“He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”
—Sayings of Zamirii – Book of the Seven Swords
Skulgrim lay among the corpses like a shadow. Thousands of dead and dying surrounded him in this black land. “The insanity of war,” he thought dimly. “A man might as well be a stone in the river, letting the currents of time pass over him day and night without thought or reason.”
Laying there in the mud and blood he looked more like a corpse himself, his thick black hair muddied and plastered with the dung and offal of his comrades. He tried to raise his head up, but could barely open his eyes much less navigate the sea of bodies above him. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so weak, his body numb and almost as lifeless as the dead laying across his massive chest. “How many hours have I been unconscious?” he wondered.
The squawks of corpse-birds and buzzing flies stirred above his half-buried body. He tried to lift his arm and hand to brush them away, but felt the energy drain from him into the dark loam of the blood-soaked earth. He knew he’d been there for a while trying to wriggle his fingers caked in human gore. Little did he know he’d sustained deep wounds in his upper thigh.
The world above shifted as ominous dark clouds burst across the corpse ridden battlefield. A blinding rain burst from the blanket of darkness drenching the dunes of the Sanghara. It was cold and windy on this day of the Claw in the month of the Jackal. Although the monsoon season was ending, these black pellets of a thoughtless sky falling across the bloody field were a welcome sight as they cleansed it of the stench of slaughter. He tried to catch falling pellets on his cracked lips like a fish thrown on land will gasp, trying to drink in the droplets with his swollen tongue. “It’s more like the vinegar they swipe across a hanged man’s lips,” he reflected, as his black tongue savored the fetid moisture. His mind was empty, his thoughts a fleeting world of shadows and delirium.
His side had lost. He knew that much. Arbin Singal, supposedly an ally, had been secretly in league with the Eastern Army, and when he turned on Baron Tigil’s troops at twilight, the tide of battle turned too. He then attacked the armies of other commanders—Ulgar, Shagru and Kargaz—and the collapse of the Western Army was complete. In only half a day’s fighting, the question of who would henceforth rule the country was settled. It was Zagruz Cir, the powerful Sampir Emperor.
Images of his mother, sisters and the old villagers floated before his eyes. “I’m dying,” he thought without a tinge of sadness. “Is this what it’s really like?” He felt drawn to the peace of death, like a child mesmerized by a flame. Suddenly one of the nearby corpses raised its head.
“Skulgrim?” the corpse queried, tentatively.
The images of his mind ceased. As if awakened from the dead, he turned his head toward the sound. The voice, he was sure, was that of his best friend. With all his strength he raised himself slightly, squeezing out a whisper barely audible above the pelting rain. “Orrin, is that you?” Then he collapsed, lay still and listened.
“Skulgrim! Are you really alive?”
“Yes, alive!” he shouted in a sudden outburst of bravado. “And you? You’d better not die either. Don’t you dare!” His eyes were wide open now, and a smile played faintly about his lips.
“Not me! No, sir.” Gasping for breath, crawling on his elbows and dragging his legs stiffly behind him, Orrin Ironfist inched his way toward his friend. He made a grab for Skulgrim’s hand but only caught his small finger with his own. As childhood friends they’d often sealed promises with this gesture. He came closer and gripped the whole hand.
“I can’t believe you’re all right too! We must be the only survivors.”
“Don’t speak too soon. I haven’t tried to get up yet.”
“I’ll help you. Let’s get out of here!”
Suddenly Skulgrim pulled Orrin to the ground and growled, “Play dead! More trouble coming!”
The ground began to rumble like an earthquake. Peeking through their arms, they watched the approaching whirlwind close in on them. Then they were nearer, lines of black and scarlet sandarji-clad horsemen hurtling directly toward them. Pikes thrusting and plunging here and there in the mounds of the dead and dying as they thundered their way closer.
“The bastards! They’re back!” exclaimed Orrin, raising his knee as if preparing for a sprint. Skulgrim seized his ankle, nearly breaking it, and yanked him to the ground. In a moment the horses were flying past them—hundreds of muddy lethal hooves galloping in formation, riding roughshod over the fallen mercenaries. Battle cries on their lips, their armor and weapons clinking and clanking, the riders came on and on.
