345 - Life at its best
I had seen the image before, in books. I had forgotten until now. She was the Goddess of Aitza, wife of Muunas, the king of Arkan Gods. Selinae.
You will not hurt my people. I had dreamed of her the first night I’d slept on unequivocally Arkan land.
“An old cracked painting of a hairy Arkan slut and you look like you’re seeing a ghost,” said Krero. “Another appointment with Mirasae?”
“This is why I don’t explain these things to you.” In this mind-whirl, I wanted to be by myself. But then I found, when I was back in bed with Niku, who sleepily pulled me toward her with an impatient moan, that I wanted to talk about it with her. She had seen me do the shulpiteh.
“Omores, you came out of the Wasteega cave with flowers in your hair. Why are you surprised at this?” I had forgotten those flowers. I had wanted to forget, after wrestling in my mind with how they could have come into existence, or whether they were a collective delusion.
“But that’s not how I am! I get the flash of All-Spirit with an idea, but that’s different!”
“If you were not God-touched, we wouldn’t be here.” She turned over, away from me, and buried her head in the pillow sleepily, leaving me reeling. We wouldn’t be here could mean so many things.
The Gods of Arko are coming to me in my dreams. I had to accept it. I couldn’t break myself of the sleep habit. Why? Their words were a snarl, like tangled thread, until I had been sitting still and breathing deeply for long enough to unravel them into order.
You will not hurt my people. That was straightforward. This is what you must learn, what we will train you for. To have Her inside me entirely, to direct my motion? But I’m perfectly good at directing my own motion.
“As there is a Fenjitzas, there is a Fenjitza.” I had not entirely believed it. Who was he? A God. The signs were there: the unearthly size, the easy strength, the way his seizing me had been utterly without threat. One mortal grabbing another cannot do it without threat… there is always some impurity of intent, there, no matter how hard we try, because we are merely human. Except perhaps Azaila, or Sukala… He’d been fessas. The one they always mean when they say “Oh my little professional God!”. I couldn’t remember His name. M… Mi… something?
Then the part about singing, and then: “Shefen-kas, even if we are but a paper’s width distant from you, you do not see us, unless your soul is ripped open.” The Gods, he’d meant. Then the truer reason why Arkans wear gloves. I had said “Rip me open” because I had wanted to say it.
His last line came back to me clear, jolting me out of shock into laughter. “You’re not making it easy, being such a forzak fool of an athye.” You couldn’t get more straightforward than that. Who’d have thought Gods could get exasperated?
Then I saw the faintest daylight creeping in through the tent-door, and the fighting mood thrust these thoughts out of my mind. I could return to this if I lived the day.
The spies reported. What I’d told Sinimas had paid off: Kormenas had kept his foot up while his horse and archers slept, but they’d all slept in their gear. And there were indeed rumours of sightings of me. It would be a harder fight for them than for us today.
The Arkan order of battle was symmetrical; to begin the disordering of that one need only arrange things asymmetrically. It was also of more or less even strength all across; to disorder that one need only make one part of one’s own line stronger. Or two, or three… I had enough warriors now.
What we did was a triple oblique, a line bent in two places with an advanced point on the sword-side and the sword-side wing slanting back, while the shield-side wing slanted forward from a rearward point. I put myself with Emao-e, the signaller and some of the darya on Bukangt, at the head of the sword-side point with four other mamokal to either side with Kadrini phalanxes in between. My other six beasts were the second strong point, on the far wing, with most of the Lakan horse; other horse I had interspersed across. The spear-throwers were interspersed as well, with the Hyerne in the vanguard and the others, who would not be ashamed of it, behind; likewise the archers.
I ordered the gong sounded for general advance. On the call of my mahu, Bukangt began his lumbering walk, his back rocking under my feet; tied to the foot of the ladder with a quick-loose knot was Akaznakir, who’d merely whicker at a mamoka. Through the far-lookers I saw the Arkan lines begin stepping toward us, upright spears moving to their step.
As we drew closer together, the clouds cleared off and the climbing sun, shining golden across the field, turned warm. Kormenas had studied; there were no threads of smoke for fire-arrows, but he did have blocks of light-armed solas foot ahead of his heavy-armed, and they quickly moved to placed to counter my mamokal. “Relay message,” I ordered. “To Chiraha, Kosuiaj, Eretrard, ready horse-units to attack the Arkan advanced light-armed, on the three-long-three-short gong, return to assigned missions afterward, or if pursued by Arkan horse lead them to the shield-side mamokal and re-engage when they are disordered.”
I heard it relayed out, and was suddenly seized with a feeling of exuberance that went all through me, from my heart to my head and my toes. This… this is life at its best. What finer place can there be in the world than here? Who in the world can be living better than me? The black gleam of the obsidian pike-points, the belted-out notes of the paian from so many voices to the rhythm of their feet, the clinking of gear, the smell of wet mamoka fur, the hazed green of the vast field between us and them … it all had a glittering-edged beauty, etching itself in my mind. I felt the ring of sweet truth, to my bones: I am where I belong, where I was meant to be. This is why I signed chalk.
