858th Cycle of God, 15th day of Dusasfall
It was the second time he had seen Icenga die.
The first time had been a fall. And through his magnifier Harban had seen the broken body and the stain of blood on the snow far below.
It was an unusual way for one of the Karku to die. Yet the body had gone by the time Harban had finished his descent and he had felt pure joy. No animal had taken Icenga. There were no drag marks but there was a single set of footprints leading into the maze of rocks. Hope flared within him. Immediately, he had known it could not be. Icenga could not possibly have survived such a fall.
Fear had settled on him. Glancing up at the surrounding mountains, he had seen the glint of sun on glass as a magnifier turned his way. Rock dust and grit fell from the same place.
And then he had heard the rasp of shoe on ice and had seen Icenga walking towards him. He was sure-footed, as he had always been. But every few paces he had staggered as if pain was shearing through his head and he had lost all coordination, able only to grip his skull hard with his hands. Harban had stood mute, unable to offer assistance or to flee. Icenga had not fallen. The broken shaft of an arrow jutted from his ribs over his heart. Icenga had collapsed into his arms and the pair of them had sagged to the frozen ground. Harban had stroked the dead man’s hair while he breathed his last once again. The confusion in Icenga’s eyes had turned Harban’s fear to pity. He had whispered words of comfort but none could possibly be adequate. He wasn’t even sure if Icenga could hear him.
And then at the very end, Icenga’s expression had cleared and words had issued from his mouth, bound to the sour taint of sick breath.
‘You know what this means,’ he had said, his voice a dry rasp. ‘We all know.’
Dimly, Harban heard the beat of hoofs on stone and ice. The fear deepened then, bringing a shortening of his breath. Harban sat with Icenga in his arms until his body was numbed by the cold and all his prayers were spoken.
Only then did his mind begin to function. Harban looked around him. The carved marble memorial to the Conquord dead in the slaughter a decade past stood cracked and creeper-covered. It had once been a grand obelisk with the bust of Jorganesh, the fallen general, proud at its head. But through the creepers could be seen scrawled Tsardon insults and threats should the Conquord ever return this way. It was smeared with long-dried goat’s blood and the nose of the general had been shorn away.
Dusas chill ran deep and abiding. A gale charged with ice howled along Lubjek’s Defile, rustling the ivy on the memorial. Nothing else remained to mark the single worst defeat of Conquord forces during her war with Tsard. No bones remained, no onager stones sat among the leaves. Not even an arrowhead poked through. All long cleared by Atreska’s impoverished southern peoples.
Harban had seen the immediate aftermath. The images still haunted his dreams and filled his prayers to the Heart of the Mountain. This was not a place any Karku, let alone Harban, would choose to come any more. Though the scorched trees had grown afresh and flowers would carpet the ground when genastro warmed the earth, it would forever be tainted.
Harban was on Kark’s northern border with Atreska, there with Icenga because of the rumours that had now proved true. Icenga had not been the only one to perish this way. Others had been used. Testing a power that the Karku had feared down the long centuries of history but had never really believed would be made flesh. That it was being tested here and Harban could take back undeniable evidence was the realisation of the darkest of Karku fears.
Harban stood, Icenga’s body limp in his arms, finally granted the peace he deserved. He began to walk back up the slope towards the passageway under the mountains. The deep rumble of a distant avalanche reverberated over him. He stopped and stared up at the white peaks above, many lost in dense grey cloud. Another portent giving credence to Icenga’s words from beyond death?
‘Perhaps we are already too late,’ he said and moved on again.
There was a great deal to be done. Icenga had to be interred in the rock catacombs under the village of Yllin-Qvist where he had lived his whole life; a place from where he could never be reawakened again. And Harban had to speak with the guardians of Inthen-Gor, the Heart of the Mountain. They had to know what he had seen and determine whether the prophecy was coming to pass. And if it was, it would be Harban who would make the journey to seek the few who could save them.
