Heavy purple tapestries had been pulled back to allow the light of a half moon to suffuse the smooth marble floors. At the center of the chamber, Pharkol groveled before the obsidian Mask of Narysatz. Entrails were strewn about his position. Gold and ivory artifacts lay partially in shadow all around him, witnessing his prayers in stoic silence. The Blood Lord leered down at the worshipper, its three eyes glaring from a noseless face.
For the third time, the hourglass next to Pharkol emptied, having run its course.
Pharkol remembered what his wife Simarra had told him. The words echoed in his mind.
It will take three hours abased before the Blood Lord…
He thought of her beautiful face and flowing black hair.
Then you will have just enough time to make it to the One Temple…
Pharkol moved away from the idol, careful to control his excitement. He delayed his departure as required by the ancient protocols. He stood and extinguished the sweet-burning khla sticks and captured a handful of butterflies from the cache on a low table nearby. He released them with a flourish of his hand. The insects fluttered chaotically for a moment before falling victim to the delicate fumes and dropping one by one to the floor. Only then did the Valek turn to leave. A scraping noise sounded behind him as he exited. He glanced back, seeing a slovenly grawth beast shamble forward to devour the entrails in its broad, stub-toothed mouth. The three eyes of the black idol scrutinized the scene, its purposes unfathomable to mortals.
Once out of the temple proper, Pharkol descended a run of lavish marble stairs leading down the ziggurat. The Valek’s black cloak fluttered in the light breeze, revealing the slena at his belt, a short handle with double-sided blades affixed to each end. He had selected a dark tunic and leggings for tonight, hoping to blend with the shadows. Though he was a tall and powerful man, his footfalls were soft, their sound lost in the sound of the nearby waterfalls. Determination was written in his thick frame, his smooth stonelike face, and the glare of his dark eyes.
Simarra’s words returned.
No one may see you making your way. Any discrepancy could bring disaster.
Even as he remembered her words and their urgency, he found himself distracted by the mental image of her full red lips uttering them.
Pharkol moved down from the heights of the temple overlooking Sarnai. He envisioned the city below him as it was in the daylight: a beautiful, well-ordered collection of white temples, markets, and houses topped in red tile. As it was now he could only see the flickering of a few dozen torches. Even though he doubted another person would be moving about at this hour, he traveled with caution, waiting and watching at each curve.
The roar of the falls from the cliffs increased. Since it never rained in Sarnai, the water of the falls was carefully routed to the countless fountains throughout the city as well as running through the sewers before its dispersal in the rich fields beyond.
The darkness deepened but Pharkol knew he approached the base of a cliff. A single torch illuminated a simple archway leading straight into the mountain. Rather than approaching it directly, he positioned himself around the corner of a stone building with a view of the entrance. Then he lurked in shadow and waited.
There you will await the High Priest of Narysatz. Do not let him see you. He is our unknowing ally.
Pharkol pushed down the anxiety that threatened to stop him. This was the last point at which he could still turn back. But he had worked too hard to give it all up now.
The minutes stretched on. Pharkol’s patience became forced. At last a single dark figure emerged from the city and approached the cliffside entrance to the One Temple. This would be Serreptus, the High Priest of Narysatz. The instant the priest had disappeared inside, Pharkol glided over to follow.
Several other men appeared from either side, moving in to quietly join Pharkol. They were Pharkol’s six most trusted lieutenants. They wore black cloaks and carried foot soldier’s slena. The standard footman’s slena was a two-handed weapon. They were longer in the middle than Pharkol’s weapon, essentially a leather-wrapped staff with footlong straight blades at each end.
There was an uncomfortable moment when he was exposed in the light of the torch, and then he was inside, his men filing in behind.
Here the single entrance corridor opened wider. Thick columns of stone divided the way forward, causing the corridor to branch into several possible courses. Pharkol followed the footfalls straight ahead, careful to muffle his own sounds of movement. He trusted his men explicitly, and he knew they followed without having to glance over his shoulder.
