THE BATTLE PLAIN OF MARSAY
Mandraques do nothing in half measures.
That had always been the unofficial motto of the Five Clans. Aside from their mutual contempt, it might well have been the only thing that united them. It was a motto that applied to all things, all dealings, all clan wars. And it very much applied to the battlefield, which was running green with Mandraque blood.
The field was .at and lifeless, with the bodies of hundreds of Mandraques scattered in various places and assorted pieces. Nothing was moving except the flies, and the air was thick with the stench of bodies, decay, and waste. There had been choruses of groaning, cries for help, moans of "My leg!" and "Help me, damn you!" and "I'll kill you all for this!" Eventually they had tapered off. Only the corpses remained.
One Mandraque in particular had not gone down easily. His sword was clenched tightly in his clawed hand. His armor was in tatters, and through the holes one could see the blue- green scales that were the typical skin covering for the species. He had been massively muscled. Like most Mandraques, his scaled head was round, his eyes were little more than slits, his parallel nostrils were cruel lines in the middle of his face. His mouth, in death, was drawn back in a sneer, which actually mirrored the way it had normally appeared in life.
Insects were gathering upon his forehead, working their way into his nostril slits, as he stared lifelessly at the sky above. It was a gorgeous day if one was willing to discount the smoke that hung in the air from the various fires . . . fires that had resulted from the flaming arrows filling the air like so many shooting stars. Those arrows had been largely responsible for the aroma of cooked meat hanging heavy in the still air.
A slender hand, fingernails thick with dirt, skin abraded on the back, reached over and brushed the flies away from his forehead. The hand's possessor slowly hauled herself forward on her hands and knees. She had only just come around, shaking off the darkness that had claimed her. She could not have been more different from the dead Mandraque supine upon the ground. Her skin was smooth and tanned, and copious amounts of thick black hair hung in her face. Her eyes peered through the strands, and reflected in them was a soul with the frailty of a crippled sparrow. The various stenches assaulted her as her full senses began to come around, and she coughed in violent spasms, her breasts heaving as she did so.
She was bloodied from having been thrown around during the fighting. Her mind was a blur . . . images tumbling one over the other . . . blood flying, teeth tearing and ripping, terrifying and unrecognizable roars of defiance and death, death all around her . . . "
Greatness?" she said softly. Her hand hesitated over him, because she was never supposed to touch him without his permission. Nevertheless, this time she took the risk and rested her fingers tentatively upon him. Her fingers were tinted green with blood.
A bit more boldly, she shook the Mandraque as she whispered his title into his earhole. "Greatness?" she repeated.
"Greatness . . . what do you wish me to do now?"
Still no answer.
Caution dissolved within her. She grabbed the dead Mandraque with both hands and shook him violently. "Greatness! What do you wish me to do! Tell me! Greatness . . . !"
Her cries were so loud that she didn't hear the footsteps behind her, crunching across the ash and rubble- strewn land. She continued to shout at the dead Mandraque, pounding with a combination of mounting fury and terror upon his chest, and would have continued to do so until she'd collapsed in exhaustion had she not been alerted by a loud clearing of a throat.
She turned, jumping back, startled. She rubbed some stray soot from her eyes and wiped dirt from her face, leaving smears from the back of her hand. She squinted at the new arrival and had no idea what to make of him.
He was neither as tall nor as wide as the Greatness had been. His visage was fearsome and feral, but surprisingly it was mingled with gentleness such as she had never seen in all her life. She didn't truly know how many years old she actually was. She had once asked, and the Greatness had told her she was between fifteen and twenty cycles around the sun. He couldn't be more specific beyond that.
The newcomer's skin was similar to her own, but an even darker hue. He had a mop of curly brown hair that hung in ringlets around his triangular face. He looked at her, tilting his head from side to side in curiosity, and the curls bounced around as he did so. Save for a large, thick band of leather that wrapped around him from waist to shoulder, he was naked from the waist up, displaying a .at stomach and taut chest. It was a warm day, so his relative lack of apparel didn't surprise her terribly. She herself was not wearing much: scraps of cloth to accentuate the curves of her body, gauzy and filmy and out of place in the blood- soaked environs.
