Authors: Stephen Hunt
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy
AN AUDIENCE WITH THE GREAT KRUL
Lady Cassandra Skar moaned with pain as the nomads dragged her from her horse towards the tent where the King of the Plains awaited her. Of course, the word tent was a bit of a misnomer. It was closer to a palace woven from colourful felt-lined fabric, staked toweringly high with wooden lattices and roof ribs. Multiple tents arranged together like a series of stretched foothills. In fact, as Cassandra gazed at the nomads’ faces – expressions ranging from the curious to the openly hostile – she realized that the term
might be a bit of a misnomer too.
What would do instead, I wonder? Rag-tag hairy-arsed barbarian war chief lording it over a bunch of roaming savages? Best you keep such suggestions to yourself, lady
. From the way the nomads manhandled her, they clearly didn’t see many Vandian noblewomen out here. She didn’t take it personally. They clearly hated the other two prisoners in her party even more than her. Sheplar Lesh was a pilot from Rodal, the clans’ mountainous neighbours to the south, and as close to an ancestral enemy as the plains people possessed. Although in fairness, they probably regarded everyone with the bad luck not to be born in a saddle among the clans as their ancestral enemy. Kerge was a forest dweller from the far side of the peaks, an oddity that only reminded the nomads that while they commanded the endless steppes, they’d always been beaten back from the rich, prosperous nations on the other side of the mountains.
Cassandra heard Alexamir’s shouts of protest ringing out behind her. The love-sick young nomad had promised her his protection. Swore that he would release her if and when she chose to leave for home.
What a joke
. Leave for home? How could she do that with a broken spine and her legs paralyzed by the plane crash? She should have cut her wrists rather than suffer such a dishonour. That was the way of her house. For someone born and trained from birth to rule over millions, Cassandra had ended up not even being able to leave her bedroll unaided. The Vandian Imperium was power and strength or it was nothing. Maybe Cassandra would have ended her life if Alexamir hadn’t removed and hidden her dagger.
Or maybe these people will cut my throat and save me the trouble
. Like so much else, it seemed that Alexamir’s boasts of his importance among the clan had been somewhat exaggerated.
Or maybe this is how they greet all honoured guests under the protection of one of their so-called greatest warriors?
She caught a brief glimpse of the witch rider, Nurai, standing by the entrance to the massive tent palace. A look of satisfaction twitched around the margins of her face.
It makes a difference from jealousy, I suppose
. Nurai clearly regarded Alexamir as her property, and would be only too happy to help Cassandra shuffle off this mortal coil; preserving the dashing, insanely reckless nomad for her sole attentions. There wasn’t a future Nurai had prophesied where Cassandra’s presence among the people of the plains wouldn’t end up in despair and the gnashing of teeth and lamentations for the clan.
Maybe that means I’ll live a little longer with Alexamir pining after me. Although perhaps the witch rider just foresaw my death here
Lady Cassandra was dragged like a haunch of meat, cursing her dead, useless legs, deep inside the palace of tents, ending up in a wooden-frame-vaulted throne room. The throne itself was composed of propellers taken from the planes of their Rodalian enemies, fallen skyguards who had broken every nomad horde to attempt the invasion of Rodal. She gazed up at the man who sat upon the throne. So, this was Kani Yargul, the warlord who had declared himself Lord of Clan Lords. The clans called such a king their
. Cassandra suspected that anyone capable of unifying the quarrelsome, ever-warring clans of horsemen was going to prove an equally great nuisance to the nations surrounding the steppes. Physically, Kani Yargul looked every inch a warlord. Strapping, even by the standards of the strong Nijumeti tribesmen, perhaps two normal men wide, a shaved head, dark, short beard, narrow eyes, and a notably bulbous nose that had been broken many times. On the warlord’s left stood an ancient witch rider, presumably the priestess to whom jealous Nurai owed her training and allegiance. On the right was an even queerer sight. An obviously foreign golden-skinned elder weighed down with the heavy rune-embroidered robes of a sorcerer. The way the robes covered his protruding spine make him look like he might be hunchbacked. His hair was naturally curled in a way that would have made many of the ladies of the Vandian imperial court jealous; a high forehead with dark, brooding eyes belying a superior, erudite manner. The sorcerer looked younger than she’d expect a man of his position to be.
