The Sacred Band (Excerpt)

ExcerptThe Sacred Band
(Excerpt from the TEMPUS novel)

To the translated version (German)1.  Cheating the Fates
“Who are you?” asks the sentry in a hushed tone, eye-whites and teeth catching a quick spill of starlight down his helmet’s thin nosepiece.  On this deep blue night, nothing stirs but torches snapping in the camp beyond.  “Why are you here?”

“Critias.  Sacred Band business,” Crit replies, watching for a glimmer of light behind the Theban sentry, a fleeting gleam or deeper dark to show him the sword and shield of this man’s partner. Never mind it:  this is a pair’s left-side leader, momentarily alone, awkwardly surprised, sidling rightward and feeling vulnerable on his open side.


The Sacred Band “Whose Sacred Band?  All ours are here with us.”  Eye-whites again: this sentry is searching for his partner, somewhere in the dark.

“Ours.  The Sacred Band of Stepsons.”  Crit’s voice catches in his throat.  Behind him, Critias can hear his own squadron (clink of harness, snort and hoofbeat:  his sworn partner; ten pairs of Stepson cavalry; one hell-wheeled chariot from a foreign land) – strangers all, in this place called Chaeronea.

“What do you want?” demands the sentry; wary, with danger all around. Tonight, this sentry’s Sacred Band of Thebes is three hundred strong. Tomorrow, they will be obliterated.  Someday, under a statue of a lion, two hundred fifty-four of their skeletons will be recovered.  And this sentry’s dust will be there.

Someday.

Crit wished he didn’t know it.  But his commander had told him so.

“What do you want?” the sentry repeats, too challenging, too suspicious:  impatient; ready to escalate, right hand on hilt and the other signaling his partner nearby, hidden in the dark.

Don’t, boy.  Draw that sword on your left hip now and everything changes – for the worse, for you and all your brothers.  Crit flexes his fingers but keeps both arms relaxed at his sides:  his squadron, at his back, is more than warning enough.

“Our cadre – our Sacred Band – might fight beside you here,” Crit answers calmly.  “Thousands wait across the valley, looking to make an end to you.  You could use some help.”  In the morning, Macedonian forces shatter your front lines.  Facing their long-speared phalanxes, your support troops desert, leaving your Band to die alone.  But I can’t tell you that.  “My commander, Tempus – the Riddler, favorite of the storm god – wants to speak with yours.”

So Crit has just introduced a god into this conversation.  Well and good.  Forewarned might be forearmed, for these Thebans, because the storm god is here – always is wherever Tempus is.

Meddling from Enlil, storm god of the armies.  Too little, too late for these doomed fighters.  Divine intervention?  A small mercy?  Perhaps.  But only for some.  Not all.  Not many.  This sortie is a whim:  the dark humor of his commander, a man the god immortalized, catching up Crit’s soul one more time – along with everybody else’s.

The Riddler’s hell-wheeled chariot starts rolling forward:  slowly, slowly, horses snorting; no threat imminent; coming abreast at a jigging walk; driving up on a wet wind rising, which flaps Crit’s mantle around his calves.  Tempus has waited long enough and wants, now, to make his presence felt.

“Right here, Crit,” says the Riddler, a sighing shift of gravel in his softest voice, a gentle tone reserved for horses and the truly damned.

Now the sentry’s partner unwraps from gloom on his right and speaks so low Crit can’t catch the words, with the wind picking up and the chariot rattling.  The second sentry goes running, greaves and leather squeaking, sandals slapping, clank of metal.  Above, the blue-black sky starts to lose its milky road of glittering stars:  clouds boiling up, building a danker dark.

What are we doing here, trying to save the fated dead?

The nearest of Tempus’s chariot horses is slobbering on Crit’s right shoulder.  Crit’s partner, Straton, grabs the team’s rein from the other side.  One of the blacks screams a challenge to some horse, somewhere, but doesn’t raise its head.

Critias knows what these Thebans see (these dead-men-to-be), keeping watch on their last sunrise to come – guesses how it seems to them, when they peer into the chariot’s car:  chariot and black horses such as none here have seen but on temple walls; his commander’s massive strength at the reins with his right-side partner standing by in that car forged by the lord of dream and shadow.  In a Sacred Band, the charioteer is always senior:  the Thebans know who is who now.  Gold rims glisten on chariot wheels, on ancient demons decorating the dream-forged car bearing the Riddler – called Tempus the Obscure, the Black, the Sleepless One – keeper of all their fates, heroic in form, with eyes that can bring a man back from hell.  One more time.

