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Chapter 18: Saviours
Aurelius – The Meddar: The Western Front
The night came on so suddenly this time of year.
Overhead, stars poked through the pale daylight like pins through a cotton sheet and the fertile lands of the Meddar glistened in a green haze past the clawing hunger of the desert.
Aurelius’s brown stallion scuffed the cold dry earth and snorted, as though chaffing at the oncoming darkness.
Aurelius dismounted, hopping onto the hard ground.
Fifty thousand men had marched west with Aurelius into disputed territory. Now the rich and fertile plains of the Meddar yawned before them, past the stretch of scrubby desert where Aurelius had made camp. Throughout Qemassen’s history, the Meddar had been a fine prize, fought over by Inda and Massenqa alike until Qemassen had finally laid claim to her. She’d been lost to Lorar during his father’s time and only dreamed of since. Few of the original Massenqa settlers remained, the towns that had once stretched all the way to the Inda border having long ago been razed and then rebuilt to Lora specifications.
No doubt the Lora hoped Qemassen would endure a similar end, but with the Lora fleet retreating north there seemed little chance of failure.
The Inda, along with Hadrianus’s Lora troops, still posed a considerable threat, which was why Aurelius had marched west before they had a chance to sweep across Massenqa territory.
“And for you Mother. I take back our country for you,” Aurelius spoke into the wind.
It was a gift Eshmunen never could have given her.
Aurelius looked out across tomorrow’s battlefield, memorizing the wiles of the terrain—its ups and downs, its furrows and its heights. Somewhere beyond the dry desert sands and rocky scrubland, Hadrianus’s army, along with the pride of Indas, lay waiting. Aurelius’s scouts had brought word yesterday that the enemy had been sighted and would reach Aurelius’s forces tomorrow. There was no evidence that Luqiferus had joined them, which didn’t surprise. There was a reason Aurelius’s commanders had nicknamed the governor of Lera The Hermit Crab.
Aurelius squinted. He was certain he could see the blur of tents billowing in the distance and the fuzzy outline of flags and horses. But the desert played tricks on the eyes, and until his most recent scouts returned, Aurelius wasn’t going to force his army onwards. It seemed likely the Lora would try to trap them. If he stayed put, Aurelius should have the advantage of the subtle upward slope of the ground and the protection of a desert nawet—a pond ringed with graceful palms—at their back.
If Hadrianus were a clever man, he’d let the disciplined Lora soldiers take the fore, allowing the Inda light cavalry to manoeuvre around them and attack Aurelius’s left flank.
If he were clever.
Aurelius grinned, turning away from his distant enemies toward his own army.
An assortment of mercenaries, Massenqa warriors, desert tribesmen, and war animals made up the camp. At the far edges of the tents, the elephants clustered around the palm-fringed nawet. Under the last of the day’s light, they sated themselves with the clear water while their trainers rested in the shade of the date palms. A group of mercenaries broke away from the main camp, heading for the nawet with water flasks in their hands. As the mercenaries passed the red and blue-striped tents of the city-born forces, they paused as though to chat to the men outside.
Massenqa to Massenqa. Southerner to southerner.
The Lora assumption was that Qemassen’s reliance on paid soldiery made them easy to break, but what they forgot was that most of these men were southerners. Many of the mercenaries had joined their bands following displacement by Lora settlers. Some even heralded from the Meddar region itself. If anyone had cause to fight in these lands, it was these men. Besides, Aurelius had paid them an awful lot of gold.
At Shaqarbas’s council, Aurelius had sent a contingent ahead of the main force. These were desert nomads from south of eq-Anout, whose camel mounts afforded them speed and surprise. Such men were used to both the desolate terrain and to subterfuge. They’d attack Hadrianus’s force from the rear, scattering his men. The elephants would do the work of scaring the Lora infantrymen. Most of the Inda mounts would be accustomed to the animals, but a few well-placed archers on the elephants’ backs would soon send the Lora screaming. The elephants were well-trained, familiar with fire and with projectiles, clever and intimidating. Nothing gripped Lora hearts so fearfully as the sight of stampeding Massenqa war elephants trimmed for battle in their dazzling gold and red armour.
