When taking power, it is important
to remove all rivals by the use of
force and guile. The preferred
method is to kill off everyone up to
the third generation removed.
How To Rule, Dinarm the Despot
5 Marte AE 514
Itheti hid in the shadows beside her ornate dresser, its intricately carved siding pressed into her side. She grasped her dagger, her knuckles turning white from the strain. She was nearly invisible in the darkness, a shadow hiding among shadows. Somewhere on the other side of her bedchamber another shadow detached itself and stealthily made its way toward her bed, across rich fur rugs and past ancient antiques dating to the Exodus. She had placed pillows under the covers in the shape of a sleeping form. The shadow’s robes made only the slightest of whispers against the thick, ornate rugs.
This was the third attempt on Itheti's life and the Meliken princess was beginning to get the feeling that her oldest sister seriously wanted her dead. Tasha, one of her older sisters had died in riding accident only a week prior. There had been no witnesses and so it was chalked up as a most unfortunate occurrence. Regardless, everyone knew what it meant and who was behind it. In Melik, power was transferred along the female’s lines.
Melik was a civilized land, or so its inhabitants chose to believe. It lay in the northwestern Inner Sea Lands. Melik was a small kingdom and until recently little known to the rest of the Inner Seas Lands. That had started to change with the rise of Queen Gurembthi. Meliken merchantmen were now found in most ports and its neighbors had begun to look up to it, instead of just ignoring it. Even the troublesome Urgi Hills had begun to be cleared and settlements had sprung up all along their fringes. Melik politics, however, were ruthless and a gentle ruler rarely lasted very long, regardless of how popular she was with the people. Itheti’s mother had died, mysteriously, a month before. While the High Priestesses of the State Goddesses investigated, power politics were played out.
Six days prior, her taster, a slave named Yask, had died from poison figs brought to her for breakfast. She had watched helplessly as the poor wretched man writhed about on the floor, the poison running its course. It had been a particularly horrid death. Three days later an Arr, a deadly Meliken serpent, was lying under her pillows. It’s poison now covered her dagger.
The would be assassin was now hovering above her bed, a foot long dagger raised above his head, ready to strike. Nervously and ever so slightly, Itheti brushed away the blue-black strand of hair that had come loose from her braid.
The assassin struck, slicing through the covers and the pillows below. Goose down spilled into the air with every rise of the dagger. Before the assassin could realize that his target was but a set of pillows, the bedroom door slammed open. “Princess?” the urgent voice of the silhouette in the door way called.
The assassin spun, sending the dagger flying at the new comer. It crashed harmlessly against the hallway wall. As fast as the dagger flew, the assassin was moving, drawing another pair free from wrist sheaths. The assassin struck feet first into the startled new comer’s chest, sending him to his back.
Itheti saw her chance and struck. Gathering her knees beneath her, she sprung, a half audible cry escaping from her clenched lips.
As if sensing Itheti’s attack before it happened, the assassin spun, dropping back. It was to late. Itheti’s dagger scrapped the top of the assassin’s forearm, slicing through the thin black robes. That was all it took. The convulsions were almost instantaneous as the poison ran through the system, paralyzing the muscles. The assassin’s knees buckled. The blades fell to the floor from lifeless hands. A half choked grunt escaped as the body fell lifelessly to the thick carpets at Itheti’s feet.
“Princess? Are you alright?” The hulking giant in chainmail rose from the floor. He picked up his dark blue beret, fluffing up the yellow-red feather. Satisfied, he replaced the beret on his head. Fixing his sword belt so that the gemmed long sword once more sat comfortably on his hip, he knelt beside Itheti, who was now attempting to roll the assassin’s body over. He finished the task for her.
“Yes Utheata, I’m fine. Thank you for the dagger you brought me.”
“But how? How did you kill him so?”