‘Hear me, Great Krul. I have given my word to Lady Cassandra, offering her the protection of salt and roof,’ said Alexamir, pushing his way to the front of the crowd.
word,’ said the warlord. ‘Not mine. Am I to extend the hospitality of the clans to every beggarly intruder who despoils the grass sea? So much trouble from you, Alexamir Arinnbold. Always. You leave to raid Rodal and prove yourself a man and you come back not with thralls to serve the clan, but with
?’ Kani Yargul chewed unhappily on the last word as though it was unexpected gristle on a haunch of meat.
‘These two I have taken as thralls,’ said Alexamir, pointing at Kerge and Sheplar Lesh. ‘But the golden fox I would take as my wife.’
‘Then marry the girl as a saddle-wife. Throw her inside your tent and go raiding for more.’
‘Indeed,’ said the priestess by the warlord’s side. ‘One saddle-wife is a vexation. Three or four is a goodly number.’
Cassandra pulled against the hands of her captors. ‘I am no common prisoner.’
‘It is true,’ said Alexamir. ‘She is the daughter of a princess, granddaughter to the Emperor of Vandia.’
‘Another empire?’ said the warlord, puzzled. ‘I know of the Empire of Persdad to the north. Fine raiding for those willing to brave their legions.’ He glanced at the sorcerer. ‘What is this Vandia? Have you heard of them, Temmell Longgate?’
‘I have, Great Krul,’ said the sorcerer, nodding on the other side of the wooden throne. ‘The Vandians are now allies of the king across the mountains. They fight in the Kingdom of Weyland’s kin war, brother against uncle, for control of the land. Vandia lies far-called to the south, a rich and powerful empire which they boast of as the world’s greatest nation. Their forces rarely travel as far north as the Lancean Ocean. I find their presence so close to us to be most disturbing.’
‘So, an emperor’s granddaughter? It’s hard to take a wolf cub without bringing in the whole pack. Still, although they know it not, these Vandians are also my allies. Let them rip each other apart in the south,’ scowled Kani Yargul. ‘Let their kin war lay a thick red carpet of corpses for us to crunch over when the clans ride. Every dead Weyland soldier is one less for us to face when the time comes.’ The warlord stared at Cassandra with his cold green eyes. ‘And how much is the Vandian emperor’s granddaughter worth in ransom?’
‘Nothing,’ said Cassandra. ‘Not as I am . . . broken. A Vandian noblewoman must be able to fight for her house when challenges are issued. I cannot stand in any duel now. I am worthless to you. My house will expect me to end my life honourably. There will be no gold for you in exchange for my person.’
‘At least she is honest,’ said Kani Yargul. ‘Useless, but honest.’
, Great Krul,’ said Nurai. ‘She saw what we are building when we rode into the camp. The girl and the rice-eater and his forest man friend, all.’
Yes, that sight had come as quite a surprise to Cassandra. But not as much, she suspected, as to Sheplar Lesh. This was the young witch rider’s best chance to have Cassandra executed, and the woman knew it.
‘Do you expect this broken girl to gallop south and warn the nations of the Lanca?’ said the warlord. He sounded amused, but Cassandra sensed the undercurrent of menace in his tone. ‘Have you seen this in your visions, witch rider?’
‘I have seen many things concerning this one’s presence, Great Krul,’ said Nurai. ‘All of them leading to dark fates for our people.’
Madinsar fixed her understudy with a beady glare. ‘Then why have I not seen similarly, my acolyte?’
‘The true sight shows many paths,’ was all the answer Nurai had to give.
Madinsar pulled her priestess robes in close and eyed Alexamir suspiciously. ‘As does the heart. Never confuse the two.’
‘This foreign whelp has cast a spell over Alexamir,’ accused Nurai. ‘How else can you explain his willingness to carry her here, the girl unable even to clean a tent or cook for his family? She is a burden, not a saddle-wife.’
‘She was given my protection before her wounding,’ said Alexamir.
Even Cassandra thought the justification hollow. There was more to it than that. She had experienced the tenderness with which Alexamir had cared for her when she had been injured. How eagerly he had tried to distract her from her plight and duty. He might be a fool, but he was
‘If a spell it is, I believe it a very ordinary enchantment,’ said Madinsar. ‘And not one you care for, Nurai.’
‘I would ask you to heal my golden fox, Temmell,’ said Alexamir.
‘I am adviser to the Great Krul,’ said the sorcerer. ‘You seem to mistake me for some wandering healer.’
