Tide of Fears
The salt desert spread with the teeming thousands. Gold stallions bucked on the red backdrop of the Nibian banner. The left flank was burnished in studded plate and banded mail. Soon, other groups joined the Nibian cavalry, a ragtag of freemen and mercenaries under the blue fist of Kratos; the blue-skinned, turbaned infantry under the jade moon and scimitar of Abudan; the plume crested hoplies in phalanx formations with their sixteen-foot sarissas oscillating in unison under the bearded god of Thalassar. Lastly, out of Northendell, holding the right flank, the Knights Dragonslayers arrived in gleaming full plate with their red standard of dragon and sword.
Under the Batal’s watchful eyes, the assembled armies were as wide and vast as the grasses on the hills of his homeland. All had come to oppose him, the Flower Banner. But it was the sword itself, the true symbol of his justice, against which they were allied.
Already he could feel it, the Sword of Emmaxis, quivering lustily in his mailed palm. “What do they say?” he asked the sea of bitter faces.
The messenger boy cupped his knees with exhaustion, sucking air with his answer. “Your Grace, they will not kneel.”
The Batal brushed thumb and forefinger against the rough hairs of his chin, silent.
“Shall I inform the commanders, your Grace?”
“No.” Emmaxis’ teeth glittered in the noon sun, and the boy shuddered before its presence, backing away. “If they will not kneel,” he murmured, almost apologetically, “then they will writhe!”
The sword swung over the precipice across the valley below, and its shadow fell over the assembled armies, and the commanders at his shoulder looked on aghast as the blade caught the sun. The world dimmed. Every color became muted. The Batal regarded the encroaching armies like a swarm of gnats. Emmaxis came around in a violent arc and a great wail rose up from the multitude as the earth trembled and came apart in jagged rifts. Banners toppled; phalanxes fell into disarray; steadfast warriors bent with paralysis, tugging at their helms with dread.
“How did it come to this?” Xandr whispered to himself, and in raising his arm he saw that the hilt was now part of his extended arm, and upon the skull face he glimpsed a reflection of his own awful visage.
Wood splinters grated against his beard and chin. His jaw ached and his teeth felt misaligned. His head, too heavy for his shoulders, came up from the oar clumsily. For how long he sat shivering, he could not guess, nor did he know whether his flesh was prickled because of the dream, or the damp cold and darkness that saturated him.
He was still on the Mare Nostrum, still roped to the benches. The sword, which extended like a ghostly part of the ship’s ram, had not been moved from the prow. The crew worked around it, whispering superstitiously, spreading rumor of its origin, predicting miserable fates. On occasion, Xandr would overhear them pleading with the captain to release their captives, but Cambses remained stubborn as ever, keeping to his quarters, refusing even to take to the oars.
The journey home was fraught with greater misery than their outgoing voyage. The currents resisted their every effort. Nights were stale and frigid, and days were bleak and overcast so that the sunrise went unnoticed. The navigator was unsure as to whether they were even making headway. Murmurs persisted of the curse, due in part to Emmaxis, in which a circular current dragged the ship toward the center of the sea to an island of lost vessels. Xandr did not believe in such nautical lore, but was beginning to believe in the rumors of his own sword. His recent nightmares were no doubt a product of this fear.
Nets brought up little by way of food. There were strangely shaped barbed things and poison-filled sacks with wiry tendrils and hard-shelled critters with many legs and spiny feelers, but all were difficult to chew and offered little meat. In the haze of daylight, silhouettes dwarfed the ship and sank from view like coiling serpents. None dared guess at what they could be or dared to hunt them down. No doubt Warrior, Arrow, and Shadow were divided amongst the crew, or preserved in salt for Cambses’ refined palette. Often Xandr wondered about Thelana’s appetite, whether she would care for strew made of her own beloved mare.
