THE HORSEMEN IN THE DAWN
Dawn was coming, a pink brimming light in the eastern sky that lit up nothing as yet but which had brought all the thickets and trees into an explosion of birdsong. A summer morning heralding a hot unclouded day to come. The longest days of the year were here.
The night had been long enough. Rakhsar grunted as one of Kouross stragglers popped up in his path, almost as startled as he. The scimitar licked out and did its work he gave almost no thought to the motion and the hufsan gave a sharp cry, like a man who has stubbed his toe, and then slid to the ground; not dead, but useless now, scrabbling in an agonised world of his own. Rakhsar ran on. There was not a gleam of metal left to see on the scimitars blade; it was congealed black to the hilt.
The walls of the house were almost the same shade as the sunrise, the colour in them shallowing as the light grew. No-one else stepped in Rakhsars path, and he slowed, gathering the breath in his lungs. His arms and legs were trembling with fatigue and the reaction to the nights violence.
Dead horses, an open space with many men standing in it, others bent over wounds. One was on his hands and knees drinking from a puddle like a dog.
Roshana also was on her knees, naked, a stripe of blood down one side of her face. He arms were bound behind her back, and there was a leather collar at her throat. Kouros stood holding the leash. He tugged on it sharply as Rakhsar approached, the armed men making a lane for his brother. Roshanas head was tugged upwards. Her eyes were beyond tears. She stared at Rakhsar a moment, and then lowered her face again, turning away and squirming as if she could hide her nakedness.
A black heartbeat began to thump in Rakhsars head. For a moment he was almost dizzied by his own hatred. He blinked, tried to produce his trademark sneer, but found he could not. His face was as raw as an open wound as he faced Kouros and his sister, and around him the men made a circle, and hefted their weapons in their hands thoughtfully, eyeing the black-bladed scimitar as though it were a thing animate in itself.
She had such lovely hair, Kouros said. It is such a shame to see her cropped like a convict. But it will suit her well for what I have in store. He tugged on the leash again. Roshana choked, but said nothing, not lifting her head. She was kneeling in a puddle and her thighs were so pale they were almost blue. She began to shiver.
You and I have a lot to bury here, Kouros, Rakhsar said evenly. You have prevailed, and I will die. You will be King and I will not even be a footnote in history. But I ask you now to show mercy. Not to me to Roshana. She has never once done you harm. She does not deserve this.
Kouros considered. He did not look like a man on the threshold of triumph. He had been weeping, and there was a lost look in his eyes despite the savage snarl that seemed fixed on his mouth.
Barka. Bring forward your burden.
The weaponsmaster was carrying a body on his shoulder, wrapped in a travelling cloak. He set it on the ground and Kouros knelt and pulled back the folds to show a broad, bloodless face somewhat like his own, though with more hufsan blood in it. Roshana tried to move away from the corpse, but he caught her by her slim arm and tugged her closer. Rakhsar advanced convulsively, and immediately all about him the ring of soldiers tightened, and the swords lifted, like the heads of hounds catching a new scent. Rakhsar froze.
Behold my brother, Kouros said brokenly. He pulled back the cloak further to reveal the stump of one arm.
My mother took his hand, to mark him. And you killed him, Rakhsar. He stroked the dead face. He would have walked through hell for me, had I asked him.
Then Kouros stood up. Drop your sword.
Rakhsar stood fast. You think I will go down as easily as that?
Drop your sword, or we will open your sisters pretty legs and I will have my men rape her one after the other in front of you. The lost look had gone even the hatred. Kouross eyes were cold as slate, no emotion left in them.
In the distance, growing louder, the sound of hoofbeats began to rumble in the air, growing closer. A great many horses.
I think father is looking for us, Kouros said. And again, Drop your sword.
Rakhsar looked at the ring of men surrounding him, and then at his sister. Her face was white, with black holes for eyes.
Give me your word you will not harm her.
I give you nothing. Drop your sword.
Another trembling second. Kouros gestured impatiently with one hand, not looking behind him, and a clot of his men converged on Roshana. They threw her to her back on the wet ground. Two grabbed her ankles. She screamed, and thrashed in their grip. Rakhsar fight them fight them! she shrieked.
Rakhsar dropped the sword.
Kouros smiled slightly, and raised his hand, and the men paused. Roshana went still in their grasp. It was as though they were manhandling some sculptors white-marble masterwork.
Take his arms, Kouros said, and his men closed in on Rakhsar, two on each side. They pinioned him. Kouros drew close, pulling from his belt a cheap kitchen-knife.
Not so good as the blade our father gave you, but iron is iron, Rakhsar.
What a king youll make, Kouros, Rakhsar drawled; a last, defiant sneer.
Kouros drew close, set one hand on his brothers shoulder, and looked into his eyes.
This is for my true brother, he whispered. As I promised him.
And then he plunged the knife into Rakhsars belly.
He twisted it, hearing Roshana scream behind him. Rakhsars feet left him. He writhed, teeth clenched on the pain. He made barely a sound.
Drop him, Kouros said to the men, and Rakhsar was released to collapse into the mud at their feet. Now he did groan, a thin sliver of blood trickling out of his mouth.
Kouros studied his struggles for a moment, and looked at the blood on the knife as if wondering how it had got there. Finally Barka spoke up.
My prince, what of the lady?
Kouros turned. There were horses cantering up the lane. His fathers men had come too late.
He went to Kuthras body, and covered up the dead mans face again.
The men will do as they please with the lady. When they are done, she is to be killed. I do not ever want to see her again, alive or dead.
No! Roshana screamed.
The sunrise was over the house now, and the birdsong had grown into a deafening chorus. The horsemen slowed to a trot, and filed into the open space before the house. They were mounted on Niseians, in full armour, and they bore lances. More were streaming across the fields. They were all Kefren, and they wore red cloaks. More and more kept coming, a steaming cavalcade of horseflesh and gleaming bronze and iron.
