Walking in Shadows
Under the shadow of the mountain, the long nights held Tothmor in their grasp. After last bell had rung, the streets were all but deserted; the outlanders had forbidden the inhabitants from leaving their homes after dark. Thus the only movement outside came from the patrols of the red-robed Anausa, keeping watch on each of the districts. Most patrols were made in the lowest circle, as it was the largest and most populated. Across the district, the outlanders had seized the larger buildings, evicted the residents, and turned the places into guard stations. Several times an hour, each of these bastions of subjugation spewed forth ten red-clad soldiers, moving through the fifth circle.
Although it had been months since Tothmor was seized by the outlanders, they had not managed to strangle the city entirely. A man in ragged clothes walked along the edge of the street, sneaking his way forward. It was a cloudy night, which aided him until the moon suddenly found an opportunity to shine its light down. As fortune would have it, a patrol was on the same street, and their vigilance found the ragged man. They yelled in their own tongue and sat into motion, running forward. He shouted back in his own speech and bolted; while it was doubtful that either part understood what the other had said, intentions were clear.
The fugitive crossed into the winding alleys, away from the larger streets; although encumbered by spears and small shields, the outlanders were hot on his heels. Finally, he ducked in between two looming buildings, still closely pursued. The path ahead was blocked by a cart, turned sideways and taking up as much space as possible. Large crates and jars surrounded the cart, allowing only a small space between the wheels to remain open. The runner fell to his stomach and pushed himself through; moments behind him, the first of the Anausa soldiers did as well.
The remaining nine warriors began looking for ways to circumvent the cart as well, restless from their running and the rush of pursuing their prey. A scream reached them suddenly, coming from the other side of the obstacle; it was their comrade who had gone through first. Gripping their shields tightly, the outlanders glanced up at the tall buildings enveloping the alley, and the truth dawned on them.
From the rooftops, arrows began to fly, sent flying by powerful Hæthian longbows. The relatively light armour worn by the Anausa did not offer full protection against such a danger, and several of them fell before the remainder raised their shields and pressed up against the building walls.
Their heads turned towards the way they came. A shape had appeared, blocking their escape path. Fuelled by despair, the outlanders launched themselves against the solitary warrior hemming them in. Armed with a sword against their spears, his task was daunting, but he was aided by a large shield and being a veteran of many fights. He was Glaukos, one of the few Queen’s Blades to have survived the siege without fleeing the fall of the city. He made no offensive move against the outlanders, but simply kept them at bay until one by one, the arrows caught up with them.
As soon as the last man fell, Glaukos stepped forward and stabbed each of them through their unprotected necks, ensuring none would survive his wounds. Some of his compatriots joined him, retrieving arrows or looting the fallen for their daggers and short swords.
“Time to leave,” Glaukos told the others while glancing around; the death screams of the outlanders had caused considerably noise in the otherwise quiet city. “Stow your weapons and get home. We meet tomorrow in the usual place.”
The others nodded briefly, and the men scattered, leaving only the fallen behind as evidence of what had transpired.
Once the outlanders discovered what had happened, they quickly secured the area. None was allowed near the bodies, and none could enter or leave the vicinity of where the ambush had taken place. Most of the locals had no interest in approaching either: only a few street children were curious enough to draw close before being driven away by the blunt end of the outlanders’ spears.
“All of them butchered like animals,” one of the outlanders remarked with a shiver. “Not one of these drylanders dead.”
“Only because they took their own dead with them,” another soldier snorted. “You don’t honestly think the dustmen could kill ten of ours and suffer no losses?”
“Quiet, you!” barked a third soldier. “Here comes the fravashi.”
Now all of the outlanders shivered. Down the street walked a solitary shape, wearing armour and attire of a dark nature. It was a strange sight to see any of the outlanders walking alone on Tothmor; usually they travelled in groups, and with good reason as evidenced by the latest ambush. This particular character was given a wide berth by everyone, however; even daylight seemed to shy away from him. Black cloth was wrapped around his helmet and extended down to cover his face as well, allowing only room for his eyes; they burned yellow.
The Anausa soldiers quickly stepped aside, opening a gap in their line to let the shadow warrior through. He did not glance or otherwise acknowledge them, but simply continued into the alley to examine the dead.
“It feels like a spider creeping down my spine whenever they walk by,” one guard muttered.
“Be quiet,” another hissed. “Don’t you know they hear every word spoken?”
“Spiders, I tell you,” the first one mumbled.
