Taris


Chapter 3

Three thousand wild Entor beasts charged down the gently sloped hills at some five thousand armored Daecian soldiers. A flood of savagery against a shield of cardinal fire. Mindless creatures charging out from the ebony dusks under the jungle canopies at the foreign, dangerous object that man wielded. Beast against flame.

The port town of Seren was situated on one of the largest islands in the southwest region of Alcis, perched easily at the mouth of a small river that wove its way down from some aquifer buried somewhere in the mountains and jungle of the island. The land around the town itself was primarily flat for several hundred meters around. There, a gentle slope upwards that formed a sort of a lowland saucer around Seren. Bordered on one side by sea, one side by river, and two sides by open plains dotted with smaller settlements and wide easy roads, the town was an ideal trading spot.

Until the first arrows were launched and the first shields were raised against the hail of obsidian and yew. The Entor had set up this attack surprisingly well; a torrential wave of heavily muscled melee warriors backed by longbow wielders. As soon as they were in range, the archers stopped and let the rest of the savage horde flow around them while they loosed arrows into the sky.

At us. How inconvenient.

As the arrows fell on us, half-hiding beneath shields and half-charging to meet the oncoming rush, I reflected idly on, of all things, my father. His part in starting this war. His death. And it was the mere thought of him, not any grief drawn from his death, that gave my fury as the thundering stampedes collided.

When the battle trumpets had called I’d managed to very successfully leave my bow behind, which meant that I would have to fight in close quarters today. Just as well. Blades are better suited to blood lust anyways, I mused.

I looked down at the long curved sabre in my right hand. Shined and sharpened by the forge, it still bore the luster of being new. The grip was made of smooth tanned leather strips wound tightly to the core, and the curved metal hand guard still shone with the same silver gleam as the blade itself. It wasn’t a particularly amazing weapon, but it seemed pretty solid. All the same, it was an immature blade for an inexperienced user. I was, after all, an archer.

A medium-sized round buckler adorned my left forearm, strapped carefully to give me some measure of protection as I shot without obstructing my view. Unlike the sabre, this particular slab of iron was dented and heavily scarred with battle; the brilliant crimson painted crest of the Daecian Army that once graced its surface was now no more than a few more flecks of red in a field covered in blood.

The first bodies collided with one another in desperate attempts to throw the other back. The Entor chargers were huge – probably eight feet tall, and with enough girth to match it. I did not envy those who charged at the front of our line to see such a monstrosity up close. Maybe under calmer conditions, it would be something interesting to study. But here, to fight against those muscled beasts wielding weapons as tall as any of our own soldiers – and probably just as heavy – to stare into that massive face that looked sunken into the skull, those bulging eyes and snarling teeth…

I don’t envy our front liners.

As we poured across the field towards the horde, I saw several of their chargers fall prey to various weapons – arrows, spears, swords. At least they weren’t invincible. Though the barbaric armor they wore was little more than animal skins and leathers, often they were still enough to stop us from killing them. We had superior chain mail armor, greater numbers, and the defensive edge. Their only advantage? We were strangers to this land. Oh, and sweat. These southern regions were much warmer than the cooler northeast, where the heart of Daecia lays, so we were much sweatier than they were. The Entor still smelled worse.

So why, given all these things, did they continue to fight? Even their brutish brains should be able to comprehend diplomacy.

No time for this now. Now you fight.

We finally reached the front line of battle where the golden grasses of autumn were already covered in a pool of blood and broken bodies ankle deep. As always, Warden led our platoon, and characteristically she planted and jumped straight at one of the Entor chargers who was turned slightly away from us, busy killing another soldier. Her weapon of choice today seemed to be her largest and most dangerous – the huge two-handed claymore that had probably seen more blood and violence than our entire platoon. I was certain that the creature was dead when it shifted much more suddenly than I thought possible and threw its huge left forearm towards Warden, knocking her out of the air.

She landed heavily on the ground and for a terrifying moment I feared she was dead. Then, completely characteristically, she stood up as if nothing happened, and charged right back into battle. I grinned wide, raised my saber to sky, and screamed my rage as I followed suit.

