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Authors: Dave Duncan

The Cutting Edge

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The Cutting Edge
Book 1 of A Handful Of Men
By Dave Duncan
ISBN: 0-345-38167-X
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE

In the summer of 2977 the Yllipos gathered at Yewdark House to pay their respects to the Sisters, as they had done every year for more than a century. On that occasion well over four hundred men, women, and children arrived from all over the Impire, including six former consuls, four senators, and numerous praetors, lictors, and legates.

The annual family convocation was mainly a social event, although much political scheming was conducted as well. The Sisters themselves were merely an excuse. They were twins and no one could tell one from the other, which was unimportant as no one remembered their names either. They had become part of the Yllipo clan when one of them had married some obscure younger son, a man long dead.

The Sisters claimed to have occult powers and would prophesy upon request. The prophecies were sometimes fulfilled, sometimes not fulfilled, and never taken seriously, usually being passed off with a laughing remark that all families had a few odd characters.

Nevertheless, the annual meeting invariably included one peculiar ritual. Everyone professed to regard this as just a foolish superstition, yet it was never spoken of to outsiders. The senior males would accompany the Sisters to the Statue and would present to it the new Yllipos, those born during the past twelve months. The Sisters would then foretell each child's fortune, depending on whether the Statue smiled or frowned.

The Statue stood in a gloomy clearing not far from the house. It was so weathered that no one except the Sisters could make out much of its features at all, let alone detect any expression on them. Tradition said that it represented Arave the Strong, an imperor of the XIIth Dynasty who had raised the first Yllipo to the nobility. The stone slab before it was believed to mark Arave's grave.

In 2977, four proud fathers brought their new offspring to this ceremony, and the last to step forward was Lictor Ylopingo, bearing his eight-month-old third son, Ylo. The day was unusually stormy for midsummer. At the exact moment the youngster was laid on the monument, a stray gust caught the Statue and toppled it. It impacted the slab close to the child, shattering into fragments.

Incredibly, the boy escaped injury. The lictor was cut and bruised by flying gravel. The Sisters went into convulsions. The family gathering broke up in confusion and everyone went home.

The significance of the omen was much discussed. Some of the boy's more credulous-and distant-relatives suggested he be put to death because of it. Interpretation was not helped by the diverging views of the Sisters, for no one could ever recall them disagreeing before.

One said that the portent signified the destruction of the Yllipo family, the other that it was the Impire itself that was to be overthrown. Neither would explain what part Baby Ylo might play in such an unthinkable catastrophe, and they could not even agree whether he would survive it.

Both Sisters died within the year, and thereafter the midsummer convocations were held elsewhere. In time the two sinister prophecies were forgotten.

And in time they were both fulfilled.

ONE
Blow, bugle!
1

The elves had a proverb, Minnows mourn when bridges fall. Unlike most elvish sayings, it even made a sort of sense, especially to minnows.

The Marquis of Harkthil was arrested on a bright and sunny afternoon in the spring of 2995. By sunset the Impire was in the throes of the sensation that became known as the Yllipo Conspiracy. Day by day the scandal spread and the toll mounted. The marquis' relatives followed him into the dungeons, one after another.

Even at the first, there was considerable doubt that the treason was as widespread as Emshandar maintained. More than likely, the gossipmongers said, the imperor was merely seizing a Godsgiven chance to subdue a family that had grown too powerful and troublesome for the good of the realm. Whatever the truth, the old man's vengeance was savage. By the time the affair was over, eight senators had bared their necks for the ax, and no one counted the lesser victims.

One of those lesser victims seemed likely to be Recruit Ylo of the Praetorian Guard, youngest son of the disgraced Consul Ylopingo. His fellow Guardsmen were doing the arresting, so Ylo was not surprised to find himself confined to quarters. From there he watched the tide of blood creep ever closer to his toes, until he was the only member of his family outside the imperor's prisons. His friends had disappeared, also, and who could blame them? Public confessions, private executions, rumors of torture ... When the inevitable summons came, it was almost a relief.

Ylo had enlisted three months earlier, on his eighteenth birthday, feeling he was doing the Guard something of a favor. Apart from being a consul's son, he was related in various ways to at least a dozen senators, and his grandfather had become a national hero by dying dramatically during the Dark River War. All the hereditary titles would go to his eldest brother, so Ylo's ordained future was obviously a career in politics. In the Impire, political careers began in the army.

In Ylo's considered opinion, the regular legions engaged in far too much unpleasant marching around. They were also prone to violent activities involving goblins, dwarves, djinns, and other inferior races, and those could be positively dangerous. The Praetorian Guard, however, spent its time posturing around the Opal Palace in Hub. Few things were as effective with girls as a Praetorian uniform.

So the decision had been easy. A five-year stint in the Guard, followed by a little traditional impish nepotism, would guarantee him a profitable posting as lictor in some congenial city not too far away from the capital. Thereafter, he would see.

Ten days after being confined to quarters, Recruit Ylo was summoned to the guardroom. Any lingering hopes died when he saw that the man behind the table was Centurion Hithi. The Yllipos and the Hathinos had been mortal enemies for more generations than Ylo had teeth.

Like all of the Praetorian barracks, the guardroom was lofty and ancient. The mosaic floor illustrated dramatic scenes of legionaries battling dragons, but there was one spot where thousands of military sandals had worn the colors right away, and that bare white patch was directly before the officer's table. Ylo marched forward, placed his feet on the marker, and saluted. He was surprised-and very gratified-to realize that his knees were not knocking, or his teeth chattering. True, his palms were sweaty and there was an unpleasant tightness in his lower abdomen, but those effects did not show. He waited to hear his fate with proper military impassivity.

