Read an Excerpt
The Heart of the World Book One
By Col Buchanan
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Col Buchanan
All rights reserved.
Bahn had climbed the Mount of Truth many times in his life. It was a green, broad-shouldered hill with gentle slopes, not overly high; yet that morning, hiking up the path that wound its way towards the flattened summit, it seemed steeper than it ever had before. He could not fathom why.
'Bahn,' said Marlee by his side, her hand in his tugging him to a stop.
He turned to find his wife was gazing back along the path, her other palm shielding her eyes from the sun. Juno, their ten-year-old son, struggled some way behind. He was small for his age, and the picnic basket he carried too bulky for his short arms. Still, he had insisted on carrying it on his own.
Bahn wiped sweat from his brow. In the moment his hand drew clear, and cool air kissed his forehead, he thought: I do not wish him to see this today. And he knew then that it was not the hill itself that was steeper that morning. It was his own resistance to it.
An apple toppled from the basket, red and shiny as lip paint, and began to roll down the foot-polished stones of the path. Both parents watched as the boy stopped its progress with his boot, then bent to pick it up.
'Need a hand?' Bahn called back to his son, and tried not to dwell on the money it had cost him for that single apple, or the rest of their precious picnic.
The boy replied with an angry glare. Dropping the apple back into the basket, he hefted the load before continuing.
Thunder rumbled in the far distance, though there were no clouds in the sky. Bahn looked away from his son, tried to exhale the worry that seemed always to curdle in his stomach these days. He forced a smile on to his face, in a trick he had learned during his years of fighting in the Red Guard. If he stretched his lips just so, his burdens would seem to grow a touch lighter.
'It's good to see you smile,' said Marlee, her own brown eyes creasing at the edges. On her back, in a canvas sling, their infant daughter hung open-mouthed and asleep.
'It's good to have a day away from the walls, though I'd rather we spent it anywhere but here.'
'If he's old enough to ask, he's old enough to see it. We can't shelter him from the truth forever, Bahn.'
'No, but we can try.'
She frowned at that, but squeezed his hand harder.
Below them, the city of Bar-Khos roared like a distant river. Gulls soared and dipped above the nearby harbour, wheeling in their hundreds like a snowstorm in the far mountains. He watched them, a hand across his forehead to shade his eyes, as they took turns to speed low and fast across the mirror-flat water, their reflections flying upside-down between the hulls of ships. Sunlight speared back from the surface, the dazzles painting it in burning gold. The rest of the city lay beneath a glamour of heat, the figures of people small and indistinct as they made their way through streets cast into deep shadow. Bells rang from above the domes of the White Temple, horns sounded from the Stadium of Arms. In air hazy with dust, mirrors flashed from the baskets of merchants' hot-air balloons tethered to slender towers. Beyond them all, beyond the northern walls, an airship rose from the pylons of the skyport, and began heading east on its hazardous run to Zanzahar.
It seemed strange to Bahn, even now, that life could carry on seemingly as normal while the city teetered on the brink.
'What are you waiting for?' Juno panted, as he caught up with them.
Bahn's smile was now a genuine one. 'Nothing,' he replied to the boy.
* * *
On days like this one, a crisping hot Foolsday at the high point of summer, it was common for people to climb their way out of the baking streets of Bar-Khos to seek refuge on the top of the Mount of Truth. There a park rose in terraces around its flattened summit, and a breeze blew constantly fresh from the sea. The path levelled off as it reached the park itself. Young Juno, feeling more confident now with his load, took this opportunity to increase his pace, overtaking his parents before dodging past others who were strolling more sedately. Together, they skirted a narrow green where, amongst a group of children playing with a kite, a fight was breaking out over who should fly it next. Beyond them, on a bench overshadowed by a withered jupe tree, an old beggar monk sat with his bottle of wine while talking incessantly to his dog. The dog seemed not to be listening.
Again, a peal of thunder rolled through the air, sounding more distinct now they were closer to the city's southern walls. Juno glanced back towards his parents. 'Hurry up,' he urged, unable to contain his excitement.
'We should have brought his kite along for later,' said Marlee, as behind them the children ceased their squabbling long enough to send their box of paper and featherwood sailing into the wind.
Bahn nodded, but said nothing. His attention was fixed on a building that stood on the summit of the hill and occupied the very centre of the park. Surrounded by hedgerows, its tall walls were dotted with hundreds of white-framed windows, reflecting either sky or blankness depending on where he looked. Bahn himself reported to that building almost daily, in his capacity as aide to General Creed. Even without choosing to, he found his gaze running across the flank of the Ministry of War, to where he knew the general's office was located. He sought sign of the old man perhaps watching from one of the windows.
'Bahn,' chided his wife, as she tugged him onwards.