Aurelius’s throat grew suddenly choked.
Come peacetime, Yeremi had promised, he would move his family eastward to Old Elu. Nothing Aurelius had said could sway him when there were so many painful memories in Qemassen. And how could Aurelius even blame him, when his own bad memories lived as tenants in every room of the palace?
Bree’s insistence that they run had been a greater temptation than she probably realized.
One of the elephants trumpeted, spurting water into the air with its long nose. The way the animals tromped through the water, delighting in splashing one another, was so like children playing. And like children, they had no way to know what awaited them on the battlefield—what, and who, they stood to lose.
Some memories, it seemed, followed you all the long march through the desert.
Aurelius could summon the sights, smells, and sounds of the night his mother had died no matter where he was: Dashel’s calming hand on his shoulder, Hima’s taunts, the sticky black ointments with which Uta had smeared his hair. The smell of blood. His mother’s screams. The smoke from the fire. The sizzle of burning flesh when Samelqo had laid Ashtara onto her scalding deathbed.
At least Samelqo had been an enemy Aurelius could put a name and face to. Now all he had were masked opponents within, and strangers without. Marianus Rufus conjured no images. He had no character, no face, no desires or motivations.
A king of shadows.
“Nervous, Sese?” Qanmi had crept up behind Aurelius like just such a shadow-walker.
Aurelius plastered on a jolly smile and turned to address his councilor. Qanmi’s gold-threaded braids were dusted with fine sand, his cheeks wind-beaten from the march. He looked a different man out here.
Once, Qanmi had been a barely tolerated necessity, but since the coronation he’d proved himself more than the gold-hungry ass Aurelius had always taken him for.
In fact, with Farnus Alba at Qanmi’s beck and call, and Qanmi’s deep pockets funding the war, he’d become nigh indispensable. That ought to worry Aurelius more than it did, but part of him at least wanted to believe people could change, that they weren’t doomed to repeat their family’s mistakes.
“Lost in thought.” Aurelius waved at the elephants beside the nawet. Their trainers were drawing them away now from the water.
Qanmi’s smile melted as he watched the animals. What did he see when he looked at them?
“You were rubbing your hands, Sese.” Qanmi glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the enemy. “There’s no shame in nervousness. I’d worry if you weren’t. A nervous man is a vigilant man.”
Aurelius hadn’t known he rubbed his hands. He must have picked it up from Bree. “I feel like the most vigilant man who’s ever lived, so by that logic I must be very nervous.”
The good humour faded from Qanmi’s face like the sun fading from the evening sky. “Don’t be overbold. Your strategy is sound, but untested. This is your first battle and your first campaign.”
Aurelius turned to look behind them at their own people, joking and preparing and praying for the gods’ favour.
The still-unnamed stallion gave a toss of his mane, restless.
Aurelius sympathized. “And the most important one Qemassen has seen since my father lost the Meddar. I won’t fail. And besides, I’ve seen many battles, only most have been in the bedroom and not the field.” He grinned, but Qanmi remained grim-faced.
If only Dashel were at Aurelius’s side. He’d known how to bring cheer like no other.
“Hadrianus has won many victories,” Qanmi continued, unperturbed, “he has as much lose as Qemassen. Farnus tells me there are rumours he fights for his own cause now, not for Lorar. He thinks to make himself king of the southern shore. But even if the rumours are unfounded, a senator’s reputation rests on his ability to strengthen the empire. If he loses Indas, he’ll forfeit any support he has back home.”
Campfires popped to life throughout the encampment, but the western sands where Aurelius was certain he’d spied movement were empty and unlit. He must have imagined the tents and flags.