“Die, you worthless beasts! Die by the hand of Daecia!”

Warden impaled the charger with her claymore and wrenched hard, trying to rip it to shreds. I brought my blade down from the light of the Sun and sky and hacked at its unprotected sides, and felt a dark elation rush through me as metal met yielding flesh. The charger roared – a deep, guttural tearing voice – and then Warden pulled a knife from her belt and thrust it into the charger’s neck.

I turned away from the downed creature and looked to my right just in time to see another Entor rushing at me, weapon raised and ready to strike. My saber was still lodged into the side of the charger; for an instant fear and death seemed to thrust their icy hands into my chest and squeeze my beating heart.

Then a knife abruptly appeared in its left eye, sunken up to the hilt – a fatal blow. I looked back and saw Warden’s arm outstretched and realized that she had thrown the knife. Our eyes met briefly, I nodded my thanks to her, and then the frenzy of battle took hold once more. I freed my saber and rushed back into the maelstrom.

I can’t bring Taris along, you know that. Why? He’d just get in the way. Too young and weak. He’d be worse than useless! He’d be a liability! You know what we’re trying to do, Lania. Taris can’t get involved.

Why not, Kyr?! He can at least be with his father, can’t he? He can fight, too, can’t he? Both of us are. Well, then he can do chores or help clean or anything! He’s twelve now; he can do something!

“I’m nineteen, mother,” I mumbled. Then I caught myself – she wasn’t here with me, as I cut down these enemies of the Holy Sun. Neither was he. Dark memories, that was all. I chuckled to myself as I remembered that day.

“Am I useless now, father? Am I a liability now?” I asked the air. I hacked at another warrior’s hand and disarmed him, then sliced his neck open. A fast, merciful death.

“I’m involved now, and I’m worth a lot more than you ever knew.”

Taris. An arrogant, pretentious name. The Holy Sun had once come down to to Alcis as a man and had four daughters and five sons. His middle child, and also his middle son, was named Taris, and he had been the one who ended the First War. The war so chaotic and destructive that the Holy Sun left his form as a man and returned higher into the sky than ever before, for it was his children who fought against one another. Each had some claim against another, all save the lone Taris. No one remembers the names of any of the other children, but everyone knows the name of Taris.

Made my life extraordinarily easy growing up, clearly. Other children pelted me with rocks and either laughed at me or cried sacrilege at me. Adults looked down at me with raucous laughter hidden behind their eyes and made me play endless games as a “mediator”. As if they ever actually wanted my opinion. Oh yes, very easy growing up.

The slaughter seemed to go on forever. And it was a slaughter; we lost some men but the Entor, large though their chargers were, had no hope from the start. Again I wondered why they had attacked us today at all. Hours later, as we picked through the dead and dying, long after the tattered Entor retreat, the inconsistencies still bothered me. What were they fighting for? And why us, why Daecia; why not any of the other states? I mean, they certainly have no reason to fight someone like The Regency. Or even ability, actually. Daecia itself would be unable to penetrate those particular naval forces.

The end of the day, once again beneath the stars. As I lay still and quiet with the dancing children of the Sun, I thought again of my own place here. An average fighter at best, and though a devout believer in our cause I still felt – knew – that my place was not in an army. Certainly I felt a part of the platoon; Warden saw to it that we all belonged. Somewhat like a guardian angel…an incredibly ruthless, impatient, and angry one.

Goodnight, Warden.

Chapter 2

Morning rose with me just prior to the wakening horn. Warden had insisted on sleeping under the stars last night, and had also made it very clear that it was less insistence than order. As well, she made it very clear that anyone who tried to dispute might find themselves mysteriously hurt, like the soldier who accidentally fell on a crossbow bolt and a knife. We were very quick to oblige her.

Not that I minded at all. The way the average soldier would carry himself in the homes of the innocent civilians of Seren was despicable. The Holy Sun has given us this mission; who are we to place such taxing demands on those we were charged to defend? Besides, sleeping beneath the open sky placed us under the benevolent eyes of the Sun’s children, the ever-watchful Stars. Their brilliant diamond orbs shone across the infinite celestial depths, proof that the divine powers of Alcis were indeed with us.

