Belihn sat atop his bahil, Eiwor, and overlooked the devastation that was the battlefield. Eiwor shifted beneath him as Belihn ran his eyes over the horizon. The battle always ended at sunset and the medics went out to retrieve the wounded and dying before the dead bodies were collected and carted off the field in wagons. The stalemate had gone on for weeks. He wondered when it would end, if it would end when the last soldier fell. The news from Draemin City-State was dire, as food dwindled, and the plague took hold. He was angry at his aunt, the Queen of Tjish.un, for catapulting plague-infected bodies over the walls of his city-state. He had raged when he got the missive from his mother. His voice had risen in anguish over the silent night. in the morning, he had told his troops what the Tjish.unen had done. Anger had fueled the troops and they had almost won the day.
He dismounted and handed the reins of his mount to a nearby soldier and strode to his tent, pushing the flap aside and striding within.
As he paced, he prayed. “Atana, Mother of Justice, kill them all.”
At once, he felt a change. The previous cold breeze began to increase in strength until the tent shook. Minutes later, the darkened skies opened up and icy rain began to fall in torrents. He poked his head out and watched as soldiers ran for cover.
It begins. The voice was in his head.
Belihn ducked back into his tent and looked around, spooked.
All that was needed was the ask.
“Mother?” he asked aloud.
Change comes, son of the tash-tash. A promise was given; a promise shall be granted.
“What does that mean, O Mother?” he asked aloud.
Was it so easy? Could he have ended the endless fighting with a prayer? All those men dead…He swallowed thickly, diverting his rage to himself.
All change has a cost. Your people pay for you, Belihn Ekes’j. You are christened in blood and sorrow, in pain and loss.
He turned in a circle, his gaze locked on the underside of the tent roof. “My family? My children?”
You are christened in blood and sorrow, in pain and loss. There is a purpose for all things. Never forget. I give life and I take life, for my purpose. Do you question me?
He fell upon his knees and bent his gaze to the ground. “Mother of Souls, Mother of Justice! I question nothing. I bow before you, before your will. End this.”
The wind outside howled, it strength threatening to uproot the pegs anchoring the tent to the soddened ground. Thunder boomed and lightning turned the night into day. Belihn could smell ozone as the fine hairs along his forearms rose.
You will lose more before the end. Give me your all, give me everything.
Belihn closed his eyes and prayed, opening his mind and his heart.
A fire began in his core, the invisible flames licking along his organs and boiling his blood. He gasped, wondering if he would die and prepared to do so, if it would mean Draemin City-State would survive. He fell forward as he smelled burning flesh. He heard blood curdling screams.
I bathe you in fire, son of deceit. I bathe you in righteousness. I bathe you in the end and the beginning. I cleanse the lie and birth the truth. Holy of holies, your seed will face the greatest challenge of this world. I give you the future, son of the tash-tash!
Behind his eyelids, Belihn saw gigantic seeds flying through the air, their rounded, sleek, metallic surface slicing through clouds. When they landed, the people of Audesei fell upon their knees and worshipped the tall, lean, elegant race of beings who were impossibly beautiful, with impossibly cold and cruel eyes. What Belihn saw next, he would recall only in fragments, for his mind could not conceive of what it was seeing.
People will think you mad. But you must write your dreams into a book. Ishones Thul you must call it. The Book of Dreams. Future people will see its truth but those who live now will mock and question you. Your writings will fall into obscurity, to be discovered in the future when the time is ripe for knowledge and truth.
He tasted blood. Behind his eyelids, other battles raged. Blood soaked the ground. Fear clung to the air.
Visions littered his mind with splashes of color, strange faces, violence and death.
His groin boiled until he could hear screams in the distance and muffled voices.
You are cleansed. You are burned clean. Your sins are boiled away. The beginning and the end; the lie and the truth; the shadow and the light.
Belihn blinked his eyes open. The lids were crusted with salt from tears. It took a moment before the lids parted and he could see. Silence beneath the spatter of rain on puddles outside. The air smelled fresh and clean, of damp earth and northern breezes. He was cold, even though he lay beneath a blanket. His skin reeked of sweat and he could taste blood in his mouth.
“Ah, you wake.”
He turned his head. Kurk Deshon sat on a chair next to Belihn’s cot. He looked wan and tired. Dark smudges stained beneath his eyes and a heavy shadow littered his cheeks.
“K-Kurk…” Belihn swallowed thickly. His mouth felt parched and his throat hurt.
Kurk shifted forward, lifted Belihn’s head and held a cup to his mouth. Belihn swallowed the sweet, cool water greedily, sighing as his thirst was slaked.
“You scared me half to death,” Kurk said. “I heard your screams and ran in here, thinking you were being attacked. But you were writhing on the ground, having a fit. It took four soldiers to hold you. I had to change you uniform, as you urinated and defecated on yourself.”
Heat filled Belihn’s cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
“Never mind,” Kurk growled. “Plague stole into the enemy’s camp last night, for this morning they have raised the black flag over their tents. People are weakening within hours of being infected. They die within hours, not days. It’s uncanny and frightening.”
Belihn made to sit up.
“Relax,” Kurk growled.
“Help me up; I’m fine,” Belihn groused.
Kurk rose and helped him sit up.
They locked gazes before Kurk looked away.