Two of them reined in before Kouros, and the smaller of the two doffed his crested helm. He had the features of a hufsan, but finer, and with the pale colouring of the high castes. He looked the scene in the yard over, and his gaze paused on Roshana, held naked in the grip of four soldiers. Something in his face changed, as though the bones had grown more pronounced.
Whats going on here? he asked quietly in Kefren.
My lord, Barka said. He ran forwards. Kouros!
Who is your Archon, and who sent you? Kouros asked. Speak quickly, man.
Release that woman, the slightly built horseman said. And though the words were spoken softly, something in the tone of the voice seemed to crawl cold into the spine of every man standing there.
Do you know who I am? Kouros asked, his own voice rising. Do you have any idea?
The man ignored him. First rank, lances, second rank, bows!
There was a clatter as the horsemen raised their lances out of the stirrup-sockets. Others were unslinging compound bows from their saddles and nocking arrows to the strings. The men in the yard, a loose ring around the bodies, shrank in on each other and faced out, somewhat bewildered.
How dare you! Kouros cried.
But Barka had strode in front of him, covering him with his own body.
Who are you? he asked the lead horseman.
The youth leaned forward in the saddle, his bright eyes burning.
I am called Corvus, and I am King of the Macht.
A moment of stunned silence. They stood looking up at him in utter incomprehension. Corvus smiled slightly, a widening of his tight mouth, no more.
And who are you?
Barka launched himself at Corvus with a roar, sword cocked back in his hand.
Two broadheads struck him before he had moved six feet, staggering him. He dropped his sword, turned to Kouros.
Flee! he cried. A third arrow took him in the throat, bowling him over, and he fell on his back, gripping the shaft with one hand as though holding it in place.
Chaos broke out. The cavalry leapt forward, the Niseians half-rearing as their riders kicked them into motion. The iron-tipped lances jabbed out and the armoured bulk of the horses knocked men off their feet and trampled them when they went down.
Kouros turned and ran.
A lance speared him through the shoulder, piercing his corselet and his flesh in one thrust. He barely registered it. He leapt over Kuthras body, fell on his side in the mud, got up again and kept running. A wall of black horses met him.
He rolled beneath their hooves, scrabbled along the ground like a wounded beetle, and was beneath them. He looked up to see the belly of one of the great beasts above his face, and hurled himself through its back legs. It sensed him, and kicked out hard, the iron-shod hoof catching him in the side, breaking his ribs. He breathed in pure agony, the pain flooding through his body with the very working of his lungs.
But he got up at a crouch and kept running, saw a shadowed, overhung ditch ahead and dived into it head first.
He splashed into the water, the pain from his shoulder now beginning to rise, his arm numb and useless. He crawled along the ditch on his belly, choking, sputtering, half-drowning. The morning was raucous with the sounds of fighting, men and horses screaming, the clash of metal. This cannot be, he was thinking.
It was all that would lodge in his head. This cannot be. The utter astonishment of it all kept him going, took his mind off the pain. But his body was weakening fast. He tucked the bloody knife in his waist-sash. It was his only weapon and he was damned if he would lose it.
After a hundred paces, he climbed out of the ditch and floundered into the shade of a tamarisk thicket. Thorns tore at his face, and he had to shut his eyes as they sliced his eyelids. But he kept going, a high whine rising in his throat, like that of a mistreated dog. He did not know in which direction he was fleeing, but he did not pause or stop to think; the instinct in him was too strong for that. He kept going, fighting the agony, knowing only that he had to get away, away from the men on horses and the thing which led them.
The yard was a used-up battlefield, the puddled mud now lathered with blood and studded with corpses. Corvus dismounted and sheathed his sword.
Ardashir, he called. Bring them in. We dont know what else is in the area. I want pickets thrown out a pasang on all sides.
The tall Kefre nodded and set off at a trot, calling for his men. There were horn-calls, like the huntsman recalling his hounds.
Corvus knelt in the mud over a high-caste Kefre who was still living, clutching at a wound in his belly. He was sharp-featured and handsome, but his lips were blue. His breath came in short, agonised gasps.
You are Corvus, he said, looking up at the pale face. And he made a noise that might have been a laugh.
I am Corvus.
Save my sister. She is an innocent.
One hand left the gaping belly-wound and grasped Corvuss arm. Save Roshana.
The girl is safe, Corvus reassured him. Let me look at you, friend.
The fist went back into the wound. I am already dead. My name was Rakhsar, and I was a prince of the empire. My brother Kouros
He shuddered, his body clenching up. And then the breath came out of him in a long, slow sigh, and he lowered his head, the fine features sinking into the mud, the earth of Pleninash filling his dead eyes.
Corvus straightened, frowning.
Ardashir trotted back and dismounted. This is a mess, whatever it was.
Is the woman all right?
Shes been mauled a little, but shell live. I wonder what happened here?
Police the field, Ardashir. I want information. Anyone who still lives, we bring with us.
A trooper came galloping up to them and hauled in his horse in a flash of spray.
My king riders approaching from the east, at least a full mora of them. Heavy cavalry they have blue-enamelled armour and they ride Niseians like us.
Arakosan cavalry, Corvus said. The main body must be closer than we thought. Well, thats good to know. He looked down at the dead Kefre at his feet. Bring this man along also, Ardashir. Dead or alive, he interests me.
Ardashir called for help from a rank of horsemen standing nearby. The body was lifted out of the mud and slung on the back of a horse like a sack.
On the back of another horse, a Kefren girl with a close-cropped head watched, and let the tears cut white lines down the filth caking her beautiful face.