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From the Journal of Richius Vantran:
I have been dreaming of wolves.
Sleep has become too precious for us now. The war wolves come almost every night, and we are all afraid to sleep for fear of waking to that terrible sound. I've had the men take turns on the flame cannons so that some of them may rest. We've already lost our best cannoneers to the beasts. It's odd how they know how to hurt us. But the cannons are still working, and we have enough kerosene to keep them going for a few more days. Perhaps Gayle's horsemen will arrive by then.
It seems Voris doesn't care how many of his people die. These Drol are not like other Triin. They are zealots and die too easily. Even the cannons don't frighten them. Their bodies are piling up outside the trenches, beginning to stink. If the wind doesn't shift soon we shall all be sick from it. We've taken to burying our own dead in the back trenches so they don't rot here next to us. I don't think the Drol are so concerned about their fallen. I've watched them leave their comrades to die when they could have easily pulled them to safety. They don't cry out when wounded, but crawl away alone while we pick at them with arrows. And when they die they do it silently. Lucyler says they are madmen, and sometimes I cannot doubt it. It is hard for us from Nar to understand these Triin and their ways, even with Lucyler's help. He is not very religious, but there are times when he is as inscrutable as any Drol. Still, I am always thankful for him. He has taught me much about his strange people. He has helped me see them less as monsters. If I ever get home, if this damn civil war ever ends, I will tell my father about Lucyler and his folk. I will tell him that we of Nar have always been wrong about the Triin, that they love their children just as we do, and that they bleed red blood despite their pale skin. Even the Drol.
This valley has become a trap for us. I haven't told the men yet, but I don't think we can keep the Drol from Ackle-Nye much longer. Voris has been pushing hard. He knows we are weak. If more men don't come soon we will certainly be overrun. I've sent a message to Father but have yet to hear a reply, and I don't think one will be forthcoming. We haven't had supplies from home for weeks, so we've started hunting for our own food. Even the hard army bread has spoiled from keeping too long. We've been throwing it out of the trenches to keep the rats away. Spoiled meat and bread doesn't seem to bother vermin, and while they feed we are free of them. But we are also slowly starving, for even in this valley we can't hunt enough meat to keep us all fed. Perhaps Father doesn't know how bad it is for us, or perhaps he no longer cares. Either way, if help doesn't come soon we'll be fighting our final battle in Ackle-Nye and then it will be done. And Voris will have beaten me.
The Drol of the valley have taken to calling me Kalak. Lucyler told me it's Triin for "The Jackal." They are bold about it, too. I can hear them shouting it in the woods, taunting me, hoping to lure us out of the trenches. When they attack they yell it like a battle cry, swinging their jiiktars and screaming Kalak as they fall upon us. But I prefer this battle cry to the one they always yelled before. To hear them cry the name of Voris reminds me of his loyal wolves and the long nights ahead.
Lonal died in this morning's raid. No one seems to know how the Drol who killed him got so close to the cannon, but by the time I saw him it was hopeless. I had to take the cannon myself, so quickly I couldn't even help him. He lived for a bit after he was struck, but his arm had been taken off and the men who dragged him away had left it there, and I didn't notice it until the raid was over. Dinadin and I buried Lonal in the back trench, and Lucyler said some words neither of us understood. Lonal liked Lucyler, and I doubt a Triin prayer would have bothered him. But we are bothered that our friend has been buried like a dead horse in the corner of this foreign valley. When I return home I'll have to tell Lonal's parents how he died, but I won't tell them how his body is moldering in a mass grave, and I won't tell them that a Triin who was his friend said a prayer over him. Any Triin prayer, Drol or not Drol, would be an insult to them. It is Triin prayers that have caused all this. We are dying because of their prayers.
Dinadin is quiet now. I've never known him to be so damaged by the death of a friend. Back home he was always the loud one, but things here have made him thoughtful. After we buried Lonal, he told me that we should leave the valley, leave these Triin to slaughter themselves. We've all done things we're not proud of, things we won't tell our parents when we return home. Maybe even things we'll have to answer for to our own God. Tonight I'll let Dinadin mourn, but tomorrow I must have him back. He must again be the one who makes our regiment want to fight. He must hate the Drol again, hate Voris and his warriors.