And the nights were cooler as well; the heat of the day and the heat of the day’s battle did not leave me yearning for the heat of the hearth.

By the time the horn had chanted its descant I had dressed and splashed some cool water on my face. Breakfast was simple – a simple stew and some hard bread to dip in it. Not fancy, but plenty filling. We had some downtime after breakfast before Warden would call us for a morning run, which passed a lot more quickly than I expected.

“Taris! Get over here, we’re moving already!” Warden called over. I donned my gear, as Warden liked to have us run weighed down by arms and armor, and joined the rest of our platoon. I was lucky – my armor was mostly padded leather with a chain mail standard to cover my neck, shoulders, and upper torso. My bow and arrows, being made primarily of wood, were relatively light as well. I didn’t envy Grant’s father, who carried a large iron waraxe, though Warden who wore a haubergeon beneath padded leather and carried more weapons than than two members of the platoon together definitely had the heaviest load. And always led the pack.

Today she seemed to be feeling more lenient; instead of a hard run like we had some days, she opted for an easy jog through the fields around town. Just as well. In fact, since the hard battling had started she rarely took us faster than a jog and never for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. When we got back to town, she had us cool down and rest. This was a little different – usually she had something else in store for us, be it training or some speech or perhaps we were assigned to work on the fortifications. I walked up to her and asked.

“Warden, what’s up today? Nothing to do?”

“Something’s coming, kid. I’d wager on another attack today, probably before noon.”

“That can’t be right. They’ve never attacked two days in a row, and we just had an attack last night too.”

“Want to put something on it then, kid?”

“What, a bet? Why not? No one here’s got any coin though.”

“You’re the best fletcher in the platoon, kid. If there’s an attack today, I want, say, twenty of your best crossbow bolts.”

“All right. So what do I get if there isn’t one? I’d be more likely to hurt myself with one of your knives than anything else.”

“I’m your sergeant, kid. I’ll owe you one, and you won’t regret it.”

“Sounds like I’m getting swindled, Warden.”

She laughed, a single mirthful syllable. “You’ll see, kid. My debt to you is worth more than you think – much more than twenty bolts. You in?”

“All right, we’re good then.”

We sat for a while on silence, her on a convenient rock and myself on the ground. I watched Grant and his father sitting a little ways away, talking amiably – as if they weren’t leagues away from home fighting for civilization in a bestial land. My own father was nothing compared to this man, who treated his son with such respect and friendliness. No, my father was just that – a father. This man was dad. And look, patting his son on the back, with a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father – no, let’s just call him Kyr – smile at me.

“You’re a good kid, Taris.” Warden said suddenly. “So do me a favor, would you?”

“What do you need?”

“Don’t believe any of that ridiculous drivel they give you about this war, Taris. I know what I told you all. And to keep ourselves safe, it’s best if we keep saying them. But don’t believe any of it.”

“About the Entor? They’re little more than beasts, Warden – I know this! Are you testing me?”

“No, Taris. Just trust me, kid – the Entor aren’t all bad and we’re not all good. Remember it. No more on this; don’t want to be overheard.”

Warden’s words bothered me more than I wanted to admit. She hadn’t ever led me astray yet, but ‘yet’ can be a pretty important word. Coupled with that question from yesterday – why exactly were the Entor attacking anyways? – I had to figure it out, had to understand. Maybe I missed some detail somewhere. I started to sift through everything I could think of, from the criers messages about the attacks to all the things the commanding officers told us. I mused through all twelve rounds of the card game Warden put together and managed to lose every hand and win cleanup duty for the entire platoon for an entire fortnight. By lunchtime, I still had no answer.

“It’s lunch, Warden. Where’s your attack?”

“I’ve still got all afternoon, kid. You’ll see.”

#

It was mid-afternoon. I had put aside my thinking for the day and we were once again playing cards. I’d managed to lose a week of cleanup duty and was winning the hand when battle trumpets sounded. Looking around, I saw surprise and shock on most faces – two days in a row! they thought. No way this is real, maybe the lookouts are mistaken, I bet you it’s just a drill. On Warden’s face I just saw grim determination. Grant’s dad seemed wracked with fear, and from the way he kept glancing at his son I could tell he feared only for his son’s life. It must be nothing less than torture for him to be in the army with his son.

