Gavan had the disgusting habit of wiping his greasy hands on his hair. His angular, scarred face always had a dull glow because of it, and his scent was a constant sourness that poured into the air of the narrow cabin where the soldiers ate their meals. He liked to eat fatty and juicy meats; most of his meals involved that. And without ceremony he wiped his hands on his hair.
And beer, lots of beer, Dann thought, not without a bit of bitterness, as he ate his humble dish of cold beans with some shreds of dried meat and a piece of stale, old bread with nothing to drink and wash that crap down his throat. The privileges of the command.
Dann hated it all. The ship swayed endlessly, making him sick and even less willing to swallow the stale food, everything in it stank, the inclement sun at midday made the air dense and sticky, the fellow travelers were all presumptuous jerks and Gavan was the biggest son of a bitch. He imagined that this was all punishment. For what he did not know, but he was almost certain it was.
Gavan, with his long black hair always greasy and sprawled over his broad shoulders, was the commander of one of the seven swandi army detachments that crossed the Gulf of Durâth toward the Port-city of Khaxos. Swandia was peacefully perched on the far west of the continent, was rich and powerful, and had not made a real war for centuries.
But loves to meddle with the war of other countries. Dann had given up on understanding that long ago. They said they were old mutual aid deals, but it still sounded stupid to him anyway. He finished eating and threw the plate on the table and climbed the deck. There was a strong wind blowing over the large, purple-painted sails with green stripes and pushing the ship south. The wind was fresh and carried the intense smell of the sea, waves crashing against the bow of the ship, sometimes causing a brief shower of salty splashes or a gentle mist that refreshed the faces punished by the sun.
The sounds up there were of the breaking of the waves, of ropes creaking, of the sails stretching to the maximum and then of relaxation, of the ground being rubbed; of talking voices, obscene chants, of the clash of swords of some soldiers who took advantage of their free time to train. This was the good part of the trip, which gave Dann a strange sense of freedom.
He went to the parapet, leaned against it, and stood there looking at that empty immensity. The sky was shimmering in blue, with no sign of clouds from one horizon to the other. It had been this way since they sailed from the Red Port in Eldessian province, south of Swandia, almost two weeks ago. And it will continue.
Dann knew that. Storms were not common in that sea at that time of year, because of something involving winds and sea currents or something else. Not that Dann really knew the secrets of the sea and the weather, he did not know any secret about anything, he was a poor ignorant orphan in the alleys of Freya, the Swandi capital. He could not read or write, he thought he was twenty-three years old, and the army was the way out that he found to be something useful in life. Once he had overheard, in a tavern of Freya, two old men talking about the sea and how it worked in their peculiarities and whims. He knew he would eventually have to go on that trip, and what the old men said seemed like useful knowledge to have.
Some seagulls flew over the ship, which meant they were not far from the land, according to experienced sailors. One of them solemnly poured a jet of shit into the newly washed deck, and the unfortunate man who had just scrubbed that place had turned a plague so high that Dann imagined that even the fish under the water would have heard.
Someone laughed close to where Dann stood. He looked and saw a squire sitting under the shade of the main sail, patiently kneading an enormous fighting sword. He knew the boy, his name was Aldo, and he was the squire of General Phanteu, the man who commanded the Swandi troop as a whole. He was still a boy, he said he was 16, but he was tall and had considerably broad shoulders and, besides, he was much stronger than his pale appearance implied. Dann imagined that he was born well, that’s because if Aldo was a nobody like himself, he would not be the squire of one of the most powerful men in the whole kingdom.
But Aldo did not like to talk about it, so Dann was sensible enough not to insist, after all if he was someone important he could have his head cut off without anyone questioning.
“Have you had lunch?” Asked the squire when Dann sat down beside him under the shadow of the great candle.
"If you consider that awful slop downstairs as food," Dann answered, closing his eyes and leaning his back against a wall. "Then I could say yes, I've had lunch. But I lack conviction.”
"I have something here," Aldo said, dropping his sword and taking a plate covered with a cloth that was hidden under his shadow. "You can eat if you want; I'm not really hungry today. That whole sun makes me a little queasy.”
“Ah, I'll take it!” Dann was already excited, knowing the general was good to his squire and fed him well. He took the cloth from the top of the plate and found himself in front of a beautiful piece of veal, almost untouched, covered with a sauce which Dann had no idea of what was made besides some herbs that left him with his mouth full of water. There were mashed potatoes as well, plus pieces of fresh carrot and beet tanned with vinegar. It was not a banquet, but Dann did not eat well so long ago who did not remember. "Are you sure you do not want to?" Is very good.”
"I have," Aldo replied calmly as he took up his sword again and began his meticulous sharpening work again. "I've been a little queasy since dawn. I thought climbing here and enjoying the shade and cool wind would make me feel better and feel like eating, but in the end it did not help much.”
