Lahn shuddered and moaned as he came awake from a dark dream. Before opening his eyes, he took a mental tally of his aches and pains. His entire body ached with a bone-deep ache. His muscles were sore and his joints hurt when he moved. Opening his eyes, he found himself on the pallet. Beneath him the wagon he rode on lurched and shifted over stones on the ground. The army was on the move. How close were they to the border? How long had he been unconscious? With a groan, he sat up and brought a cold, shaking hand to his head. A headache throbbed behind his eyes. The cart had his clothes chest and he lay on a fairly thick pallet with blankets, even though the temperature was quite mild. He heard a sharp whistle and the wagon came to a rolling stop. Outside the wagon covering, the din of the army filled the day.
Lahn turned and crawled to the flap, pushing it open to see it was late in the day. The sun clung to the western skies. Around him, the army set up camp. He looked for Kah’len and his commanders, but it seemed Lahn was traveling behind with the camp followers and families. He dropped the flap and unbraided his hair, combing it with his fingers before rebraiding it. He wore a sleeping tunic and trousers and wondered who had disrobed him. He blushed at the thought. He went to his chest and withdrew appropriate day wear, dressing as befit the Prei-Serren of City Draemin, even if the outfits were uncomfortable and ostentatious. Once dressed, he pulled on his travel boots and left the wagon, climbing over the back.
All around him, the camp bustled with activity. There was a small river nearby that meandered along the tall grass fields, a tributary of the majestic Khaine River in the west. People recognized him and bowed reverently. He acknowledged them all. No one disturbed him as he made his way through the organized chaos in search of Kah’len. The army caravan was easily several miles long, the camp a sprawling thing on this side of the tributary. It seemed to go all the way to the horizon, but Lahn knew that was not accurate. The very land seemed to groan under the weight of 20,000 troops, their camp followers, servants, and families. Lahn despaired he would find Kah’len in all this.
He turned to the wagon driver and told him he wanted to set up his wagon near the Warlord’s tent.
The wagon driver bowed. “I will find the Warlord’s tent, Excellency, and set up your tent there.”
“Thank you,” Lahn replied, smiling at the young man.
The young man blushed and ducked his head. “Let me make some inquiries, Excellency. Someone must know where the Warlord’s tent has been staked. I’ll return shortly.”
Lahn went to the front of the wagon, where the wagon driver had set a bucket with feed and a bucket of water beneath each lirtah pulling the wagon. There were two animals. Lahn found a rag on the wagon seat and used it to wipe down the lathered bodies of the lirtah. The animals’ heads drooped from exhaustion, their long, elegant, muscular necks barely holding up their wide heads. Their smallish horns gleamed in the waning light of the sun and in the lights from nearby campfires.
Nearly a quarter of an hour later, the young wagon driver returned. “The Warlord’s tent is located about two miles upstream, your Excellency. I will lead you.”
The animals had eaten and drunk their fill, so amid complaints from the wagon driver, whose name was Pansen, Lahn helped him gather the buckets and set them behind the wagon seat. Then they led the wagon down the makeshift road towards the front of the camp. The air was thick with the competing smells of animal waste, boiling tea, unwashed bodies, and cooking food. A thick throng of bodies crossed the road just ahead of them as people made their way to and from the river. The going was slow and Lahn breathed deeply to remain patient.
They finally made it to the fore of the vast camp. Kah’len’s pavilion was black and gold and huge with the flag of City Draemin snapping smartly in the wind. The pavilion was armed to the teeth with guards.
Lahn walked up to the four guards at the tent door. “Is the Warlord in?”
The guards brought their fists to their chests and bowed. “He is in conference with his commanders, Excellency.”
One of the guards slipped into the tent to announce him. He returned briefly and pulled the tent flat open. “You may enter, Excellency.”
“Thank you,” Lahn murmured and ducked in.
The tent was quite spacious, with room for a bed, a folding table, four chairs, Kah’len’s trunks and a table with a washbasin and a stack of washcloths and towels, cakes of soap and tinted bottles of hair and body oils. There was a bathtub to one side and a brazier near it.
Lahn paused at the entrance.
Kah’len glanced up and rose, a grin on his face. “You live!”
Lahn grimaced and rubbed his neck. “I’m sore all over.”
The commanders rose.
“I imagine being possessed by a Goddess would be hard,” Commander Daven said politely.
“I don’t remember anything,” Lahn said mournfully.
“Have a seat, Lahn,” Kah’len said. “Dinner will be served shortly.”
Lahn sighed and took the last available seat across the table from Kah’len. “What are you doing?”
Aud sat. “We are one day from the border. We are finalizing strategies and such.”
“I’ve been asleep for four days?” Lahn asked, aghast.
“You expended a lot of energy in the gubernatorial mansion when you destroyed it,” Kah’len stated blandly and sat down.
Lahn blushed. “Don’t remind me.”
“It was Atana’s doing,” Kah’len said gently and reached across the table to cover Lahn’s hand with his. “You averted a disaster.”
Lahn sighed. “Why did the governor try to poison us?”
