by Den Valdron
THE HAUNTING OF WIN ZAR HUS
Ton Sabat all but flew through the air with one of his prodigious leaps, freezing the astonished Diome mercenaries with his impossible feat. His sword was already out, and before they could react, he'd bludgeoned two of them to death with blunt, clumsy strokes.
But that was all they allowed him, with angry shouts their swords were drawn and they converged upon him. But he skipped back away, parrying awkwardly. His swordsmanship had improved dramatically through the tutelage of Aspar Aguus and others, so that it was merely crude rather than embarrassing.
That was their mistake though, Aspar Aguus fell upon them like a demon from a supernatural tale, hewing and cutting with fierce brutality. Ton Sabat returned to the attack, pressing them hard, his sheer brutal strength overcoming finesse and skill.
Behind him were the rest of my bandits, save only Vadak Eth, who took up position before me. The battle, if it could be called a battle, was short and bloody. The air filled with the din of clashing metal and shouts of anger and pain.
With the advantage of surprise, with Ton Sabat's inhuman gifts and Aspar Aguus’ ferocity, the fight turned into a route, the last few mercenaries fleeing or begging for their lives as they were cut down.
I watched a man on his knees, holding his guts in as they spilled from his belly, raising one hand for mercy as the Orgus cut him down
I thought perhaps I should feel something more. My heart pounded, the smell of blood and carrion filled my nostrils, my mouth had gone dry and my blood seemed to run hot as I clutched I sword, I had but ever used weapons in stage combat or bruising practice, but I was ready in that moment to do something, to fight for my life if I had to, to kill if I must.
I wondered why I did not feel shock or perhaps horror, or compassion for this poor man begging for his life. But then I thought of the way a fragment of dome had crushed people, streets full of corpses, gutters red with blood, wounded terrified people everywhere. These men, these mercenaries had done this. Now, standing among mountains and pyramids of corpses they had created, I found no sympathy. I was haunted by the memory of Win Za Hus, and it seemed he would haunt me forever.
It was all over in moments, Aspar Aguus rode back to me, his eyes flashing, the whites of them rolling. Spattered all over with blood, he grinned.
“Is this war?” I asked. “It seems more like organized murder.”
His grin doubled. “It is if it is done right, Princess.”
“It is not at all like the stories, is it, hard fought battles, stories of bravery, desperate situations, the contest of arms against arms,” I reflected.
“Only when done badly,” he replied. “The great Jeddak teaches that there is no honour in war, only necessity. Slaughter is best.”
“As was done to my people,” I said.
The great Orgus warrior shrugged.
“The fierce devour the helpless, it is always the way.”
“I would strike them all down if I could,” I said.
He nodded. We were saved then from this dark conversation by Japh Leah's call.
“Ho,” he cried out, “these bodies are alive!”
We all rushed over to see. He was right, for the great mound of bodies piled in the wagon breathed and moved. Almost all were injured in some fashion, and beyond wounds and injuries, they bore the marks of poverty, of criminality. Beggars, cripples and unwanted, they were. The new rulers had no use for them. But most were alive in their chains. Some of them shrieked as we approached, seeing only the fierce Red men and Orgus warrior. They'd witnessed a battle, but in their awful state, could not conceive that we were anything more than additional murderers.
Japh Leah found the catch to the wagon's gates, and chained struggling bodies rained from it on every side, some of them laying where they fell in the blood soaked mud, a few of the braver climbing to their feet and staring defiantly at us in their chains.
One of them shuffled to the corpse of the disemboweled mercenary. For a moment, he stared at it with undisguised loathing, and then spat on it. Aspar Aguus laughed at this.
“At least I have lived long enough to see this,” he said. Then he turned to us. “If you are here to kill, be about it, I don't have all day.”
Aspar Aguus grinned in amusement, glancing around among the rest of us. He was clearly enjoying himself. I felt I should say something, but wasn't sure what. I searched my mind for an appropriate line, a monologue, a dialogue, some bit of script, anything... I cleared my throat. His eyes fell on me.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“Fool,” Aguus replied, “don't you recognize your own Princess?”
“Princess?” he asked.
I felt a sudden cold sweat, my stomach fluttered nervously.
“We serve the Princess,” Aguus told him. “The Princess of Az-Lium, who quests for the Jewels of power to liberate her city.”
I wished he hadn't said that. Now they were all staring at me. This wasn't good. I tried to think. Did the men believe I was a Princess? Or had we settled on my being an Acolyte or Priestess or something.
“Jewels?” He said.
“The Jewels of Power are Az-Lium's greatest secret,” I said aloud, trying not to sound defensive. “Commoners would not know of them.”