"Do not get me wrong," Dann said with his mouth full of carrot. "But you seem to be a sick person, even a good size and strong. He does not look very much like a soldier.”
"I know that," Aldo replied, looking sadly at the sword that sharpened so carefully. "I like to travel, but definitely not in a circumstance like this.” He paused again, a long and thoughtful one, as if he were tired or choosing the words he would say next. "My father insisted that I should come. He said it was time to become a man.”
“Becoming a man, pfffff” Dann had heard that kind of talk a hundred times from other young recruits of the swandi troops, especially younger sons of wealthy and important lords who were either drunks who caused their parents' headache or would not receive almost no share of inheritance and needed to find a way in life. "This thing of being a man is no big deal, Aldo, not really, I can guarantee that. Most of the time it's all about killing other men who want to prove themselves, too.”
"That's a bitter thought," Aldo pointed out, with something in his voice that made Dann think it was a reprimand.
“When you are born being miserable like me, most of your thoughts are bitter. Most people think that there are no miserable people in the golden kingdom of Swandia, but there are, we are only less miserable than others miserable in the world.” He ate the rest of the meat and the vegetables and licked the plate until there was nothing left, feeling grateful that at least once that damn trip had eaten well. "Anyway, thanks for the food and sorry for the words. I think I talk too much sometimes.”
"All right," the squire seemed to force himself to smile. "That's one of the things my father says, that I need to know more about simple people.”
“You're not really going to tell me who your dad is, is that right?” Sometimes the soldier would consider one possibility, but it was a possibility that left his cold blood and the hair of his arms on his feet.
“I like you Dann, and I do not want names to be among our friendship.”
That was a good enough response. Dann never had another name to call his own, since it was always just Dann. If his memory did not betray him, who had given that name to the boy had been a prostitute who had in some way created him. Her name was Danna. When he grew up and realized that he was a little disturbed, but there was nothing else to do, that was his name and end of subject.
He understood Aldo's point, if with a full name it would be difficult to maintain friendship with someone well born, which he will say having only one that came from a prostitute. Dann also liked the boy, was always gentle with him and did not treat him as if he were only an infantryman and made him nothing more than a slaughter animal that would die first in battle. So it was better this way.
“What do you think about this stupid war where they're dragging us?”The question had arisen in his mind as a change of subject, but deep down she was also sincere, after all he did not even know what the conflict was about.
“Khaxos and Arafazze are in war all the time, and it often becomes an unpleasant task to distinguish the motives.” Aldo had put the sword in his proper scabbard and now seemed content to show his knowledge of history. And hell, the kid speaks well. “Khaxos is at least 800 years older than Arafazze, legend says that was the first City-Port to be founded, by Venerable Ghitarro, a tribal lord who made contact with people from distant lands and started to trade with them, making that the city he had founded would soon prosper and enrich. It was not long before new Port-cities emerged, and as they grew, animosities grew as well, usually due to economic interests of the trade routes, but mainly due to ancestral blood feuds from the time of the desert tribes. Thousands of years ago some guy stole a camel from another and so his descendants hate themselves to this day and make war for any reason that comes up.” The squire paused, looking at a seagull seated on a rope that fastened the great sail of the ship just above them. "The most recent motive, as far as I know, was an Arafat attack on a convoy of Khaxos nobles heading for the Pillars of the World, in the heart of the desert, that would do some sort of ritual of their spiritual belief. Important lords were killed; ladies and maids abducted and raped, treasures that would be used as offerings in the rituals were taken away. This was a very serious offense; the journey to the Pillars is sacred to all the Porto-cities and cannot be in any way tainted by the old quarrels.
“The Pillars of the World, you say?” Dann frowned, did not know what this was about, but it seemed the name was not totally foreign to him. “What is it? A temple? Do they have religions down here? I'll never understand that about religion.”
“It is a temple yes,” Confirmed Aldo. "There are four huge pillars of stone that are so tall that they seem to hold the heavens, hence the name. These pillars form a square, and in the middle of this square stand the temple, as large as the royal palace of Freya. The people who built it got lost in history along with it their religion. But the desert people who came later use the place for their own services, which I cannot say for certain if they are indeed religions.” Aldo sighed, looking pleased with his acting as a teacher on that tedious and sultry mid-day. "I think our journey is ending, Dann.”
The soldier looked around and saw the movement of the other men, who were armed and gathered in their specific detachments. Dann got up and looked over the ship's parapet and saw the outline of a city in the distance. In fact, the journey was nearing its end.
“I think the general needs my assistance now.” Aldo spoke as he got up, placing the large sword sheathed over his shoulder. "It was nice talking to you, Dann. See you!”
“Until then, Aldo.”