Kah’len sat back, removing his hand from Lahn’s. Lahn immediately felt the loss.
“He made a pact with my sire that he would poison me to keep the city safe and to remain autonomous when father conquered the south. The man was a fool.” Kah’len shook his head. “Father is mad. I’m sure of it. He is untrustworthy and volatile. What I hear from my spies in his household, he throws gigantic temper tantrums. He is getting more unhinged as the war drags on and he still not the victor. He underestimated the Isemi and the passion of the southern troops. Also, the Queen of Tjish.un has sided with the south against him.” He frowned. “I wonder what the Red King promised her for her support.”
“What about R’Nonay?” Lahn asked.
“They have thrown their backing with Father,” Kah’len replied with a grimace. “That is why the war drags on.”
“Well, damn,” Lahn murmured and shook his head. “We should be able to tip the balance.”
“I am hoping,” Kah’len replied.
The tent flap opened and servants entered carrying platters of food that they set in the middle of the table. Roasted dosi glistened with a dark spicy sauce. Dark, bitter greens were dressed in a honey-citrus concoction. Fresh bread with freshly churned butter in a large wooden bowl. They were served and then they tucked into their meal. Lahn’s mouth burned from the spices in the sauce. But everything complemented everything else, the spicy meat and the creamy, soft bread with sweet butter, the bitter greens. He had two platefuls before he felt replete.
When the remainder of the meal was hauled away, Kah’len served them glasses of ekila and mi’disj. Lahn sipped the sweet, fiery liqueurs, content and at peace while Kah’len unfurled a large map of the border between North and South Torahn.
The Warlord placed weights on all four corners of the map to hold it in place.
“Here is where the battle is being fought,” he said, pointing at a field between Sena and the Khaine River. “The battle ground encompasses several miles. Father’s camp is here, in the west. The R’Nonayans are camped east of the battlefield. The Southern forces, including Tjish.un, are here, in the south, near the small, nameless border town there. It is my goal to come in from the west with 10,000 soldiers and then 10,000 from the northeast, to envelop both my sire’s army and the R’Nonayans. I will lead the troops coming in from the west and Daven will lead the ones coming in from the northeast. Aud, you remain with the rest of the camp to ensure their safety. But also to cut off escape through the border itself.”
“And what about me?” Lahn asked.
“You stay with Aud, Lahn. You will offer a sacrifice to the Goddess on the day we split, but you will not fight,” Kah’len stated firmly.
Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “I am trained to fight.”
Kah’len shook his head. “I cannot be distracted with worrying about you, Lahn. Please respect my wishes in this.”
Lahn dropped his arms. “Very well, but I cannot predict what the Goddess will ask of me.”
Kah’len swallowed a mouthful of liqueur and set the empty glass down on the tabletop with a thud. “I know.”
Aud yawned and rose. “I’m going to bed. We rise before the sun tomorrow.”
Daven rose as well. “I’m off, too. Goodnight both of you.”
When the two commanders had left, Lahn and Kah’len stared at each other in silence.
Lahn swallowed. He wanted to sleep in Kah’len’s arm this night. He opened his mouth to say so.
“Sleep with me tonight, Lahn,” Kah’len murmured. “I won’t touch you. I never engage in sex the day before battle, but I want to hold you close.”
Lahn rose. “I want that, too.”
Without another word, they rose and discarded their clothes. Lahn folded his robes, inner tunic and trousers with shaking hands, setting the clothes on the table before lifting his eyes to Kah’len.
Kah’len’s eyes roamed over Lahn’s naked form. He swallowed audibly.
“I usually sleep naked,” Lahn said, embarrassed.
“That’s fine,” Kah’len assured him and indicated the bed. “Lie down, Lahn. I will keep my trousers on.”
Lahn lay on the large bed under the covers and turned to lie on his right side, facing Kah’len.
Kah’len removed his coat and tunic and sword belt. Then he removed his boots and came to the bed, lying on the covers with his trousers still on.
“Kah’len,” Lahn whispered.
Kah’len started as if Lahn had yelled instead of whispered. He swallowed and turned onto his left side, facing Lahn.
Lahn reached out and ran his fingers along Kah’len’s temple and down his sharp cheeks to his chin. The beginnings of a beard prickled Lahn’s fingertips. He looked into Kah’len’s bright green eyes.
“You are so beautiful,” Kah’len murmured, swallowing thickly.
“As are you,” Lahn assured him. “And I want you with a fervor I cannot contain.”
Kah’len leaned forward and captured Lahn’s mouth in a scalding kiss. Lahn felt consumed as Kah’len deepened the kiss, thrusting his tongue into Lahn’s mouth. Lahn moaned and wrapped his arms around Kah’len’s neck, pulling his body close. The bedclothes were a barrier between them. Lahn wanted to feel Kah’len’s arousal and caressed down Kah’len’s chiseled chest to his trim waist. As his wayward hand got near its prize, Kah’len covered it with his own.
“I can’t make love to you tonight. I go into battle tomorrow.”
Lahn gazed deep into his eyes. “Hold me.”