“You owe me twenty, kid! Tonight, and don’t forget it!” Warden called over to me as the platoon readied its gear. I grunted in response.

Minutes later we found ourselves with the rest of the army charging out of town to meet the Entor forces head-on. Seren was built without walls and what little we had put up wouldn’t last against even the most basic siege weaponry. As such, most of our defenses were traps and trenches in the fields and the rest was left to us – to fight off the hordes.

The army waited in the fields for the Entor to close the distance. After all, it was probably best to let the enemy hit our traps rather than charge into them ourselves.

Scattered cheering went up as the wave hit our traps. I didn’t. I have never relished death, and watching mindless brutes fall headfirst into spiked pits or impale themselves on hidden posts held no joy for me. I glanced at Warden, and though I couldn’t see how I looked myself we probably shared the same expression.

And then it was time to charge.

Chapter 1

It’s all my worthless father’s fault.

My mother is dead. I am trapped in a land savaged by these barbaric pseudo-humans – don’t be fooled! They look human, but their depravity, their hostility, their idiocy. They must be different from us, below us, below you and me.

I am a soldier, a noble warrior fighting against these human-like beasts. Yes, that must be what they are. Warden’s words make no sense otherwise. Beasts. Not human.

A brute charged at me. It wears the thick heavy hides crudely cut from some creature’s flanks, covering up little more than a bit of skin. Its eyes are wild, dead of intellect, of true sentience. That magic of being, of thinking is missing. All it knows is the huge ax in its hands and me, a target. Prey.

How wrong it is. For predatory though it seems, it is MY prey.

Fifteen meters distant now. I wonder if it actually understands the instrument of death I carry in my hands. Projectiles. Bow and arrow. I remember reading a story somewhere; the meeting of a wolf and a man. That man could pick up and throw rocks shocked the wolf into submission.

Death is somewhat like submission, right?

I notch and draw. Ten meters. I aim. It readies a massive swing. I release. An arrow fletched with my own hands appears in its unguarded neck. I lower my arms. It falls, dead, blood shooting like a river running uphill.

The maelstrom around me returns, the battle rejoined with my mind. Warden is to my left, her raging blade just cleaving off another beast’s hand. Other soldiers are around me, fighting; each of us wears red to tell of our noble purpose. That rather large older man has a comparably small length of crimson cloth tied to his left arm. The young soldier next to him – his own son, I think – has a maroon sash tied around his belt. I notice that the young soldier’s armor is of much higher quality than his elder. Protect the next generation, I suppose.

I am an archer, and my gloves speak of our light, our purpose. Its cascading alizarin and umber oranges represent us, the Daecian army. We are a fire wrought by the holy Sun itself, and the ravaging scourge our might has been directed at today will be cleansed.

I rejoin my body with the battle, and more blood rejoins the earth from which it came. I will fight on, much as I despise these barbarians.

This is all my father’s fault. For he started this war, and then had the gall to die before seeing it through. Now chaos spreads, and only Daecia can contain it. So I must fight. We all must fight. For salvation.

#

I woke from my reverie. We had returned to Seren, the town we were ordered to defend, hours ago. The day’s battles, still fresh in my mind, haunted me. Gathered in the local tavern were Warden, the father and son I saw on the battlefield earlier today, myself, and a few other soldiers. We of course had beaten off the latest Entor horde. Who could have doubted? We are, after all, endorsed with the power of the Sun itself.

“But why are they even attacking?”

My ears perked up at the sound of this. Shuffling myself out of my resting stupor, I lean forwards and join the table. Warden is again to my left, the younger soldier to my right, and his father sits to his right.

“Dad, it doesn’t even matter. The Entor attacked this town, and the holy Sun of Daecian might must be used to protect them and stop that threat.”

“But why? What reasons could they have for these attacks? They may be brutal, and they may be savages, and they certainly don’t have our level of knowledge or intelligence, but they at least have reasons for doing things, don’t they?”