Pharkol shadowed the priest for several minutes as he wandered through the maze. Then Pharkol heard a quiet greeting. The priest had found a guide. No one but the monks of the One Temple knew the way into the inner sanctum, and a visitor had to be expected for a guide to show them the way. This was one of the most difficult tasks of the night. If Pharkol’s party were detected by the priest or any of the guides, they would not be able to make it into the sanctum.
The pair ahead of him passed by a dying torch. He caught a glimpse of the temple guide. The shaven man, skin stained in ebon dye, blindfolded the high priest with a band of red silk. He gently led the priest by a bronzorum collar affixed around his neck. Pharkol knew it was symbolic of the other eight temple’s subservience to the One Temple, which kept the other deities of the Octheon in balance. Pharkol sought to subvert this balance, placing the Blood Lord in a position of power so he could complete his own designs without the interference of the other temples as unified through Dandrin, the high priest of the One Temple.
Serreptus collected more acolytes as they moved through the maze, and by the time they emerged in the vast chamber on the far side, the group had formed a procession with Serreptus at its center. Pharkol followed to the edge of the sanctum. He watched from the shadow of the connecting maze tunnel. His men crouched and waited with him in the corridor.
One of the inhabitants of the maze released Serreptus from his collar and retrieved the blindfold. Then the grim entourage accompanied the high priest to the center of the room. A dais awaited the priest with a stone ridge for seating in a semicircle facing the throne of the One Priest.
Pharkol heard a shuffle and groan from behind. His head bolted back to see what had happened. One of his lieutenants held an acolyte around the throat while another soldier pulled one of the blades of his slena from the priest’s chest. Pharkol nodded his approval. One of the guides must have seen them, forcing the lieutenants to deal with him.
The Valek’s gaze returned to the inner chambers of the One Temple. From across the wide, dark room, a single robed man approached the central dais of the sanctum. Pharkol recognized him as Dandrin. His sect overlooked all the other temples of the city and brought order to the worshippers of the eight gods.
Pharkol retrieved a soft bag from his belt. He loosened the drawstring and reached in, bringing out a voolnr serpent. It slid about his hand curiously, a thin green sliver of flesh that belied its deadliness. Pharkol did not fear its bite. The voolnr seldom struck at men, and when one did so, it was at the direction of a god. He had made sacrifices to the Blood Lord to protect him from the ire of another god who might want to stop him in his mission.
Only the venom of the voolnr can kill him forever, Simarra had assured him. It must be fresh or it will not work.
Pharkol drew his slena, a smaller one-hand version of the soldier’s weapons. He held one of the blades flat under the head of the voolnr. He carefully squeezed the creature’s venom sacs until glinting drops of poison formed on the fangs it brandished. He wet one point of his weapon and then reversed it to treat the opposite end similarly. Then he tossed the serpent aside. It writhed in anger for a moment and then slithered away.
Now he had a weapon he believed would slay the One Priest. Such a feat was not considered possible by some. It was said the priest was protected by powerful magics, to safeguard him in his position as overseer of the other temples. Pharkol believed the steps he had taken would defeat this protection; Simarra would not betray him, and she had foreseen his success.
Pharkol took a deep breath and started quietly forward. He didn’t know what the guides would make of him, but he wanted them to have little time to think before he attacked. Pharkol was not a trained assassin. As Valek of Sarnai, he served as commander of the Sarnese army. Therefore he would rely upon surprise and brute force rather than stealth to accomplish the last phase of his plan. His men moved out behind him.
As he approached the center throne with the priests on it, he didn’t watch the guides. He watched his target Dandrin. The men around him were veterans. They fanned out to engage the guides without making a sound.
The sounds of short, brutal combat echoed in the room. Pharkol dashed up to Dandrin and stabbed him twice in the chest, switching his weapon to strike with each poisoned blade. As the priest fell to his knees, bloodstains spreading on his garment, Pharkol slashed savagely across the man’s throat. Blood sprayed out over the Valek’s arm. It felt hot on his sweaty, clammy skin.