“Her,” Itheti corrected. She had removed the assassin’s hood and long nutmeg brown hair had spilled forth. Pale, sightless blue eyes stared back at them, framed in a delicate young face. “Sarren,” Itheti made the statement quietly, almost remorsely. “ I remember how we used to play together. Down in the central halls, when mother was alive.” She brushed the loose strands of hair from her would be assassin’s face, ever so gently. “Sarren always wanted my sister’s attention. I guess she had to earn it, and my death was the task. Earn it with my life.” A tear rolled down her cheek, falling on the corpse’s still lips. Soon others followed.
Utheata placed his massive hands on the princess’ shoulders, pulling her into his embrace, while she sobbed. Utheata could not help but turn red. Though his massive features and battle hardened skills made his job easy, he had little experience in matters such as these.
With a finale shudder, Itheti regained control of herself. “As for how, I used the venom of the Arr.” she finally stated, her voice was still shaky.
“Good girl.” Utheata patted her back lightly. “But we must leave and now. Evrit is making her finale move. The guards just found the bodies of your younger sister Sheph and your brother. Apparently some one paid the guards off and sliced their throats while they slept.”
“Sheph and… and Kovil? Why Kovil? He’s male and just a baby. He couldn’t possibly pose a threat.” Desperation was working into her voice.
“I guess she’s not taking any chances. Regardless, we must leave and now. A dozen of my men are awaiting us.” He spun her around, desperate to shake her out of her stupor.
“Ye...yes we must. But Utheata, what of you? You are Captain of the Guard.”
“What is a title with no honor? I swore to your mother that while I lived so would you. Besides Princess, I…I lov…” Utheata stopped. He grasped his sword hilt and spun around on his heel. “Gather your things, its time to go. And pack lightly.”
May my arrow fly true and my
prey run sluggish, and my luck be
ten fold ten.
5 Marte AE 514
Misha crept silently through the tall grass, an arrow notched in the wood and sinew bow, which his hands held tightly. He stopped and parted the tall grass stocks to get a clear view of the surrounding lands.
For three hours Misha and his best friend Alexid had been tracking the small reddish Nexri deer. The small deer were numerous in these plains, moving northwards with the first thaws. There meat was a major substance for the border settlements and their spotted, soft pelts were highly prized in the western cities of Varseer.
The previous year’s harvests had been especially bad and the harsh winter had depleted the food stocks dangerously. Food was in high demand in Ikarisgrad. It wasn't a large settlement, a town of medium size, built from wooden logs harvested from the nearby forests. The people were a rough, frontier type who were used to the usual hardships. But this year's were worse then usual. Ikarisgrad made its living primarily off of pelts and furs and some limited trade with the western nomads. Sustenance came from the surrounding fields and was rarely, even in the good seasons, enough to export. The previous year had seen a drought, followed by a harsh winter.
Varseer, itself was the northern most Khurillian kingdom. It was considered pagan and back wards by the other Khurillian kingdoms, especially by Atanya across the southern borders. Atanya dominated the western Inner Sea Lands, none were able to challenge her power in this part of the world. Atanya was also very expansionistic. This had given the kings of Varseer many sleepless nights. As things stood, Ikarisgrad was not pagan, having been long ago converted by Atolin’s missionaries, it was just a poor frontier town.
They had had to wait until the snows had started to truly melt before the herds would return. Thankfully, it had been an early spring. The sun had come a month early to melt the winter frosts and return life to the land. Now they would return with meat for their families and even enough to sell and buy those things their families could never afford. Maybe, Misha dreamed, something special for mother and the sisters, something special for Saint Savash’s Day. Some sweat meats would definitely be good or maybe even some of that blue lace he had seen at Tugev’s store. Misha smiled, dreaming of his yet unfounded wealth.