“The Entor are a vile barbarian race. Don’t question our orders, old man, they come straight from the cardinal might of the holy Sun itself. We are not given to understand its will.” I said.

The man looked like he was about to say something when Warden interjected.

“Kid’s right, Grant. Best keep your lid on these things.”

The conversation then turned to other things, but Grant’s comment bothered me. I’d always been pretty good at puzzles, and even if the Daecian Council didn’t want to tell us soldiers everything, I should at least be able to figure out more than most.

I lost myself in thought for the rest of the meal, and after a while it was time to leave.

#

We left the tavern as a group, Warden stoically leading the way. I found myself behind her, with the rest of the noisy half-drunk crowd behind me. As I passed the threshold of the door, my ears caught something.

“That…that old whore isn’t…worth a single coin, my friend. She thinks she’s…thinks she’s such a good sergeant…such a strong woman…I tell you, friend, that old whore…is just that, an old whore.”

I whirled about, furious, and stared into the eyes of a pair of particularly drunk and dirty soldiers in my platoon. I opened my mouth to yell at them but before I could utter any sound an arm came from behind me and shoved me aside. Warden brought her other arm came up, crossbow drawn and ready, pointed it at the man’s leg, and loosed an arrow straight into his right thigh.

“THAT…THAT WHORE SHOT ME! SHE SHOT ME THAT OLD-”

Before he could finish his curse Warden’s other hand plunged a knife to the hilt into his left thigh, using her other arm. His words just became one senseless scream of pain. Of suffering. Of fear.

“Let me put it this way, kid. I just attacked you, with weapons. I just shot you and stabbed you. I did it without thinking, without caring. As an instinct. And you know what, kid?”

She stepped over the stricken soldier and looked down at him.

“The higher-ups aren’t even going to try to touch me. Still think I’m just a woman, I can’t handle this job?” She lifted the crossbow again, loaded and notched it easily, leveled it at his face, and let the tip of the bolt touch the skin between his eyes.

“Try me.”

The rest of the day was…uneventful after that.

Taris

– – –

Prologue

Kyr woke up and noticed that he was, in fact, quite dead.

Apparently, he had been dead for a while, but hadn’t bothered to notice it. He stifled a large yawn and decided that this was probably because he had been asleep at the time. Assassinations tended to happen that way. His wife would be so mad at him for oversleeping again.

After a few moments, he decided that maybe it was time to actually open his eyes and take a look around. After all, he’d probably be staying here a while.

Kyr opened his eyes, and discovered that he was not alone in being dead. An old, dusty figure sat over him, staring keenly as if he were a specimen of extreme interest. Deciding to ignore the old man for the moment, Kyr took in his surroundings. He was lying comfortably on a wooden platform situated at the edge of a large lake, though he could not see the other shore; it simply disappeared into the mists. Large, inviting trees towered idly above him, and the ground seemed soft and loamy. If this was the afterlife, well, he might just like here.

Finally Kyr decided to address the only other person in sight. He sat up and eyed him carefully. The old man, with wrinkles covering his body and a few strands wispy white hair sprouting from his otherwise bald head, was dressed simply in a deep golden yellow robe that betrayed no luxury, no indulgence. He looked frail, weak, slow, yet when Kyr met his eyes he felt the force of brilliance striking deep within him, stirring the deepest founts of his being, and suddenly Kyr knew why.

He was in the presence of a divinity.

The old man smiled.

“Are you…a god?”

“As much one as you.”

Not one to show his surprise, Kyr took the old man’s statement in stride.

“How do you mean? I’m only dead. Your eyes…”

“Alas, and I too am only dead. Yet I too am ‘divine’, as you say.”

“That…makes no sense.”

“Most who die are simply given a short break before they return. Some attain the hush of serenity, and are granted rest. A select few end up in your shoes, Kyr of the Daecians.”

“What of me? It seems…rather clear. You are either ‘granted rest’ or you aren’t. Where does that leave me?”

“You have been granted a reprieve, and are here to give…a gift of sorts.”

“A gift?” Kyr looked down at himself and noticed that he, too, was dressed in a simple robe, though his was a dark leafy green. “I don’t think I brought anything with me when I died.”