Dandrin’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed to the floor a corpse. Pharkol looked around and saw that his men were finishing the last two guides, who were fighting back with plain wooden staves. The lieutenants surrounded them and stabbed coldly and efficiently until they were as dead as their leader.
Serreptus seemed calm. It was probably clear to him that he would already be dead if he had been a target of these men. Pharkol regarded the priest of Narysatz openly and spoke.
“Serreptus, this can be your place. What say you, shall the Blood Lord rule in the One Temple?”
The priest regarded Pharkol calmly. “Perhaps. What place do you want for yourself?”
“I ascend to Vihol of Sarnai. And my wife the Syr is now Vorhol. It is as she has foreseen.”
The priest nodded. He knew better than to contradict Pharkol’s ambition or his wife’s visions.
“The Blood Lord is not one to stand in the way of conquest, Valek. He lusts for the spilled blood of our enemies. You know that. It’s why you struck during my visit.”
Pharkol bowed. “Your following will grow. My men will help you clear the rest of the temple, establish you as its next overseer.”
“I will need to summon my followers to this place.”
Pharkol turned to one of his lieutenants. “Karn? Did the cord mark the way?”
The man Pharkol addressed stepped forward. He was an older soldier with closely cropped hair and a flat nose.
“I marked the way through the maze as we planned, Valek. The others should be able to follow us.”
“Then your acolytes are already on their way,” Pharkol told the priest. “Narysatz rules here now.”
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but the other temples may see to it that the reign is very short.”
“You’ll have our protection. We’ll lend you Narysai to secure your position until you have time to set up defenses of your own here in the One Temple.”
The promise seemed to satisfy Serreptus. He had no further comments.
Pharkol stayed for hours longer, working with his men to secure the temple and signal for more soldiers to enter and help Serreptus establish himself in the temple.
Once it was clear his efforts had been successful, Pharkol left Karn in control and slipped back out through the maze. He moved out of the cliffside and found himself alone with the night. A great weight lifted from him. The knowledge of his victory improved his mood immensely. Simarra’s plan had been perfect.
The thoughts consumed him so that it seemed no time at all until he arrived at his home, a large octagonal dwelling of white stone and red tile. He bounded up to the door and knocked loudly. It opened quickly to reveal Simarra, smiling and wearing a flowing green dress. Pharkol stepped inside and closed the door.
He took Simarra in his arms. Her sinuous body melted into him, pressing its soft flesh against his corded thews. She ran a silky hand over his strong cheek and down an angular jawline. His dark eyes looked into her green ones.
“It is done,” he told her.
“Then you’re no longer bound by Dandrin. The way is clear.”
“As you have foreseen,” Pharkol said.
Simarra kissed him, drawing him back deeper into the house. They walked into the main chamber, the center of the dwelling. All Sarnese houses were built around a central room with the other chambers radiating out in all directions. Pharkol’s house had an octagonal heart with seven rooms beyond each side of the main one. The eighth facet of the house was an entranceway. Simarra had decorated the main room, filling it with candles and covering the doorways in red tapestry.
“You’ve prepared a ritual?”
“To celebrate your victory, my love. A ritual for Uluan.”
Pharkol looked at her preparations. The round cushions of the room had been pressed together to form a soft bed. Fresh flowers were strewn around the cushions. Golden chains came from four of the surrounding rooms, ending in manacles that rested on the bed.
Simarra helped Pharkol remove his armor, running her hands over his body. Pharkol felt himself rising to her ministrations. Once he’d left behind breastplate, cape, and slena, Simarra let her dress fall to the floor.
“The chains?” he asked. His eyes fell to her body. Simarra possessed a languid grace. Her placidity frustrated him. Already he felt impatient to be upon her. Yet he knew there was a ritual to be enacted.
“You must secure me. I will drink a fertility potion, which will drive me wild. Only then, as I struggle against the bonds, will you send me your seed.”
