Read an Excerpt
The Cutting Edge
A Handful Of Men: Book One
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 D.J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
The elves had a proverb. Minnows mourn when bridges fall. Unlike most elvish sayings, it even made a sort of sense — especially to minnows.
The Marquis of Harkthil was arrested on a bright and sunny afternoon in the spring of 2995. By sunset the Impire was in the throes of the sensation that became known as the Yllipo Conspiracy. Day by day the scandal spread and the toll mounted. The marquis' relatives followed him into the dungeons, one after another.
Even at the first, there was considerable doubt that the treason was as widespread as Emshandar maintained. More than likely, the gossip mongers said, the imperor was merely seizing a Gods-given chance to subdue a family that had grown too powerful and troublesome for the good of the realm. Whatever the truth, the old man's vengeance was savage. By the time the affair was over, eight senators had bared their necks for the ax, and no one counted the lesser victims.
One of those lesser victims seemed likely to be Recruit Ylo of the Praetorian Guard, youngest son of the disgraced Consul Ylopingo. His fellow guardsmen were doing the arresting, so Ylo was not surprised to find himself confined to quarters. From there he watched the tide of blood creep ever closer to his toes, until he was the only member of his family outside the imperor's prisons. His friends had disappeared, also, and who could blame them? Public confessions, private executions, rumors of torture ... When the inevitable summons came, it was almost a relief.
* * *
Ylo had enlisted three months earlier, on his eighteenth birthday, feeling he was doing the Guard something of a favor. Apart from being a consul's son, he was related in various ways to at least a dozen senators, and his grandfather had become a national hero by dying dramatically during the Dark River War. All the hereditary titles would go to his eldest brother, so Ylo's ordained future was obviously a career in politics. In the Impire, political careers began in the army.
In Ylo's considered opinion, the regular legions engaged in far too much unpleasant marching around. They were also prone to violent activities involving goblins, dwarves, djinns, and other inferior races, and those could be positively dangerous. The Praetorian Guard, however, spent its time posturing around the Opal Palace in Hub. Few things were as effective with girls as a Praetorian uniform.
So the decision had been easy. A five-year stint in the Guard, followed by a little traditional impish nepotism, would guarantee him a profitable posting as lictor in some congenial city not too far away from the capital. Thereafter, he would see.
Ten days after being confined to quarters, Recruit Ylo was summoned to the guardroom. Any lingering hopes died when he saw that the man behind the table was Centurion Hithi. The Yllipos and the Hathinos had been mortal enemies for more generations than Ylo had teeth.
Like all of the Praetorian barracks, the guardroom was lofty and ancient. The mosaic floor illustrated dramatic scenes of legionaries battling dragons, but there was one spot where thousands of military sandals had worn the colors right away, and that bare white patch was directly before the officer's table. Ylo marched forward, placed his feet on the marker, and saluted. He was surprised — and very gratified — to realize that his knees were not knocking, or his teeth chattering. True, his palms were sweaty and there was an unpleasant tightness in his lower abdomen, but those effects did not show. He waited to hear his fate with proper military impassivity.
In the Guard, even centurions were gentlemen. Hithi seemed genuinely regretful as he explained how a reassessment had revealed that Ylo fell just short of the Guard's height requirement.
He laid down one paper and lifted another. "Seems there is an opening in the XXth. A transfer might be arranged."
It could be worse, much worse. Blisters and calluses were better than thumbscrews and the rack. A barracks was better than an unmarked grave. The XXth Legion was not one of the scum outfits — and no alternative was being offered.
Ylo said, "Thank you, sir!"
"There's a tesserary from the XXth here at the moment, as it happens. He and his men could escort you."
"Sir!" Ylo said.
The centurion smiled.
The smile very nearly broke Ylo's self-control. He wanted to weep, for it was a brutal reminder that there was no one to appeal to; the feud between the Hathinos and the Yllipos was now over.
Thus was Guardsman Ylo toppled from the giddy peaks of the aristocracy to the rat-eat-rat world of the common foot soldier. From all-night dancing to all-day marching. From fine wine to sour beer, and silk sheets to bedbugs. From sweet-skinned debutantes in rose gardens to toothless harridans who took all his money and kept telling him to hurry up.
With thanks to the Gods for each new dawn, he accepted his fall from grace and set to work to survive the brutish, penniless, mind-crippling life of a legionary.
The standard tour of duty was twenty-five years.
* * *
Always at Winterfest the Imperial Archivist named the year just ending. No one was very surprised when he proclaimed 2995 to have been the Year of his Majesty's Ninetieth Birthday. By then the Yllipos were all dead and forgotten.
