Chapter from ONE CURSE, ONE BLESSING
By James Robert Smith
Copyright 2013 by James Robert Smith.
Craydon led his men out of the hills that smoldered, the blue sky above streaked with black, greasy tendrils that polluted the otherwise cobalt dome. Behind them, the Jats were still at their bloody work, raking the coves and canyons for the last of the defeated armies. But the irregulars and the foreign troops and mercenaries had been ordered out of the battlefield, leaving the worst of the work to the emperor’s loyal kinsmen.
They had followed the main road that had earlier provided access for the western armies to face off against Jarrad’s hordes. Dark forests surrounded it and loomed over it, but it was wide enough for horsemen to ride six abreast. The air was calm, but chilled, and there was the smell of horses and horse dung all about.
“What kinds of trees are these?” One soldier asked Craydon. The officer glanced at the big, gnarled giants with their wrinkled bark and vast burls that stood out like infections on the old trunks.
“Some type of oak,” he said. “I don’t know the kind. The leaves are unfamiliar to me,” he finished, and did not give the soldier a good look.
The vast numbers of outlanders were led down and down from the heights. In a while the dry forest gave way to lusher trees and the ground was like a vast, black sponge of leaves and needles that spat out little springs and rivulets everywhere one cared to look. Some horsemen stopped to allow their mounts to drink from clear pools along the road but Craydon pushed on, and his company dutifully followed. What other soldiers did was up to their captains. For his part, he directed his men down the hills to the waiting village that he was told they would encounter.
The sound of a hundred horses rang along the way, the heavy beasts clattering their shod hooves as they descended, tossing rocks and pebbles and cobblestones that had been earlier loosened by the stream of the soldiers they and their Jat masters had so recently destroyed. The noise was enough so that the people of the town heard them coming long before they arrived and so were prepared for them.
At some distance, twice the length of a great ball field, the captain reckoned, they could see the town. It was, in many ways, familiar to him. It was from such a village that he had departed ten years before, seeking his fortune among the ranks of King Akron’s army. Because he could read and write and had learned to decipher maps and the stars in the heavens, he had been made an officer. And although he was still an officer, it was in the employ of the foreign king whose forces had destroyed his old brothers-in-arms and had assassinated the king to whom he had pledged loyalty.
But loyalty was a luxury that he could not attend once Akron was a headless corpse in a despoiled fort. And he now worked his martial arts for Jarrad who, it was said, was actually a god.
Of course many kings and emperors claimed to be gods. There were coins struck to tell the citizens this was so, and there were temples to them in cities and villages and along lonely roads. But Jarrad could show his own people that he was a god—from a distance Craydon had seen the transformation himself. It had been a horrible experience and he hoped never to witness it again.
But the Jat soldiers had enjoyed the spectacle and had ranted like madmen, gnashing their teeth and smashing their bloody swords against their brass shields, drooling like crazed dogs, their eyes staring and insane with killing lust. The outlander Captain had not known whether to be more afraid of the monster who had appeared in the distance like a raving demon, or the tribesmen who saw that thing as something holy, something wonderful.
“Do you think most of them ran?” Wuhl asked him. The captain did bother to glance at his lieutenant as he had not with the soldier. He smiled at the pale man with the red beard and ruddy cheeks, his eyes such a pale blue that they were almost like milk.
“No,” Craydon replied. “This is Tanderland. It has been conquered at least three times by invading armies since I was a child. The people here are accustomed to being trampled upon. Their King Wasson was an anomaly and when he pushed out the Voths six years ago it was a unique victory against a fading power. He should have known better than to try to face down the Jats.”
He thought of the thousands of men who would never come home to their families. The Jats were not fond of taking prisoners, especially ones who had been given a plain and honest choice of surrender. Recalling the shattered landscape of the rocky hills where he’d earlier plied his trade, he doubted a handful of those Tanderland fighters would be able to sneak down from those elevations with their hides intact and their hearts still beating.
“I smell beef roasting,” Wuhl said. His captain looked to see the man take up the reins in his fist as if ready to drive his horse forward at a gallop, but when the superior officer remained slack in the saddle he too relaxed. His mind was racing with thoughts of beer and wine and cooked meat, perhaps a hot bath if such could be attained.