Pharkol spotted the potion, a bluish fluid sitting in a simple wooden cup. He nodded. They kissed again, more urgently. He grasped her wrists, preparing to secure her. Already she struggled weakly, as if practicing for the frenzy to come.
Their nascent celebration was interrupted by a loud banging on the door.
They broke from their embrace; Pharkol’s heart shifted from one rhythm to another. What could have gone wrong? He strode over to the door and drew his slena. Simarra recovered her dress and faded into a side room. Then he cautiously opened the door, uncertain what to expect.
A foot soldier stood at the door. He wore leather and did not bear a slena. Five other Narysai were arrayed behind him; these men had bronzorum breastplates, greaves, and slenas. All stood rock still in recognition of the Valek.
“Speak, soldier,” Pharkol commanded. He wore a tight frown on his gaunt face. He slipped outside, allowing the door to obscure any view of the chamber beyond.
“Invaders approach Sarnai!” the messenger burst out, breathing heavily.
“Tell me more,” commanded Pharkol, his brows coming together. “Who has been alerted?”
“The gate captain dispatched others to the Narysai barracks as well as the Eresai. We couldn’t find Karn. I continued straight here myself,” the runner answered, beginning to compose his breathing.
“How far are they? Their numbers?”
“They will be at Gateway in two days,” the runner said. “At least ten score of them in the first group. The scout said he suspects more follow behind. We saw no animals of any kind, only warriors afoot. They looked near enough to men. They walk upright, wielding bronzorum weapons.”
“Very well. Collect our men and supplies as you’ve been trained. We march tomorrow,” Pharkol said. “I’ll be there early.”
The messenger and his escort acknowledged his orders by hiding their right hands behind their backs. Pharkol returned to his entranceway and closed the door again. Simarra had heard everything.
“I’ll have to go to the barracks,” Pharkol told her.
“Tomorrow. You’ve been up for a day and half the night. Sleep for a few hours at least.”
Pharkol wanted to say that he couldn’t, that this was too important to risk. But he knew she was right. He needed sleep if he was to lead the men into battle in two days, even a defensive battle against the primitive Outsiders. Sarnai had never succumbed to outside invasion, but it only had to happen once to destroy their way of life. It would be easy to become overconfident or underestimate the invader’s numbers or prowess. Pharkol would not allow that to happen.
Pharkol walked back into the main room with his wife, and they sat down on the large, round cushions of their main chamber.
“I’ve promised men to Serreptus to secure the One Temple. Now we have to repel an invasion. The other temples may take advantage of the timing—”
“They never move quickly. They’ll take days to determine if the new power in the One Temple is to their advantage or disadvantage. Besides, they have as much at stake in defending the valleys against invasion as you do.”
“I hope you’re right. That’s what they’ll do if they’re rational. But sometimes men will fight amongst themselves even when it dooms them to defeat from another danger.”
“There’s nothing more you can do. Leave what men you can spare and concentrate on defeating the Outsiders. If you have to return and seize the One Temple again, so be it.”
Pharkol nodded. “Without your counsel—”
“You would truly be lost,” Simarra finished for him. They traded smiles. “And now, Valek, for the ritual...”
In the morning Pharkol emerged from his house. There were rings under his eyes, but his pace was energetic. The Valek looked different now than he had last night. He had replaced his black cloak with a bright red one, a symbol of his exalted rank. He wore a ceremonial helmet decorated with a row of metal spikes running from front to back; when the time for combat came he would discard it for a real helm.
Pharkol walked several hundred paces and came to the slide carriages that ran near his house. A long stone track had been set into the ground ahead. As Pharkol approached he looked downslope and saw one passenger carriage rolling up toward him, with its counterbalance carriage headed downward on the other side. He waited patiently, and when the carriage slid to the top, the helmsman opened the carriage door. Pharkol stepped in and took a seat. Another soldier entered the carriage with him, as well as three other men and two women. The soldier straightened and froze to signify his recognition of the Valek’s rank. Pharkol accepted this as his due and said nothing.