What did surprise her was that, from the waist down, he was covered with thick brown fur. His legs bent at an odd angle to the knees, and tapered down into cloven feet.
"I don't think he's in much of a position to respond," he said. His voice was rough, but there was amusement in it. He glanced around the scene with obvious interest. "He certainly gave an accounting of himself in his final moments."
"Final . . . moments?" she said slowly.
"Well . . . yes. Look," and he pointed at the devastation in the area immediately around the Greatness.
She studied where he was indicating, truly seeing it for the first time. There were other Mandraque bodies strewn about, their weapons broken and scattered. Even the least damaged of them were ripped up or gutted. Most of them were missing pieces of their bodies: arms, legs, tails, and such. There were still trickles of blood from some of the severed limbs. She saw that there was a Mandraque with his teeth sunk into the Greatness's leg.
She looked back up at the newcomer. "Final moments?" she said again.
He stared at her, clearly disbelieving. "Yes. He's . . . dead. You do understand that, don't you?" He took a step toward her. "You're a human, aren't you? A human female. I've never seen one of you living before. Does your kind have names? What's your name?" "Final . . . moments?"
Blowing out air through tight lips in annoyance, he said, "Are you . . . mentally deficient in some way? I don't mean to be insulting. It's just, well . . . if you are I can probably save myself some time. I'm Karsen, by the way. Karsen Foux." He paused for a moment, frowning, looking as if he was trying to recall something. Then he smiled, having mentally retrieved it, and he extended a hand with the palm sideways. "This is how your sort greets, does it not?" As he approached her she stepped back reflexively. She crisscrossed her breasts protectively, twisting herself around to keep clear of him despite his lack of outward aggression. "He is the Greatness! His . . . his kind does not have final moments!"
"He is flesh and blood, my sweet," said Karsen. "I assure you, he has final moments, just like the rest of us." He looked around at the corpses. "Quite a fight this was, I'll grant you. Brutal, too. A number of them cut down by blades, but others . . . look at this. Their throats torn out. Necks broken. I'll give your Greatness credit, he was certainly versatile in the way he killed his enemies. Now what's your name?"
She began shaking her head ferociously. She was starting to look less like a human rational being and more like a trapped beast. Her eyes were hot and glowering. "Keep away from him," she said.
"I don't have to actually," he told her. "He's fair game, under the Treaty. So why not let me do my job, and you can go and do yours . . . what ever that might be."
He approached her with slow, measured strides. She wanted to remain where she was; she wanted to find some way to stop him. She kept looking down at the Greatness for hints or a mea sure of guidance, and nothing was forthcoming. Instead her mind was gradually pointing her down a road that she had no desire to travel.
She now realized the Greatness's hide was cold beneath her fingers. No life pulsed within his frame.
She was alone.
She had never been alone. Not since she had first come to the Greatness's court, so far back that she could not recall a time when she hadn't been there.
Panic began to seize her. She started trembling, shaking her head as if she could deny what was occurring. Karsen, concerned, drew closer. "Are you . . . all right?"
She turned and bolted.
Immediately she nearly tripped over a fallen arm, righted herself, and ran from the scene, hoping that she could expunge the hideous sights she had seen from her memory, knowing that she never could.
Soot was settling upon the ground, and her delicate feet were leaving a trail of prints behind her. She risked a glance over her shoulder. There was no sign of the creature calling itself "Karsen."
She let out a sigh of relief that she wasn't being followed, and then shrieked as she nearly plowed straight into Karsen, now inexplicably in her path. As it was she lost her balance, staggered and fell. Karsen stood over her, looking down impassively.
"In answer to what you're probably thinking . . . no, you didn't run in a circle or circumnavigate the globe," Karsen assured her. He advanced on her, his patience ebbing away.