Still, I can't help but wonder if Dinadin is right. I hear the men talking, and I fear I am losing them all. Worse, there is nothing I can say to them. Even I don't know why we're fighting. We're propping up an evil man, only so another evil man can extend his overgrown empire. Father is right about the emperor. He wants something here. But what he seeks is a mystery, and while he waits comfortably in his palace, we die. None of the men believe our cause is just, and even Lucyler has doubts about his Daegog. He knows the royal line of Lucel-Lor is doomed, that the Drol and their revolution will sweep away the old order eventually. Yet he and the other loyalists fight on for their fat king, and we of Nar fight with them, just to make our own despot richer. I hate the Drol, but they are right about one thing. The emperor will suck the blood out of the Triin.
But, Journal, I should be quiet about such things. And tonight I need to rest. This evening is peaceful. I can hear the sounds of the valley creatures and the stray calls of my name in the woods, but they don't frighten me. Only thoughts of the wolves that might come keep me from sleeping. Today's dead are all buried, and I can smell the fatty grease of the roasting wild birds we've caught. A pipe would be welcome now, or the wines of Ackle-Nye. If my sleep is peaceful I may dream of them both.
And tomorrow we'll begin again, maybe for the last time. If the Wolf of the valley knows how weak we are, he'll surely come in force enough to crush us. We'll do our best to stand, and hope the horsemen promised by Gayle will arrive in time to save us. We hear little in the valley, and the horsemen can't travel quickly here. I only wish it were my own horsemen coming to our rescue rather than those of that rogue. It would indeed be a tale for him to tell that he had saved me.
If we make it through the fight tomorrow, I'll send another message to Father. I'll tell him that we've come to depend on the House of Gayle for survival. I can think of nothing else that will rouse him to our aid. I know he doesn't want this war, but I'm here and he must help me. If no more troops are sent, all the valley will fall back into the hands of the Wolf. We'll lose this war and Father's argument with the emperor will be our deaths. If we are to survive, I must convince Father this war is worth fighting.
Richius awoke to the smell of kerosene. A familiar cry sounded in the distance. He knew what it was before his eyes snapped open. Oh, God, no . . .
He was on his feet in an instant. Around him the trench bloomed big and black. The yellow fingers of a new day's sun had barely begun to scratch at the horizon. He squinted hard, struggling to see down the earthen corridor. Dying torches tossed their light onto men in muddy uniforms, a group of soldiers huddling at the trench's other end. Richius slogged toward them.
"Lucyler, what's happening?" he called, sighting his bone-colored friend.
"It is Jimsin," said Lucyler. "Got him while he slept."
Richius pushed his way into the armored circle. At the center writhed what only vaguely resembled a man. Though the band of soldiers tried to pin his flailing limbs, Jimsin's body pitched to the ugly cadence of his screams. Beside him, lying in a great unmoving heap, was the body of a wolf, its hide punctured with a hundred stab wounds.
"Took it in the throat," said one of the group, a big ruddy man with the face of a boy. As Richius bent over Jimsin, the big man knelt beside him.
"Careful," warned another. "It's bad."
The war wolf's teeth had ravaged Jimsin's throat, leaving a wound that ran all the way up to the jaw. A mangled windpipe blew on tattered flesh. Jimsin's eyes widened hopefully as he recognized Richius.
"Don't move, Jimsin," ordered Richius. "Lucyler, what the hell happened?"
"My fault," confessed Lucyler. "It was so dark. It was in the trench before I saw it. Let me help--"
"Get back to the deck," snapped Richius. "Keep an eye out for them. All of you, get back to the deck!"
The big man passed Richius a soiled cloth. He wrapped it gingerly around the oozing wound. The muffled echo of a scream escaped the ruined throat and Jimsin's hands shot up, seizing Richius' wrists. Richius started to pull his hands free then stopped himself, unwilling to release the pressure from the wound.
"No, Jimsin," he said. "Dinadin, help me with him!"
Dinadin quickly pulled Jimsin's hands away, holding them down while Richius worked to secure the bandage. The awful half-scream kept coming, muffled now by the dirty rag. From the corner of his eye Richius noticed Dinadin's blond head begin to turn.
"Are they coming?" Richius asked, already beginning to work more quickly.