Crawling another couple of paces, Misha again gently pushed the grass stalks aside and peered about. A herd of twenty or so Nexri was grazing a mere forty yards away. It was then that Misha noticed the black flying shapes. Vultures! His gaze naturally followed their flight path down to a large knurled oak and the figure crucified upon it. After several moments of observation he was about to give the figure up for dead, when he finally noticed movement. It was not much, just a feeble attempt to drive the crouching vultures away. Misha rolled over on his back and signaled for Alexid to move up beside him. Just as stealthily, Alexid made his way over to Misha’s side. Alexid smoothed his short blonde mustache as he followed Misha’s out stretched hand. His expression visibly soured.
“What do you think it is? You’ve got the better sight.” Misha asked.
“Well it’s a woman, that’s for sure. Either that or a guy that sure as hell looks like a woman. Maybe that’s why they hung him there?” Alexid answered.
Misha ignored that last comment. “Then we need to help her, Alexi.”
“No! No way, Misha. I say we get the deer and get the hell out of here. If she’s on that tree then it’s because someone wanted her there. I don’t want to be crossing anyone’s business. Do you here me Mish? Mish?” Alexid’s face betrayed the worry he felt. He knew Misha was idealistic and impulsive and that could definitely lead to trouble.
“But Alexi, you know what Atolin teaches. How can you claim to be a true follower and….”
“Now why do you have to go and put the good god’s good name into this?” Alexid knew Misha had him cornered. Finally he decided to just give in and let Misha play hero. “Fine, we’ll help her, but first we’ve got to get the deer. I for one, am not coming home to my mother empty handed.”
“But the girl…” Misha started to further protest.
“Has been up there for god knows how long and will last a little longer.” Alexi answered firmly.
“Fine, we shoot the deer and then get the girl.” Misha agreed enthusiastically, his face lighting up. Alexid only shook his head slightly.
Fifteen minutes later, they were five paces apart and inching along through the grass. They had left their doe skin packs back on the hill from which they had first spotted the deer and the girl.
Reaching their destination, Misha looked over at Alexid and smiled. A grasshopper, small and green, sat perfectly camouflaged on a stalk of young spring grass in front of him. With the slight movement, he jumped up and landed on Misha’s hand. Almost absent mindedly Misha flung him off. He signaled to Alexid with his fingers: one, two, three… In one fluid motion the two young men stood and fired. Before the herd could react, one deer was already down and another, the one Misha had shot at, was running. He was not worried however, the shaft was through the heart, and it would not get far.
The race was on. The herd ran for safety. The hunters continued to fire. Alexid was the better of the two shots and fired twice. His arrows found home, downing a six point buck, whose reddish brown antlers would fetch a fine price with the herb and medicine makers. Misha was not as good. His first arrow went wide, the doe he was tracking dodged right at the last second. His second arrow downed her. He tried for another but the hit was superficial, sticking into the skin at the animal’s nape. Alexid had downed two more by then. Cursing his luck, Misha moved towards the deer he had felled, to finish them off if they still breathed and to retrieve his shafts. Arrows cost money after all.
“Hay, don’t worry, we agreed to split evenly.” Alexid called out from behind him.
“Yeah, yeah, what ever.”
“I’m going back for the horses, Misha, why don’t you start treating the kills?” Alexid called up.
“As soon as I can take care of the girl.” Misha felt annoyed by his friend’s luck and skill. He did not know which ate at him worse.
“Yeah, right.” Alexid replied with obvious distaste for the whole idea. “I don’t suppose you’d reconsider, eh?” He asked tentatively.
Mish just shot him a black look. “No! It’s the right thing to do, and by Atolin, I’m going to do it.”
Alexid shrugged, defeated. “Yeah, I thought so.”
Days, nights, how many, how many had passed? Long before she had lost track of time. All that was left to tell her that the day passed was the lack of warmth of the sun upon her darkened, parched skin. Still even that sense passed as the thirst over took all else. The rain had passed, cold and stinging, and with it had come her survival, her prolonged agony. What was it for? What gods played with her fate? They had to be of the enemy for she had no gods. She was Hekesh, and her totem was either dead or it had deserted her and her people and might as well be dead. Her people? Who were they? The Dire Wolves ran no more.