Dann watched as the young squire hurried toward the general's lodgings. Around him, everyone seemed very rushed, as always. It seemed that the ship would beat the rest of the leagues to Khaxos in a snap. He knew he had to go to his own quarters, leave his things in order, and be ready for the landing, if not Gavan would scold him and threaten to lash out.
Suddenly he felt tired and moody, as if the good food he had tasted had been nothing more than a distant dream. He snorted, heavily, and drag himself to the lodge.
Khaxos was not like any other city Dann had ever seen in his life.
The first thing that caught his attention was the smell, which made his head spin and did not quite understand what was happening. It was a salty scent of sea, of fresh and rotten fish, of various spices, of flowers, of smoke, of red-hot metal in the blacksmith's workshops, of breads and cakes that were baked in clay ovens right next to the stalls that they sold in the immense market that stretched along the length of the harbor. All this at the same time.
There were people from all sides of the world there. Dann saw swandis compatriots with his white skin and haughty stance, he also saw slim, ragged krennixes that always seemed to have a bitter expression on his face, there were the imposing coal-black men from across the great ocean to the west to negotiate their strange weapons made of a metal that only exists in its warm and sunny lands, the slim eastern folks of almost amber color almond-shaped eyes that wore colorful clothes and had beards braided in bizarre geometric patterns. Their tongues mingled in an intermittent buzz that floated over the market like a swarm of bees, and in the background one could hear the sound of the waves coming and going, the seagulls quacking and flapping their wings and the palm trees swaying lazily with the soft wind that blew all the time.
This does not look like a place that is at war, Dann thought as he passed through the crowd with the other soldiers of the detachment commanded by Gavan. He saw business being sealed, he saw smiles, he heard laughter and the clink of coins in purses. Nothing there made him think of war.
Then he saw the column of black smoke rising behind a sumptuous palace planted on top of a hill.
Dann's detachment, organized into five lines of ten soldiers each, marched swiftly through the marketplace and was soon found in a quieter area of the city, with the palace growing more and more before his eyes. Just like the pillar of smoke behind him.
They were now passing by wide avenues paved with yellowish and dusty stones, on all sides there were flower beds and fountains that poured clear and fresh water, long rows of palm trees provided a very welcome shade along those avenues and also for the various constructions of stone and clay painted white.
That part of town was much different than the market in the harbor, almost as if it were a completely different city, even if it was not much more than a mile away. Few people walked the streets, and those who walked seemed always suspicious, with expressions closed on the face and sidelong glances of suspicion and fear. They had dark brown skin, almost completely covered in white, light, and loose clothing. They protected their heads with veils and turbans, usually white too. During the crossing of the Gulf Dann had heard someone referring to Khaxos as The White City, and now he understood the reason for it.
From the windows of the buildings and houses, old women were fanning themselves with huge fans of colored feathers and looking reproachful looks to anyone passing below. There was something in the air, something almost palpable that went far beyond the mid-afternoon heat waves or the smells that came from the market, shoved by the breeze. Fear and apprehension. Dann felt a bitter taste in his mouth. The situation must be delicate if even the image of the allies coming into the battle encourages these people.
"Hey Gruh," Dann called, tapping the shoulder of the soldier marching right in front of him. "Are you also feeling something strange in this place?"
"No," said the other soldier, a much older man, and a veteran of many such trips. “Why?”
"I do not know," Dann admitted. "I just know there's something strange about this place. There in the market is like there was no war, but here people seem afraid of their own shadows.
“Things are like this around here.” Gruh was broader than tall, with a short, hard neck scarred under his hair that always held shoulder-height, but which Aldo could see every time he put his hand there to scratch it during a day of walking. And he scratched his neck once more before continuing to speak: “Trade is sacred to these people; the world can burn in flames and destruction around that the routine of the port and the market will remain the same. The war may even be caused by trade, but in the market and in the harbor it never arrives. With the people here ... well, that's another story.
“I was told that some columns in the desert that were sacred to the people here.”
“It can be!!” Gruh laughed. "But on the scale of sacred things on this side of the gulf trade will always come first. We are almost at the camp, soon we will be able to take one of the good wines that are made here and you will forget those silly worries!”
Dann hoped so, but he was not sure. The strange feeling that something was wrong was persistent.
But about the camp Gruh was right, a few moments later the columns of swandi soldiers reached the foot of the hill on which the great palace stood. Commanders of the local troops talked with the swandi commanders, exchanged hands and smiles, it seemed all a great reunion, the reunion of friends who had not seen each other for a long time. Dann thought that was too strange.
“Well, you filthy bastards!” Said Gavan jumping of his horse as soon as his detachment entered completely in the camping. His greasy hair gleamed curiously in that half-light caused by the shadow of the hill, but broken by reflections that somehow descended from the colored windows of the palace windows. "Arrange your stalls and rest, for tomorrow we will have men to kill. Do not drink too much, because if any of you got drunk and get into trouble, you'll have an appointment with my beloved Joanna.”