"Now if you'd just allow me to-"
The instant he came within range, she drove a foot straight up and into the area of his loins. The impact had the same effect on Karsen as it did on males of her own race. He doubled over, his face becoming pale, and he clutched at his groin, cradling something thankfully unseen deep within the fur.
She did not wait to see if the attack had any further results. Instead she ran.
She ran over the battle- scarred land. She ran past the fallen Mandraques, past the tents that were still smoldering, past the makeshift fortresses and the trenches that had been dug but presented only minimal protection. She ran and ran, her heart pounding as if intending to flee the protection of her bosom. She could barely breathe; her throat sore and rasping from the smoky, stale air. She was sobbing, but her eyes were dry of tears. She had no idea what she was running toward. All she knew was to follow her impulse to get as far from the scene of the Greatness's death . . .
The Greatness's death!
It was the first time she had actually said those repellent words to herself, and she still couldn't believe them. The Greatness couldn't die. He was . . . he was the Greatness! He . . .
She didn't simply trip. Her foot hit something, the exact nature of which she never knew. Perhaps it had been a stray rock or random piece of a body. Either way, it sent her sprawling, hurtling through the air .at with her arms outstretched as if she were flying. She did not remain airborne. Instead she crashed to the ground, tearing her skin even further, slamming her jaw down with such force that it jarred her brain. She skidded several more feet before grinding to a stop. The world was swirling around her. She was sure from the tightening of her stomach muscles that she was going to vomit. She did not, although it might have made her feel better if she'd done so.
She closed her eyes to block out the spinning. Then she heard footsteps in front of her. It seemed impossible. She had dealt him a fearsome blow, had run as fast as she could. How could he conceivably have caught up with her?
She tried to pull herself upward, to keep going in the vain hope that he hadn't spotted her somehow, when suddenly rough hands were yanking her to her feet. She gasped and was twisted around to face two Mandraques. She recognized them immediately, more from their signs of rank and various ribbons of lineage than their faces.
They looked battered and bloodied, both relieved to be alive and also a bit chagrined. One was taller than the other, and the shorter one said, "Ranzell . . . I think I recognize this one. What's her name . . . ?"
The one addressed as Ranzell snagged her free hand and shook her, snapping the arm as if cracking a whip. He carried no sword, but she saw an impressively large war hammer strapped to his back. Its handle was half as long as Ranzell himself, and the rough- hewn stone head was flecked with Mandraque blood. Ranzell's associate was busy tossing aside his own broken sword, and was hefting a sword picked up from a corpse, swinging it this way and that to gauge the weight. Ranzell .inched away slightly, scowling in an annoyed way that indicated the sword had come a bit too close to him for comfort. "What's your name, girl? One of your betters has asked you."
Her mouth moved with no sound emerging at first. The two Mandraques didn't seem sympathetic. Tokep, the shorter one, grinned in a way that only made him look sinister. "I recall now. Her name is Jepp. She's the Greatness's plea sure toy, aren't you, Jepp."
She managed a nod. They didn't seem particularly friendly, but that was certainly normal for the entirety of their race. "Yes . . . I am. . . I am the Greatness's. I have always belonged to the Greatness."
"Good t'hear," said Ranzell. "And now you're ours."
"No," she told him, trying to pull away. "I am the Greatness's . . ."
"We passed the Greatness. He's dead. You belong to-"
They turned and there was Karsen. He was a few feet away, and he must have moved like a demon to get there, but he didn't seem especially tired out.
"What's a Laocoon doing way out here?" said Tokep. His body was tense in a manner that suggested he was going to attack if he didn't get an answer he liked.
"Finding things," replied Karsen. "In this case, I found her first. First, my friends. And the laws of salvage, as laid out by the Treaty, say she's mine."
Tokep processed the information, and then he visibly relaxed. The two Mandraques looked at each other and shared a laugh. "It's a Bottom Feeder," snorted Tokep. "A godsdamned Bottom Feeder."