For hundreds of seasons the Dire Wolves had held these lands, moving across them with their herds as they pleased. Here they had been feared by all. The Khurillian princes had feared their raids, paying tribute to them. The Orks and Wolfen? They were extinct here, long ago driven away or destroyed. Her grandsire had passed those tales on to her, of his exploits against the submen and their ilk. So why should they not have been proud? They had every right to be. It was that pride, however, that had killed them. Killed them to the last.
The Dire Wolves were no more. With that had died all of her hope and love for life. What was there possibly left? The Grey Riders and their subject tribes had defeated them. They had shattered them and then they had scattered them, and at their leisure had hunted them down. None were left, none but her. She had watched her sire, Kebutsi, cut down. His blood splashed upon the young green grass, his head raised upon a war banner of the new Khan. Now Keliki hung on this tree, a sign to all those who opposed the Khan and his new order.
Anger, sorrow, self-pity, all had died within her. Only hatred, purest hatred kept her alive on this the fifth day. The vultures continued to circle. She had crushed the skull of one with a well-placed kick and apparently the rest had decided to stay clear until such time as they were sure she was dead.
The pain came from all over, surrounding her, smothering her. It was like a dull roar in her mind, blocking out all other senses. It came not just from the crusifiction but also from the beatings and the rapes. It was the way of the Hekesh, the way of her people.
She was delirious. It was the last desperate attempts of her mind to save some shred of her sanity by blocking out the pain of her tortured body. Several times she had seen her father coming for her. Coming to save her. If not Kebutsi, then there was Uxiak, the young warrior who had courted her, but mere days ago. Days ago? What were days? Eternity.
It was just as Uxiak disappeared again that a new hallucination began. Something breaking the chain, her tortured mind observed. Two men rose from the grasses. The nearest was just short of six feet, with light brown hair in a short pony tail that hung behind his head. He was handsome and youthful. The other was a bit shorter, with light blonde hair and a bushy mustache. He was of stockier build then his companion, muscles easily defined under his hide jerkin. His face was set in a look of concentration. Both wore brown leather breaches and shirts, intricate designs of deer and flowers and other patterns covered them. Leather vests covered their chests. They held bows in their hands, sending arrows flying toward the deer that had been grazing in the field below her, oblivious to her presence. The dark haired one was also armed with a short sword that hung from his belt. His friend had a pair of small hand axes. They were both Khurillian.
Having killed several of the deer, they split up: one headed east, up the hill; the other headed towards her. Keliki started to laugh, a dry mirthless laugh that hurt her throat and sent her into a gagging cough. Either her mind was totally gone or she was about to be rescued by a Khurillian. For what? More rape? More torture? The Khurillians hated the Hekesh. They called them slant-eyed demons and made icons depicting their saints slaughtering the invading horsemen.
For their part, the Hekesh had given them every reason to hate. Ever since the first arrival of the Khurillian, in what the round eyes had called the Great Exodus, to this side of the Inner Sea Lands, the Hekesh had begun raiding and pillaging the new comers for booty, slaves and sport. Non-the less, the Khurillians survived, prospered and steadily moved west. The mutual hatred ran deep.
Keliki closed her eyes for several minutes, hoping the delusions would pass. When she opened them again, the young Khurillian stood ten paces away, a skinning knife in his hands. He watched her intently. He was attractive, for a Khurillian, she noted bitterly. She gathered her strength to kick him.
The kick turned out to be little more then the bending of her knees. The man did not even notice it. He moved past her. Blood suddenly poured into her arms and the pain that followed almost made her loose consciousness. Her legs were too weak to hold her and she collapsed. The last thing Keliki saw was the young Khurillian setting her gently on the ground.