Tempus has Stealth, called Nikodemos, beside him, who’s been to that hell and back how many times for the Riddler?  A clean-limbed, balanced force, Niko is Tempus’s right-side partner and an avatar of the storm god Enlil in his own right, if reluctantly.

These two want to save forty-six fighters from the Sacred Band of Thebes, twenty-three pairs whose skeletons won’t lie under a stone lion for later men to find or poets to extol.  Why?  To staff a mission.  And Critias, executive officer of the Sacred Band of Stepsons, had agreed – at the time.  When it hadn’t seemed so outrageous to interfere; to rescue paired fighters from a distant place and time where they are about to die, shoulder to shoulder, with honor, just as their oath-bond demands.

If the result is fixed, why fight at all?

Maybe these (someday missing) twenty-three Theban pairs just cut and ran, made new lives, had children….  Maybe they still would.  Still could.  But Crit didn’t think so.

The sentry’s partner comes back with a bigger, older man on a blowing warhorse and a slighter man, jogging beside:  more doomed lovers of the god – or goddess – if not of each other.

Crit raises his right arm shoulder-high, taking the left-hand chariot horse by the bit.  This signal, on its own, brings up all the mounted Sacred Band of Stepsons swathed in dark behind them.  Good thing, with the wind getting up, and the storm god of heaven about to make a statement of his own.  Crit felt better with the Stepsons’ horses up around him, although his partner Straton rode a horse resurrected by a witch.  Considering so many ghosts-to-be, the single ghost horse of the Stepsons troubled Crit less tonight.

The Theban commander (or the man they sent to parlay) rides up close, stout little warhorse between his knees.  They must know their doom, this Sacred Band of lovers.  They’d won a lot, triumphed ten to one, some said; three to one, for certain:  they’d made Thebes great, a mighty power.  But this next battle will be their last.  Any reconnaissance could tell you what awaited on the morning.  Lots.  You didn’t even need to be able to count that high, when faced with thousands of enemies a valley away, and more behind them.  Lots and lots.

Tempus said to that doomed man, in a voice like gravel coursing downhill, “You speak for them, all of yours?”

“I do.  Theagenes.”  No title, no rank; no need for all that now.

This Theban’s helmet was fierce, crested, almond-eyed, lips and chin showing through a narrow vertical slit.  Theagenes’s mantle blew over his horse’s croup in the rising wind.  You couldn’t see what he thought of that chariot from hell, but the crouched way he sat his horse and urged it forward, motioning his partner to stay back, told Crit the message was received.

“You wanted me?” the Theban asks the Riddler.

“I did.  I do.  Tempus.”  His commander’s voice growls deep in his throat, acknowledging the deadly situation.  But not defeat.  The Riddler was trying to save something, where precious little could be saved.  “Our storm god Enlil says you can use a little help.  And your goddess Harmony agrees.”

That brought the helmeted Theagenes on his scrappy horse up so close Critias could judge the breathing of the other man, deep and cautious, this leader of this other Sacred Band of soon-to-be dead.  “If the gods sent you to fight here, then the gods are fools,” says Theagenes, words very soft, just a rasp that won’t carry, careful not to dishearten his men, behind.  “What’s the price for this help?  There always is one.”

“The price?”  Softer still, the Riddler answers:  “You’ll lose all your pairs tomorrow, every one.”  He snaps his reins.  The chariot horses, with Crit and Strat in tow, move closer to the Theban:  one step; two; and halt.

“Then why are you here?  We don’t need help counting.  You came to tell me this, Tempus, Riddler – whoever?  What’s the point?”

“The point is life.  Let me spare twenty-three pairs of yours destined to die on tomorrow’s battleplain and all my Sacred Band will stay and fight beside you, till the end.  And I, myself.  And mine.  And what price there is for that, you and yours will not pay it.”  Tempus’s head inclined to his partner, almost imperceptibly: Nikodemos, motionless, attentive beside him like a ready falcon or a hunting dog.  “I’ve eleven pairs here of mine…and this chariot. I promise it’s enough for what’s in store.  We’ll see to all the rites, as you want them.  And some will be left who remember.  I’ll take twenty-three pairs of yours away with me.”

“Take them where?  Not to the fields of Elysion, from the look of you.  To Hades?  They can get there on their own, it seems, directly.”