Inside the alley, the shadow warrior bent down to inspect the wounds on each of the dead. He compared where each of them had died, including the first of the soldiers who had climbed under the cart and been killed on the other side. Finally, he also checked the condition of every weapon that had been left behind.
It did not take long before he was satisfied and, without a word, left again. Some of the Anausa watched with trepidation as he walked down the street, while others did not dare to even look at his back.
“Enough standing around,” yelled the senior guardsman brusquely. “Clean up this mess!” With some grumbling, the soldiers began the instructed work.
There was unusual activity in the third district as well. Outside the temple dedicated to Disfara, a pile of broken furniture was growing. The temples had been shut down and their residents imprisoned after the siege, but for the first few months, nothing further had happened. That changed with the arrival of the woman who now emerged from inside the temple. In her hands, she held the sacred statue of Disfara that had adorned the altar; with a powerful throw, she threw it onto the pile, smashing it into pieces.
Red-clad soldiers were assisting her, throwing away tapestries and anything else that could be interpreted as having religious value. When this task was done, the woman took a torch from one of her companions. Her dress was red much like their clothing, but of a far brighter hue, and its colour changed up the hem subtly, giving the impression of a living fire whenever she moved. It possessed no power to burn, however; only the torch in her hand did, which she cast onto the pile, setting it ablaze.
She gazed upon the flames with a smile, as they ate their way through everything that had once been holy in the house of Disfara. The soldiers watched with disinterest, though they suddenly straightened up with nervous expressions. A shape stalked past them; his attention towards the guards was the inverse of theirs towards him.
The flame-robed woman was too captivated by the dance of the fire to notice the shadow warrior until he spoke. “Mistress Daena.”
“Yes? What did you learn?” She did not turn her head to look at him.
“They were killed by arrows. Their weapons were clean. It was a slaughter.”
“The situation is dire. These people should be in awe of our lord, yet they dare murder his soldiers with impunity.” The more she spoke, the more she became incensed; contrary to this, the shadow warrior seemed entirely placid and did not respond. “The name of the Godking must be on every tongue. Every knee must bend. Blood must flow. Blood must flow,” she repeated and turned around to stalk back into the temple.
Inside the stripped hall, only the naked altar stone remained. Two soldiers were also present, holding a blue-robed priestess between them. Besides their rough grip on her shoulders, her legs were bound and her hands were tied behind her back. Daena nodded to the soldiers, who placed the silrobe so that her head rested upon the altar stone; after that, they let go and retreated several steps. Before the prisoner could make any movements, Daena took position above her, taking hold of her hair to force her head up and expose the throat. Pulling out a dagger, the fire-clad woman cut the prisoner’s throat, spilling her blood over the altar stone.
It flowed quickly at first, darkening the white slab and spraying onto Daena as well, who did not seem bothered. She gestured for others of the soldiers present to assist her. One brought her a small bowl, with which she trapped some of the blood. Two others placed a statue chiselled from the finest marble onto the crimson altar. It depicted a king in the greatest splendour; eyes without irises sat in a face of eerie beauty underneath a heavy crown.
“Awake, my lord, my king, my god,” Daena whispered as she slowly began to pour the blood from the bowl over the statue, dying it dark red. “Let end the endless sleep, arise from your throne. Let the mountains part asunder that your magnificence may issue forth.” She paused as the final trickle of blood fell. It landed upon the crown and found a way down the cheek of the statue, finally dripping onto its feet. “All for the Godking.”
Around her, the soldiers repeated with varying fervour, “All for the Godking!”
From the entrance of the temple, the shadow warrior watched with eyes devoid of expression.
The highest circle of the city had seen the most changes. The Order keep was filled to the brim with Anausa soldiers, and their different banners flew from its towers. One was a black, armoured fist on red, while the other was a red-golden fire on black. As for the palace, nearly all its inhabitants had been removed, except for some of the servants and a few unlucky people whom the outlanders had thrown into the dungeons. The new lord of Tothmor had taken up residence in some of the vacated quarters, using them to run affairs in the occupied city.
The council chamber, where Theodora and Leander had once anxiously waited while the whiterobes were being arrested, had been turned into an office. Philon, the steward of the palace, was one of those who had been allowed to remain that he might assist the man sitting behind the table.
Rostam had commanded the Zhayedan cavalry during the battle of Sikyon, and with the conquest of Hæthiod completed, the charge of subjugating Tothmor had been placed in his hands. Tall and with the obvious signs of an experienced warrior upon him, he seemed ill at ease in his administrative role. Behind him, barely noticeable at first, stood a shadow warrior. He did not move or seem to need anything, standing so still that he resembled a statue. The cloth around his head was wrapped in a mask, hiding all but his eyes.