The slide carriages were a marvel that existed only in Sarnai. The primitives of the outer world would doubtless be stupefied by the contrivances that took people and cargo downhill quickly and easily during the day. In the evening, the counterbalance carriages were filled with water headed down from the falls in order to pull up carriages full of people headed back to their mountainside homes.
The carriage moved steadily downward for three minutes before stopping at the bottom to disgorge Pharkol and the other citizens. Only a few steps across a stone road separated this carriage and the next and the next. Each set of carriages took him down a steep hillside to the next plateau of houses until he finally arrived at the grassy training grounds that covered the floor of the valley. He walked through the field and approached two groups of long, flat buildings. The Valek headed to the north side, toward barracks of the Narysai, the foot soldiers of the Sarnese army.
The Eresai were housed on the opposite side. The southern shoulders of the drill field were filled with dozens of them. The men were dipping their flat-bladed sarken into vats of dung carried up from the gardens.
Pharkol stopped briefly to inspect their equipment. He grabbed a handful of the sarken and examined them. The shafts were true, and the bronzorum heads were sharp, their flat blades punched with a hole through the center to hold the excrement. Some of the men were getting some last minute practice in, casting the small spears with the short handles of wood they used to launch them.
Pharkol watched with approval. The Eresai were yet another sign of the technical superiority that Sarnai displayed compared to the outer world. The wooden handles with leather grips allowed the Sarnese to cast their missiles with greater power than a normal spearman.
The Eresai commander stepped up beside Pharkol, ready to receive his wishes.
“The mounts will be ready?” Pharkol asked as he replaced the sarken.
“Yes, Valek. The yulgars are always slow to start, but we have them moving toward the Mouth of Sarnai now.”
Pharkol nodded, this being exactly as he expected. The yulgars were dull, unexcitable beasts, which was one of the reasons the Eresai used them. In the heat of battle, the creatures would lumber about as if grazing on the calmest of spring days. Another reason was their height and strength. On its four stilt-like legs, an adult yulgar stood three times taller than a man. They could hold two spearmen on their crests, allowing the men to cast their sarken down into the enemy. Of course the steadiness of the beasts also contributed to their main drawback, lack of maneuverability. The creatures were even outpaced by formations of men on foot.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of the yulgars, though, lay in their unique nature. It was written in the temple texts that the creatures didn’t exist beyond Gateway. The barbarians of the outer world were clearly intimidated by them. In truth the beasts were nearly harmless on their own, but any unknown creature standing so tall brought fear to invaders. Pharkol planned to deploy the creatures in the center of the line, where their defense was weakest.
Pharkol bid his commander to continue with all due haste and depart as soon as all was ready, no later than sunset in any case. The road to Gateway was so familiar to every warrior in the valley that the army could find its way there even on the darkest of nights (and they had done so many times in drill). Even though the enemy was not expected until sunrise the next day, it would be prudent to prepare as early as possible.
With this out of the way, Pharkol proceeded to the main point of interest, the barracks of his Narysai. There he knew the wagons were being loaded for the short trip to the mustering point at Gateway.
Once in the barracks, he sought out one of his officers. He found Karn first. The burly man held a spiked bronzorum helmet under one arm. Karn served as Pharkol’s senior officer. He also wore a cape, although it was not of the Valek’s symbolic red fabric. Like Pharkol, the man had been up last night helping to secure the One Temple, and he looked tired.
“Many of the men have already left. There will be stragglers, but by all accounts there’s time enough. They’re ready, eager to prove themselves,” Karn said.
Pharkol nodded. As he was acutely aware, it had been thousands of days since Sarnai had been attacked. Once again he thanked Narysatz for this opportunity to prove his army.
“Is anything not going according to plan?”
“Nothing important. Somehow we miscalculated the number of wagons needed to bring enough food for the yulgars. As you know, we’re supposed to have five day’s worth in the baggage train, but there are only enough wagons for two day’s worth. We have people working on it; they’ll simply bring the rest in a day or two.”