"I've always preferred the term 'reclamation expert,' " Karsen said.
Ranzell was nodding in recognition. "We've even encountered each other before, haven't we? Yes . . . it was after the Battle of the Shifting Plains. You were there scrounging, just like all your ilk. You ran away at the first sign of trouble, as I recall."
"My ilk prefers discretion to foolish altercation."
"You mean cowardice to bravery."
Jepp wasn't entirely sure how any of this was going to play out, but she knew she'd prefer to be elsewhere when it did. Still lying on the ground, she started to edge away, hoping that no one would notice. The hope lasted for as long as it took Ranzell's thick round tail to snap around viciously, extending to its full length and slamming down in front of her, cutting off her retreat. "Stay where you are, plea sure girl," warned Ranzell. "This won't take long. We just have to send the Bottom Feeder on his way . . ."
"But I found her first!" Karsen said, sounding not a little whiny. His tone of voice was distressing to Jepp. It certainly didn't come across as that of someone she could count on.
Tokep didn't seem any more impressed by Karsen than Jepp had been. "Balls!" snarled Tokep. "Why'd we find her alone, then?"
"She ran off. I just now caught up with her." He spoke with uncertainty, as if fishing for explanations.
"Too bad," said Ranzell. "Not that it would have made much difference. Even if she'd been with you, we'd still have taken her off your hands."
"Don't you have any respect for the Firedraque Treaty?" asked Karsen.
Ranzell spat on the ground nearby. The liquid was thick and viscous and sizzled slightly when it struck the dirt. "That for the Firedraques and for their damned treaty. And that for you as well."
"That's not very respectful," said Karsen. "Now, I'm sure you don't want me to register a formal complaint . . ."
Ranzell turned to the Mandraque standing next to him.
"Tokep. Make this idiot stop talking. Knock him out or rip off his head. It makes little difference to me."
Karsen stepped back, fear flickering in his eyes. "Well, I . . . I have to say it makes something of a difference to me. I . . . I really don't want to fight."
"Then go away," said Ranzell.
"No!" Tokep abruptly spoke up. "I don't want to let him off that easily. I've lost a brace of kinsmen this day, almost got killed myself, and now I've had to stand here and listen to a Bottom Feeder spout off? Enough! I'm looking for someone to hurt and this fool is it."
"No, look!" and Karsen was trembling. He forced a smile, backing up. "I'll . . . just be on my way, all right? She's not worth it. You're not worth it," he said to Jepp. "No offense."
The girl looked from Karsen to the grinning Mandraques, and back to Karsen. "You're . . . you're not going to leave me with them . . ."
"Yes, he is," growled Ranzell.
"Yes, I am," Karsen affirmed.
"But . . . you need to save me!"
Karsen sighed heavily. "The truth of the matter, girl, is that I am exactly what they say. It's a great fool who doesn't know the reality of himself, and I am many things, but a great fool is not one of them." He bowed to the Mandraques, his hands clasped palm- to- palm. "War be with you."
And then, just like that, he was gone, propelled from the scene by his powerful legs, moving with startling silence.
"Please, don't!" Jepp cried out, having no clue as to whether her voice was even reaching him. "You have to save me! You have to be Great for me! I know you have it in you to . . . !"
Part of her was stunned at her own aggressiveness. It was not within the purview of one such as she to tell others what to do. In fact, she could not remember ever having done it before. Then again, she had always been under the command of, and subject to the whims of, the Greatness. So it had simply never come up.
"He was just trying to salvage you so he can trade you for goods and services," Ranzell informed her. "If he wasn't planning to have you service him in addition. His type is the lowest of the low, girl. You're better off with us. Trust me."
Jepp studied him tentatively, and then withdrew from him. She saw vast amounts of cruelty within him, far more than in even the Greatness. Tokep didn't seem any different. They frightened her. She wanted nothing but to distance herself from them as soon as possible.