At last they came to the southern fringe of the park. Juno moved ahead, weaving his way between the crowds of people sitting amongst the long grasses, but slowing with every step as he took in the vista appearing below. Finally he stopped completely. After a moment, the basket tumbled from his hands.
Bahn went over to join him and began to gather up the spilled contents of the basket. All the while, he watched his son closely, much as he had once watched him take his first tentative, risky steps as a young child. The boy had always been banned from visiting the hill on his own, but in the last year he had begun to ask and then to plead to be brought here, fired up on the stories told by his friends. He had wanted to see for himself why the hill was named the Mount of Truth.
Now, from this moment on, he would always know.
On this southernmost edge of the tallest hill of the city, the sea could be seen to run both east and west along the coastline – and directly ahead, the long, half-laq-wide corridor of land known as the Lansway, reaching out like a road towards the continent lying beyond, which today was a mere suggestion of contours and cloud barely visible in the distance.
Across the waist of this isthmus, in sheer grey stone, rose the great southern walls of Bar-Khos known as the Shield.
Those walls – which had protected the city from land invasion for over three centuries, and therefore the island of Khos, breadbasket of the Mercian Isles – towered some ninety feet in height, and taller still where turrets rose from the battlements. They were old enough to have given the city its name of Bar-Khos – 'the Shield of Khos'. There were six bands of wall in all, or at least there had been until the Mannians had arrived with their flags waving and their declarations of conquest. Now just four stood blocking the Lansway, and two of those were of recent construction. In the original outermost one still standing, no gates or gateways remained: all such entrances had been sealed up with stone and mortar.
The Mount of Truth offered the highest vantage point in the city. It was from here, and here alone, that the ordinary citizen could witness what confronted the walls on the other side. The boy, doing so now, blinked as his gaze roved out from the Shield towards the Mannian besiegers arrayed like a white flood across the plain of the isthmus; the full might of the Imperial Fourth Army.
His young face grew pale, his eyes widening with every new detail they absorbed.
The Lansway was entirely covered by a city of bright tents, neatly arranged in rows and quarters by the streets of wooden buildings dividing them. The tent city faced the Shield from beyond countless lines of earthworks – ramparts of dirt raised up across a plain of dusty yellow – and meandering ditches choked with black water. Behind the closest sequence of these earthworks, like creatures basking in the heat of the sun, squatted the siege engines and cannon, belching smoke and constant noise as they fired at the city in a slow, unending regularity that had lasted – beyond everyone's expectation – for the last ten years.
'You were born on the very first day they assaulted the walls,' Marlee said from behind them, in a voice seemingly calm, as she unwrapped a loaf of honeyed keesh from their basket. 'I went into labour early, and you came out no bigger than a farl. It was due to the shock of losing my father, I think, for that was the morning he fell.'
The boy gave no impression of hearing her; what lay before him had seized his full attention. Yet, in the past, Juno had asked more than once to be told about the day he was born – only to be given the barest facts possible. Bahn and his wife each had their separate reasons for not wishing to recall it.
Give him time, Bahn thought, sitting himself on the grass to study the vista with his own more experienced eyes. Memories were stirring, unbidden, in the wake of his wife's words.
Bahn had been just twenty-three when the war had begun. He could still recall exactly where he had been when news had first arrived of refugees flooding towards the city from the continent. He had been seated in the taproom of the Throttled Monk, still thirsty after his fourth black ale, and drunk already. His mood had been foul that afternoon: he'd had altogether enough of his job as a shipping clerk at the city skyport, putting up with a foreman who was a stumpy-legged little dictator of the worst kind, and all for a wage that barely saw him and Marlee through to the end of each week.
The news, when it broke, was delivered by a fat skins merchant just returned from the south, the man's portly face a bright scarlet, as though he had run all the way home just to say what he revealed next. Pathia had fallen, he declared to them all breathlessly. Pathia, their immediate neighbour to the south, was the traditional enemy of Khos – the very reason the Shield had been built in the first place. Around the taproom his words fell upon a sudden silence. As they now listened, shock and wonder grew in equal measure. King Ottomek V, despised thirty-first monarch of the royal line of Sanse, had been foolish enough to be captured alive. The Mannians had dragged him screaming, twisting and turning through the streets of conquered Bairat behind a galloping white horse, until the skin had been flayed almost entirely from his body – along with his ears, his nose, his genitals. Near death, the king had then been cast down a well, where he had somehow clung on to life for an entire night, while the Mannians laughed down the shaft at his cries for mercy. At dawn, they had filled the well with rocks.