Deep in the mountain, the prophecies and writings of the ancients were already under close scrutiny. In the most sacred place in Kark, where the Eternal Water lapped the shores of the island on which the Heart Shrine stood, where the priests and guardians kept unflinching vigil, there had been a theft. Truth had been stolen. Disaster would surely follow. He lived. And He would come for them.
King Thomal Yuran of Atreska accepted the parchment but did not open it, knowing it would represent his last act as monarch of his country. In front of him, a man and a woman stood a respectful distance away. They were flanked by guards, polished armour reflecting the firelight of the cold throne room, faces emotionless. There would be more in every corridor of the castle and thousands of others, all bearing the Del Aglios crest, securing every inch of his country. It had gone with scarcely a whimper.
‘This is what I think it is?’ he asked.
His throne felt uncomfortable beneath him. The throne room, long divested of its Conquord accoutrements, was stale and bare. Outside, a dusas gale scoured the aged stone and mourned around the turrets and arches. This was not how he imagined it would end. By the lord of sky and stars, looking at the woman in front of him his dreams had ever been different and full of light and love. Not like this. This miserable end. They wouldn’t understand he had never had any real choice. Any decision he had made during those fateful days would have led to disaster for ordinary Atreskans. His people. The ones who had chanted his name and now demanded his deposition.
‘I’m fulfilling my destiny as a servant of the Conquord,’ she said quietly.
There was strength in her. He had seen the same ten years before.
‘It is not the destiny I envisaged for you, Megan,’ said Yuran.
‘That was before you turned from the Conquord,’ said Megan.
‘And you turned from me.’
Yuran couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. The years in Estorr had been very good to Megan Hanev. Her authoritative bearing had heightened her beauty. She was elegant, dressed in a toga and stola of finest Tundarran weave, and she wore a gold circlet with a woven leaf motif in her hair. Her long black hair was brushed to hang perfectly down between her shoulder blades and those deep brown eyes still retained such youthful energy.
She glanced to her right, to receive a nod from her companion before stepping forwards. Yuran felt his bravado begin to crumble. Megan reached a hand out to him and brushed his face.
‘Have you seen the world outside this castle? The Tsardon have raped it. There’s nothing left. You must have known they would take everything when it suited them.’ She sighed. ‘What happened, Thomal? Why did you do it?’
‘I couldn’t stand by and watch our people be slaughtered.’
‘Instead, they died in their thousands at your borders with Neratharn and Gestern,’ growled the man standing next to Megan. ‘All because you were gutless in the face of your enemy.’
‘You were not there, Exchequer Jhered. They would have crushed Haroq City without breaking sweat.’
Jhered’s face was almost sympathetic. He still looked strong and vital, though grey dominated his hair, which was cut viciously short as a consequence. He had to be almost sixty years old by now. Lines marked his face but you wouldn’t mistake age for weakness. Not in this man.
‘You never really understood, did you?’ said Jhered. ‘We were then, and are now, one Conquord. Some must always die in order to save others. But you didn’t ever see the world beyond Atreska’s borders.’
‘Don’t patronise me, Jhered.’
‘You and your people should have died for the Conquord when the Tsardon stood at your gates. Instead you fell meekly into line and listened to their lies about liberation. If what I saw when I rode through your once beautiful country is liberation then I would rather be a slave.
‘Every hour you held them up would have brought the rest of the Conquord time to marshal a more effective defence. And when we had won, we would have had the strength to take Atreska back then and there.’
‘But we would have been torn to pieces,’ said Yuran, aware of the whine in his voice. ‘We were outnumbered ten to one.’
Jhered nodded. ‘And your sacrifice would have saved five times the numbers that might have died within these walls. Atreska would have been a hero nation, blessed by the Advocate and feted by the whole of the Conquord. And you would have been its greatest son.
‘Instead, you chose cowardice and betrayal. Did you really think we would not dare come back? Did you really believe the Tsardon would defend you when our legions massed again on your borders? Atreska belongs to the Conquord.’