"Not yet," said Dinadin. There was a note of mourning in his voice. By the end of the day Jimsin would be lying next to Lonal.
"God," Richius moaned. "He's suffocating."
Dinadin still had Jimsin's wrists. He fought to hold his comrade down as blood gushed from the wound. Jimsin tried to scream again, each cry sending another bloom of crimson into the bandage. The high-pitched gurgles grew in urgency. Jimsin closed his eyes. A stream of tears burst from beneath the lids.
"Help him, Richius!"
"I'm trying!" said Richius desperately. If he removed the rag, Jimsin would surely bleed to death. Leave the bandage, and he would suffocate. At last Richius reached out and lightly touched Jimsin's tear-streaked face.
"Jimsin," he whispered gently, unsure if the man could hear him. "I'm sorry, my friend. I don't know how to save you."
"What are you doing?" shouted Dinadin, releasing his grip on Jimsin. "Can't you see he's dying? Do something!"
"Stop!" cried Richius, dropping down across the wounded man to hold him still. Dinadin made to undo the bloody bandage, but Richius pushed him aside.
"Damn it, Richius, he can't breathe!"
"Leave it!" Richius ordered. The sharpness in his voice made Dinadin recoil. "I know he's dying. So let him die. If you take away the rag he'll live a lot longer. Do you really want that?"
Dinadin's eyes were glassy and mute, like a doll's eyes. He sat stupefied as Richius motioned him closer.
"You want to help him?" asked Richius. "Then hold him still. Be with him when he dies."
"Richius . . ."
"That's it, Dinadin. That's all you can do. All right?"
Dinadin slowly nodded. He drew Jimsin into his arms and held him, hugging him tightly. Richius turned away to find Lucyler, leaving the two soldiers in their dismal embrace.
The Triin was easy to spot in the dim trench. His white skin was a beacon; his white hair waved like a flag of surrender. He stood upon the observation deck built into the trench wall, fascinated with the silent forest of birch trees in the distance. He hardly stirred as Richius climbed onto the deck.
"Is he dead?" asked Lucyler.
Lucyler's chin fell to his chest. "I am sorry," he said wearily.
"Blame the rebels," said Richius. "Not yourself."
"I should have seen it coming."
"A single wolf in the night? No one could have seen that, Lucyler. Not even you."
Lucyler closed his eyes. "Why only one?" he muttered. "Voris never sends only one. . . ."
"To break us. We're not up against honorable men, Lucyler, you know that. Hell, you're the one who told me that. They're Drol. They're snakes."
"Voris does not lay siege, Richius. It has never been his way. They are out there. They will be coming."
Richius nodded. When it came to figuring out his rebellious adversary, he always deferred to Lucyler's judgment. Lucyler wasn't Drol, but he was a Triin, and there was a perplexing chemistry in all Triin brains, a singleness of thought that even the most intelligent Naren couldn't decipher. Call it instinct or breeding, call it the "touch of heaven" as the Drol did; the Triin did indeed seem more than human sometimes. And Lucyler's mind was like a razor blade. When this particular Triin smelled fear, Richius never argued.
Lucyler had been somewhat of a gift, an aide sent by the worried Daegog to make sure the valley war went right. Of them all, Lucyler was the only Triin in the company, and he did not hail from Dring but from Tatterak, the rugged region of Lucel-Lor to which the Daegog had been exiled. As a sworn servant of the Triin leader, Lucyler had one mission--to ensure Richius was victorious. Though they didn't always agree, Richius was forever grateful to the Daegog for sending him Lucyler. He was the fastest bowman in the company, and he could spot a red-robed Drol faster than a hawk.
Richius looked out over the trenches behind them. Barret gave them a wave from the one his men were stationed in, some ten yards to the rear. Behind Barret's trench he saw that of Gilliam, and behind Gilliam's the least-seasoned men in the company sat in their own trench, commanded by Ennadon.