The young Grey Rider saddled his pony. Adjusting his wool cloak, he gazed back down upon the field and the execution tree below. A fire blazed below the tree. The Khurillian had built a fire and had covered up the Dire Wolf bitch. He could see the other Khurillian leading three horses back, while a huge hound pounded behind.
He spat in disgust. He would return and report this insult to the Khan. The Khurillian had to be from the settlement ten leagues to the east. He smiled, a broad, broken toothed smile. The Khurillian town would burn for his. The first of many. Again he smiled, remembering the words of the Khan, his oratory of how the New Order, the united tribes, would sweep through the
Alexid guided the horses back to the tree, Chorni, his hunting hound ran circles around him, excited by the smell of the fresh kills. “Soon Chorni, soon.” Alexid assured the impatient hound. Despite the day’s good fortunes, Alexid still felt dismay. They should have left the girl on the tree, hell they should have picked a different valley all together. If only Misha was not so idealistic. He had a dark feeling that life would soon teach Misha its lesson, and him by association.
Alexid made Atolin’s sign over his heart to ward off ill fortune.
It had started to drizzle by the time Alexid reached the
“Is that her?” he asked Misha, pointing to the form lying close to the fire. Something about Misha’s expression set him ill at ease.
“Yeah, that’s her.”
“Well lets have a look at her then.” Alexid started to move toward the sleeping girl. Misha jumped up between them. The flickering light of the campfire illuminated the sweat on his face. He was fidgeting. He’s nervous, Alexid suddenly realized.
“Ahh… I think I need to tell you something about her first.” Misha started, his voice cracking slightly.
“Well what is it? Are you afraid I’ll fall prey to her beauty?” Alexid asked amused. His face showed a slight smile.
“Ahh…no, no not quite.” Misha answered weakly.
“Is she a witch then? The famous Baba Rhedaga maybe? Honestly Misha, you’re acting foolishly. How bad can it be? She’s not an Ork is she?”
“No, not exactly....um, well actually, she's a..a Hekesh.” Misha answered quickly, as if trying to get the words out faster then Alexid could comprehend them.
All emotion drained from Alexid’s face. In one sudden movement he threw Misha aside and was at the girl’s side, rolling her over with one hand, his dagger already free in the other.
“NO!” Misha screamed as he blind-sided Alexid, tackling him to the ground. They went down in a tangle of arms and legs, punching and kicking, the dagger lost in the melee.
“Are you two done?” a weak feminine voice interrupted the scuffle. The two combatants stopped, staring slack jawed at the Hekesh woman reprimanding them. She was raised up on her elbows. “Good, I can go to sleep then.” she said bitingly. “By the way if don’t close your mouths, something might fly in.” Their jaws shut with audible thumps. The fact she spoke Khurillian was amazing enough.
Alexid flushed in temporary embarrassment. The feeling did not last long. As he gathered his wits about him. Alexid tossed Misha off of him and got to his feet. Doing so, he rounded on his friend, rage upon his face. “A Hekesh bitch? Are you out of your frigging mind, Misha?”
“Atolin doesn’t care about such things, the God…”
“Atolin be damned!” Alexid was screaming now, the blood vessels in his forehead bulging. "I lost two uncles and a cousin, Atolin rest her soul, to those barbarians! Now you're nursing one?"
Now it was Misha’s turn to become enraged. He lurched to his feet, screaming back at his friend. “Don’t you talk about Atolin that way!” His fists balled up ready for another round of fighting.
“First of all, I am not a bitch!” Both men stopped again, as the woman spoke. “Second of all, I never asked for your assistance, but since you gave it, I’m in your debt, something I’ll be sure to pay...” she grimaced in pain “…as soon as I bodily can. Anything to be rid of the two of you.” She paused for a short breath. “Now I’m going to sleep, so keep the noise down.” She rolled over, facing away from them.“We’ll be discussing this on the marrow. May the God help you, Misha.” Alexid stated glaringly