“Not to safety.  You know better.  But to a chance at life.  To fight on other days.  To carry on.”

From the rear, in the midst of the Sacred Band of Stepsons, at the worst possible moment, a boy of theirs pushes his horse through the waiting cavalry, making riders move and mounts clarion and challenge.  Nikodemos, beside Tempus, shifts in the car and motions sharply:  be still.  Someone back there stopped the youthful Stepson, before he intruded where boys had no right to be.  Crit heard a thump.  Then stillness in the ranks:  discipline snapped tight again.

“To carry on?” Theagenes repeated, disbelieving, ready for death, inured to hope.

Before Tempus can reply, the storm god has his say and lightning flares sky-wide.  Thunder breaks loose above, clouds blocking the road to heaven that had shined softly in the stars.  There’s almost no time between blinding-white slashing of the sky and thunderclap.  Horses squeal and neigh.

In the bright sheet lightning, men and horses moving slowly are revealed, coming up softly – not quite sneaking – from the other Sacred Band’s tents, leather wraps upon their horses’ hooves.  This tactic didn’t affront Critias; he would have done the same.  Survival has its own etiquette.

And what do the Theban hoplites see in this extended rending of the sky, this white-bright glory of Enlil’s lightning?  The future, but not theirs:  paired cavalry fighters; formed ranks of armored death; grim men on their tall horses with lightning limning weapons tailored to the task; men spoiling for a fight if the gods allowed – the Sacred Band of Stepsons, out from shadows and the dark.

So it could go another way, yet.  Crit whistles his unit to readiness, but doubts the need:  everybody knows the danger here; none underestimates his peril.  Horses shy in the brilliant light.  Never had so many of his been so spooked by so little.  Then the dark resumes its hegemony over them all.  It would be a relief to fight against, rather than beside, this other Sacred Band, doomed to the man in any case, just to break the tension.

But that isn’t what the Riddler wants, or what the storm god of the armies wants, or what Niko’s maat, his mystery of balance and justice, wants.  Or we wouldn’t be here. Now.  Was all this really just about putting together a new Sacred Squadron, a Band to send down to Sanctuary, a thieves’ world where none of the veteran Stepsons would willingly return?  To Sanctuary, where the gods themselves had said the Band had done enough, and relieved them of their service there?  Critias hated Sanctuary more than anyplace he’d ever been.  But now they had young warriors who needed seasoning:  some with blood hot for vengeance and some with the blood of gods in their veins, some with kin in that hellhole called Sanctuary – which was like calling a witch a priest.  Sanctuary would train these boys like no place else could.  And Tempus had never said they were done there.

Now Tempus waits and watches, unhelmeted, just staring back at Theagenes with those long, slitted eyes; not responding to Theagenes’s ‘To carry on?’  Words repeated, for clari- fication, by a man locked in the confounding gaze of Crit’s commander.

Crit was neither witch nor priest, not god-bound or, he hoped, god-damned.  He was unmagical, at best unflappable even in the face of Tempus or the unknown, but this mission froze his tongue and made his breath come fast.  Crit was just a soldier.  He couldn’t figure odds when dicing with the gods.  He held on to the lead-horse’s bit and its outside rein with one hand and his shortsword’s pommel with the other and waited, to see what this Theban Sacred Band would do.  The gods themselves were in this, up to their high-handed tricks, or Lord Storm’s lightning and thunder wouldn’t come illuminating this camp like a fête day when the doomed fighters in those tents ought to be getting a good night’s sleep – not sneaking up through the dark, rousted and ready.

“Not to safety,” the Riddler finally says once more.  “To fight on other days.  To carry on.”

Then this Theagenes sighs, “Not to safety.  For Harmony.  Wanting neither too much to live nor too much to die.”

Their code, this strange Sacred Band.  Not sworn to a tutelary god such as Enlil, but to a goddess, ‘Harmony.’  More like Niko’s ‘maat.’

And Tempus speaks then, words from deep inside, “As the gods decree.”

Now Theagenes repeats what the Riddler has offered:  “But to fight on other days.  To carry on.  That, I can accept for them.  And gladly,” agrees this man who knows the coming dawn will be his last.

If Crit weren’t so nervous that the Theban fighters ambling up might start a skirmish here tonight, he’d have wept for them.  But here they came, this other Sacred Band, slipping through the night, so unconcernedly harmonious and quiet as they surrounded his Stepsons, deploying left wing and right, before and behind, all wolfish and keen.