‘I chose the lives of my people,’ whispered Yuran.
‘And we hear their gratitude sounding from every window,’ said Jhered. ‘And we see it daubed on every wall.’
Yuran let his head drop. His mind raced. Curse the man. Always, his words sounded so simple, so plausible. Yet he had not been there. He had not tasted the terror of the people Yuran had sworn to protect. He felt Megan’s hand raising his chin. Her face was very close, her eyes deep with regret. ‘I dreamed for so long of our life together,’ she said quietly.
‘As did I.’
‘Even after I knew Atreska had turned, I didn’t want to believe it was you. But you never came back to me to prove it was not your doing. You gave me no choice but to pledge my allegiance to the Conquord above Atreska.’
Yuran smiled and reached out a hand, yearning to feel her skin one more time. But she leaned back from his touch and the first tear spilled on to her cheek.
‘You remain my greatest triumph and proudest moment,’ said Yuran. ‘Don’t make the mistakes I made.’
‘Undoubtedly, she will listen more closely to her teachers,’ said Jhered. He paused. ‘Megan.’
Yuran frowned at the Exchequer’s tone and looked questioningly at Megan. She stood up and stepped back.
‘You must read the order,’ she said, voice strained as if the words were hard to say. ‘I’m sorry.’
Yuran shook his head. ‘Don’t be. You know in some ways, this even represents relief. I fear I am no longer secure in my own castle.’
He focused on the parchment and broke the Conquord seal. He unrolled it, reading the declaration of Conquord rule over Atreska and naming his country’s new ruler and Marshal Defender. Further down, his own name was listed as deposed ruler to be dealt with under the law as prescribed by the Advocate. A half-smile crept across his lips. It was almost word for word the document he had handed to the then King of Atreska almost twenty years before.
‘It is true then, that some things never change in the Conquord,’ he said. He unrolled the parchment further and his next words withered on his lips.
‘Not all things,’ said Jhered.
Yuran shook his head and stared again at the lines he had just read. Chill cascaded through him and a pit opened in his stomach, leaving him feeling physically sick. His vision swam for a moment before he clutched hard to his fading hope.
‘This is wrong,’ he said. ‘It has to be. This is not the Conquord way, please. I know how it works. We all know. The deposed ruler has choice. Exile, swearing of loyalty, not just…’
‘But you are not the deposed ruler of a once independent state,’ said Jhered. ‘You are a traitor of the Conquord and a self-imposed king of a Conquord territory. Those rules do not apply to you.’
Yuran’s heart beat so loud he barely heard Jhered’s words. He was aware he was shaking but could do nothing to stop it. He looked down at the parchment once more then across to Megan who was staring back at him, her lips quivering.
‘And you signed it?’ he said showing her the proof beneath the execution order.
‘I am fulfilling my destiny,’ she said again. ‘Guards, please escort King Yuran to the cells.’
Men moved in on him from left and right. He wanted to be dignified but the moment one of them touched his arm, his courage failed him completely. Fear swamped him and he searched for something, anything that might save him. And there was something. Something he had thought to use to buy his freedom. Now it might buy his life.
‘You cannot do this to me. You need me alive. You don’t understand why the Tsardon left.’
The guards were hustling him to the door. He could no longer see Megan and Jhered but knew they would be staring at his back.
‘Only I can help you. They are coming back to finish the job and you won’t be strong enough to defeat them. No power is. Even your precious Ascendants won’t be able to stop what He will unleash. Please—’
Jhered barked a single word and the guards stopped and turned Yuran around. The Exchequer marched up to him and grabbed him by the jaw, strong fingers gripping him hard. Jhered made to speak but Yuran saw his chance.
‘Guarantee commutation of my sentence or I’ll tell you nothing. Let me live and I’ll help you to do the same.’
Jhered considered for a heartbeat then nodded minutely.
‘What do you mean, “He”?’ he asked.