“My lord, the family of Count Lykia requests an audience. Again,” the steward said.
“Denied,” Rostam muttered, using Mearcspeech; though he had a clear accent, he spoke it otherwise flawlessly. “Tell them not to expect the count released until he agrees to cooperate.”
“Very well, my lord,” Philon replied, almost restraining a sigh. He glanced nervously at the shadow warrior, who did not seem to take notice. “The latest inspection of the reservoirs is complete. Here is the list.” He handed a small book to the outlander, opened in the middle where numbers had last been added to a page. Rostam did not reply, but simply frowned as he inspected the list.
“Jenaab,” a voice called out; it was one of the guards posted by the door. “The priestess –”
There was not time to finish the sentence before Daena strode through the doors, accompanied by her own shadow warrior. “Rostam,” she spoke curtly with little courtesy.
“Mistress Daena,” the commander replied, unable to hide the strain in his voice. “For what reason do you grace me with your presence?”
“Ten of your soldiers were butchered last night,” the flame-robed priestess pointed out. “What are you doing about it?”
“I have doubled the size of the patrols,” Rostam explained. “My men will not have time for anything other than patrols or sleep, but it is preferable to death.”
“That is all?” Daena exclaimed incredulously. “You will not punish the city for its insolence against the soldiers of our lord?”
“As soon as these rebels are found, they will be dealt with,” Rostam declared.
“These filthy heathens spit in the very face of the Godking,” she claimed.
“As soon as the guilty are found, they will be executed. I cannot punish the entire city,” Rostam argued.
“Perhaps you cannot,” Daena retorted, “but I have been given a holy charge of converting these blasphemers and disbelievers by any means necessary.”
“You will find none of them here,” Rostam said sternly, “so I suggest you return to the lower circles, where your work lies.”
“Trust me, I shall,” the priestess promised with narrowed eyes. Abruptly, she turned on her heel and marched out, followed by her shadow warrior.
From the corner of the room, Philon emerged; he had not been able to follow the conversation, as it took place in the outlander speech. “Shall we continue, my lord?” he asked meekly.
Rostam gave an inaudible sigh and gestured for Philon to bring the next item to his attention.
Late in the day following the nightly ambush, there was sudden commotion in the fifth circle. Anausa soldiers were kicking doors in and dragging people out. They were directed by a few blackboots, who pointed out houses and gave them descriptions; all was supervised by the priestess Daena, accompanied by her usual shadow.
Most of the people seized were men of various ages; the youngest would be around fourteen. A few women were grabbed as well until the number reached twenty. Twice as many as the number of slain guards. Satisfied with this first step, Daena nodded to the shadow warrior by her side, who unsheathed his sword.
Two soldiers held the condemned wretch still, placing his or her head against a barrel. With a hefty swing, the shadow warrior swung his sword. It took him several blows to sever the head each time, but he did not seem to grow tired. His face was hidden, but his eyes seemed full of life as he hacked away savagely.
Outbursts and cries of indignation were heard, but none dared interfere or even approach the outlanders. One after the other, twenty people were decapitated. The blood flowed eagerly to cover the dry, cobbled streets, which could not absorb the red liquid; it lay like rain puddles up and down the road.
The headless bodies were removed by the Anausa soldiers, while the blackboots gathered the heads. Soon after, they adorned the top of the gate between the fifth and the fourth district with their dead eyes gazing upon any who passed near.
A few hours before nightfall, a group of men were gathered in one of the many taverns of the lowest circle. Although drinking plenty of the local ale, there was little mirth in their conversation; their spirits were subdued, and they spoke with caution. This described nearly every gathering taking place in Tothmor since the beginning of the occupation, however; nothing about their behaviour, or their garments and appearance for that matter, seemed out of the ordinary.
“Did anyone have trouble getting away?” Glaukos asked quietly. The rest of the men shook their heads. “Good. I have another strike in mind.”
“Is it really worth the risk?” complained another. “We killed ten of them, but you said they have at least four thousand men in the city.”
“It’s a start, Andreas,” interjected a third man cheerfully. “We keep killing ten every night, and we will be done after –” he paused, his head wrinkled in thought.
“Four hundred,” Glaukos said mildly.
“After four hundred nights,” he finished his sentence. “We can manage that, as long as they keep falling in our traps.”
“They won’t,” Andreas claimed gloomily. “I just saw another patrol on the way here. They were twenty instead of ten. You can bet they’ll take other precautions too.”