Joanna was how Gavan called the whip he'd carry in his waist all the time. A hideous thing made of black leather strips covered with little lead balls, entwined to become a scourge capable of plucking skin and flesh from the unfortunate under his yoke. It had a silver-plated handle and the shape of a tiger with its teeth bared. Every day Gavan spent hours polishing that image until it was so bright that he could see her reflection in it.
Or maybe it was just a daily reminder to all men under his command. But Dann did not want to find out, he lowered his head and just followed orders.
And he fulfilled what Gavan had given. He pitched his tent along with the other men along the wall that led up the hill.
He sat down on the floor, pulling off his boots and feeling with pleasure the cool breeze blowing between his weary toes. Soon Gruh was sitting beside him, carrying a jug and two ceramic cups. He served one for Dann and one for himself.
“You do not waste time.” Dann said, after sipping the first cup in a single swallow. “That's one of the good ones.”
“I am not a man to waste time.” The older man said, pouring another cup for Dann, who took it more calmly this time and took better advantage of the rich flavor of the wine. "Especially when you have free drink."
“To the generosity of our allies!” Dann lifted his cup and toasted Gruh. It had been a good day despite the strange feeling that persisted, after all had eaten well and now drank well.
"Your first battle tomorrow?"
“Officially, yes. I've been involved in some border skirmishes in Talanas, but it was not a real battle.”
“Then you've already killed.” Gruh said that, wanting to make it look like a question, but Dann knew it was a statement.
“Well, I have some bodies on my account.” Dann confirmed, there was no reason to lie, but he was not proud of it either.
“Sooner or later it becomes a routine task.” Gruh's voice sounded solemn, saying those words, as if sharing a piece of wisdom. "And a real battle helps in the process, I assure you.”
The two of them emptied the jar, and soon someone appeared with another. But before they were really drunk, a battalion of servants, as numerous as the troops themselves, appeared at the gates leading to the palace with a banquet. Dann was sure that it was a lucky day indeed.
There were pork chops, roasted lamb, fish, seafood, breads and cakes of all kinds and shapes, stews, sauces, roasted and grilled poultry. If this is a last one last meal because we're all going to die in a massacre tomorrow I'll die happy, for a thousand demons.
Dusk came sneaky and when Dann realized the camp was lit by torches that left the place with a ghostly orange hue. A shiver ran through his skin. In Freya, most places were lit with clear, clear magic light, which made no shadows that seemed alive or filled with smoke.
But the Port-Cities were a different place from Swandia, magic was a rare thing there, Dann knew. The entire western side of the continent on the other side of the gulf was rich in magic, with many wizards and sorcerers capable of using this magic, masters and servants of the highest echelons of governments. And Swandia still more than the other Western kingdoms. No one really knew why, and probably no one would ever know the answer.
Dann found himself more drunk than he liked when he returned to himself after watching the tongues of fire dancing on the torches. And his bladder was aching of so full.
He got up and made some effort not to fall on his face on that sandy, rocky floor. He crossed the length of the camp with staggering steps and suddenly found himself at a spot where torchlight did not reach and the wall of the hill made a gentle curve to his left. He looked around and saw no one nearby so he opened the laces of his pants and started pissing right there, with relief trailing his body in waves of pleasure.
Dann could hear the sound of water there, like waves rising and falling on a beach. The sea could not be, after all, it was in the other direction. He decided not drink more that night.
He heard footsteps and at least two voices approaching farther into the darkness, as well as a small spot of light that accompanied the voices. He hurried to finish and walk away before anyone showed up and caused trouble. Despite this beautiful, moonless, starry night making me drawn to romanticism, I do not want to have a date with Joanna.
The sound of footsteps approached more and more, and Dann knew it was time to get out of here. He started to walk slowly, did not want to leave the impression that he was running away or doing something wrong.
But then something curled up in his legs and he fell to the ground. He was trapped, could not move; a flood of panic gripped her body.
“Inya! Do you really need to do this?” Asked a tired voice that Dann found disturbingly familiar.
“Of course Aldebaram! He was desecrating the sacred land!”
Aldebaram. Dann stopped struggling and stood as still as a statue. I knew it. Damn it, I knew it! The damn heir.
The light became much stronger, a clear bright light that blinded Dann's eyes. The same light from home, he understood, magic light.
"Inya, please, he did not know that.” Aldebaram argued, with a touch of nervousness in his voice that made Dann even more alarmed. “It was not on purpose.”
“It does not matter if it was on purpose or not.” Said the woman named Inya, who drew nearer and pulled Dann by the shoulder and threw him on the rocky ground. Being a little drunk and looking down at the woman it was hard to tell what she was like or who she was. The strong light she produced with one hand floated in a small ball not far above her head, casting shadows on her face. "No one can desecrate the land of the Mirror and go unpunished."