Aurelius drew his thick blue cape over his shoulder. He wasn’t cold, and yet he could feel the promise of cold nipping at his skin. “Then let Hadrianus’s ambition be his downfall. No man has ever conquered the south. We’re too vast and too disparate. The desert tribes would never bow to him, and neither would Ajwata.”
But Indas had. Qanmi didn’t speak the words, but he didn’t need to. It was obvious what he was thinking from the squint of his eyes and the way he looked away. “And Qemassen?”
“She would rather burn.” Aurelius shivered.
Qanmi nodded soberly. “For once we’re agreed. For Qemassen, I fear it is life or death. Our people won’t accept vassalage. We’d follow Ossa’s country to the afterlife.”
The loss of the Feislands ate at Aurelius daily, but what more could he have done? He’d take it all back for her. After Indas, he’d sail north with the whole Massenqa army if he had to. “Bree hardly speaks of it, but there’s a sadness in her eyes that wasn’t there before.”
Qanmi scoffed. “Better to be rid of her. There’s no advantage to the match. There are others, those closer whom you might wed, and should you be too fond of the Feislandat to let her go, you could always take a second wife. Bree might complain, but what’s the complaint of a queen weighed against a king’s desires?”
The suggestion crawled across Aurelius’s skin on a thousand tiny legs. All he could think to do was laugh. “If you knew Bree you wouldn’t say that. She covets me as you covet your gold.”
“I covet much more than gold, Sese.” He spoke all the while with gold gleaming from him head to toe. “You think me a simple man, but that’s only to be expected. You’ve known me since you wailed helpless in your mother’s arms. You see me with a child’s eyes still.”
Aurelius couldn’t help but sneer at the condescension. “Shaqarbas, my father, Dashel—I suppose I see them, too, with a child’s eyes?”
Qanmi nodded, smile just shy of smugness. “You see a giant, a traitor, and a hero. Tell me I’m wrong.”
All his life Aurelius had been schooled in reason and rhetoric. He understood that enough of what Qanmi said was true not to argue, though anger nagged at edges of his rationality. “And what do you see, Qanmi eq-Sabaal?”
Qanmi’s laugh was ragged as the scrub that surrounded them. “A leech, a worm, and an addict.” He met Aurelius’s gaze. “Whereas you, Sese? You are fire.”
Fire, which burned bright and strong for a little while, but then faded to ash. Aurelius clucked, almost appreciative.
Qanmi shrugged his shoulders as though uncomfortable. Perhaps he also felt the chill.
Whether or not Qanmi was a better man than Aurelius had thought, it still somehow brought a real smile to think Aurelius had wounded him. “And you?” asked Aurelius. “What do I see when I look at you?”
“A simple man, as I said.” Qanmi tilted his head, considering. “Perhaps a cheat and a sneak. But I hope I’ve proved myself more to you since the coronation.”
He sounded so earnest, his injury and his worry thick in each syllable. It was enough to make Aurelius feel guilty. “I hope you’ll forgive me, but it’s easy to forget the sins of the brother are not his family’s.”
“Is that a truth you learned from experience?” Qanmi’s eyebrow twitched with a kind of calculated amusement. “If you looked deeper into our families’ history, you might learn that I was almost your uncle. Your Aunt Meg and I were very very close.” The smile on Qanmi’s face reached his eyes, as though he really were remembering Aunt Meg fondly. Such affection was surprising, not least because he’d always thought Qanmi were a shallow man, while Meg had been rough and ragged, with the same one angry brow as Hima.
Aurelius smirked. “It’s hard to imagine my aunt being very very close with anyone.” Unless with another woman. Retrospectively, from the vantage of adulthood, Aurelius had his suspicions.
“Hard to imagine for someone who didn’t grow up with her.” Qanmi snapped. “We played in the palace gardens as children, then in Tintellan when my father was trading in Indas. Your grandmother, Eshant, was very fond of me. It was her dream that Meg and I would wed. Eshant was a wonderful woman. Even now her name makes me smile.”