They were disinclined to cooperate. Tokep advanced, swinging his newfound jagged sword in Jepp's direction.
"Where do you think you're going, girl?" he demanded.
She had no idea why she cried out. But she did, and what she said was "Karsen!"
"You idiot human!" snarled Ranzell. "He's gone! He won't help you!"
Except he wasn't. And he did.
For Karsen was suddenly in the middle of the clearing. Confusion flickered upon Karsen's face for a moment, but then the certainty of his actions clarified for him what he was about to undertake. He was crouched low, his legs coiled, one hand touching the ground. His face was twisted in what seemed grim amusement.
Tokep needed no further urging. He switched targets and moved. The sword swung viciously toward him, and Karsen easily vaulted not only over the sword, but over Tokep himself . . . and landed on Ranzell's shoulders. Ranzell grabbed at him, but Karsen's powerful legs pushed off, like those of a swimmer moving through air rather than water. He vaulted away from Ranzell and landed directly behind him.
Ranzell yelped and grabbed at his back, his frantic fingers confirming what the loss of weight had already told him: Karsen had ripped the war hammer off his back. He spun just as Karsen twisted at the waist, whipping around the war hammer. Ranzell ducked under it. Tokep turned around to find out what all the yelling was about. The hammerhead slammed against Tokep's skull. The Mandraque's head practically exploded from the impact, bits of blue matter and green blood spattering everywhere, including Jepp's leg. She let out a disgusted shriek and brushed it away. Karsen faced Ranzell, and Jepp saw that the war hammer was covered with much fresher blood than it had been before.
Ranzell grabbed up Tokep's fallen sword and the Mandraque charged, bellowing in a voice so deafening that Jepp clapped her hands to her ears. This time Karsen did not leap out of the way, probably because the Mandraque was expecting it. Instead he swung the hammer to meet the arc of the sword. The two weapons came together with a resounding clang, and the sword's blade snapped in three pieces. Ranzell stared dumbly at the hilt with a bit of steel protruding from it that wasn't more than an inch.
Karsen didn't stop moving. He spun in place and brought the hammer down, around and up. It caught Ranzell squarely in the chest and Jepp heard something crack within Ranzell. The Mandraque fell backward, his arms flailing, a deep wheezing in his chest. Karsen took a step back and coldly regarded his handiwork. He didn't appear to have exerted any effort. He nodded once, and then dropped the war hammer. Ranzell watched him approach and actually forced a smile.
"You're . . . skilled," he said. "And merciful. That is a-"
At which point Karsen began to kick him with his hard- edged, cloven hooves. He kicked him in the face, the chest, anywhere he could reach. The Mandraque's scaled hide provided some protection, but huge welts were rising wherever Karsen's hooves came into contact. Even after Ranzell lapsed into unconsciousness, Karsen continued to beat him for a time, either to make sure he was really unconscious, or else because he didn't feel like stopping.
Finally he tired of his activities. He crouched and fumbled at the straps upon Ranzell's chest for a few moments before pulling the straps free that served as the hammer's harness. Then he buckled them onto himself, picked up the hammer, and sheathed it on his back. He turned and scowled fiercely at Jepp, and she shrank back. And then, like the passing of a summer squall, the ferocity was gone. He looked around at what he had wrought, and there was regret and even chagrin upon his face.
Then he turned and started to walk away.
Jepp lay there, watching him, and then slowly got to her feet. He kept on walking, stepping over the strewn bodies, paying her no mind at all.
She should have taken the opportunity to flee, to get as far away from him as possible. She surprised herself again with the sound of her own voice saying, "Am . . . am I supposed to come with you now? I . . . I thought you . . ."
He stopped. He did not turn to look at her. Instead he sounded rather tired as he said, "Do what you want."
He kept going.
She hesitated for a time that seemed far longer than it was, and then she fell in behind him.
Excerpted from Darkness of the Light by Peter David.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter David.
Published in June 2007 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.