as she spoke. A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth and then blossomed, revealing wolflike canines. “I don’t make such promises lightly.”
Vanya made as if to fumble as he seized the decanter. As he poured another glass, he allowed a little wine to slosh out the side of his glass. “One thousand gold talons would be a good start.”
“Five hundred for your oath and as much as your men can carry from Sudhamra’s vaults.”
“Something tells me there won’t be much left by the time I get to them.” He continued to hold on to the decanter, drinking in gulps and pouring more as he drank.
“There are many more benefits to our partnership. Some tangible, some not,” Nandanna said, running a finger around the edge of her glass. “Opportunities a man of your rare character would find pleasing, I assure you.”
“I can drink to that.” But he set his glass down, and offered to refill Nandanna’s while he considered her words. Royal consort, he thought, now that’s a title with real value. To have the power of a Raja at my fingertips, to have a Raja at my fingertips . . . his imagination flared with possibilities. He shifted atop his pillow and held the glass out to Nandanna. As she reached for the drink, he jerked it away from her with a grin and waved his index finger at her playfully. “But first, please go on about these benefits.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, her entire body tightened like a bow being pulled taut. How easily could she tear his throat out? he wondered. It was both unnerving and exhilarating to draw her ire, like provoking a bear to chase him through the wilds. No, he corrected himself, this is more like taunting a volcano. With a sheepish smile, he set down the drink and the decanter.
Nandanna rose with the beauty of a hawk ascending from the hunter’s wrist. She struck a map hanging on the wall of the room with a fist. “While I grieved for my father, the Durani marched onto his lands. They have no honor. No shame in betraying their ideals if it means they can gain in the slightest.”
“You’re wrong about Sudhamra,” Vanya said. “He promised to release the Zikia lands he holds.”
“He’d promise you his firstborn’s head and make it out to be an act of kindness. He masquerades as a benevolent ruler while he holds your people hostage. If he meant well, he would have released them as a sign of good faith. He would have little to lose from such an action and much to gain.” She advanced on Vanya and extended her hand. “I see you as you are. I know what you really want, and I can make it yours.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have heard the stories. I may be no Spider Prince, but your Zikia pride bleeds through your every action. I’ll free your people as surely as I will free Sudhamra’s head from his neck. You will have everything you desire.Your people will finally return home, they will be granted sovereignty, and you will be their leader,” she said. “Not because I care for the plight of the Zikia, but because I know who you are and who you are not.”
“How can I resist?” Taking her hand, Vanya rose to meet her and she leaned close to him, their faces near enough to touch. Perfume and sweat mingled in her scent. He breathed deeply, taking her into his lungs. “I am of the clay from which the Ancient Ones cast me.”
The battle was in full swing. The screams from below grew louder. Climbing down the bark hide of his Fen Lord, Vanya landed on the ramparts of the Durani fortress. The massive golem shuddered, falling back against the parapet for support. Vanya steadied himself. Compared to the Fen Lord, he looked untouched. His golem’s thick vine fingers had been reduced to tatters, its formidable hide cracked and burned during the siege.
On this day there would be no whistling, no jaunty melodies, no clever quips. This was only the beginning of the siege and he knew much worse would come before it was over. He surveyed the battlefield, craters marred the earth. Golem and human parts were strewn haphazardly as rubble. Below, Nandanna’s forces scrambled, but atop the battlements Sudhamra’s guard could hardly be seen. The western wall bared the scars of Nandanna’s Bone Fiends’ heavy blows and he could hear the ringing swords of scattered skirmishes. Or was that ringing just in his ears?
He searched for his target, pulling his sword free. Running along the rampart, he bellowed a challenge. Gold-scaled Durani guards spun toward him; one even reacted quickly enough to jab a spear in his way. He ducked under one spear point and knocked away another as he wove through the cadre of weary Durani soldiers. Finally, he found his target and skidded to halt. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said the blood on his sword glistening in the sun. “The Untamed have laid the last of the traps, the enemy will find no solace in hiding now.”
Sudhamra turned his head. His robes were stained with dust, but he contemplated the battle unfolding as one might reflect on a bed of flowers. “I knew that she was wrong about the type of man you are.”
“She wasn’t wrong about the type of man I am,” Vanya said. “Only about the type of man I wish to be.”
Illustration by Joel DuQue