So just in time the Riddler said, “Done,” and stepped down from the chariot’s car to take Theagenes’s hand.  Blades snicked from scabbards behind Crit; spears hefted protectively; arrows nocked and, above, thunder pealed like applause from heaven.  “Crit,” said the Riddler over his shoulder.  “Niko.  You know what to do.”

Somewhere in the night, a lone wolf howled.  And got an answer.

2.  Mercy from the Heavens
So, Enlil, lord of storm and bloodbath, how do You like this fight so far? Tempus asked the god in his head and got no reply but deep breathing and grunting like the fighters make where they fall.  The battle is all around, though, and the god likes battle well enough that Tempus can barely keep his chariot and right-side partner in mind as Enlil looks down from heaven and out of his eyes and everywhere is shrieking and bleeding and dark death hurtling through the skies as man tries something new and deadly against his brother.

Arrows arcing.  Long spears, thunking into flesh.  Men stagger backward, impaled, screaming.  War, then and now, no difference:  here, today, the name and the work of the long spear is Death; none can stand before it.

Arrows whiz by his head.  Niko jostles him, using his shield to protect Tempus although the god will surely see to his servant.  Sharp cavalry wedge breaks the Theban line.  Long spears piercing, glittering in the sunlight.  Men and horses screaming.  Maneuvers carefully drilled, impossible to com-plete.  Waves of death breaking on the Chaeronean plain.  So many falling, piled one upon the other.  Bloody mud so slick that horses skid and stumble.  And his Stepsons, bright Stepsons in the thick of it:  cavalry, where such cavalry has never been before.  Here Macedonians try tactics on Thebans that will kill so many now…and multitudes more, later – powering a war like none ever seen in all the days of man – and make a boy an emperor...later.

Is this what You, Lord Storm, really want?  Is this what You, Enlil, storm god of the armies, want to see and see and see again?  Again and again?  And want?  Again and again?

No answer from Enlil, god of the battlefield.  The god is too close today, his supernal mind bloody and full of dark purpose, rending and tearing away all but souls.  The god is so high in him; hardly separate from him; a mind in his mind; strength beyond mortal comprehension:  celestial rage loosed.  The man can’t say now where Tempus ends and Enlil begins.  Hoofbeats thundering.  Long spears, thunking into flesh.  Men staggering backward, impaled, groaning.

Maybe this time he has pushed the god too far, opened up too much, asked too much of a force that sees no difference between good and evil, right and wrong, but loves conflict and change and the steering of all things through all things by strife….  War is all, and king of all….

Today, Tempus is perhaps more god than man, his humanity more submerged than it has ever been before when the god takes his flesh and empowers it.  It can’t be helped.  Or maybe it will be the help.  Man here is learning a catechism about how to use a horse in battle and how to field fighters in a newer way.  Infantry all around, the honorable dying in a multitude before the onslaught of the dishonorable.  An object lesson the world does not soon forget, when the great are taken down by the lowly, when artifice and infamy, with no soul involved (just precision), routs brains and heart and honor.

Glory wears a dreadful face today as war takes a different turn.  Long spear, thunking into flesh.  A youth staggers backward, impaled, whimpering.  Spear pierces flesh between the nipples:  mortal strike.  Swords slash necks and arms.  A shield-holding line drifts right, each protecting his open side.  Too many open sides.  Too many.  Sharp phalanx just being born:  an unholy advantage – new and deadly, sparking strat-egies so much newer and deadlier still.

The Sacred Band of Thebes, heroes all, are holding steady, each pair fielded, intentionally, with the stronger bonded to the weaker; each pair tight together while the enemy – so many, many, with gross force of numbers – overcomes their inspired battle.  Sometimes, not even inspiration is enough.

Look to the souls of Your own soldiers, God, who labor in Thine awful cause.  Tempus hasn’t come here to lose lives.  He’s come to save them.  In the press, wild eyes popping, dying breaths sigh from the mouths of men who have screamed their throats dry.  He has no horse under him, no god-given advantage of man and horse becoming something more.  But his sharp-bladed chariot wheels still take their toll.  And the edges on the bladed axle cut deep like scythes as Niko, beside him, blocks arrows and knocks spears away with his shield, protecting them both with keen eye and steady arm.  On a horse, Tempus’s god-given speed transfers to his mount, but not through the reins or the car of a chariot.  So time is slow for him, waiting for Death to pick and choose his way across this foretold battlefield, where today bravery loses the fight to guile, and civilization bows to brutality once again.