“If that’s the only problem so far, then the gods smile upon us,” Pharkol said. “I want you to stay back until midnight to make sure there aren’t any problems in the city. I’m going ahead to the muster point to inspect the line.”
Karn acknowledged the instructions, moving his weapon hand from the hilt of his slena, and went about his business. Pharkol went to his private Valek’s quarters and put together his equipment. His armor consisted of bronzorum greaves, full helmet, and a heavy breastplate. Metal scales woven into leather leggings protected his groin and thighs above the greaves. Pharkol left his ornamental helmet and the small slena at his belt. He picked out a full-size footman’s slena, with newly forged gray blades of carbiron. Every time he saw a carbiron weapon, he had to pause and appreciate the triumph of Sarnese technology. No doubt the Outsider’s weapons would be made of softer metals. Then Pharkol took his field maps and went to grab some rations on the way out.
The road to Gateway was busy, filled with soldiers afoot, men guiding wagons, Eresai, and yulgar tenders. Women and children lined the sides of the road, staring in absolute silence as tradition demanded. The citizenry were required to observe their departure sternly as the soldiers had not yet performed their duties to the satisfaction of the gods. Only if the men returned victorious would they express their emotions. Pharkol felt the gazes of the people upon him, and he bore them stoically as he walked. There would be celebration enough when he returned.
The walk was uneventful. When he came to the mustering grounds, it was late afternoon. Most of the Narysai and Eresai had set up camps or made their way into the flank towers to rest for upcoming battle.
Gateway was the only exit of the lavish valley stronghold of Pharkol’s people. On all other sides, Braurarya’s mountains enclosed the Three Valleys, making travel in any other direction impossible. Not that most of the Sarnese wanted to travel in any case. Why should they desire to do so when the gods had provided for their every need? The falls watered their rich valley, and the rocky cliffs nestled them safely on all sides. It was left to them to guard the single pass. And with the blessings of their eight gods, the Sarnese were wiser in the ways of art, literature, architecture, and warfare than any of the barbarians from beyond Gateway.
The gray slena Pharkol held was proof of this superiority. The Sarnese blacksmiths had created the new metal, and now this mastery had been used to begin the creation of superior arms and armor. The blacksmiths called it carbiron after its metallic components. Pharkol had tested the strength of this new material himself, finding it to be unbelievably strong. Soon all the Narysai would bear such new weapons, giving them yet another advantage when they met Outsiders in the narrow canyon that led into their valley.
By now every citizen would have heard of the summons, and every one of his men would have responded to the barracks or the drill field to gather their equipment and help with preparations as they had been trained to do. Pharkol himself did not need to oversee this process since he had so carefully directed the soldiers in this drill countless times.
He moved farther into the great camp and took his place in the Valek’s tent. Runners had arrived with news of the progress of the invaders. The scouts told of man-things on foot, with strange crests on their heads and wide, ugly eyes that dominated their faces.
Pharkol nodded at this, half expecting men from beyond the valley to be malformed. These were the lessons he had been taught as a child. The outer world was a tragic, unfriendly place, where all manner of horrible and inexplicable beings clashed in their struggle to survive. It was their fate because they never had everything needed for life in one place as the Sarnese did. The gods had blessed only Sarnai and left the rest of mankind to suffer in endless anguish. In return for this gift, the gods demanded many rituals and sacrifices, but it was well worth it. Without the gods, the Sarnese would be savage animals, just like those who lived beyond Gateway.
Pharkol set aside his armor and slena and retired to his pallet. Sleep did not come easily on the eve of such a battle. There could be no question that the Outsiders approaching were hostile. There was no other kind of outsider to the Sarnese. Whether these foes were men or otherwise, Pharkol knew they must be broken and turned back. His centuries-old homeland depended upon it.
At first light Pharkol met with his officers at Gateway. They reported on the size and preparedness of his army. As expected, about ten thousand Narysai had rallied at Gateway along with an additional three thousand veterans and a roughly equal number of Eresai. More continued to arrive, though at this point the late soldiers were added to the reserve rather than deployed to the front line.