Rain came in sheets, down and sideways and diagonally, for days on end. The crew was wise to fill their helmets with fresh water, but it was both blessing and curse. Death by thirst was the dread of all sailors: it came unexpectedly and with dementia, but the gusts that accompanied the storms steered them in unwelcome directions, and the ships’ saturated beams groaned underfoot.
Days went uncounted. It was known only that more time passed than on their journey to the ruin, which unnerved the crew. Hunger increased to desperation, and desperation to loss of reason. Oarsmen strutted about wild eyed, muttering openly of fears once spoken in hushed voices. They spoke of the walking dead and grayquid and the lich priest. Irrationality spread about the Nostrum like a sickness—the notion that they were dead already, that the realm in which they sailed was not of the living world but a mere illusion of it.
One day, Xandr noticed that the oarsman across from him, Gregory, did not return from his morning meal. He had been of a nervous, talkative sort with a bad infection of the skin. Years ago he had been a slave, Xandr knew, but won freedom as a gladiator in the coliseums of Thetis. After his disappearance, no one spoke of him. It was as if Gregory ceased to exist altogether.
His stomach cramped with emptiness, but Xandr did not fear starvation. Should desperation take hold, no ropes could keep him from devouring an adjacent crewman. But for Thelana, he was in the dark. Too weak to keep with the pace of the oars, she was sent below deck. But what was she fed? How was she treated? In open combat, no man could stand against her, but in the closed quarters of a pentaconter, half starved, how would she fare? He remembered her remarking that thieves did not do well on ships. The same could be said of the Ilmar. Hidden in the shadow of this fear was another. Emma was of Northendell, and her people were of a proud naval tradition. She was more robust and well dressed than Thelana and perhaps her arcane crafts could sustain them both. But she was also a high-born urbanite, a lady of letters and etiquette. Why had she persisted in following them through the harsh wilds of Enya? And why had she so readily surrendered her life to Cambses’ men?
“. . . the third wheel of a two-wheeled chariot.”
It was a phantom echo in his ears. He was not blind to her longings. But he had not the strength to shun a friend. Or was it something more? A single memory floated to the surface of his jumbled mind, a night in Northendell, a stolen kiss veiled in raven strands. In starved delirium, he wandered the forbidden avenues of possibility. If Thelana did not . . .
He would not permit it. Even to think it was betrayal.
As for Thelana, he never asked, knowing better than to voice his fears. A sign of weakness and Cambses might reconsider his oath, toss him and his companions to the depths.
Day after day, Xandr pulled his oar in silence, revealing only an impossible strength of will. Scraps from the nets were thrown at his feet, and he devoured these readily, and that was his only interaction with his captors.
The dreams continued. In waking hours they lingered, vague fields of ghostly armies, the shapes and colors of their banners muted by the void of the dream world. All he could recall with clarity was the horrid face on the surface of the sword, his own face, and yet not his.
The waters and the wind stilled and hope emerged with moonlight, bathing them in turquoise. With a clear sky, a navigator could find his direction by way of the moons, mark his position by the constellations. But something, a silhouette, was rising up from the shadowy horizon. Xandr’s fear turned to the immense aquatic creatures they had seen before, but in nearing, sails took form, and oars. There was the swish of a hundred distant oars breaking the surf and charging against their ship was another twice the Nostrum’s height.
The thunderous sound was followed by snapping and ripping. Oars shattered like the bones of a giant. The pentaconter groaned and pitched and Xandr was struck by a cold wave. Oarsmen stumbled out of sleep, swords clutched drunkenly, and from somewhere Cambses was shouting commands. In that same instant, fresh-faced boys in plumed helmets flew across the divide of conjoined ships, spears clutched high. Desperate screams came near and far, the crunch of bronze against bronze; and new blood spilled over old, darkening the fibers of the Mare Nostrum.
His wrists were like raw meat, resisting the ropes painfully. “Release me!” he called. “I can fight for you!” But his offer went unheard amid the din of battle and in the shadow of the starboard bow he was forgotten.