Belihn rose and strode naked to his washbasin. He rinsed his mouth and washed quickly before dressing in a fresh uniform and pulling on his boots last. He sat on a stool and brushed his hair with shaking hands, but Kurk had to braid his hair, his hands shook so hard.
“None of our men have gotten sick,” Kurk began conversationally.
“We will be spared Her wrath,” Belihn replied and rose with shaky legs. “Please fetch me some breakfast, Kurk.”
“Right away, my king.”
Belihn walked to the table that was the centerpiece of his tent and gazed down on the map before him. He felt thin as a thread, hollowed out and empty. He could recall the images he had seen and shuddered. The future was soaked in blood, but they must first survive the present. The future was for his descendants. All he could do was prepare his children for what came.
Kurk returned shortly, carrying a covered tray and set the tray on top of the map.
Belihn pulled a chair close and straddled it, uncovering a porridge filled with dried fruit and nuts, milk and honey and spices. He ate while Kurk pulled a chair close and straddled it as well.
“The battle will end soon,” Belihn told his friend. “Their casualties will be high due to disease. Their Gods have no power in Atana’s land. It is as it was decreed in the beginning.”
“You sound like a High Priest,” Kurk murmured, his eyes sharp with uncertainty and the shadow of fear.
“Don’t be afraid, Kurk,” Belihn assured him. “You are safe, as will be your family once you are married.”
Kurk rolled his eyes. “What is it with you trying to get me married?”
Belihn huffed a chuckle. “Your descendants and mine have their own battle to fight. They must do so together. This is all bigger than your selfishness, Kurk.”
Kurk grunted and watched him finish his meal.
Belihn picked up the mug of tea and sipped it. “The scepter was not married to the altar. I must take the vow of a high priest. Atana wants a theocracy. Atana will get a theocracy.”
“And Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli?” Kurk asked.
“I will speak with him. He misunderstood what the Goddess required. He thought if he married my father, then the scepter would marry the altar. But that was his desire interpreting Her decree. Both the High Priest and my father betrayed Her by letting their selfish wants warp their visions.”
“And you believe your interpretation to be correct?” Kurk asked.
“Then so be it. I support you.”
They clasped forearms and Kurk gave him a disarming smile. “We live in interesting times, but we also live in great times.”
“A mixed blessing,” Belihn agreed and rose.
Donning their wax treated cloaks, they stepped out into the icy morning. The rain had tapered down to a drizzle. The camp was filled with an eerie silence that was like a pall over everything. The smell of cooking fires clung to the air. As he and Kurk strode over puddles, soldiers saluted and bowed. They watched Belihn with awe and some disconcertion.
“Great King of the Torahni!”
Belihn stopped and turned.
“Tauk-na of the Isemi of the North,” Belihn greeted the other formally.
They grasped forearms.
Penoi Masino was broad and handsome, wearing a fur lined cloak and nothing else on his upper torso. He wore a colorful wrap that was the Isemi traditional costume around his midriff. The wrap fell down to his knees and his strong, broad feet were bare. He wore bands of gold in his upper arms and beaded bracelets on both wrists. His thick hair fell unbraided down his broad back.
“Your Goddess has smote the enemy with the swift bleeding death,” the Isemi leader murmured. “We have lost many warriors for your cause, but we have gained much. It has been a glorious battle, but I think it is done or will soon be.”
“I think so, too,” Belihn agreed. “Walk with us.”
The three headed down between the rows of tents towards the battlefield. Behind them, Isemi warriors followed their king.
At the edge of the battlefield, Belihn stopped and gazed across the vast expanse towards the enemy camp. He could see the black plague flags limp in the bland late morning light.
“Send a vinah with a note,” Belihn told Kurk. “Let them know we would hear terms now or wait until what remains of their armies succumb.”
Kurk saluted and strode away, back the way he had come and to his tent.
“And now, Great King?” Penoi Masino wanted to know.
Belihn smiled at the Isemi. “Now we wait, Tauk-na. We’ve bled and died enough. This ends now.”
The kings stood side by side while Kurk brought out a carrier vinah with the note strapped to one of its legs. With a nod from Belihn, Kurk released the winged reptile. It took off towards the enemy camp with a flap of leathery wings.
Commander Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione and Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar joined Belihn, Kurk and Penoi Masino at the edge of the battlefield. The leaders discussed the possibility that the enemy would not surrender. The battle would continue until one side or the other prevailed. Even the Isemi were tired of fighting.
No answer came that day, but neither did the enemy rush to take up arms against them. The battlefield remained deserted. Days passed.
Belihn grew restless and uncertain as the days piled behind him. He prayed hard. The more insecure he grew, the harder he prayed, refusing to allow doubt to assail him.
Finally, a note came via carrier vinah.
Kurk brought it to Belihn’s tent.
The commander entered Belihn’s tent without announcing himself. “They’ve sent a response!”
Belihn thanked his friend and took the tiny capsule, shaking out the small note within.
He unfurled the tiny scroll and held it to the light of the sole candle in the tent.
“The Queen of Tjish.un is dead,” Belihn read. “Will you treat with her daughter?”
“Is it a trick?” Kurk wondered out loud.
“I don’t know,” Belihn replied with a frown. “But answer them. Tell them we will treat with whatever representative they deign to send.”
Kurk hurried to do his bidding.
In the meantime, Belihn went to the tent flap and stepped outside. He ordered three guards to fetch Penoi Masino and the two Yllysian commanders. Then he returned to his tent to don his dress uniform.