Kah’len gathered him close and Lahn closed his eyes, breathing deep of Kah’len’s musk, the clean smell of his skin, the warm smell emanating from his armpits, the scent of oils in his hair. Lahn reached up and undid Kah’len’s braid, running his fingers through the heavy fall of hair. The candlelight glinted blue in the impossibly dark hair. It was so soft, Lahn sighed. He brought a thick thread to his nose and breathed deeply of the oil musk.
Kah’len watched him with hunger and something deep and abiding.
Lahn pressed a gentle kiss to the Warlord’s full, soft lips. “I love you, Kah’len Tjashensi. I wanted to tell you on the eve of battle.”
Kah’len swallowed, his eyes filling with tears. “I love you, too, Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli. I hope the Goddess will allow us a night of lovemaking when the war is over. I burn for you.”
Lahn tucked his head under Kah’len’s chin. “I will hold you to that, Warlord.”
Kah’len pulled him even closer and kissed the top of his head. “I promise to make love to you, Lahn, when we are safe.”
Lahn closed his eyes against the wave of doubt that rose in him and mouthed a prayer to Atana.
Have mercy, Oh Mother, Warrior and Maiden. Give me this one gift.
For a long time, they lay in each others’ arms in a silent vigil. Kah’len succumbed to slumber before Lahn did. He lay tucked against Kah’len’s side, listening to the sounds emanating from the camp for a long time before he felt into a restless dreamless doze.
He awoke to Kah’len dressing in the predawn hours. He yawned and sat up.
Kah’len smiled at him. “Good morning, Lahn. The camp is breaking up. Ride with me ahead of the army.”
They broke their fast with boiled grains, honey, tah’lir’s milk and tza nuts, eating standing up while the servants broke Kah’len’s tent down.
Afterward they mounted their bahils and Kah’len signaled the start of the trek with a raised arm.
They set out at a steady pace while, behind them, the vast army lurched into movement. It would take hours before the entire army was moving across the grass fields.
“I will leave you at sunset,” Kah’len told Lahn. “I will take my warriors west then. We will camp a few miles west from my sire’s camp.”
“I will sacrifice before you leave,” Lahn murmured.
Kah’len nodded and glanced away.
Lahn could tell how nervous the Warlord was.
At late afternoon, Kah’len called a halt for a brief rest and the sacrificial ceremony.
Word went out into the army that the young Oracle was going to sacrifice for victory. Slowly, soldiers, servants, camp followers, and family members made their way to the front of the procession and gathered around where Lahn stood with Kah’len as Daven led a dosi on a rope. The animal fought the entire way. When Lahn approached it, it nipped his hand and drew blood. People gasped and murmured nervously.
Lahn straddled the fighting animal and placed his hands on its shoulders. At once, the animal stilled and bleated mournfully.
“Be at ease,” Lahn murmured. “You are the Goddess’ gift from us.”
He cut the animal’s neck swiftly and watched the blood speckle his trousers and boots. The animal fell down and a pool of black blood flowed from its neck. Lahn touched his finger to the hot blood and smudged Kah’len’s forehead, Daven’s forehead, and Aud’s forehead.
“I bathe you in sacrificial blood,” he intoned and closed his eyes.
At once, he was filled with a vision. He fell in slow motion as his mind filled with light.
In a vast battlefield, a king stood, sword bathed in blood. The King, older and handsome, raked his ice-cold ice over the warriors who battled and fell. It was not enough for him. There was not enough blood for him. He thirsted, his mind twisted of all reason and compassion. A sickness nestled in his mind and ate more and more of his reason on a daily basis. Lahn could see a small animal nestled in the gray matter of his mind. It consumed the front part of the king’s mind, made him have seizures, made him have dreams of bright, fervent colors. The scientist in Lahn observed the animal feasting on the king’s brain with curiosity and interest. He knew the king would die eventually from this infection, but not before many, many others died in the process.
Lahn coughed and blinked his eyes open.
Kah’len bent over him. “Are you with me, Lahn?”
Lahn coughed again. “Yes.”
“What did you see?”
“The King is dying,” Lahn murmured. “He has an animal in his brain consuming the cells. He is mad. Beyond reason and comprehension. You must kill him.”
“I intend to,” Kah’len assured him and helped him to sit up.
“Go then, Warlord,” Lahn said and rose. He looked at the crowd gathered there. “The King will die. Long live the Warlord of North Torahn!”
The crowd lifted its arms as one. “Long live the Warlord!”
Lahn turned to a serren who stood nearby. “Burn the dosi’s corpse as an offering to Atana.”
The serren bowed and went to do as Lahn asked.
Lahn turned and watched as Kah’len mounted. “The border is less than five miles away! Those in the first regiment, with me!”
The soldiers shouted a cry and Kah’len galloped west, a surge of soldiers following behind him.
When he could no longer see Kah’len, Lahn turned to Daven. “The R’Nonayans are good warriors, Commander. Have a care.”
Daven saluted. “I’ll take your words with me, Excellency.” He raised his voice. “The second regiment with me!”
Another shout went up and then Commander Daven Halso was galloping west, the rest of the army following close behind.