Even amongst the most hardened men in the taproom, such a fate drew muttered oaths and shakes of the head. Bahn grew fearful: this was bad news for them all. For the full length of his life, and more, the Mannians had been conquering nation after nation around the inland sea of the Midèr s. Never before, though, had they been so close as this to Khos. Around him, the debate rose in volume: shouts, arguments, thin attempts at humour. Bahn pushed his way outside. He hastened for home, back to his wife of barely a year. There he rushed up the stairs to their small damp room above the public bathhouse, and blurted all of it out in one desperate, drunken tirade. She tried to soothe him with soft words, then she made him some chee, her hands remaining miraculously steady. For a time – Bahn's mind needing a release from itself – they made love on the creaking bed, a slowly passionate affair, her gaze fixed constantly on his.
Together, later that night, they stood on the flat roof of the building, and listened with the rest of the inhabitants of Bar-Khos to the cries of the refugees pleading to be let in, thousands of them huddled beyond the walls. From other rooftops, people shouted for the gates to be opened; others demanded, in hot anger, for them to let the Pathians rot. Marlee had prayed quietly for the poor souls, he remembered, whispering under her breath to Er s, the great World Mother, her painted lips moving blackly under a strange light cast by the twin moons hanging over the south. Oh mercy, Sweet Eres, let them in, let them have sanctuary.
It was General Creed himself who had ordered the gates to be opened the next morning. The refugees flooded in bearing stories of slaughter, of whole communities put to the torch for their defiance against the invaders.
Even confronted with such alarming accounts, most in Bar-Khos considered themselves beyond harm. The great Shield would protect them. Besides, the Mannians would be busy enough with the newly conquered south.
Bahn and Marlee carried on with their lives as best they could. She was expecting again, and therefore taking it easy, cautious of risking another miscarriage. She drank infusions of herbs the midwife gave her and would sit for hours watching the busy street below, a hand splayed protectively over her belly. Sometimes her father would visit, still clad in his reeking armour, a giant of a man, his face hard, without flex, squinting at her with eyes dimmed by age. His daughter was precious to him, and he and Bahn would fuss over her until she finally snapped and lost her temper. Even that did not dissuade them for long.
Four months later, news came of an advancing imperial army. The mood in the city remained much the same. There were six walls after all, tall and thick enough to protect them. All the same, another call went out from the city council asking for volunteers to fill the ranks of the Red Guard, which had thinned considerably during the previous decades of peace. Bahn was hardly cut out to be a soldier, but he was a romantic at heart and, with a wife and child and a home to protect, in his own way he was stirred to action. He quit his job without fuss, simply not turning up one morning – a warm thrill in his belly on thinking of the foreman having a tantrum at his absence. That same day Bahn signed up to defend his city. At the central barracks, they handed him an old sword with a chipped blade, a red cloak of damp-smelling wool, a round shield, a cuirass, a pair of greaves and a helm all much too large for him ... and a single silver coin. He was then told to report every morning to the Stadium of Arms for training.
Bahn had barely learned the names of the other recruits in his company, all still as green and untrained as he was, when the Mannian herald arrived on horseback to demand the city's surrender. Their terms were simple enough. Open the gates and most would be spared; but fight and all would be slain or enslaved. It was impossible, the herald announced to the high wall looming before him, to resist the manifest destiny of Holy Mann.
A trigger-happy marksman on the ramparts shot the herald off his mount. A cry rose up from the battlements: first blood.
The city held its breath, waiting for what was to come next.
At first their numbers seemed impossible. For five days the Imperial Fourth Army assembled across the width of the Lansway, tens of thousands stamping into position in an ordered procession, then spreading out to erect their colony of tents, earthworks, guns in numbers never seen before, mammoth siege towers – all before the collective gaze of the defenders.
Their barrage finally began with a single screeching whistle. Cannon shots pounded into the wall; one arched high and landed in a shattering explosion among the reserves of men behind. The defenders on the parapet hunkered down and waited.
On the morning of the first ground assault, Bahn was standing with some other raw recruits behind the main gates of wall one, the heavy shield hanging from his arm, a sword in his trembling hand. He had not slept. All night the Mannian missiles had crashed down around them, and horns like wild banshees had sounded from the imperial lines, fraying his nerves to tatters. Now in the early dawn he could think of only one thing: his wife Marlee at home with her unborn child, worried sick over both her husband and her father.
The Mannians came like a wave cresting over cliffs. With ladders and siege towers they attacked the ramparts in a single crashing line; Bahn, from below, watched in awe as white-armoured men launched themselves over the battlements at the Red Guard defenders, their battle cries like nothing he had ever heard before, shrill ululations that seemed barely plausible from human throats. He had already heard how the enemy ingested narcotics before battle, primarily to dispel their fears; and indeed they fought in a frenzy, without any regard for their own lives. Their ferocity stunned the Khosian defenders. The lines buckled, almost broke.
Excerpted from Farlander by Col Buchanan. Copyright © 2010 Col Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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