Whooshing, clashing, ring, and bellow.  Death is all around.  And his rightman, steady on, a dark sick look in hazel eyes, stays in the chariot with him because this Sacred Band of Thebes needs all the help Tempus’s fighters can provide (and more), while their own fight is drawing to a close against an enemy coming on like ants at a feast, unending.  Long spears, thunking into flesh.  Men staggering backward, impaled, moaning.

Some of his Stepsons have crossbows:  these, too, an unfair advantage in this moment; but the least advantage his Stepsons need, on such a dark day where Courage is driven off the battlefield by the hordes of Lust; while Chaos reigns, and righteous battle is punished and brought low by overwhelming force.  Entrails are strewn everywhere, pieces of limbs glistening among them.  Blinded men crawl away.  Theban Sacred Banders, crouched over slain partners, are holding out until the last.

It won’t be long now until the eerie quiet falls that signals victory for one, annihilation for the other.  But it’s not over yet.  Now Strife is here, bearing down with her awful mouth open wide, keening.  Fear follows, stinking, her bowels loose and horrid.  And Death rides his own chariot, while Slaughter and Carnage flank him, shambling beside.  Here Panic reigns.  Talk is impossible over the din.

Time to go.  Both reins in his left hand, Tempus touches Niko’s shoulder.  Niko’s shield comes up and Niko half-falls against him, trying to block a long, long spear from Tempus’s gut – and succeeding.

Beyond the remnant of the Sacred Band of Thebes, surrounded by his own Sacred Band of Stepsons, a whirlwind is forming.  His partner Niko sees it now, as Tempus heads their chariot team that way.  Stepson maneuver codes ring out, called by Critias, by Straton, and by Niko when he can.  The chariot, a tempting target, makes Tempus and Niko vulnerable.  He wishes they had brought their mounts, unsure now that the chariot was a risk worth taking in this battle that is, for him, about saving twenty-three pairs of fighters – and about respect for the honored dead and the about-to-be dead.

Supported by Stepson cavalry, the surviving Thebans fight on, feet planted firmly on the earth.  Theban past and future, ruined together, are ending together:  enemies stream toward them, a constant onslaught; unstoppable, insurmountable.

Long spears, thunking into flesh. Men staggering backward, impaled, groaning.  Innovation, all the difference today.

The Stepsons form up, trying to herd the pairs of Thebans to safety, toward the whirlwind on the banks of the river Cephissus.  Their goddess Harmony rises up beside them, touches Thebans with her soft hand – and the remaining Thebans argue, in the midst of battle.

Now, despite all, so few of them will leave….

Tempus sees his own youngest Stepsons, callow youths with the fire of battle lust in their eyes, just blooded.  Slashed and speared, youth gets up to throw itself again into the fray.  Why?  Always pushing their limits.  Testing their courage.  Judging their mettle.  For the look in the eyes of their comrades.  For the black stare in the eyes of their enemies once life has fled.  Don’t stare too long in the eyes of the newly dead, young fighters, Thebans and my own.  Was this the right choice, or only one more horrific moment in the annals of wrong?

Tempus has his sword, god-given, and it glows with sanctification of his battle.  He strikes whenever he can, leaning out, long and low, against this craven enemy who deserves no better than a slit belly, time to think about what was done while entrails slowly spill.  But few come near this chariot.  The arm-long blades on its axle, twisting and cutting everything as wheels spin fast, and his shortsword susurrusing, and his god-given speed make the chariot too costly a target, here and now.  Long spear, thunking into flesh.  Another man staggers back-ward, impaled, sobbing.

With hand-sign, he indicates to Niko where they need to go.  Bleeding from arms and legs, kicking spearpoints and broken arrows and a few mangled limbs from the car, his Stepson passes on those orders.

Now the portal to another place is open for the Sacred Bands and his men are closing ranks.  They’d drilled this twenty, fifty times.  Straton has the ghost horse, impervious to all, and guards the portal with the bay who can’t die or bleed, and who takes exception to anything and all that might harm its rider.  It would be easier, from the look of it (because there was no talking in the dying and wailing and clatter of weapons and prayers called out to heaven from so many throats) to rid the field of enemies than to get those Thebans to break their ranks – even for salvation.