When we were close enough—the arrow and javelin rain began—I had the three-long-three-short gong sounded, and the horse-wedges galloped out and made hash of the light-armed Arkans assigned against the mamokal. Kormenas ordered in some of his horse, as I’d expected, and mine did as ordered, drew them off to the shield-side. The melee that formed would soon have mamokal and Kadril advancing into it.
I had the gong sounded for commence missiles, and took up my thrower to begin myself. Something I had learned by doing it: you can throw harder if you are carrying a shield, by using its weight for a more powerful spin when you torque your body. The danger is that you are leaving your front wide open, so it’s best not to do it in an arrow-rain. If you are on the back of a mamoka, you don’t even have to arch your throws much if you are close enough to the enemy; you can aim straight out or down for a very forceful shot. Beside me, Evechera, who’d practiced this at least three beads a day in winter, started picking off commanders.
I did not sound charge, though. We still had too many deceptive maneuvers to do, diversions and drawings-off here and there. In the plan there was an intent to look somewhat confused and disunified, so I gave orders to commanders who already knew them. The charge would form itself out of our wanderings once a clear weak point opened up in the Arkan line, and we would drive through to Kormenas’s command-post. It was already starting, a little to my shield-side of his centre, as he shifted his heavy-armed to face the two sets of mamokal. I can’t say how good mamokal are for diversions, since they draw every eye, and it is hard for an enemy to think of them as unimportant.
I threw and bellowed orders at once, gathering my wide-flung horse units quietly into one great spear-point, and playing something of a waiting game, which I never like. I heard the yells of Arkan commanders, “Stay straight! Stay straight!” and my heart began to pound. One man, or even many, scattered, cannot quell the greater motion of thousands of warriors as one, any more than they can command a wind; the solas do not even know that they are drifting in such a way as to open a gap, their minds on what they see ahead, especially if they fear it.
It is enough. Now. “Emao-e, you are in command of the main body now, enact!” I swapped the thrower for the national banner, slid down the ladder onto Akaznakir, untied him and galloped off to the vanguard of my horse. I myself was the signal; they fell in beside and behind me, roaring their war-cry.
What else in existence can compare with a horse-charge? The wind in my face, and pushing back my helmet by its plumes; the perfect black-sheened animal beneath me with every muscle in him going all out, doing what he was meant to do; the ecstatic cries of my fellow riders all around me, who would all give their lives for each other, over the thunder of thousands of hooves; the shining bond between us; the paper-weakness of the enemy ahead, nothing to come even close to fearing.
Kormenas, or someone, ordered in solas to close the gap, but they were too few and too late, of course, strung across pitifully thin, setting their spears desperately in the grass behind them and crying “Aras see me! Aras see me!” I handed off the banner and drew Chirel. Except for the heroes among them, the Arkans faded back, unjustly leaving the heroes to their deaths under our hooves.
Up ahead in the world of pure motion I was in, I found the command post by its golden-sun-clasping-eagle-on-red banners, and the dressed ranks of the usual elite horse-lancers that an Arkan hilltop general holds back to cover his flight. Akaznakir aimed us straight for it as if he knew my thought.
I turned him sword-side to go around the lancers, who were charging me; it was Eretrard’s assignment to take them, and he smashed into them outnumbering them five-fold. Beyond them a clutch of horses fled, Kormenas undoubtedly among them. It was pure horse-race now, and theirs had fresher legs. I wouldn’t give up, though; if it gets down to it, when the horses are exhausted you can dismount, and I trusted my own legs over almost anyone’s.
“Ai, Kormenas!” I bellowed. “Show your surrender by reining in and throwing yourself on your face and I’ll spare you!” Unlikely, but it didn’t hurt to try. We were faster than the last three stragglers; as I came into weapon-sense range I felt, blessing of blessings, that the black-armoured one was a Mahid, by his kit. He had some other weapon that my weapon-sense didn’t like; no matter, I’d deal with it.
I closed in on him. He would not let me at Kormenas, and it would be sweet to kill a Mahid again; I hadn’t since I’d been on Haiu Menshir. He kept glancing over his shoulder, measuring the distance. When I was within seven paces or so, he drew the thing out of its sack and threw it at me. It was spherical and perhaps two hand-widths wide; its arc, as it came at me, shone in the sun. An easy shield-block no, kyash!
It was a Fehinnan weapon. A gas that scorches the lungs fatally, or turns a person—or horse—or both—instantly into a writhing mound of fungus… Wondering if the Fehinnan was advertising his wares exaggeratedly—he was charging the Earthsphere for them—I had asked Kaninjer if that was possible; he’d said, with a fungus that bred fast enough, yes.
Death if it smashes on my shield, death if it smashes on Chirel, death if it hits Akaznakir, death if it hits the ground before or under me, death who knows how far away… Kormenas would lose the battle, I saw, but win the war. Time dizzyingly slowed, like a galloping horse cruelly reined, almost to stillness; the sphere, with the sun in miniature brilliant on its side and the grey stuff inside it writhing like smoke, came in aching slow, at my face. Something happened that I never thought would while I still lived; Chirel slipped from my fingers.