“Death has passed us by my friend!” exclaimed Skulgrim, reaching his hand out to Orrin. Still hugging the ground, Orrin slowly turned his head to show a broad, slightly trembling grin. “Somebody’s on our side, that’s for sure,” he said huskily. “If it’s Death, I’ll gladly serve her now and forever!” he bellowed, laughing and clapping and dancing a jig like a fool.
The two friends helped each other, with great difficulty, to work their way out of the field of death. Slowly they made their way across the battlefield to the safety of the shadow hills, hobbling along with arms around each other’s shoulders. There they collapsed among the dry stones. For two days they subsisted on wild chestnuts and edible leaves in the sodden hollows of Mount Sargon. This kept them from starving, but Skulgrim’s stomach ached and Orrin’s bowels tormented him. No food could fill him, no drink quench his thirst, but even he felt his strength returning bit by bit.
They both knew how dangerous it was to be on the road in the deathly moonlight, their shadows looming like silhouette targets in clear view of any patrols searching for stragglers. The decision to risk it had been Skulgrim’s. With Orrin in such misery, saying he’d rather be captured than continue trying to walk, there really didn’t seem to be much choice. They had to move on, but it was also clear that they had to find a place to lie low and rest. They made their way slowly in what they thought was the direction of the village of Blega.
“Can you make it?” Skulgrim asked repeatedly. He held his friend’s arm around his own shoulder to help him along. “Are you all right?” It was the labored breathing that worried him. “You want to rest?”
“I’m all right.” Orrin tried to sound brave, but his face was paler than the moon above them. Even with his lance for a walking stick, he could barely put one foot in front of the other.
Skulgrim wasn’t doing that well either. His thigh where he’d sustained the deep cuts was beginning to fester, yellow fluid oozing from the wounds. He’d tried to staunch it the best he could with rags he found in an overturned cart, which had a few chests of dry clothing from which he’d made bandages. But helping his friend was taking its toll on him as well. He could barely walk, and each new step brought renewed pain. He knew they needed to find shelter, food, and medicines quickly or they’d die soon.
Orrin had been apologizing abjectly over and over. “I’m sorry, Skulgrim. I know it’s me who’s slowing us down. I’m really sorry. Leave me, save yourself.” He tried to pull away.
“Not so fast, my friend!” Skulgrim laughed. “If anyone’s going to die today, it’s going to be me. No you’ll live. I’ll see to that.”
The first few times Skulgrim had simply brushed this off with “Forget it.” Eventually, when they stopped to rest, he turned to his friend and burst out, “Look, I’m the one who should be apologizing. I’m the one who got you into this in the first place, remember? Remember how I told you my plan, how I was finally going to do something that would really have impressed my father? I’ve never been able to stand the fact that to his dying day he was sure I’d never amount to anything. I was going to show him! Ha!”
Skulgrim’s father, Kargaz, had once served under Lord Zagreus of Inarii Prime. As soon as Skulgrim heard that Iguru Ulgmurz was raising an army, he was convinced that the chance of a lifetime had finally arrived. His father had been a kamurai warrior. Wasn’t it only natural that he would be made one too? He ached to enter the fray, to prove his mettle, to have word spread like wildfire through the village that he had decapitated an enemy general. He had wanted desperately to prove he was somebody to be reckoned with, to be respected—not just the village troublemaker.
Skulgrim reminded Orrin of all this, and Orrin nodded. “I know. I know. But I felt the same way. It wasn’t just you. Don’t you see, all of us boys in the village wanted to prove ourselves. Show how we were fearless and ready to show our mettle in combat!”
Skulgrim went on: “I wanted you to come with me because we’ve always done everything together. But didn’t your mother carry on something awful! Yelling and telling everybody I was crazy and no good! And your fiancée Tamarii, and my sister and everybody else crying and saying village boys should stay in the village. Oh, maybe they had their reasons. We are both only sons, and if we get ourselves killed there’s no one else to carry on the family names. But who cares? Is that any way to live?”
They had slipped out of the village unnoticed and were convinced that no further barrier lay between themselves and the honors of battle. When they reached the Ulgmurz encampment, however, they came face to face with the realities of war. They were told straightaway they would not be made kamurai warrior’s, not overnight nor even in a few weeks, no matter who their fathers had been. To Iguru and the other generals, Skulgrim and Orrin were a pair of country bumpkins, little more than children who happened to have got their hands on a couple of lances. The best they could wangle was to be allowed to stay on as common foot soldiers. Their responsibilities, if they could be called that, consisted of carrying weapons, rice kettles and other utensils, cutting grass, working on the road gangs and occasionally going out as scouts.