So be it:  who would come, would come.  He gave the signal.  And Critias, with a flash of contorted face and devotion to duty beyond what any could ask, was trying to reason with the remnants of the Sacred Band of Thebes.  There are so few Thebans left alive (fathers and sons, paired brothers and lovers and friends).  So many more dead:  such a muddle of still flesh and blood, with that forgotten look that bodies have when life has fled.  One with so many arrows in him he looks like a porcupine.  One man’s head, detached, wears a wistful look as it stares at the sky.

Tempus sees a few men go through the portal into safety, into a shimmering in the whirlwind that swallows men and horses whole.  He sees the Theban Sacred Banders ceded him by providence:  honest men, principled and brave beyond need and even what the gods require.  Maat and justice allow only so much.  Only so many favors can be had from the all-knowing gods.  He couldn’t save them all, or history itself would be embattled.  He had a few.  He and Enlil had wheedled a few from the pitiless Fates, a bit of mercy from the heavens.  It must be enough.

He caught Crit’s imploring gaze, nodded, stretched out his arm and pointed:  and took a spear in the chest that Niko hadn’t seen coming.  Dark, and deep pain.  Long spear, thunking into flesh.  Man staggering backward, impaled.  This spear goes where it can do the most harm, aimed by an arm and an eye that knows just where to strike and how to strike.  It touches his heart.  He feels the cold.  Then, despite his god-given speed and Enlil’s grace, strength is fleeing.  Nikodemos pushes him down into the car and stands over him, grabbing the reins and his sword before he drops it.

So, god of war and bloodbath, where art Thou today?  Whose side do You fight on, Lord Storm?  On the side of might or on the side of right?  For both sides were on the battleplain this day.  And the god, rustling inside him, doesn’t say a word, but looks, and looks, and at length makes clouds to darken the day and to take him away, and his away….

Red and black cover him, and a deeper, more abiding cold.

*

When he woke, when consciousness rushed back in a blinding flash, it was as they pulled the spearhead out.  “Where?” he croaked, gritting it to mask his pain.

“Safe.  Rest, Riddler,” he heard.  Niko’s voice was very low.

“How many lost?  And found?” he wanted to know, asking questions of the grainy dark.  He would heal.  He always did.

“None lost of ours…yet.  Found, of theirs…enough.”  Stealth, called Nikodemos, has iron in his voice.  Tempus would be protected, better shielded from whatever the Stepson thought threatening, if love could heal and save.

“We have to go back, do their rites,” Tempus croaked.  He had made a solemn promise.  His word is binding.  He tried to sit up, fell back.  Weakness was unaccustomed.  Strange, because the god was in him, yet – just a rustling, but truly there.

“Riddler, it’s taken care of.  Rest awhile.”  He heard Critias, near at hand, who always handled everything thrown at him.

“Make a light.”

“It’s not dark in here, Riddler.  Bright as the god’s eye,” Straton said, with an empathy that chilled him.  They were all using his war name, when the danger should be past.

“Ace, keep shut,” Niko whispered urgently to Straton.

“Why can’t I see?”

“Commander, we don’t know,” Stealth said.  “It will pass.”  Where and how his fighters were, his right-side partner’s tone said, was not his problem – not just now.

3.  Blink of the God’s Eye
A man as angry as Nikodemos was, in the aftermath of the Theban rescue gone awry, didn’t belong among the civilized.  And the island of Lemuria was the most civilized place Niko had ever been:  a city-state with towering citadel, power unchallengeable behind its sheer seaside walls.  Nikodemos was a secular adept of the Bandaran mystery of maat – of transcendent perception, equilibrium and mystic calm.  He was failing himself and all maat’s precepts if he lost control of his temper, of his balance or his heart.

So once back safe, if not sound, on New Year’s Day in Lemuria, he quietly ordered the Sacred Band of Stepsons and the new Theban Sacred Band, all twenty-three pairs, to make ready for an unspecified sortie as soon as they were fit to fight.  Seeing hell in his eyes and muscles jump in his angular jaw, his flesh wounds unbandaged and scabbing up willy-nilly, Stepsons went scurrying through the whitewashed barracks and the town below, preparing for they knew not what.  Meanwhile, Niko chased after his temper, trying to get it under control.  But he couldn’t catch it.  There was too much unrest in his soul.

Now nearly all knew he was planning a mission.  He didn’t tell them where.  But Crit knew where, had to know.  And Straton knew.  Soon Cime the Free Agent, the Riddler’s woman who ruled as “Evening Star” in timeless Lemuria, must be told that he was taking the Sacred Band to Sanctuary.