The Valek and his officers walked across the flat field and inspected the deployment of Sarnai’s army. Near vertical walls of stone bounded the flanks of their position. A steep trough had been dug in the plain straight across the canyon to break any charge they might have to face. The Narysai were set on the far side of this depression in a single line, six men deep across the three thousand paces of the line. The Eresai brought over a hundred yulgars up behind the center. The mounted contingent of Eresai prepared to climb up onto their high backs to command a wide view of the field.
Securing their flanks, crenellated stone towers jutted from the cliffs, filled with more Eresai. Deep pits filled with wooden spikes were hidden on the field behind the flanks, demarcated with small stone piles the Sarnese were trained to recognize. Behind the center, a group of older men, veterans past their prime, formed a reserve that would move to meet any potential breakthrough attempt. Pharkol had never seen them used, but he saw the wisdom of the tradition. If the enemy amassed too much force at any one spot, the line could break and cause disaster.
Groups of younger men, not yet soldiers, waited with fresh water, weapons, and medicine. If the enemy routed, these squads would help pursue the stragglers to ensure no outsider ever returned from Gateway to report the presence of Sarnai.
This was a position the Sarnese had held for centuries, since before the advent of their recorded history when Netarch the Creator had spread the seeds of life into the valley falls and spawned their race.
Pharkol only had to wait a few more minutes. Soon a runner came across the plain, and the line opened up to accept him. The word came quickly. Only a few more minutes until the invaders would be upon their position.
Pharkol moved through the ranks and took his place in the line with his Narysai. The men surrounding him were trembling with excitement and covered in sweat. He could see the yulgars gently swaying behind his line, bearing their Eresai with grace and detachment. He himself stood ready for battle with his slena.
A mass of figures moved into view at the other end of the canyon. Pharkol’s pulse raced as he awaited their assault. The enemy army approached rapidly.
“They’ll be tired before they even get here,” Pharkol said loudly, filtering all anxiety from his voice. A few nearby men chuckled but most remained silent, eyeing the enemy horde.
The things before them screamed and howled as they approached. Pharkol saw that they moved as a mob with no discernable formation. These were warriors, not soldiers.
The first volley of sarken bit into the invaders, causing many in the front ranks to stumble and falter. The horde behind them simply trampled the dead and wounded underfoot, pressing forward eagerly. They rolled through the ditch without hesitation, eager to close with the Sarnese defenders.
Pharkol watched from his spot at the back of the Sarnese center, surrounded by his fellow Narysai. In the hands of the invaders, he caught glimpses of long-handled weapons with broad-cutting blades on one end. He presumed the weapons would be used like axes, cutting men like wood.
The enemy wave struck the front line of Sarnese. Pharkol watched a slavering subhuman with wide-set eyes and fur on its face swing its blade-axe down at a Sarnese soldier. The soldier blocked the blow with the haft of his slena. The soldier’s companions thrust at his attacker, delivering fatal wounds. Blood spilled out onto the stained ground of the field. Then the soldier kept fighting, wielding his slena with both hands.
Bodies accumulated on both sides, but Pharkol estimated the Sarnese were killing many more of the enemy. Men started to stagger back from the front line, to be replaced by fresh men behind them. The wounded and tired men didn’t flee; they performed exactly per drill procedure, rotating back behind the line. Often the men there would discard their greaves and helmets in little piles. The heavy armor was useful, especially if the enemy hurled spears at the first encounter, but after combat was joined and a man tired, the extra weight became a liability. The men rested while binding each other’s wounds. Those still able prepared to take their turn again.
Pharkol moved up to fill a hole in the line. A savage charged toward him, and for a split second he got a close look at the foe: a tall, powerful humanoid with crazed eyes staring at him through wide eye openings in a bronzorum helmet. A crest of stiff red hair decorated the top of its helmet, making it seem even taller. It held its axe up, ready to swing.