Inya jerked her other hand, causing Dann to be pulled up with the strength of a man ten times bigger than himself. His body was spun and bound by invisible ropes and erected before Inya and Aldebaram.
Dann's eyes adjusted to that whole light and he could see that they were standing beside a large lake, from which came the sound of water he had heard just before. He also saw that Inya was a girl who should have been the same age as Aldebaram, dark and slender, with curly hair wearing something that looked like silk. She became even more afraid when she realized that she should be someone of the local nobility, since he revealed her true identity to her.
“Listen to me Inya, I swear by the Pillars of the World or whatever you want, Dann is not to blame, he's just drunk and did not know the lake is sacred!”
“I did not even know there was a lake here!” The indignant phrase escaped Dann and he feared that these would have been his last words.
"Please ..." begged the prince, holding the naked arm of the young woman who escaped from his fine, exquisite robe. They were almost of the same height, and by their eyes they looked at each other with an enormous intensity. "Do it for me, Inya, for me. He is my friend, perhaps my only friend.”
Dann caught his breath as the two younglings exchanged a flaming look. After a few moments of tension she opens a wide, dazzling smile that left the drunken soldier even more confused as he dropped to her knees again when he was clear of the invisible ropes that held him.
“You have important friends for such a low rank soldier.” Inya said softly, in a position so upright and firm that it froze Dann's blood.
"I... I... ma'am..." The soldier stood trembling, unsure of what to say, and afraid that his mouth would betray him even more.
“Quiet” Inya ordered gently. "Thank your friend, and be so kind as to never put your filthy feet on the shores of the sacred lake." He turned to Aldebaram, took his hands and said, "See you tomorrow?"
“Of course!” The prince replied, and Dann can see his face blushing and his eyes glittering. "After the battle, when all your enemies are dead."
"Ah, how heroic..." Inya sighed and kissed Aldebaram's face. "Good evening.”
She walked in the direction in which she had come with Aldebaram before. The light went with her and gradually the darkness of the night surrounded the drunken soldier and the prince.
“I never thought I'd say that ever in my life.” Dann said after a long, strange silence. "But I owe you... your Highness."
"Dann, please do not, just do not. Let's go back to the camp before we get into trouble, some that I cannot get rid of.”
They walked in the dark, accompanied only by the sound of the little waves of the sacred lake going back and forth and the noise of the pebbles squeaking under their feet.
"Are not you going to ask?" The prince seemed a little embarrassed.
“No!” Dann had never said anything with such conviction.
Dann's sword was painted red as it passed through the guts of the twelfth and last man he'd killed that infernal morning.
He snatched the weapon from the unfortunate man's body and looked around. The great plain of dry land at the entrance to the desert was covered with torn and bloody bodies of what remained of Arafazze's troops; in the sky the inclement sun seemed to cause the whole earth to burn and the vultures were already flying around, just waiting for their banquet. The battle had not been long, but intense and fierce enough to be like a nightmare.
Battle. From the moment Dann saw enemy troops lining up at sunrise he knew the word was wrong. Slaughter. It was a bloody slaughter.
The Arafat soldiers were no more than a band of exhausted, starving rags, unlikely survivors of other battles of that endless war between the Port-cities. The swandi forces served only to give the final blow of that cycle, which sooner or later would begin again.
There were groans of agony on all sides. An arrow buzzed high over Dann's head, heading toward the cliff above. He was exhausted, the scorching sun made his skin burn, and the heat of the air choked him under the mail, his sword arm weighed a ton, and he looked as though he was about to fall. In the heat of battle he had thrown his half-helm away before he could no longer breathe, as well as the heavy willow shield he barely wore against those ridiculous foes.
The last Arafat was killed and the battle ended. Dann walked with slow steps as his companions gathered. On the way he saw some of them fallen, few, very true, but good friends and whose fault would be felt. The other soldiers did not look much happier than Dann himself.
“That was a slaughterhouse!” Uttor Three-Teeth said angrily as Dann drew near, desolate and tired. "I've never felt any pleasure in killing anyone, but at least I do not feel guilty when the enemy gives real combat.”
“It's the truth” Sadly agreed Ear, a skinny Northerner with two huge fan-ears. "We were not soldiers today, we were butchers.”
“You are paid to do what the king commands.” Gavan said dryly, approaching on his horse. There was not a single drop of blood on his clothes, obviously he was not even close to the battle. "And if he tells you to be butchers, butchers you will be. Now, your wretched worms, see if someone from the detachment has died and taken the bodies from here, then return to camp.”
Gavan stumbled with his horse and trotted quietly among the torn bodies. You son of a bitch, Dann thought, glaring at the commanding officer who was walking away. Since the night before, he had been pondering whether or not he should talk to Aldo about asshole, maybe he could do something. But deep down he knew it would be foolish and waste of time.