In the Guard, even centurions were gentlemen. Hithi seemed genuinely regretful as he explained how a reassessment had revealed that Ylo fell just short of the Guard's height requirement.

He laid down one paper and lifted another. "Seems there is an opening in the XXth. A transfer might be arranged."

It could be worse, much worse. Blisters and calluses were better than thumbscrews and the rack. A barracks was better than an unmarked grave. The XXth Legion was not one of the scum outfits-and no alternative was being offered.

Ylo said, "Thank you, sir!"

"There's a tesserary from the XXth here at the moment, as it happens. He and his men could escort you."

"Sir!" Ylo said.

The centurion smiled.

The smile very nearly broke Ylo's self-control. He wanted to weep, for it was a brutal reminder that there was no one to appeal to; the feud between the Hathinos and the Yllipos was now over.

Thus was Guardsman Ylo toppled from the giddy peaks of the aristocracy to the rat-eat-rat world of the common foot soldier. From all-night dancing to all-day marching. From fine wine to sour beer, and silk sheets to bedbugs. From sweetskinned debutantes in rose gardens to toothless harridans who took all his money and kept telling him to hurry up.

With thanks to the Gods for each new dawn, he accepted his fall from grace and set to work to survive the brutish, penniless, mind-crippling life of a legionary.

The standard tour of duty was twenty-five years.

Always at Winterfest the Imperial Archivist named the year just ending. No one was very surprised when he proclaimed 2995 to have been the Year of his Majesty's Ninetieth Birthday. By then the Yllipos were all dead and forgotten.

And 2996 turned out to be the Year of the Great-grandchild. The superstitious and those who knew some history were already starting to worry about the coming millennium, but 2997 was destined to be known as the Year of Seven Victories.

The troubles began in Zark. A few days after Winterfest, the emir of Garpoon received an ultimatum from the caliph and appealed to the imperor for help.

The emir had very little choice in the matter, as the Imperial ambassador was holding a sword under his chin at the time, but such fine points of diplomacy were of no concern to a common foot soldier. Five thousand strong, the XXth Legion marched south to Malfin and embarked. Ylo learned then that he was just as prone to seasickness as any other imp and that there were worse experiences than a forced march in winter.

After four weeks at sea, he disembarked at a large city, which might possibly be Ullacarn. It was very hot and had palm trees. The mountains to the north were perhaps the Progiste Range. The XXth formed up and marched away along the coast, maybe heading for somewhere called Garpoon.

The hot, arid country was hostile and unfamiliar. The rocky hills were full of cryptic wadis that could be full of djinns.

Ylo had no illusions about heroism or glory. He knew the odds against a tyro surviving his first battle. He knew that even those odds were vastly better than the chances of a simple legionary ever winning as much as one word of praise from his centurion, let alone recognition from the officers. He admitted to himself that he was terrified, and would be perfectly satisfied if he could just conceal that terror from his companions.

The best he had to look forward to was another twenty-three years of this.

He survived the first day's march. And the second. On the third day he found himself in the Battle of Karthin.

Karthin eventually ranked as the first of the year's seven victories, but it was a very narrow win. Proconsul Iggipolo held to the standard belief that Zark was one huge waterless expanse of sand; he knew that djinns were red-eyed barbarians who fought on camels in the brightest sunlight they could find. He therefore marched three road-weary legions into a swamp, an evening thunderstorm, and the caliph's trap.

Bogged down in mud by their armor, the imps soon learned that djinns fought very well on foot and could conceal ten men behind every clump of reeds. Sunset failed to halt the slaughter, and dawn revealed Ylo's maniple isolated, surrounded, and hopelessly outnumbered.

Honor, politics, and even discipline had vanished in the night. Hunger, terror, and exhaustion were unimportant. Survival was all that mattered. The morning was a foggy blur of noise and blood, sword strokes and the screams of the dying. The maniple shrank steadily. The centurions and the optios fell; the standard disappeared. A tesserary shouted commands until he took an arrow in the throat, and after that it was every man for himself, and no one seemed to know which way was home.

Whether he had tripped or been stunned or had merely fainted, Ylo never knew. He lay facedown in a bloody ooze for a long time, keeping company with the dead. That was not cowardice, and he was far from alone in his collapse. Imps rarely made great fighters. They were never berserkers, as the jotnar often were, nor fanatics like the djinns. They did not covet martyrdom, as elves did in their darker moods. They lacked the suicidal stubbornness of fauns or the stony stamina of dwarves. Imps were just very good organizers, with a driving urge to organize everyone else as well as they had organized themselves.

Eventually Ylo realized that he could still hear the beating of his heart. Then another beat, as well. And a bugle! He was very tired of the swamp. He rose from the field of dead, lifted a sword from a nearby corpse to replace the one he had lost, and decided fuzzily that he was too weak to carry a shield. He trudged off through the mud, heading for the drums and those twenty-three more years.

He had lost one sandal; bare skin on arms and legs was blistered raw by the sun. His sodden tunic was rubbing holes in his skin, something heavy had dented his helmet so that it no longer fitted properly, yet none of the swords, arrows, and javelins that had been directed at him had penetrated his hide.

BOOK: The Cutting Edge
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