Pharkol struck first. His longer weapon slid into the attacker’s throat. Blood sprayed out, and the creature hurled past him from the momentum of its charge. Pharkol realized the line had started to bow from the brunt of the attackers. He pulled his weapon free and grabbed its haft in both hands.
Another attacker came for his spot in the line. This time Pharkol stepped forward as it closed, blocking the enemy’s axe overhead before it could gain any momentum. Pharkol drove his knee up toward the thing’s groin. Before he connected the enemy smashed its head into his own, sending a flash of pain through his body. Pharkol swam in confusion. Whether his own blow ever connected, he did not know.
Sounds and shapes moved nearby. Suddenly Pharkol regained his wits, realizing that he had to move or face being dismembered at any moment. He looked up from his position on the ground and saw that four Narysai fought around him, protecting their leader from the assailants. Pharkol stood and moved toward the back, aware of great pain in his head but attempting to ignore it.
He stopped to pick up a discarded slena. He hurled it as a spear, striking an attacker in the leg and giving a different soldier the chance to finish it off. Then he joined a group at the back. He stood and watched with the others, trying to clear his head. The soldier beside him, a very young man, suddenly realized he was standing next to his Valek. His stance changed, becoming more upright. Pharkol smiled at him.
“Did you get any, soldier?”
“Yes, my Valek!” shouted the man. Pharkol saw blood on the man’s slena.
“Then Narysatz smiles upon you,” Pharkol said.
“Thank you, Valek.”
Pharkol felt ready to take another turn in the line when he saw that the attackers had exhausted their numbers. Many chose to die on the attack, fighting despite their obvious doom. Those few who did try to run were finished off by sarken flying down from the Eresai as they negotiated the far slope of the ditch.
The Valek took stock of the battlefield. He saw many wounded Narysai, but it looked as though the flanks had fared better than the center where he stood. He estimated perhaps a fifth or a sixth of his force had been killed.
Pharkol saw a knot of ten or twelve men resting among the bodies to his left.
“Go across the ditch and finish off any others who are escaping,” he commanded. The men moved immediately despite their fatigue. They all knew that none of the enemies could be allowed to return home. The outside world had to be taught that any who entered the mouth never returned.
Pharkol looked for the hornsman of his section of the line. He found him resting atop the corpse of a large barbarian.
“Sound the horn, or give it to me if you cannot,” Pharkol said.
The man nodded and let loose a long note. Pharkol stood, trying to stay balanced and let the pain in his head ease until the reserve veterans approached.
“Across the ditch,” he yelled even though it pained his head. “No survivors.”
The veterans headed out across the ditch.
Karn appeared at his side.
“We’ve won the day, it seems,” Karn said.
“Savages,” Pharkol summarized.
“That’s good for us.”
Pharkol walked over to the body of an Outsider. He kicked its helmet off. It had a thick forehead and a furry face. Its jaw jutted forward, though whether normally so or only in death, Pharkol could not tell.
“It is a man…ugly and bestial. But basically a man, I think,” he said.
“Not a man as we know it. Not like us. But for the outside…beyond Gateway, that is what passes for a man.”
Two more officers arrived from the flanks to report the full rout of the enemy. The fresh squads of lightly armored youth ran out after the fleeing invaders upon hearing the horn blast. They eagerly overtook the veterans, passing the more heavily armed men on their hunt for Outsiders.
Pharkol turned to his leaders.
“That passes for a military force in the outside world?” asked Pharkol scornfully. “They were poorly armored, poorly trained, and poorly led. We could have defeated these things even if they had been hiding in a tower,” he announced.
“What you say is true. Sarnai will remain safe as long as we remain vigilant,” Karn said.
“Why should we sit back and wait for the next time? Sarnai is the greatest nation in the world, and we sit here and crowd the three valleys until we must still the wombs of our women for fear of starving to death. This is not as it should be!” stormed Pharkol. His sudden outburst caught his officers completely off guard. They straightened and stood silent.
The Valek of Sarnai turned his back to them and brooded.
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