“You brought yourself.”

“Myself?”

“Yes. You have brought your spirit, your story, your life, such as they are. You have brought the essence of you. And you have brought a gift.”

Kyr pondered the old man’s statement idly, then sprung on a different idea. “Old man, you said I am…granted a reprieve?”

“Yes, Kyr.”

Kyr stood and ambled over to the edge of the platform. “What is your name, old man?”

“You may call me Orson the Guide, Kyr.”

“Let’s walk. My wife would kill me if I just lounged in bed all day.”

The two men found themselves walking idly along the lake, a cool wind landing gently on their bodies. The surface of the water was still, save a few small ripples that lapped idly on the pebbled shores. Though the men walked without footwear, there were no sharp stones, no jutting edges, upon which to cut their feet.

“Surprising how this place is so calm and cool, given what the rest of Alcis is like.”

“You have many fond memories of a cool forest in the north. The Lake’s Shore is merely showing you those memories made real once more.”

“Convenient.” Kyr bent down to pick up a pebble and skipped it lightly across the shore of the Lake. “So, why am I here, Orson?”

“You are here because you have a gift to give, Kyr. You may choose to grant it, or you may withhold it if you wish.”

“I did not bring anything here to give.”

“Yes, you brought only yourself and your story.”

“Right. So what gift do I have to give?”

“What did you bring?”

“Just as you say, Orson, I brought only myself and my story.”

“Exactly.”

Somewhere in his head a dim thought came to mind. Legends and teachings about the Lake’s Shore. How each spirit must find balance, harmony, before granted the long peaceful rest. What happens when a spirit loses its way.

“I’ve made mistakes, haven’t I? I was close…I’d almost found harmony…but in that last life I…”

“Exactly.”

#

The two dead men were again sitting on the platform, facing each other.

“The…legends. I’ve done something terrible to someone in my last life.”

“Yes, and it is good that can see that.”

“If I remember those stories, those who are…like me. For a price, I can correct those wrongs. What must I do, Orson? Who do I repay?”

“’Who’…is something only you know.”

“And how is it done?”

“You just sit, bring yourself to a state of peace. If you are truly willing, it will simply happen.”

“And you know all those old stories, about those so-called ‘deities’. That’s what we’re talking about, aren’t we. In a way, granting a mortal something like…divinity.”

“Yes.”

Kyr chuckled. “There are a lot of stories out there, you know. A lot of them say those people drain their own spirits away for that power. He’d become a dead shell by the end.”

Orson smiled broadly. “They are wrong. No, the spirit ‘drained away’, as you put it, is not the mortal’s own. It would be…well, in this case, it would be yours.”

Kyr blinked twice, then chuckled. “That sounds inconvenient.”

“Hmm. I must ask a question of you, Kyr?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Who did you wrong? Who did you hurt?”

Kyr remained silent.

“You worried about ‘his’ spirit, his life, immediately wondering if those old tales are true.. And yet, when I told you that it would be you, your essence and person that is drained into that power, you merely laugh. I can see as clearly as I see the waters of the Lake that you are not afraid. So I must ask: who is he? …Who will you repay?”

Kyr closed his eyes. Seated cross-legged on the little wooden platform at the edge of the Lake, he let his soul weep silently, without tears or motion. A cool breeze blew in from over the water and gently rustled the leaves in the quiet, contemplative forest about him. Though no birds nor other creatures of the woods lived in this cold and peaceful place, Kyr’s ears heard the singing of a jay, the chatter of a squirrel. He could feel the strength of the massive trees whose crowns reached farther than the sky in his body, his being. Every leaf, every breeze that touched the leaves, every ripple on the Lake, every swirl of leaves and earth on the floor of the wood – he felt it all. In his grief-stricken mind, he became it all.

He felt the waters of the Lake swim against the Shore. As the water weaved farther and farther over the ground, the tension, the grief built higher, stronger, faster until he could not bear it any longer.

And then the waves washed back into the Lake and the waters were still.

And for the first time in many years, Kyr felt peace.

With his eyes still closed, but his weeping ended, he answered Orson’s question.

“He is my son.”