Conformed, he stuffed the sword full of blood already dried in the scabbard and went after dead comrades.
The cool water flowing from the cliff on the other side of the hill where the great palace lay was an immense relief to Dann's toasted skin. He washed the blood from his face and arms, rubbed the back of his neck and bare chest that was finally free of the weight and suffocation of the mail.
Night would come soon. Dann had patiently waited his turn to wash the fountain, which was not sacred, this time he made sure of asking first. He had sat in the shadow of a cluster of huge palm trees rising to the heavens at the side of the hill, and found it so agreeable that almost all the other soldiers washed before him. Or maybe he was so tired and sad that he did not want to move.
The night bore a cold breeze from the desert and Dann soon had to put on the clean shirt he had brought from the camp and a cloak. He gathered his things and headed back.
While there was still light it was possible to understand why the sacred lake of these people was called The Mirror. Its waters were so placid and calm that they seemed to be a layer of glass reflecting the colors of the sky. And in that hour of dusk it was painted in a gold hue that gradually turned orange. It was a huge lake, surrounded by lush gardens, moorings of glittering marble and low, long houses.
And there was a temple too. Or at least Dann thought it was one. A strange construction, that one, was like a big cube of rough stone surrounded by wavy walls and with curious towers that looked like silk ribbons snaking to the sky. He would have to get closer to see better, but he would not dare even if he had to.
“Dann! Dann!” The desperate voice came suddenly as the soldier began to leave the lake behind. “Dann!”
He recognized the voice and stopped walking at once. He did not turn to look, just waited for what fate was bringing, with sadness.
"Dann..." Aldebaram gasped, resting his hands on his knees, and with despair made his clear eyes burn like fire. "Glad I saw you passing by, I need help!"
"Ah..." For a moment Dann froze and did not know what to say, then decided to follow the protocol: "What you order, Your Highness.
“Do not start with that!” Just come with me!
“The prince dashed toward the lake. Dann took a deep breath, making sure it would not end well, and then headed after him.”
Although Aldebaram ran madly, Dann managed to catch up before he lost sight of him . They were going to the strange temple that the soldier had soon observed, the gate was ajar, as was the simple wooden door of the stone cube, and from within there were strange sounds. By instinct Dann was already with the sword in his hand.
They went through the gate, and right after crossing the door Dann suddenly felt his head crushed. His legs weakened and he almost fell, the hand that held the sword lost its strength and the tip of the weapon hit the stone floor causing a tinkling that echoed loudly. It was a horrible sensation, as if two giant hands were squeezing his head.
A jerk from Aldebaram made him come back to himself, his head still aching and ringing in his ears, but able to stand guard again. They were in a sort of hall, plunged in shadow, dancing in the rhythm of a mysterious light.
There was a large stone table below, placed higher than the rest of the room, with a brazier on either side of where the light came. Dann soon understood that there was no fire or embers in those braziers, but magic. Magic light. But not the clear, clean light of Swandia, it was something different, strange, ominous.
And then Dann saw that someone was tied up at that table.
“Dann they will kill her!” Come on, help me!
“They who?!” Dann could not see anyone else there.
Then he saw it. Two figures emerged from somewhere behind the large table, they seemed to be men, medium-sized, and their faces covered by metallic masks that gleamed in an opaque, almost bronze gold tone. One of them carried a twisted dagger full of barbs.
It's not just a table. The horror took hold of Dann who for a second weakened, felt his head spinning and the buzzing increased. It is an altar, an altar of sacrifice.
In Swandia there were no religions, only distinct popular beliefs that varied from province to province, but Dann wandered around enough places with the army to know what a sacrificial altar was.
The prince was beside him, distressed and also full of horror. It was the future me king there, and he could not refuse an order from him. He took a deep breath, squeezed the handle of his sword harder, tensing his fingers until they were hard as stones, and then he attacked.
He crossed the hall in a clumsy rush, afraid to stumble something hidden in the shadows of that flickering light. Aldebaram came just behind, wielding his light and simple sword.
As they approached they could hear the two masked men chanting some kind of song and completely ignored the presence of Dann and Aldebaram.
They climbed the three steps that led to that upper level all at once and pointed their swords at the masked ones. Dann was about to cross one of them, but the prince grabbed his arm.
“What do you mean? They are in a trance or whatever, it's our chance!”
"I do not want to shed more blood than was shed today." He still had his sword pointed, but his arm trembled and his eyes looked sad reflecting the blue light.
“Do you want to wait for them to end then?” Dann asked, impatient and no longer caring whether he was insolent or not.
“Let's cut the moorings and take Inya out of there.”
“Inya? The one who wanted to kill me last night?” Dann was shocked, lowered his weapon and began clumsily cutting the first leather strap, which held the girl's right hand unconscious up in the altar.