Aurelius’s grandmother might as well be Tanata herself for how little she inspired in him. If she’d cared for Qanmi once, it did more to diminish her than to elevate him. “If my grandmother loved you so deeply, why didn’t you marry my aunt?” Certainly, Meg hadn’t married anyone else, making it unlikely Qanmi had rivals.
Qanmi’s cheekbones twitched, as though he’d briefly clenched his teeth. Then he relaxed again. “Samelqo put a stop to it. As if you can put a stop to love.”
Aurelius had to turn away so Qanmi wouldn’t notice his confusion. Samelqo had been a monster in so many ways, but from what Aurelius remembered, he’d been Meg’s friend and mentor. It didn’t seem characteristic for him to have barred her marriage—at least not if she’d loved Qanmi the way Qanmi seemed to believe. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Aurelius said. “It seems Samelqo had my grandfather’s ear as much as he did my father’s.”
Though by all accounts, Isir had been a forceful personality and not one to be led easily. Maybe both he and Samelqo had hoped to make a better match for Meg. Both Aurelius’s other aunts—Nila and Safeva—had been sent to eq-Anout to marry powerful safeta. Aurelius had never met either of them, since they’d both died young—the one by her own hand and the other in childbirth.
If Aurelius had a daughter, he’d never send her away like that unless it was her own desire to leave, no matter what his council advised.
Qanmi bowed his head. “Their weakness is a reason to be thankful for your strength. Qemassen needs a king, not a sheep. The blood flows strong in the veins of the king of Qemassen.”
Ashtaroth was always mumbling those words, or something similar. They must have both read the line in the same scroll. Perhaps it was even from the Book of Abaal.
Wherever the words originated, they were uncomfortable. Qanmi no doubt intended to flatter, but the rote verse scratched like a shackle about Aurelius’s wrist. “As long as I’m strong enough to defeat Hadrianus, it doesn’t matter what flows in my veins.”
Qanmi laid his hand on Aurelius’s shoulder. “It matters.”
The gentle pressure would have been reassuring from any other hand. It was the touch he’d craved—the feeling Dashel would have poured into Aurelius were he standing here in the flesh and not playing the phantom in Aurelius’s memories. Qanmi’s attempt at closeness was cold in comparison with even a ghostly hand.
But Qanmi was only being kind.
“Your faith in me is appreciated,” Aurelius managed.
Qanmi seemed pleased with Aurelius’s statement. “I only hope our friendship convinces you of the sincerity of my offer.”
Friendship? Aurelius wouldn’t have gone that far. “What offer?”
Qanmi feigned surprise. “When I spoke of another wife. Bree or no Bree, I have no doubt Titrit would be happy to stand at your side.”
Aurelius grimaced. To Qanmi, Titrit really was no more than another good to barter. “I can’t, Qanmi, and I won’t. I’m sorry. Titrit is a wonderful woman, but if I’ve earned anything, it’s the right to choose my own wife. That is the desire of your king. Besides, can you imagine the ruckus Qorban would make? He loves your daughter. Truly.”
The conviction in Aurelius’s voice had the intended effect. Qanmi nodded, diminished. “Then I won’t press you further.” He snapped his fingers. The sharp sound cracked the air like a cord snapping. “Horse!” He looked back behind them.
A slave-boy in ornamental armour approached them, leading Qanmi’s Inda bay by her gold-threaded harness.
Aurelius’s nameless brown stallion whinnied in response.
Bree had chosen Aurelius’s horse at his request. She’d insisted any choice she made was doomed to bring bad luck, but Aurelius had made her choose anyway. Why she thought herself so cursed, Aurelius couldn’t guess, when so much of what they’d both wanted had been granted them. It might not have been so easy. She might still be Ashtaroth’s bride and Little Nobody a bastard in all but name.
Aurelius stroked the unnamed stallion’s neck as Qanmi parted from him.
“Goodnight, Qanmi,” Aurelius said offhandedly. “I’ll see you with the others in three hours.”