“She's not one of the Princesses,” he said. I blushed hotly.
“And anyway, the whole of the Royal line is dead, their bodies hang in the great square.”
There was a general murmur of agreement. I was truly sweating now, and starting to blush. I'd crossed half the Jagged lands in the company of these men, relying on their illusion that I was a Princess or Acolyte or someone important.
I'd just watched them effortlessly slaughter a group of soldiers. My stomach tightened at the thought of what might happen should they stop believing.
“All but one,” I said imperiously. “I am the Princess Tay See Lors Kam Asutra, last of the royal house.”
“I never heard of you,” he said obstinately. I wished fervently that Aspar Aguus would ride up and chop his head off. But the big Orgus warrior remained where he was, once again, failing to make my life easier.
“Princess Asutra?” someone offered. “That's from a play isn't it? Princess Asutra and the Seven Libertines?”
“Asutra is in a lot of plays!” I said angrily. Everyone thinks of the Seven Libertines, but what about the Return of Asutra, Lost City of the Carnal Princess, Asutra and the Sailor, Loves Labour Laundered, Mounted on the Mount or even the Riddle of the Tent Pole? Honestly, people have no appreciation for culture, it's always straight to the sex. Even in my desperate situation, I felt a flash of irritation. I used it for the role.
“I was named for the character,” I said, with as much irritated haughtiness as I could muster. There was a nervous giggle. I ignored it.
“Perhaps,” someone said, “but the Royal house was well known. There is no Princess Asutra.”
“Have you forgotten the romance between Prince Komak and the Arch-Priestess Nol Par His?” I asked. There were nods and mumbled assents. Of course they hadn't.
The two were cousins of unacceptable consanguinity, and the Prince was already married, the scandal had been the subject of gossip for fifty years. Why just last year, a troupe of actors had been hanged for putting on a play about the subject. It was still a bit of a sensitive topic in certain circles.
“I am the daughter of that union!” I announced dramatically. “Raised in secrecy and seclusion, until the hour that I am needed.”
I hoped for at least a small round of applause. Truth be told, through much of the journey through the jagged lands, I had been pondering on the increasing likelihood that we might stumble upon people of my race... Refugees, or escapees like myself, or even come to Az-Lium, as we had. So I'd been mulling over the recent history and scandals of the royal line to come up with some plausible place I might slip in some hidden semi-legitimate but unknown Royal offspring.
“A royal Princess raised through the Priesthood,” Vadak Eth said reflectively. “That explains much.”
I wasn't sure what he was thinking, but if it made him happy, I was all for it.
“So you're an illegitimate Princess?” The chained man said peevishly.
This was too much!
“What is your problem?” I asked. “Seriously? Ten minutes ago you were on your way to having your throat cut and being tossed as meat to rot on a mountain of corpses. Now, here you are rescued at the personal hand of the last remaining royal personage. I've traveled beyond the dome, gathered warriors and allies, quested for the means to rescue our beloved city. And what do I get? Ingratitude!”
“Illegitimate Princess,” I snapped, getting into it with a good head of outrage. “You dare call me illegitimate. My blood is royal through both sides, yet that doesn't satisfy you? I'm sorry, I'm not high enough on the order of succession to suit your tastes? Perhaps we should all go away and you can hope to be rescued by someone closer to the throne? Well, who is left!”
Finally, he had the decency to look chagrined.
“My apologies, Princess,” he cried. Among the chained prisoners, there were murmurs of assent, even genuflections. A few bowed. Catching this from the corner of his eye, the man bowed and then knelt. “I meant no disrespect.”
“Impetuous man!” I mock pouted. “I should have my Orgus strike the head from your body!”
Orguus, with his perfect sense of wrong timing, pulled his heavy blade and spurred his mount forward.
“No!” I cried out, checking him, and then recovered. “But I shall not. These are trying times, and we must put aside our pride. For if we do not hang together, we shall be hung separately.”
I winced a little at the corny lines, but they seemed to buy it. Now that I was around people who actually might have actually seen some of these plays, I needed to be more careful with my quotes. Watching them, I was amazed at how thoroughly they accepted my lies. I could see in their eyes a forming and utter conviction that I was indeed the Princess, and more, that I was the Princess come to rescue them. A Princess they'd never heard of before five minutes ago!
Had I tried this a week before our world ended, I'd have been a laughingstock. Had I persisted, I'd have ended in a jail or madhouse. Yet here I was, selling the most outrageous nonsense to a group of people who should know better, and they simply bought it and swallowed it down hungrily.
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