“Keep patient, Lieutenant,” the commander said. “I smell it, too and I’m as hungry and anxious as you are. But we have commands to enter the town in an orderly manner and to give the citizens there a chance to act in a sensible way.”
The horses moved along, drawing nearer to the village, the houses built up two stories mostly, and some of them three. The outer walls of those houses were even painted—in browns and dull reds and trimmed in white, some few in green. Craydon couldn’t even recall the last time he’d seen a painted house and realized once more how like this place would be to the town he had left as a youth. The faces, too, would probably look familiar to him—it was said that the folk of this place and those of his native lands were cousins of a sort; much alike. He’d have to guard against any pangs of sympathy.
“Yes,” Wuhl agreed with a sigh. “Those bloody Jats would kill everyone in this town if they put up any fight at all. Or even if they’re rude to us,” he added.
“I’ve seen them,” Craydon blurted. Wuhl did not reply. “I’ve been with them two years now. Jarrad and his Jats are harsh conquerors under any terms. But when there is resistance…” He shivered. “I was in Lanton when the Jats surrounded it. Walls fifty feet high and a hundred thick. Thirty-five thousand good soldiers inside and sixty-five thousand citizens. So they fought. They thought some allies would come and aid them. You know.” He smiled grimly through his dark beard made mad and filthy from the recent struggles. “Figured some other western armies would ride down the plains and clear the Jats out for them and together they’d chase the yellow bastards back to the east like flogging a bunch of disobedient dogs. Apparently they had some treaties to that effect.” Both men laughed bitterly.
Now they were almost to the edge of the town, passing gardens of beans and cabbages and cucumbers. But no one stood in those dark, rich fields tending those crops. He could smell cow shit wafting in the low breeze and hear water gurgling along bold creeks that converged in the town.
“I hear that was a bloody act,” Wuhl whispered.
“Jarrad was not happy until there was a pile with one hundred thousand skulls in it,” the Captain said. “His best mathematicians were there with books and pens adding them up. It didn’t matter how young or old or what sex the owner of those heads. They had to be cut free of the body and put in that pile scream as they did or wail as the wives and mothers did. Then the mothers and wives once they’d seen their loved ones hacked.” He thought of the scent of the rivers of blood around that place, the hillock of human wreck growing higher and greater with each passing hour.
“When there were only Ninety-one thousand heads in that pile and the city empty…he sent his horde out into the countryside around the city and they killed everyone they saw, no matter their station, no matter soldier or not. And they brought back enough to make a hill of one hundred thousand heads.”
“I’ve never heard it from one who lived it,” Wuhl said, his voice still a whisper and his thoughts not so much on roasted beef and cool beer.
“Jarrad’s subotai had people collected up in vast groups and they’d bring them in by the dozens and hack off their heads and toss the dripping things on the hillock. People were screaming, I swear it was like the sound of a storm. And then, one of the clerks held up his hand and tore off a piece of parchment and handed it to a chief and called for the slaughter to stop. Then he ran it down the line and it was taken to Jarrad who was sitting in that gigantic yurt he hauls along the plains. And in a little bit after that comes the same chieftain with his feathers and quills bouncing madly and he handed another note to the subotai.
“And they let the others go. Just like that. One hundred thousand heads. To make a statement.”
“By the Twelve Gods,” Wuhl swore.
“In truth I still can’t get the smell of that much blood out of my nostrils.”
And by that point they were walking through what amounted to the city gates, a pair of painted walls, one on either side of the well-trodden road, each marked with a big letter in the native tongue to indicate the village name. Craydon could read it.
“Welcome to Toller,” he said. “Now let’s find an inn for the officers and send the rest of the troops down the line to set up camp. There should be some nice mown hayfields along the way.”
“I’ll order it done, sir,” Wuhl told him.
“I’ll have no rapes. No violence. If there is any resistance, then the Jats will kill everyone here when they arrive in a day or two. But before that happens, any man who causes the locals to react to grief…I will have that man emasculated and I will let him die with his severed penis stuffed in his mouth.”