This was the foray the Riddler intended, after all.  When Niko had briefed Critias and Straton, they’d stared at him in disbelief.  But they would implement his orders.  He was the Riddler’s right-side partner; his word bound the Band like law while their commander lay abed.

Ignoring deeper wounds (his own, his seasoned fighters’) that needed tending, he called the three youngest Stepsons out of their barracks and told them they were lucky to be alive, dressing them down savagely for not holding steady in the ranks.  Their eyes, wide and shocky; their faces, cut and bruised; their hands, trembling, told him they’d learned something on the Chaeronean battleplain.  What they’d learned was nowhere near enough.  These three Bandaran-trained youths were his responsibility; he couldn’t leave them to their own devices.  He’d sponsored them, first on Bandara with the secular adepts, and now in Tempus’s Sacred Band.

So he got his best horse and he drilled the trainees on the practice field until the sun set, and had the veteran, Gayle, take over from him then.  “All night long,” he told his broad and sturdy Stepson, once a 3rd Commando fighter and among his most studied masters of the crueler arts.  “Until they drop in their tracks.  And tomorrow, all day long.  I want them disciplined.”

And he left, wishing he could find something to hack to pieces.

Then he had to face the Riddler’s woman up at Pinnacle House in that uncanny palace of hers, with indoor trees and arcane windows to take you anywhere in the blink of a god’s eye.  Up he went as the sun was setting, a supplicant on a pilgrimage, seeking absolution in that vast and vaulted hall of glass and stone where multicolored streamers hung from rafters, tattered standards from forgotten wars.

His own cowardice shamed him.  He should have come here sooner.  Cime would have all their hides for bedspreads.  But Stealth, called Nikodemos, had a rage in him so deep he’d spent years in the misty isles of Bandara trying to tame it.  Now it was loose, anger aimed at the gods themselves.  He’d had to wait until he could trust himself with Cime:  they never were easy with each other.  She’d almost seduced him once.  He couldn’t trust her.  Her relations with his left-side leader were beyond his ken.

“I’m here to see the Evening Star,” he said when a jowly servant with black dogs on either side opened up the huge oak doors.

“Come in, Lord Nikodemos,” the man bid him.  They all knew he’d wed a princess, years ago, and was royalty in his own right – if he cared to return to the city at the edge of time.  He didn’t care if he ever went back there.  Those were other days, other hurts that fed his anger; but none as deep as these, today.

How was he going to tell Cime how badly he’d failed, what a botch he’d made of this mission of mercy that Tempus had decreed?

Niko was led by the padding servant and the dogs through marble halls, all red and black and white, to her sanctum.  Cime was the Riddler’s sister, some said:  a gray-eyed beauty, her black hair silvered, wearing silk and leather and a look on her diamond-shaped face as if she’d seen a ghost.  Ageless, Cime was, as long as he’d known her; as they all were here, while in Lemuria’s embrace.  She seemed thirty.  He’d heard she was far beyond three hundred years of age.  She had a deeper beauty than mortals do, a fabled power, and a voice always full of seduction.  Always.

Always, but not today.  She knew at first glance that something was very wrong.  Perhaps she sensed his misery.  Or she’d heard whispers.  She was braced and guarded.

“What is it, Niko?”  Voice too sharp, edgy.  She looked him up and down and found him wanting.  Three huge black dogs milled around her feet; some said they changed to humans when she chose.  “What happened?”

So he had to own to it.  He squared his shoulders and sucked in a breath.  As she came up close, he bowed his head to look into those gray eyes his commander loved so well.  “We fouled up.  I did.  He got hurt.  Badly, maybe.  And the god…is not helping him today.”

She said nothing, but ran full-tilt past him down the hall, like a sprite or a goddess bent on vengeance.  She’d know where Niko would have put him.

He had to run after her.  And he never caught her till they got to where the Riddler lay.

When they reached the Stepsons’ billet, everyone was there who had no incapacitating wounds or pressing duties.  Even a couple of Thebans waited (walking wounded in kirtles and mantles, hair shorn, alike as father and son, eyes so full of loss they barely noticed what they saw), helmets under their arms.  Stepsons saw Cime, then Niko, come running and parted the crowd for them, squinting at them as if from a hundred miles away.  No one talked.  All stood back.  It wasn’t a good day, everybody knew.

He tried to guide Cime to the sickroom.  She shook him off – a sharp, dismissive shrug.  Inside, Strat and Crit sat on the Riddler’s either side with a bucket full of bloody rags and murder in their eyes.  Whitewashed walls seemed too close, the simple bed of his commander’s office cell too hard.