Earlier, Aurelius had arranged to meet with his generals in the war tent, but the scouts hadn’t returned like he’d thought they would. There was little to report.
“Princes without princedoms,” Qanmi grumbled. It wasn’t the first time he’d uttered the phrase.
Let him complain. Shaqarbas and Fritha had twice his experience.
Qanmi left without another word.
As he stood, Aurelius saw darkness engulf the plains, saw the far away hills that marked the border between the Meddar and Indas become silhouetted in red before vanishing completely. What untold mysteries and adventures lay beyond that border Aurelius didn’t know, but he would know, given time, and Bree would be riding beside him when he discovered them. Together, they’d build new memories like palisades, to keep the demons out. The open sky would be, for a time, a kind of freedom they could both lay claim to.
Instead of mounting his horse to return to his tent, Aurelius led him by his bridle, clucking to him, calmed by his company, as if through his connection with Bree, the stallion might in turn connect Aurelius to her.
“What to call you,” Aurelius said to the horse, feeling half a fool for wasting words on an animal. “A warhorse needs a name, and my wife’s not here to tell me otherwise.”
The horse gave no answer, and Aurelius’s smile faded from his face. He’d been half hoping the stallion would astonish him and speak. He’d been incautious and let himself get too lonely. Before Bree, he’d seemed incapable of such an emotion. But here he was, talking to an animal with no chance of a response.
Aurelius swallowed and rubbed the bridle between his fingers. The texture was pleasantly rough on the bridle’s underside and smooth on the outer. A study in contrasts.
He’d seemed not to get lonely. If Qanmi were right and Aurelius looked on the men around him with a child’s idealism, then who was that ideal Aurelius whom others claimed to know? That Aurelius didn’t seem to feel at all. He didn’t miss and he didn’t love and he wasn’t always pushing against a world and a role that felt like a trap.
Now, here, in this desert, he could feel the trap breaking apart before him. Qanmi was wrong. He had to be wrong. Aurelius wasn’t fire. Fire was the enemy. It was Ashtara’s skin cracking open on the brazier. It was the violence that had dripped from his mother’s sword when she’d rushed to save him. It was the promise of a hungry flame waiting for him at the end of a long dark platform.
Aurelius would snuff that fire out, and he would do it for the ones he’d loved and lost, and for Bree and Little Nobody who were still here. Qwella, Ashtaroth, Hima—it was time each of them escaped the cage that had been forged around them that night.
The stallion slowed as they neared the edge of the tents.
If Aurelius wasn’t trapped anymore, he should give the horse a name. An Eru name, Aurelius was decided.
It was too painful yet to name him Dashel.
“What about Sakhaf?” The Erun hero Sakhaf had been Aurelius’s favourite of the ones from Yeremi’s stories, and he’d had a magic stallion, which seemed appropriate. “Sakhaf,”
Soldiers turned to bow their heads as Aurelius made his way to his private tent. Aurelius smiled at as many of them as he could, but he didn’t have the energy to spare them each a word.
“Sese!” The guard outside Aurelius’s tent stood to attention as Aurelius approached, while another man parted the flap for him, as though his king were incapable of doing so himself.
Aurelius gave the pair of them a nod, handing off Sakhaf’s reins. “See that he’s fed and watered. I’ll need him soon enough.”
“Yes, Sese.” The guard walked off with the horse in tow, seeming to think it a great honour to serve his king so. Perhaps it was a great honour. Men said the king was more than an ordinary man, and why not let them think they were right if it afforded them comfort?
Aurelius didn’t bother to undress completely, settling for the removal of his swords and heavier armour. He lay down on the pile of cushions that served as his bed, ready to steal what sleep he could before tomorrow’s madness.
A nervous man is a vigilant man.
As he closed his eyes, Aurelius imagined Bree’s hands running over his shoulders, her smooth skin brushing his, her lips pressed hard against him. Beside him, atop his sword, lay a square of rough cotton from one of her Feislanda dresses. Aurelius reached for it and rubbed it between his fingers.