“Kamurai, ha!” said Skulgrim. “What a joke. General’s head! I didn’t even get near an enemy soldier, let alone a general. Well, at least it’s all over. Now what are we going to do? I can’t leave you here all alone. If I did, I could never face your mother or Sita again.”
“Skulgrim, I don’t blame you for the mess we’re in. It wasn’t your fault we lost. If anybody’s to blame, it’s that two-faced traitor Arbin Singal. I’d really like to get my hands on him. I’d kill the bastard!”
A couple of hours later they were standing on the edge of a small plain, gazing out over a sea of sand and saw grass like flecks on a white capped ocean, battered and broken by the storm. No houses. No lights. Darkness and emptiness to the farthest horizon.
Corpses littered the darkness here too, lying just as they had fallen. The cleft head of one rested in some tall grass. Another was on its back in a small stream. Still another was entangled grotesquely with a dead horse as if it had half thought of turning satyr as it fell. The rain had washed the blood away, and in the moonlight the corpseflesh looked like fish scales or the remnants of some pale-winged dragon. All around them was the lonely autumn litany of crickets calling to each other across a sea of silence.
A stream of tears cleared a white path down Orrin’s grimy face. He heaved the sigh of a very sick man.
“Skulgrim, if I die, will you take care of Tamarii and Sita?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I feel like I’m dying.”
Skulgrim snapped: “You don’t have time to die, my friend. We have work to do. Get your ass up now!” He was exasperated, wishing his friend were more resolute, not this whining child ready to give in at the slightest set back. “Come on, Orrin! How will you become a Kamurai if you die! Get up, I say,” and he pulled his friend up and once again moved forward into the darkness.
A little farther on, they came to a place where the piles of corpsemeat made it look as if a whole division had been wiped out. By this time they were callous to the sight of gore. Their glazed eyes took in the scene with cold indifference and they stopped to rest again.
While they were catching their breath, they heard something move among the corpses. Both of them shrank back in fright, instinctively crouching down with their eyes peeled and senses alerted.
The figure made a quick darting movement, like that of a surprised mouse. As their eyes focused, they saw that whoever it was was squirming like a snake close to the ground. Thinking at first it was a stray kamurai, they braced themselves for a dangerous encounter, but to their amazement the fierce warrior turned out to be a young girl. She seemed to be about thirteen or fourteen and wore a sariz with rounded sleeves. The narrow kobi around her waist, though patched in places, was of gold brocade; there among the corpses she presented a bizarre sight indeed. She looked over and stared at them suspiciously with shrew catlike yellow eyes.
Skulgrim and Orrin looked at each other wondering the same thing: what on earth could bring a young girl to a ghost-ridden, corpse-strewn field in the dead of night?
For a time they both simply stared back at her.
Then Skulgrim asked, “Who are you?”
She blinked a couple of times, got to her feet and sped away.
“Stop!” shouted Skulgrim. “I just want to ask you a question. Don’t go!”
But gone she was, like a wildcat lit on fire in the night. The sound of a small cry receded eerily into the darkness.
“Could it have been a ghost?” Skulgrim mused aloud as he stared vacantly into the thin mist.
Orrin shivered and cackled nervously. “If there were any wights around here, I think they’d be those of the fallen kamurai, don’t you?”
“I wish I hadn’t scared her away,” said Skulgrim. “There’s got to be a village around here somewhere. She could’ve been from one close by.”
They went on and climbed the nearer of the two hills ahead of them. In the hollow on the other side was the marsh that stretched south from Mount Kalpirz. And a light, only half a mile away.
When they approached the farmhouse, they got the impression that it wasn’t of the run-of-the-mill variety. For one thing, it was surrounded by a thick dirt wall. For another, its gate verged on being grandiose. Or at least the remains of the gate, for it was old and badly in need of repair.
Skulgrim went up to the door and rapped. “Hello! Is anybody home?”
Getting no answer, he tried again. “Please, is anyone there? Sorry to bother you at this hour, but my friend here is sick. We don’t want to cause any trouble—he just needs some rest.”