"Yes ..." Aldebaram looked embarrassed suddenly. The men still sang in trance.
“She knocked me down like a sack of oats! With magic! How could she end up here?” Now he cut the strap that held the other hand, always with eyes on the strange men in trance.
“I do not know! We were strolling by the lake when suddenly the two of them came out of nowhere in front of us, knocked over and dragged her here. I could not do anything.”
"Okay, okay, that's not my problem ..." Dann ran off to the other side and started working on the strip that pinned his left foot. "Quick, cut off the other one, and we're out of here!"
Aldebaram sheathed his sword and drew a dagger from his garment. He ran to the other end and took the strips in his hand and began to cut the leather as if it were wet paper. That's a real dagger, Dann thought as he fought with his sword too long for that task.
The moorings were all cut off and they were about to carry Inya off the altar. But then the chant stopped and an enormous hand squeezed Dann's left arm, so hard that his bones crackled.
The prince was also immobilized and Inya was still lying on the altar, but now she seemed restless, as if dreaming or trying to wake up. The two masked men stared at each other without saying anything, their expressions were just the hard, icy lines of the masks Dann could now see that they were bronze.
“I order you to release her” Aldebaram shouted in a strident, terrified way. "I am Castrobom's Prince Aldebaram! Heir to the Throne of Swandia, and if you do not do what I say, my father will have no mercy!”
Dann did not know if the prince had noticed that he was trying to reach for his sword in the scabbard and so he spoke to distract the men or whether he was really threatening them. Either way he would bring his free hand gently in the direction of the sword.
“The wrath of Swandia fell under you...”
"Foolish boy," one of the men said, his voice distorted and vibrated by the bronze mask. "We knew who you were before you even knew. We know who you are and who you will be. Each day of your life until today has brought you here, to witness your own end...”
"Look," Dann said suddenly, as soon as he reached the sword, he snatched it from its scabbard and a quick movement cut open the clothes and skin of the man who held him, freeing himself, and then drawing his sword into his belly with all the strength he had been able to put together. He drew his sword, then turned to the other. "It is not the prince who is lying on this table to die.
"No, it is not," agreed the other masked, now holding Aldebaram by the neck with the arm and the twisted dagger pointed at Inya's womb. "And that's the beauty of everything, the inevitability. His royal blood will be spared, not a drop will fall, but this will be his doom and his ruin. This young woman's womb will not be the bearer of the one who will bring the end of the day, the one who had unleashed chaos and insanity, the one who will destroy the world to save it.
“Release the prince now.”
“I will, but the girl dies.”
“And you die soon after.”
“Living or dying is irrelevant. When this dagger comes down my purpose in this world will have been fulfilled.”
“May the demons of the night carry their purpose to the hells, release the boy now!”
“Dann! I beg you not to let him kill Inya!”
“My duty is with you prince, not with your foreign girlfriend. Release the boy now!”
“She is not...”
The masked man threw Aldebaram on the floor as he began to recite some spell, holding the dagger with both hands lifting it under Inya's womb, which struggled to wake up. The twisted dagger now shone in the same way that the bluish light emitted by the braziers vibrated and tinged in the rhythm of the enchantment.
Instinctively Dann ran toward the prince who was thrown to the floor, but he was already getting up and his desperate gaze begged him to do something.
Grinding his teeth with rage Dann goes around himself and turns in the direction of the masked man, delivering a long arched blow with his sword, which seemed to take forever to find his arms that carried the dagger towards the body of Inya.
A sudden spurt of blood spattered red on Inya's face, which finally woke and screamed in terror as she saw a pair of hands holding a dagger lying in her bare womb.
The man groaned and gasped behind his bronze mask, arms stretched forward, as if looking where his hands should be.
The groans and gasps stopped when Aldebaram, seized by fury which frightened Dann, took his head and opened his jugular with the dagger he had used before. More blood gushed leaving the floor of the temple red. The man fell with his face to the ground, causing a sharp whistle that echoed through the stone walls as the mask hit the floor.
Still furious, Aldebaram turns the man and pulls off his mask, only to reveal a burnt, scarred face, without eyes, without mouth, without nose. Just burns and scars.
"Let's get out of here," the prince commanded heavily, panting, shaking with fury. Dann, carry Inya.”
"Yes, Your Highness," said Dann, bowing his head. That tone of voice was warning enough that there was no questioning. “Immediately.”
Dann took Inya in his arms. She gripped his neck tightly, trembling and crying. She looked just like a wounded, frightened child, not the proud, imposing woman who wanted to kill him the night before.
Aldebaram stepped forward, with quick and energetic steps, each beat of his feet against the ground sounded like a cry of anger. Dann followed behind, but not before taking one last look at that mutilated face and the pools of blood on the floor. He was sure that vision would haunt him until his last breath.