‘Yet such you were when you first arrived with us,’ said Alexamir.
This was clearly not the right response; reminding the strangelooking adviser of his humble origins here. The sorcerer’s irritated expression turned to fury. ‘I once regrew the arm of the Mark Lord of Simaria after he lost his limb in a joust. Am I now to be the medic to a common mounted thief ?’
‘Careful, Temmell,’ cautioned the warlord. ‘It is a fine thing to be a thief among the Nijumeti. To be an unsuccessful thief, however, is quite another thing. Your raiding party took many casualties, Alexamir. And you have returned with a bare handful of thralls and a hostage who has lost her worth.’
‘Lesser men would have perished a dozen times where I survived,’ said Alexamir. ‘We were attacked twice by the Rodalian skyguard, their flying wings swooping down on us, dropping bombs and giving us the bitter taste of their cannons. The golden fox was taken from us and locked up in Salasang. But I broke her out and left the rice-eaters a burning town for their troubles. Then I escaped in one of their planes and claimed two propellers from the rice-eaters’ pursuing skyguards. And when these two fools tracked me to recover the girl, I ambushed them and took them as thralls. If any bard was brave enough to travel with Alexamir, people here would be singing for months of my bravery and audacity.’
‘Why would we need a bard, when we have you to sing your own songs so well?’ asked Madinsar, wryly.
‘I dreamt that Alexamir would scale the walls of Salasang and leave the town in flames,’ said Nurai, speaking in defence of the reckless young nomad.
‘I do not doubt it,’ said Kani Yargul. ‘You are truly the blood of your father, Alexamir Arinnbold. He danced with death every day until it found him. He tried to get me killed on his adventures a dozen times a season, and this is a hard thing to do, as the spirit of every broken-necked clan lord hovering above my throne will testify.’
‘You honour me, Great Krul,’ said Alexamir, his chest puffing with pride.
‘Do I? The bravery expected of a rider and the recklessness of a clod are easily confused,’ said Kani Yargul. ‘Sometimes I can barely tell them apart myself. We shall see. Paltry though your booty may be,’ said Kani Yargul, ‘I shall claim the right of the Krul and take the rice-eater as my own thrall. You have a use for him, do you not, Temmell?’
‘Officers of the Rodalian skyguard are rarely brought down on the plains alive,’ said the sorcerer. ‘I have many uses for such a servant.’
That does not sound good for him
. Although Sheplar Lesh had been prime among her captors after she was seized from the Imperium, the Rodalian pilot had treated her honourably and risked his life twice to save her from the nomads.
You should not show such weakness, lady. One captor less is no bad thing for you
. Except she had no home to return to now. Not as she was.
‘You would put him to use against the mountain people, Great Krul?’ asked Madinsar.
‘And where would you have the clans turn their attention instead, priestess?’ retorted the warlord.
‘North. Towards the Empire of Persdad.’
‘Your ambitions are limited, Madinsar,’ said Temmell. ‘The nations of the Lancean League are the richest, fattest kingdoms in all the Three Oceans. Poultry left unplucked by the clans for too long.’
‘Left unplucked, but not for lack of trying,’ said the witch priestess. ‘You were not born in the saddle, Temmell Longgate. Wander the camp at night and listen to our ancient songs. Hear of all the Great Kruls who raised their hordes and led them against Rodal, smashed them into the mountains, urged them through canyons and were left with nothing but bleached bones in foreign passes for their plunder. There are countless sagas that end sadly in Rodal. Or perhaps you would prefer those that end in the bogs of Hellin, whole clans drowned in quicksand and never seen again? North lies Persdad, protected only by hills and steppes and mortal men with timber palisades. That is where we should ride.’
‘And rich only in wheat and lumber and thick-headed legionaries with blades to protect their wooden walls,’ growled the warlord. ‘The league lies on the southern caravan routes, littered with trade metals and the bounty of machines and mills, the Guild of Rails carrying treasure in every direction. Ports on the salted sea heaving with vessels packed full of plunder.’ He slapped his thick muscled legs. ‘This Vandian girl is a sign from the gods. What we seek is seeking us. Her people have joined the kin war in Weyland. Our enemies are disunited. The Lanca turns in upon itself. There is no better time to strike south.’
‘You speak wisely,’ said Temmell, his eyes gazing slyly at the priestess. There was obviously no love lost between these two, the left hand of the throne as jealous of the right as the reverse was also true.