Kurun opened his eyes.
To utter strangeness. He did not know where he was. He was lying on his back, and above his head there was a darkness that moved and creaked and bulged. It was like being in a womb with the wind beating upon it.
Lamp-light. The steadying glow of a wick flickering in a clay saucer. That, at least, was familiar.
And pain. It was not urgent, but a mere background singing. He seemed to remember that it had once been much worse.
He turned his head, and saw Roshana at his side. She was in a willow-woven chair, and her head was resting on his bed, by his arm. He lifted his hand and touched her hair, a velvet spikiness which was pure pleasure to run his fingers through.
I am alive.
He could not add up any rational series of events to bring himself to this moment, but in this moment, he did not care. It was enough that he and Roshana were alive and he could brush her hair with his fingers. It was more than enough.
She opened her eyes. No other part of her moved, and she suffered him to stroke her hair as they stared at one another.
I love you, he thought. He smiled.
She took his hand in her own and their fingers entwined, his brown and strong and calloused, hers slim and blue-veined and soft.
Rakhsar is dead, she said softly. And the moment soured. The memories began to assemble in their ghastly ranks, and it came back to him.
Dead. We are all that is left, Kurun.
Her eyes were bloodshot and he saw now that her temple was bruised, a purple stain that rose into her hairline. Instinctively, he tried to rise, but the shocking burst of pain in his side left him open-mouthed. Sweat broke out on his body. He clenched her hand in his until he thought he could feel the slender bones creak.
There was a flare of light that dazzled Kurun. When he opened his eyes again, they were no longer alone. Two others stood over the bed. One was Kefren or at least he seemed Kefren. There was a strange cast to his features that could not be easily slotted into any of the types which Kurun had known since a child in the ziggurat. He was slight and lean, but there was something in his eyes that belied his size; an authority remarkable in one so young.
The other was huge, a hulking, broad-shouldered fellow with grey hair and a scarred face. He was old, but looked as though he could fell a horse with one blow. He was not Kefren, nor hufsan.
Macht, Kurun whispered. You are Macht. His blood ran cold and he flinched in the bed.
Roshana cupped his face. Dont be afraid, Kurun. They saved us. Their surgeon stitched your wound.
Where is this place? Kurun demanded. He lapsed into low Asurian, such was his terror.
The smaller man replied in good Kefren, the language of the court. You are in the encampment of the army of King Corvus of the Macht. He smiled, and the severe set of his bones seemed to soften. You are my guests here. You have no reason to be afraid.
The big Macht said something in a guttural language Kurun could not understand and the small Kefre cocked his head like a bird to listen, then looked down on Kurun once more. He shook his head.
The surgeon says you must keep to your bed for three more days, Kurun, and he has had his knife in so many folk that we must respect his knowledge. Roshana here will wait on you she has insisted. The young Kefre smiled again, looking at Roshana as she crouched by the bed. He had good eyes. When he was younger he must have been beautiful, as pretty as a girl. But there was little of that left in the lean face now.
As he stared upon Roshana, the eyes were still those of a boy.
I will look in on you both again later, he said. There are men outside the tent who will attend to everything you need you have only to ask.
Are they Kefren? Roshana asked him, looking up like a cornered deer.
Yes. They are Kefren of my Companions. You may trust them with your lives, as I have.
He left the tent. The Macht followed him, but paused at the flap and looked them both over. He wore a red chiton and on his feet were heavy studded sandals pale with dust. He, too, let his eyes linger on Roshana, but not in the same way the other had. It was as though the sight of her face pained him. Then he was gone.
They were only one day and a night in the tent when a group of Macht threw back the flaps and began dismantling it around their ears. Roshana had created a komis out of an old blanket and she threw it across her face and shouted questions at them, which made them shrug and grin, the more brazen winking at her as she hovered protectively over Kuruns bed. The leather panels of the structure were untied and rolled away with startling speed, and then the ash poles which supported them were lifted out of their post-holes and disappeared also.
Kurun levered himself upright in the bed, ignoring the pain, astonished by what the dismantling of the tent revealed.