He rolled his shoulder back against his bed . . . .
“Sese! Sese!” a man’s voice jerked Aurelius from sleep.
The tent-flaps whipped against each other as a man burst inside in a blur.
It was Gishen, one of Aurelius’s commanding officers. He was panting as though from running.
Aurelius sat up. He tucked the scrap from Bree’s dress inside a pocket, then grabbed his belt. “What is it?” As he waited for Gishen to catch his breath and answer, Aurelius rearmed himself.
“Our nomads, Sese, they’ve sent a scout back to camp. Hadrianus’s army is retreating, Sese. They’re returning home.”
A feint. Now Aurelius truly was nervous. “Do we know why?” They must be attempting to lure Aurelius after them for some reason.
Outside the tent, the voices of Aurelius’s councillors approached. A few moments later, Qanmi, Shaqarbas and Fritha crowded the tent.
Shaqarbas clapped Gishen on the back before calling a slave inside with water.
“What’s happened?” Aurelius asked Shaqarbas.
“Unrest in the capital,” Shaqarbas glanced anxiously at Fritha. “Our spies confirm it. The entirety of Hadrianus’s army has been recalled to Ipsis to subdue a rebel force.”
Aurelius finished dressing and frowned. “A rebel force led by whom? Most of the Inda men marched east with their leader, isn’t that so?”
Qanmi stepped forward. “Hadrianus was never with his troops, Sese. It seems he’s either dead or imprisoned, we don’t know which. The governor’s son may be involved, but that’s as much as we know, which isn’t any more than what the Lora army knows.” He paused. “There’s talk of a massacre of some kind.”
“Gods.” Aurelius collapsed into a wicker chair and waved for his councillors—his safeta—to do likewise. He clasped his hands, hanging his head, thoughts spinning.
If this news were true, ought Aurelius to continue west? The rebels, whoever they were, could be friends. Or it could still be a trap.
A nervous man is a vigilant man.
Aurelius closed his eyes. “And a nervous man sees shadows where there are none.”
“What?” Fritha stopped the endless tumbling of the coin he toyed with in his hand.
“Nothing.” Aurelius looked up. “We give chase.” He grinned, knowing all the while it was the smile of a madman. “We give chase and we crush them against the Inda walls. I may be able to return your home to you sooner than I thought, Shaqarbas.”
But Shaqarbas wasn’t smiling. Why wasn’t he smiling? He should be brimming with happiness. He should be embracing Aurelius as a brother.
“There’s more, Sese,” offered Gishen. “The Ziphax has been sighted off the Anata coast, with an Anata fleet behind her.”
That was impossible. “Qorban was ordered to sail north, not return home. What’s he playing at?”
Fritha shook his head. “Not playing, Sese. Dead. The bodies of Qorban and his captains have been bound to their ships’ masts. The Anata have played us false. There was never a victory at Zimrida. The Lora took the outpost with hardly a battle, thanks to the Anata opening her gates.”
A cold settled over Aurelius, a thunderous chill that burned its way inside him through his ears. “Where on the Anata coast were they sighted?”
“Sese . . . . ” Fritha bowed his head, a sadness heavy on him the like of which Aurelius hadn’t seen since the Feislands had fallen.
Aurelius clenched his jaw. This was no time for niceties or hesitation.
“Where were they sighted!?” Aurelius rose to his feet and everyone in the tent shrunk back. Even Shaqarbas looked suddenly small, flickering candlelight casting shifting shadows across the red cloth wall behind him.
“Closer than we are to Qemassen, and sooner than we can make it,” Qanmi said, face the only one that looked at all at ease.
Bree. He’d left her there. Bree. Little Nobody.
Aurelius pushed past his councilmen, talking as he moved, shouting commands. “We leave immediately. Rouse the men. Leave everything behind we can’t carry. Everything. Send the cavalry on ahead. We ride until our mounts collapse beneath us. We ride, and we will not stop.”