And 2996 turned out to be the Year of the Great-grandchild.
The superstitious and those who knew some history were already starting to worry about the coming millennium, but 2997 was destined to be known as the Year of Seven Victories.
* * *
The troubles began in Zark. A few days after Winterfest, the emir of Garpoon received an ultimatum from the caliph and appealed to the imperor for help.
The emir had very little choice in the matter, as the Imperial ambassador was holding a sword under his chin at the time, but such fine points of diplomacy were of no concern to a common foot soldier. Five thousand strong, the XXth Legion marched south to Malfin and embarked. Ylo learned then that he was just as prone to seasickness as any other imp and that there were worse experiences than a forced march in winter.
After four weeks at sea, he disembarked at a large city, which might possibly be Ullacarn. It was very hot and had palm trees. The mountains to the north were perhaps the Progiste Range. The XXth formed up and marched away along the coast, maybe heading for somewhere called Garpoon.
The hot, arid country was hostile and unfamiliar. The rocky hills were full of cryptic wadis that could be full of djinns.
Ylo had no illusions about heroism or glory. He knew the odds against a tyro surviving his first battle. He knew that even those odds were vastly better than the chances of a simple legionary ever winning as much as one word of praise from his centurion, let alone recognition from the officers. He admitted to himself that he was terrified, and would be perfectly satisfied if he could just conceal that terror from his companions.
The best he had to look forward to was another twenty-three years of this.
He survived the first day's march. And the second. On the third day he found himself in the Battle of Karthin.
Karthin eventually ranked as the first of the year's seven victories, but it was a very narrow win. Proconsul Iggipolo held to the standard belief that Zark was one huge waterless expanse of sand; he knew that djinns were red-eyed barbarians who fought on camels in the brightest sunlight they could find. He therefore marched three road-weary legions into a swamp, an evening thunderstorm, and the caliph's trap.
Bogged down in mud by their armor, the imps soon learned that djinns fought very well on foot and could conceal ten men behind every clump of reeds. Sunset failed to halt the slaughter, and dawn revealed Ylo's maniple isolated, surrounded, and hopelessly outnumbered.
Honor, politics, and even discipline had vanished in the night. Hunger, terror, and exhaustion were unimportant. Survival was all that mattered. The morning was a foggy blur of noise and blood, sword strokes and the screams of the dying. The maniple shrank steadily. The centurions and the optios fell; the standard disappeared. A tesserary shouted commands until he took an arrow in the throat, and after that it was every man for himself, and no one seemed to know which way was home.
Whether he had tripped or been stunned or had merely fainted, Ylo never knew. He lay facedown in a bloody ooze for a long time, keeping company with the dead. That was not cowardice, and he was far from alone in his collapse. Imps rarely made great fighters. They were never berserkers, as the jotnar often were, nor fanatics like the djinns. They did not covet martyrdom, as elves did in their darker moods. They lacked the suicidal stubbornness of fauns or the stony stamina of dwarves. Imps were just very good organizers, with a driving urge to organize everyone else as well as they had organized themselves.
Eventually Ylo realized that he could still hear the beating of his heart. Then another beat as well. And a bugle! He was very tired of the swamp. He rose from the field of dead, lifted a sword from a nearby corpse to replace the one he had lost, and decided fuzzily that he was too weak to carry a shield. He trudged off through the mud, heading for the drums and those twenty-three more years.
He had lost one sandal; bare skin on arms and legs was blistered raw by the sun. His sodden tunic was rubbing holes in his skin, something heavy had dented his helmet so that it no longer fitted properly, yet none of the swords, arrows, and javelins that had been directed at him had penetrated his hide.
The sky was blue; the fog had faded to patchy ghosts haunting the vegetation. The first Ylo saw of his salvation was the top of an Imperial standard advancing toward him, the four-pointed star shining in sunlight. Then out of the mist and the bulrushes below it came a wall of legionaries, driving a ragtag mob of exhausted djinns before them.
Ylo was on the wrong side of that mob. Either courage or blind panic spurred him into life. Yelling like a maniac, he struck down a couple from behind, plunging into the free-for-all, clawing his way toward the impish standard. He would certainly not have made it, except that a murdering, screaming horde of djinns appeared out of nowhere at his back like a tidal wave and swept him up.
The shield wall collapsed before the onslaught. Ylo was borne forward, all the way to his objective, the standard. He arrived as a javelin felled its bearer. Two years of training stamped certain lessons on a man's bones, and the first of those was that standards were sacred. Without conscious thought, Ylo dropped his sword, caught the falling staff with both hands, and raised it erect.
And thereby became a hero.
