Monday, April 14, 2008

Faith: A Hymn to Battle

The better part of the Beckoner tribe traveled to battle that day; only the younger children, along with a very few men and women serving as guards, were left at the village. The Sindahar seemed to have done likewise; certainly their numbers were roughly equal to the Beckoners, if not slightly greater. They were a force of hundreds; and, as such, difficult to lead quietly. Thera, leading them to attack the Intaki, had not considered this previously; but even as she watched the dust rise from their massed numbers, she dismissed any concern she felt over it. Outnumbering the Intaki as they surely did, what concern need she have over stealth?

When the Beckoners and Sindahar arrived, Thera found she had been right. Only a scattering of Intaki stood between the attackers and the Intaki village; they fought bravely, but did little damage, and were easily defeated. Some died; the rest fled, and an hour later, as the Beckoner-Sindahar force arrived at the Intaki village, they found the entire Intaki tribe there, waving the peace flag.

The Sindahar ringed the village as the Beckoners approached it. The Intaki leaders looked fearfully at Thera as she approached with the rest of the Beckoners behind; one shouted, "What terms do you demand?"

Thera waited to respond until she was within comfortable speaking distance. Then she drew her sword and beheaded him. Her followers, taking this as their signal, drew weapons and slew the Intaki nearest them. Trapped, unarmed, the Intaki stood not the slightest chance. Those trapped in the village died to the last.

Once the slaughter was over, the Sindahar moved in, eager to claim their share of the treasure.

"It was a great battle!" the Sindahar chieftain told Thera, grinning broadly. "We should have trusted you from the first. As a gesture of our tribes' newfound friendship, I will grant you six goats from my own private stockpile upon our return."

Thera smiled thinly and returned to supervising her followers. The chieftain stared after her, miffed, then went looking for treasure for himself.

The tribes left the Intaki valley two days later, having looted and butchered to the point of satiation. Greasy smoke turned the grass black beneath their feet; corpse-fires burned below. The Beckoners whispered, finding it a good omen; if any among the Sindahar felt otherwise, Thera never heard.

Thera devoted the next two weeks to rest and reaccounting; a time that swelled into two months as one minor issue led into another, keeping Thera perpetually busy. At last, sick to death of administrative trivia - arguments over goat-grazing, coveted wives, and coveted goats - she appointed Rob, one of her sworn followers, to deal with all such inconsequential affairs, then retreated into her cabin. She stayed there for two full days, leaving only to deal with bodily functions. On her emergence, she called for a messenger. "Go to the Sindahar chieftain," she told the messenger. "Tell him it is time for war once more."

This time the target was to be the Rocza tribe, a larger tribe, led by exiled royalty from some forgotten kingdom of the outside world. They were better prepared than the Intaki had been; sentries on their borders saw the Beckoner-Sindahar force coming, and armed and armoured themselves before battle. Descended from royalty they might have been, but they had none of the formal training or doctrine of royal armies; they fought individually, with no formal structure, and the only sign of their heritage was the precious metal armour some of them wore. That and one other artefact - a horn, its tone deep and dread, which blew as the battle begun, sending the Rocza tribesmen forth.

The tribes collided in a great, bloody muddle. There were no defined lines of battle; each tribesman fought on his own, and many times a Sindahar or Beckoner struck at an ally, thinking them friends. Still their numbers told; the Rocza fell back, then fled. When the Sindahar-Beckoner force arrived at the Rocza village, they found the remaining tribesmen there, waving the peace flag.

Events thereafter proceeded much the same as with the Intaki.

The night after the battle, the victors held a great banquet, well outside the Rocza village. Alcohol was in great supply, and guards were stationed throughout the area in the anticipation of drunken brawling.

Thera ate little, drank less. She approached the Sindahar chieftain; spoke to him, politely; asked him when he would be ready for the battle.

He declined. "I'm speaking for all of his," the chieftain told Thera, "when I say we've had enough of battle. Our stocks are full to bursting, and our bellies likewise. I just don't see anything to be gained by fighting any more - though I can think of some other things I'd prefer." Drunkenly, he leered.

Thera left the chieftain, wandered throughout the banquet, whispered discreetly to the Beckoner guards as well as certain others among her tribesmen.

In the early hours of the morning, the banquet was drawing to a close. Many of the Sindahar had gone to sleep, some of them simply falling on the ground next to the table at which they ate and drank, others returning to their tents. Some of the Beckoners had done likewise - though, oddly, far fewer. They taunted the Sindahar for it, claiming greater stamina and virility.

All ears turned when the Rocza horn sounded - deep and dolorous, like a requiem. The still-standing Sindahar turned to one another, wondering, distracted. When the Beckoner guards set upon them - having first disposed of the Sindahar guards at their sides - the Sindahar were caught dreadfully unprepared. Most died quickly - standing, sleeping, together in tents. A very few, briefly, managed to protect themselves - seizing arms, grouping together - but Beckoner tribesmen rushed them, and they fell. The Sindahar chieftain was not among them - he died in his tent, killed by a knife from the woman he was with when the horn blew.

Thera allowed three days for the Beckoners to deal with the loot and the dead; then they marched, to the valley of the Sindahar. The pyres behind them burned with Sindahar and Rocza stacked indiscriminately, one atop another.

And, for a time, that is what need be said of Thera, savior of her people, who some - though not yet - would name "soulless".

That which follows is not hers.

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