They were surrounded by a sea of men.
As far as the eye could see, whole hillsides were covered with moving figures, horses, mules, carts and waggons. Everywhere, tawny-coloured tents similar to their own were coming down, like mushrooms collapsing in on themselves. And thousands upon thousands of Macht were coming and going, loading vehicles, saddling horses, forming up in regimented lines. It was mid-morning, and their activities began to raise the dust out of the ground so that the whole immense scene was fading out minute by minute before their eyes.
Then Kuruns bed was raised high in the air by four brawny Macht in full armour, save for their helms. A tall Kefre stood by barking instructions in their harsh tongue.
What are you doing? Whats happening? Roshana demanded, with a hint of the palace princess.
The Kefre pointed with one hand. We are on the move, lady. You and the boy have been assigned a waggon. I suggest you get into it.
But we were told
The army is on the march, my girl, and weve no time to argue. Now go get in the waggon or Ill have to snap you up and toss you in it myself. He smiled to soften his words.
I demand to see your officer. I demand to see the King!
The Kings busy, lady. Dont you know theres a war on?
The waggon was well-sprung, and drawn by four mules. Two Macht sat up front, one with a spear, one with a whip, and they chattered incessantly to one another, drank from a wineskin with the hair still on, and spat over the mules rumps. The dust thickened like a fog, and within that fog was a bedlam of noise. The trundle of iron-rimmed wheels, the braying of mules and neighing of horses, men shouting at one another, the crack of whips. And above all else, a growing rhythm, a cadenced thunder so vast it was felt in the flesh rather than heard by the ears.
Tens of thousands of marching feet, tramping over the earth of the Middle Empire by rank and file, in massed centons and morai.
The Macht army was on the move.
For the rest of the day, the waggon lurched along interminably. The mules were allowed to halt briefly to water, from leather buckets passed hand to hand down the line, and then they were off again, chivvied along by unseen voices in the dust, men swearing, coughing, an acrid reek as they relieved themselves on the march, and the rising stink of their sweat, which even the dust could not choke out. Summer was blooming into full, brassy flower across the lowlands of Pleninash, and the lush green country was being beaten into a swath of dust by the armys passage. The heat rose under the canvas canopy of the waggon until it hung like thirst in their throats. They drank all their water by early afternoon of that day, and one of the teamsters had to run off down the column for more, uttering unmistakeable profanities in his own tongue as he did so.
Kurun sat propped up against Roshana in the bed, the frame clicking on the wooden floor of the waggon as they lurched along. He was naked save for the yellow dressing that was bound around his ribs, but was no longer self conscious before her, and their sweat mingled through the linen shift that the Macht had given her to wear, her dark nipples poking the threadbare material. Such things no longer seemed important; all the senses were stunned and then dulled by the immense exodus which had swallowed them.
They slept at last, clinging to each other, juggled in the narrow bed like dice in a box. So used to the motion of the waggon did they become that it was only when it halted that they woke, the world blue-dark all around them and a coolness descending upon it with the oncoming dusk. There were many voices outside, and the light of a fire soaking through the canvas canopy.
Their bodies were soaked in sweat and covered in dust. Kuruns wound throbbed and ached, but it seemed less profound than it had. He could move, stiffly, slowly. Roshana helped him slip on a wool chiton, and they descended from the waggon with the care of the very old.
Eyes around the fire watched them, and someone tossed them a bulging skin. It was water, not the rancid-smelling wine the Macht drank, and they shared it swallow for swallow, Kurun drinking until he felt his stitches would burst.
A space was made for them by the fire, and they squatted there amid conversations they could not understand, staring into the flames and then at each other. They held hands, needing the touch of the familiar.
One of the men rummaged in a huge leather bag, produced two wooden bowls, and tossed them over, along with two flattened sticks that might conceivably have been seen as spoons. Then he said something and pointed to a larger fire some distance away in the gathering darkness. He made an eating motion.
Theyre cooking, Roshana said. I can smell it. Hes telling us to go and eat.
Im not hungry, Kurun lied. He did not feel he could stagger as far as the cooking fire.