Even as a terrified young man clung grimly to a pole amid the raging clamor of the Battle of Karthin, a woman lay quietly dying a hundred leagues or so to the north, beyond the Progiste Mountains.
She knew that she was dying, but she didn't mind any more. It was time. She had been rather surprised to see the dawn and would be even more surprised to see another. Meanwhile she was in very little pain. Slow-moving shafts of sunlight in her cottage kept her company. The busy sounds of the forest outside were like familiar friends coming to visit, pausing to chat among themselves before they bowed under the lintel — breezes moving through the branches, the chattering of the stream over the rocks, buzzing insects, the impudent call of parrots.
Her name was Phain of the Keez Place. She was very old. She could not recall how old, and it didn't matter. She had even outlived her cottage, for the roof had a serious sag to it, and the walls had more windows now than they'd had when Keez had built them, many, many years ago.
Keez was long gone, so long that she could hardly recall what he had looked like with his silver hair and his stooped back. She could remember him in his youth, though, strong and graceful as a young horse, bringing her here to show her the place he had found, with its stream and its giant cottonwoods soaring to the sky. She could recall the eager, anxious look on his big, smooth face as he waited for her decision; the relief and joy when she said yes, this place would do well. Very clearly she could remember how right it had felt, and how she had decided to be kind and not make him suffer more, for his longing was so great — and hers no less. Now! she had said, sitting down and pulling him down beside her. Yes, now!
She remembered how his strength had delighted her — that first time under the sky especially, and uncounted later times under the roof, too. But there had never been another time quite like the time when they'd first lain together in the sunshine, right here, making this their Place.
It had been a good Place. Here they had loved; here she had brought forth sons and daughters — four she'd borne and four she'd reared, not many women could say as much. Here Keez had died, but easily, without pain. Here she was dying. The forest could have it back now, and thank you; she was done with it.
A shadow moved. Phain opened her eyes. The sunlight was angling steeper, so she must have slept. Yes, the walls were a network, holes held together by wicker. Time to go.
"Do you need anything?" asked a small and tremulous voice.
Phain shook her head on the pillow and tried to smile, to put the child at ease. It was a hard time for a youngster. Death Watch was never easy.
She couldn't remember the girl's name. Terrible how the old forgot! She could remember Keez clear enough. She could recall every ax stroke and every knot as the two of them had built the cottage together, over their special Place. But for the life of her she could not remember which poor child had been sent to keep her Death Watch. She could not even remember all the family coming to say good-bye to her, but she knew they must have. How long had she been lingering and making this poor girl wait? She licked her lips.
"Drink?" the child asked. "You want a drink? I'll get you one." Eager to please, eager to feel that she was doing something useful ...
Phain recalled her own turn at Death Watch. A nasty, stringy old man named ... couldn't remember, never mind. He'd taken a week to die, given her no thanks, thrown up everything she fed him ... He had smelled quite horrible, as she doubtless did to this youngster now helping her hold her head up to sip from a half gourd. The water was cool, so it must have come fresh from the stream.
"Name, child? Forgotten your name."
"Thaïle of the Gaib Place."
Gaib? Didn't mean anything. Phain tried to speak again.
"Yes?" the child cried in sudden panic. "What? I can't hear!" And she sprawled over Phain on the bedding, pressing an ear close to her lips.
Poor thing was terrified, of course. Frightened of death, frightened of suffering, frightened of messing it all up.
"Not yet!" the woman gasped, almost wanting to laugh.
"Oh!" The child — Thaïle — scrambled back. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean ... I thought ... I mean, I'm sorry."
Phain dug down in her lungs, finding just enough air at the bottom there to make a chuckle, and a few words. "Just wanted to ask who your mother was, Thaïle."
"Oh! Frial of the Gaib Place."
Ah, yes! Frial was her oldest granddaughter, so this leggy filly must be one of her great-granddaughters. Fancy that! Not many lived long enough to pass on their word to a great-grandchild. Gaib was the quiet, solid one with the pointy ears. Pointier than most, she meant.
"Food?" Thaïle asked. "Can I get you something to eat, Grammy?"
Phain shook her head and closed her eyes to nap a little. She hoped she wouldn't linger much longer. She was too weary to speak A more now. Only one word left to say, and she knew she would find breath enough for that.
Maig! Maig was the name of that smelly, stringy old man she'd done Death Watch for. Maig had taken a week to go. She hoped she didn't take a week. Or hadn't already taken a week. Hard on a child. Maig hadn't been able to speak most of the time, but he'd found enough breath at the end to pass on his word.
Excerpted from The Cutting Edge by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1992 D.J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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