It was a pitched melee as violent and desperate as any, yet the flooring shifted to and fro and the battleground was narrow and unforgiving. Bodies and bronze clashed together like netted fish, squirming and thrashing, the occasional blade slipping between limbs to release entrails. Xandr watched men die for want of maneuverability: swords remained fixed in scabbards, others caught mid-stroke against the mast or railing. There was no quarter for retreat. It was brutal, gruesome, messy. And it was not easy to tell who was fighting whom, and which side, if any, was making headway. Only one stood amongst the crowd. Cambses wallowed in blood like a battle cat amid sheep, and there was a gleam in his eye, a madness induced by the joy of slaughter, of killing that which could bleed.
The herd was now thinning and more bodies lay quietly on deck than were on their feet. At a glance, only the blue plumes remained, their horsehair crests bristling confidently in the gale. The crew of the Mare Nostrum: fatigued, hungered, caught unawares, had not fared well. But there was Cambses, adamant as an ox, clearing a bloody circle where he stood, cutting youth like weeds. It was as if he belonged to another crew, one prepared for war. Cambses had come out of the womb with gladius in hand.
The Nostrum was secured and the oarsmen coming late to battle swore fealty to their conquerors, all but Cambses, who toyed with his attackers like a teacher his pupils. But the men of the opposing ship could claim to be men loosely, as they trembled at the sight of the dreadful captain of the Mare Nostrum.
It was then that she appeared. Her lithe shape and purposeful gait reminded Xandr of Thelana. She was a ruddy hue in the torchlight, her hair knotted the color of redwood under a gem-studded scarf of leafy green. She wore a laced leather jerkin and boots with stiletto heels that clacked at her approach. Her eyes shone like dull gold, resolute and impassive.
“Stand back!” she commanded in an accent strange to Xandr’s ears. Before Cambses she stood like a mother over an unruly son, though she looked young enough to be his.
“Arinna,” he grunted, shaking bloody clots from his blade. “I should have known.”
“Give me the scrolls, Cambses,” she said without blinking.
He grinned through red-stained teeth. “They don’t belong to you.”
“They belong to the faithful.”
“First I’m goin’ to cut you open with my sword, then I’m goin’ to cut you open with my cock, and then I’m goin’ to take that fine trireme of yours. And if you survive me, I’ll have my men have a go at you.” And he spit a tooth at her pointed toe.
She showed no fear, turning and raising a slender wrist. A silver line suggested a blade. It nearly split his nose as she brandished it, and Xandr noted the curved edge, no thicker than a thumb, and the red tassel dangling from its pommel.
There was an explosion of frantic arms and jumbled steps. Arinna’s waif-thin sword flopped and bent and split the air with an ear-piercing whine, its tassel snapping this way and that. She handled it on her fingertips, without ever touching Cambses’ gladius or armor. But the encounter was short lived. The Hedonian stumbled drunkenly against her, pinning her sword in the pit of his arm. At her heels the waters threatened. She recoiled. He gloated over her, forcing her between the oar port and his knees.
“That was disappointing,” he spat. “The mighty Arinna, Captain of the Guard. I’d heard rumors. I suppose they weren’t true.”
Her steel bit the floor dividing them. “I am not you, Cambses, not an oaf that stumbles about flailing futilely. I am like the black widow; I ensnare.”
“Hold that tongue, bitch, lest I cut it out! Or put it to better use . . .”
A smile crept along her face. “Do you know why I call my saif Inner Spirit?”
His gladius came up, speckling her with slaughter. “Your sword? What are you babbling now b–”
From Xandr’s viewpoint, Cambses jerked upright, and with a chilling, almost womanly shriek, the straps about his sandals darkened to crimson. Arinna pulled the needle-thin dagger from his scrotum and pushed him aside, as though he were a mere canvas of himself, neatly fitting the blade into the handle of her saif. The gladius tipped into the sea and Cambses fell away with it.