“She is the daughter of a very wealthy merchant here of Khaxos.” Aldebaram said in the following night, sitting next to Dann in front of a roaring fire in the swandi camp, a few hours after another bloody battle in the desert, a last suicide attack orchestrated by Arafazze's generals. Another slaughter. “Important man, one of the councilors closest to the ruler of the city. We met that same evening at the banquet Lord Gharo offered to high-ranking commanders.”
“You do not have to tell me anything.” Dann really did not even want to know.
“She has magic on her mother's side.” The prince continued, staring intently at the flames. "A mighty witch from a land farther south. Something peculiar, because in this land there is so much less magic than here. Nothing like it is in Swandia.”
“Maybe that's why they wanted to kill her? A magical blood sacrifice must be powerful.”
“Maybe... maybe... but the things that men said...”
“It must be nothing Ald...” Dann almost let the real name slip, but he caught himself in time. “Aldo. Just stupid talk to make you nervous and jumbled up. I've seen very skillful men with swords being defeated with words.”
“But even so...”
"Why was the temple empty anyway?"
"The priest had left for the Pillars two days before, with the majority of the acolytes, so they told me. And the one who had remained to guard the temple appeared floating at the other end of the lake with its belly open.”
“And Inya? How is she now?” They took her to a mansion not far from the lake, and after that Dann did not hear from her.
“I got a note this morning. She said she was fine, still shocked, but not hurt at all. And he appreciated your help, and she also apologized.”
“Well, she did not have to.”
“I will miss her, but from the memory of my ancestors, I want to go home.” Aldebaram sounded sad and tired, a feeling Dann shared.
"Let's go at first light," Dann said, trying to sound excited. "That's what my commander said.”
They decided to take one last look at the sacred lake before going to bed. The Silver Moon was in the sky that night, and it made all the water sparkle. They were still just watching that beauty all when the sound of hooves made itself heard in the middle of the night. Dann had his hand on his sword hilt.
A slender silhouette was approaching from the direction of the camp, galloping a horse that even in that half moonlight Dann could recognize. Gavan. You son of a bitch Gavan!
Faster than I seemed to be, Gavan came and grabbed Aldebaram by the collar of his cloak and pulled him onto his horse.
“Why, now, my suspicion was right, the little prince..." said the captain, opening a feline smile that glowed yellowish in the midnight light."Finally real a prize in this pathetic war.”
“This is betrayal Gavan!” Dann yelled, shocked, but not totally surprised. One would expect something like that from a worm like the commander.
“But so what? General Phanteu will pay for the ransom I ask for, and when someone cares enough to cut off my head, I'll be far away...”
Dann did not want to hear that unnerving voice anymore, or feel its sour smell again. With a wielding sword he advanced against Gavan.
First he tried to pierce the horse's belly, but the animal was clever and deflected from the attack even before his horseman pulled the reins. Dann then tried to hit Gavan, but the prince was too close and he could end up taking the blow.
The commander was starting to ride away, and Dann scrambled back with all his speed, and in a great effort jumped on the side of the horse and managed to hold on to the saddle. His feet were dragged against the stony ground, and the rest of his body rocked and swung from side to side. He was desperately trying to unbalance the horse to overthrow Gavan, who he retaliated with blows from Joanna's handler.
Suddenly there was more light. The orange light of torches and bonfires. Dann tried to look around, but did not quite understand where they were, but knew that was not the swandi camp.
He decided to take a chance. When Gavan fired another blow with the whip handle Dann released one of the hands from the saddle and tried to grab the handle, and to his astonishment he managed.
He had to pull several of them until he was able to release the instrument from Gavan's hand, and when he did, he let go and, during the fall, struck a whip in the horse's belly, which roared with pain and overturned Gavan and Aldebaram to the ground.
Dann had lost his sword on the way and now it was only with Joanna in his hands. He ran over the stunned Gavan and made a series of awkward lashes. But the commander was larger and more experienced, and managed to dodge, hit a blow to Dann that made the soldier fly away.
He stood again and saw Gavan dragging Aldebaram into the darkness.
Dann found himself right by the fire, and in the blink of an eye he knew what to do. He picked up a torch and fled.
He reached Gavan and threw the torch into his hair, which burned at once because of all the fat in them. Aldebaram managed to break free and went to Dann, and they both stared wide-eyed at the commander's head burning.
The ship moved gently away from the port of Khaxos, the strong wind carrying the scents of the market; and Dann could still hear the patchwork of mixed languages.
He had won a new sword and the promise of a position in the prince's personal guard. His arms were marked by cuts, and he had scars on his face, shoulders and back after the battle the day before. Plus twenty-two deaths on his account.
It ended up being what Gruh had said: it had become a routine task.
He would not have missed a second he'd been in that hot, disturbing land, but it had not been that bad after all.
Thank you for reading!