There were those in the company who had quarreled with Richius about the way he had posted the new recruits. Lucyler had argued that only battle could teach the new men the things they needed to know. Richius saw no use in such a tactic. He remembered with painful clarity his first days in Lucel-Lor, when Colonel Okyle had been in charge of the valley war. Okyle had ordered Richius and a dozen other "virgins" into a forest on a scouting mission. Like Lucyler, Okyle believed battle to be a soldier's best teacher, and it only made things worse for Richius that he was the king's son. Favoritism, Okyle had told him sternly, was not to be expected. Only when Richius returned from the forest alone did Okyle start rethinking the way he handled new recruits. But Okyle was dead now, and Richius had taken over. He was determined to do everything he could to spare his new men the horrors that would be upon them too soon anyway.
Keep them in the back and they'll be safe, he told himself as he signaled to Ennadon. Let Ennadon teach them what they need to know first. Time enough for fighting.
Still . . .
If Voris came at them fully it would do the new men no good to be in the back trenches. There would be no haven in the Dring Valley for any of them. He supposed that he had three hundred men left, yet he had no idea how many Voris still had. A thousand? More? Even Lucyler couldn't guess at the numbers of their enemy. They knew only one thing for sure; the master of the valley had enough warriors to destroy them.
Only the cannons can save us now, thought Richius fretfully. If the fuel lasts . . .
At both ends of the trench, where men gathered in little bunches to talk and worry, the flame cannons were heated and poised. Wisps of smoke rose from their tapered noses, their igniters glowing red against the coming dawn. The sight of their two-man teams forced an uneasy smile from Richius. These machines had been their salvation. Though a dearth of fuel had forced him to ration their use, he was grateful to have even a few of the weapons. The scientists who tinkered in the war labs of Nar had outdone themselves when they created them.
To the men in the trenches the cannons were worthy of worship. Like the soldiers of Aramoor, the Triin of the valley had arrows and spears and their own odd-looking swords, but they had nothing so powerful as the cannons. Even their magic--the dread of which had long deterred invaders from their land--had yet to prove a threat. Though many said otherwise, swore in fact that the Drol leader Tharn was a sorcerer, none of the men had seen Triin magic, and Lucyler had been vocal in his skepticism. The belief in the touch of heaven was the one great division that separated the Drol from the rest of the Triin. It was part of what made the Drol fanatics.
"Richius?" asked Lucyler. "Should I have Dinadin take a cannon?"
"Kally and Crodin can handle them."
"Dinadin's the best cannoneer left. What if . . ."
"Lord, Lucyler," interrupted Richius. "Look at him." He pointed down the trench to where Dinadin sat, cradling the limp body of Jimsin. "You want to tell him?"
Lucyler said nothing. Of the three close friends that remained, Lucyler was the hardest of the trio. Perhaps it was his Triin blood that made him so callous, or perhaps it was because he had seen more of the war than any of them. Whatever its origin, Lucyler's severity was always evident. It was only at times like these, however, when he had a mind to question decisions, that Lucyler's hard-heartedness irritated Richius.
And Dinadin had changed. He still followed orders, but there was a reluctance in his eyes, a kind of sad maturity that had never been there before. Richius had promised Dinadin's father he would look out for the man, that he would bring him home alive from this hellish place, and that one day they would sit again around the hearth in the House of Lotts and laugh about better days.
"He'll be ready," said Richius with feigned confidence.
"I hope so. We're going to need him if . . ."
Lucyler stopped, his gray eyes widening. Richius let his own gaze slip back to the birch grove. There, among the twisted limbs, something stirred. From behind the trees and rocks came a torrent of crimson. Spots of charcoal with shining eyes dotted the forefront of the flood.
A knot of terror tied itself in Richius' stomach.
"Ignite the cannons!" he cried.
Far down the trench Kally fired up his weapon. The cannon screamed as it came alive, belching a cloud of spent kerosene into the air. Within seconds a red funnel of flame poured from its orifice. Next Crodin ignited his own cannon, trimming its fiery plume into a spear-shaped stream. Other cannons ignited in the trenches behind them, kerosene pumping into their long noses and being spit out again as fire. Even in the cold morning, Richius could feel the heat of the bursts beneath his armor.
"Protect the cannons!" Richius barked. "They're coming!"
What had looked at first like a flood of scarlet water was now plainly a wave of red-robed men breaking toward them. Wolves were running before the wave. Dozens of them.
"Lorris and Pris," whispered Lucyler. "We are finished."
From the Trade Paperback edition.