“He’s right,” someone declared. “We won’t lure twenty men as easily as we did ten.”
“Which is why we will change strategy,” Glaukos informed the others.
“About that,” the cheerful man spoke, his cheer now gone. “I talked to my cousin. The salt-lickers are worried about water, it’s true. They keep taking measure of the reservoirs. But they are guarded more jealously than a peddler’s pepper. My cousin said he saw soldiers everywhere, and we can’t storm the place. They’ll butcher us.”
Several others gave their assent, murmuring their refusal, and Glaukos was quick to silence them. “Quiet. I do not plan for us to attack the reservoirs either.”
“Best we don’t,” another agreed. “It’ll only be our own people that grow thirsty as well. We need water as much as them.”
“War demands sacrifice of us all,” the brusque Blade remarked. “At any rate, I have a target for us. Philemon, you alone bring your bow tonight. Nikolaos, bring a lamp filled with oil. The rest of you will serve as lookouts only, so let your weapons stay in their hiding places. We meet at the usual place before heading out,” he commanded, and none objected this time.
“It’s not long till sunset,” Philemon remarked. Soon, the ban on being outside after nightfall would take effect.
“Get home. We meet when the moon passes over the mountain,” Glaukos instructed the others. They all threw some copper petties onto the table for Guy, the tavern owner, to collect before they dispersed out onto the street.
It was another cloudy night, which helped to conceal the gathering of five men in the lowest district.
“Did you see the gate?” one hissed. “Twenty heads!”
“They’re savages, what could we expect,” Andreas proclaimed bleakly.
“But twenty innocent people, chosen at random,” the first objected.
“I don’t think it was random,” Philemon argued. “Those accursed blackboots chose the victims. I’ll bet your mother’s salt they chose people who spoke out against them.”
As the sixth man, Glaukos joined them. His gaze quickly swept over the others, noticing the bow in Philemon’s hands and the lamp in Nikolaos’. In his own, he held a tinderbox. “Let us not idle. Follow me.”
He led the group through the streets, choosing those that were smallest and darkest. On occasion, they heard the heavy footsteps of outlander boots on patrol, but after the previous nights, the Anausa kept to the wider streets. Because of that, the heathmen reached their destination without hindrance.
They came close to the outer walls, forcing them to step more carefully. Patrols were more frequent here, both on the strip of open land between the fortifications and the city itself as well as those guarding the actual walls and towers. Some of the heathmen dispersed to keep watch, while the rest helped each other scale one of the buildings. Thanks to the haphazard way that houses were erected in the fifth district, they had little difficulty finding footing until they reached the rooftop.
“We can only risk the one shot,” Glaukos warned Philemon.
“Then it’s good you chose me,” the latter replied with his usual cheer.
“If you miss and we went through all this for nothing, I swear, I’ll stick the next arrow up where you salt yourself,” Nikolaos threatened him.
“I am shooting a target that doesn’t move, literally the size of a building,” Philemon brushed him off.
“Just don’t take too long either,” Nikolaos muttered. “As soon as the fire lights up, they’ll be on us.”
“Enough,” Glaukos uttered. He took a small piece of cloth and tied it around the shaft of the arrow near the tip. After that, he poured out the oil from Nikolaos’ lamp and finally opened his tinderbox. Picking up the flint, it took several strikes before the cloth ignited. Once it did, however, the oil burned brightly and was clearly visible in the dark night.
Philemon pulled the bowstring back with the flaming arrow. He took aim for just a moment and released. The arrow flew in an arc, leaving a trail of sparks behind that died quickly in the cold night air; this changed once it reached its destination. It was a lean-to, built against the wall. These had initially been cleared away in preparation for the siege months ago, but the outlanders had seen fit to rebuild many of them; made from wood with thatched roof, it was an easy way to create quick storage room for items best kept out of the rain. It was also flammable, and the fire quickly grew.
This particular lean-to was being used to butcher meat and cure it. In itself, no great loss to the outlanders. However, other improvised buildings were nearby, also made of wood. Quickly, the guards realised the peril, and many cries of alarm were heard. Some began to tear down the endangered shacks, but this was too slow work compared to how swiftly the fire was spreading. They had no choice; nearby water barrels were fetched and thrown onto the burning lean-to, quelling the fire.
The rebels had long since scattered, except for Glaukos. He waited until he saw that the outlanders were forced to use water from their dwindling stores in order to combat the fire; with a satisfied smile, he turned and fled from the rooftops, following his companions. In the darkness, none of them noticed the outlander in black boots watching the scene.