They heard whimpering and whispering inside and, presently, the sound of someone coming to the door.
They heard whimpering and whispering inside and, presently, the sound of someone coming to the door.
“You’re stragglers from Sankhara, aren’t you?” The voice belonged to a young girl.
“That’s right,” said Skulgrim. “We were under Lord Ulgar of Inarii Prime.”
The young girl shouted, “Go away! If you’re found around here, we’ll be in trouble.”
“Look, we’ve very sorry to bother you like this, but we’ve been walking a long time. My friend needs some rest, that’s all, and—”
“Please go away!”
“All right, if you really want us to, but couldn’t you give my friend some medicine? His stomach’s in such bad shape it’s hard for us to keep moving.”
“Well, I don’t know. …” After a moment or two, they heard footsteps and a little soft ringing sound receding into the house, growing fainter and fainter.
Just then they noticed the face. It was in a side window, an old woman’s face, and it had been watching them all along.
“Mitani,” she called out, “let them in. They’re foot soldiers. The Kagarin patrols aren’t going to be wasting time on them. They’re nobodies.”
Mitani opened the door, and the old woman, who introduced herself as Alia, came and listened to Skulgrim’s tale.
It was agreed that they could have the barn to sleep in. To quiet his bowels, Orring was given sedgeweed charcoal powder and thin potato gruel with scallions in it. Over the next few days, he slept almost without interruption, while Skulgrim, sitting vigil by his side, used cheap spirits to treat the sword wounds in his thigh.
One evening about a week later, Skulgrim and Orrin sat chatting. “They must have a trade of some kind,” Skulgrim remarked.
“I couldn’t care less what they do. I’m just glad they took us in.”
But Skulgrim’s curiosity was aroused.
“The mother’s not so old,” he went on. “It’s strange, the two of them living alone here in the mountains.” “Umm. Don’t you think the girl looks a little like Tamarii?”
“There is something about her that puts me in mind of Tamarii, but I don’t think they really look alike. They’re both nice-looking, that’s about it. What do you suppose she was doing the first time we saw her, creeping around all those corpses in the middle of the night? It didn’t seem to bother her at all. Ha! I can still see it. Her face was as calm and serene as those puppet dolls they make in Handaii. What a picture!”
Orrin motioned for him to be quiet.
“Shh! I hear her bell.” Mitani’s light knock on the door sounded like the tapping of a woodpecker.
“Orrin, Skulgrim,” she called softly.
Skulgrim got up and undid the lock. She came in carrying a tray of medicine and food and asked them how they were.
“Much better, thanks to you and your mother.”
“Mother said that even if you feel better, you shouldn’t talk too loud or go outside.”
Skulgrim spoke for the two of them. “We’re really sorry to put you to so much trouble.”
“Oh, that’s okay, you just have to be careful. Izur Kitsunari and some of the other generals haven’t been caught yet. They’re keeping a close watch on this area and the roads are crawling with Sugarzin troops.”
“So even though you’re only foot soldiers, Mother said that if we’re caught hiding you, we’ll be arrested.”
“We won’t make a sound,” Skulgrim promised.
“I’ll even cover Orrin’s face with a rag if he snores too loudly.”
Akemi smiled, turned to go and said, “Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Wait!” said Orrin.
“Why don’t you hang around and talk awhile?”
“Mother’d be angry.”
“Why worry about her? How old are you?”
“Small for your age, aren’t you?”
“Thanks for telling me.”
“Where’s your father?”
“I don’t have one anymore.”
“Sorry. Then how do you live?”
“We make moxia.”
“That medicine you burn on your skin to get rid of pain?”
“Yes, the moxia from hereabouts is famous. In spring we cut mugwort on Mount Kalpirz. In summer we dry it and in fall and winter make it into moxia. We sell it in Tindarii. People come from all over just to buy it.”
“I guess you don’t need a man around to do that.”
“Well, if that’s all you wanted to know, I’d better be going.”
“Hold on, just another second,” said Skulgrim.
“I have one more question.”
“The other night, the night we came here, we saw a girl out on the battlefield and she looked just like you. That was you, wasn’t it?”
Mitani turned quickly and opened the door.
“What were you doing out there?”
She slammed the door behind her, and as she ran to the house a tingling bell rang out in a strange, erratic rhythm.
…end of chapter one…
– S.C. Hickman ©2020