Then I will go. She collected the bowls with a click and stood up while the Macht around the fire watched. She hesitated a moment under all those hard, inquisitive eyes, and then strode off.
There was a vast cauldron, so large she could have sat in it with a lid over her head. Within was a steaming mess that smelled more appetising than it looked. The Macht were gathered around it in rows as though the cauldron were the stage of an amphitheatre. A man stirred its contents. He shone with sweat, was shaven-headed and scarred, and when he smiled Roshana saw that his teeth were ornamented with silver wire.
She stood, as out of place as a lamb in a wolfs den, and held out the two bowls she had been given.
Silence fell around the cauldron. The silver-toothed man grinned at her, and slopped whatever-it-was into the bowls. He held them out to her, and as she reached for them he drew back again, making a face. A splatter of laughter about the fire.
Some of them stood up. They were behind her. Roshana stood rooted to the spot. She felt a hand touch her buttock and squeeze it. Another slid up her bare thigh. She shuddered, cried out.
And was pushed aside. A huge figure entered the firelight and one of the men behind her was taken by the nape of his neck and tossed aside like an errant puppy. The newcomer swung his arm and the Roshana heard the impact of bone on bone. Another one of her tormentors went down clutching his face. The silver-toothed cook quickly handed Roshana the bowls. She spilled half their contents, her hands were shaking so badly.
It was the old Macht, the tall one who had been in the tent. His eyes glittered like grey shards of glass. He snapped out orders that sounded like curses, and the crowd about the cauldron began to break up at once, men getting to their feet with an alacrity that spoke of fear. Then he set a hand on Roshanas shoulder and guided her away.
They rejoined Kurun at the waggon. The old Macht reached down easily and seized one of the teamsters by the throat, drawing him to his feet. He held him as though he meant to choke him, and the fellow sputtered out excuses and apologies, the meaning clear in any language. The big Macht dropped him as a terrier will discard a dead rat. He nodded to Roshana and Kurun, and then stalked away into the darkness.
They sat with the bowls in their laps, the food almost forgotten.
Who is that? Kurun asked.
It was the teamster who replied. Rubbing his throat ruefully he jerked a thumb.
Rictus, he said with a croak.
The camp never went quiet that night. It was so hot in the waggon that Kurun and Roshana lay on the beaten grass beneath the vehicle, a single blanket between them. They did not sleep for a long time, but listened and watched like latecomers to a show at the theatre, trying to make sense of it all. They could hear columns of men marching in the night, and cavalry. The stars were dimmed by the myriads of campfires. The night was bristling with movement.
There are so many, Kurun whispered. I did not know there were so many. And Kefren fighting with them, too.
The Great King has more, a hundred times more, Roshana told him.
They are not like these. The Macht frighten me, even more than the Honai did.
That is because they are strange, Kurun. The Macht are not of this world. They are Mots curse upon it, sent to punish us.
But they saved us.
They are animals, all of them. Roshana bent her head and began to sob silently, and when Kurun set his hand on her shoulder she shook it off.
I should have stayed. I made Rakhsar take me with him. I should have stayed. He would have escaped then, Kurun. He could have been away, and free, but now he is dead. My brother is dead.
Finally she let Kurun take her in his arms, and he held her, rocking her like a child, until the tears dried and she slept. He lay holding her for hours, feeling the blood seep out along the line of his stitches, but bearing the pain, enduring it as he had endured so many other things in his short life.
And he realised it was possible, whatever the philosophers said, to feel despair and hope in the same breath.
T HE GREAT CAMP seethed, unquiet as an opened grave. Thousand-strong formations of infantry were moving out of the firelit lines to the open country beyond, where more men waited with banners in the dark, to show them where to stand and plant their spears. The Macht army was deploying in darkness, so that they would greet the dawn light with their ranks fully formed, like some army of myth sprung out of the earth itself.
Pasangs to the east, there was a glow in the sky that eclipsed that of their own camp. Ten thousand fires were burning bright, strewn in a vast carpet across the sleeping earth.
The army of the Great King.