Tempus just lay there, unseeing, a wound bubbling in his chest that should be mortal.  But wasn’t – yet.  Niko clutches that hope like his dream-forged sword.

Cime pulled two rods down from her hair and it tumbled around her face.  Even Niko stepped back involuntarily.  All three Stepsons in this room know what those diamond rods can do:  suck your soul, suck your life, and leave you empty, lost, or worse.  What else they did was between her and the powers that she served.

“Well,” Cime said, still at the foot of the Riddler’s sickbed, diamond rods in fists on either hip, “now you’ve done it, haven’t you, all you fools?  Tempus, can you hear me?”

“Life to you, Cime,” said the Riddler from his bed, “and everlasting glory.”  He smiled his humorless kill-smile, just a tightening at the corners of his mouth.

The last thing Cime would do was acknowledge the Sacred Band greeting.  “Get out of here, Stepsons.  I’ll see to him.  You three have done quite enough today:  all of you and your feckless, treacherous god.”

And with that, she banished them.  Niko hoped this banishment was not forever, but who could say?

The last thing he saw was Cime striding to the bed.  The last thing he heard was Tempus’s voice, rattling deep in his chest, saying, “Sister, don’t bait the god today.”

*

“So we’re still going.  Tomorrow.  With the Riddler or without him,” Niko told Critias and Straton, three days later, out by the bullpen where Stepsons worked their horses in the bright morning light.  The sea wind was gentle; the sky was blue and clear; and nothing about this morning matched Niko’s mood.

Crit kept silent, running a hand through his dark, feathery hair, never looking up.  He had a bandage on his right forearm and one on his right thigh, both spotted with red and pink, stiff and yellow toward the edges.

Strat replied, “Whatever you say, Stealth.”  Taciturn, stolid Strat, with his wide forehead scabbed up into his sandy hair, spread his scraped hands and dropped them to his sides.  His left eye was swollen half shut; his left cheek lacerated, bruised:  fresh souvenirs from Chaeronea.  On his arms, deep cuts were healing, flushed and angry, covered with grease.  Straton, nearly Tempus’s size, still had a bad left shoulder from Sanctuary duty, long ago and far away.  These new war wounds were insignificant compared to what Strat, the Stepsons’ interrogator, had suffered at the hands of a necromant in Sanctuary ten years past.  The witch haunted Straton yet.

Niko knew that was bothering Crit, who still hadn’t said a word.  Critias didn’t want Strat going back to Sanctuary, not while the witch lived there.  But only Tempus could rescind Niko’s order, and Cime wouldn’t let any of the Stepsons see the Riddler.

Niko told Straton, “Ace, bring those three Bandaran trainees to me, and the senior Theban after I’m done with them.”  Niko needed to talk to Crit in private, without Straton there.  Strat left, glancing back once over his damaged shoulder at the two of them.

Beyond Crit, in the circular bullpen, was Sync, rangy and dark, working one of the black sons of Tempus’s gray Trôs stallion.  The colt bucked and bugled to any mare near enough to hear.  Several nickered back, from paddocks nearby.  Critias looked up, pretending to judge the training.  “Nice colt, Stealth.  Yours, isn’t he?”

Niko said to Critias, “Take him, Fox.  He’s yours.”  It couldn’t matter less today, although colts of the Band’s senior stallion were highly prized.  What mattered was the Riddler.  What mattered was Crit’s partner, Straton.

“I don’t need him, Stealth,” Crit said, his face carefully arranged, and turned to him.  Or anything from you.  Unsaid, but clear as the sky above.

“Then don’t take him.  Doesn’t matter.”  What mattered was that all three of them were using war names among themselves, a sign of tensions high and aggression reined tight.  “What are we going to do about Ace?” Niko asked.  “That witch of his in Sanctuary might be more than we can handle.”  Niko knew all about witches, and witchery, and the compulsion in your soul you couldn’t fight.

“He says she’ll be no problem.  He wants to go.”  Crit’s eyes slapped him across the face.  “Not a smart move, this mission.  Not now, for any of us.”  He came one step closer.

“It’s Tempus’s mission, not mine.  What he wanted.”

“Not if he can’t…go.”  Crit was Tempus’s executive officer.  He had the rank, if he pulled it, to make a schism out of this.  “Why go now?  To help that god-sired brat, Kouras, cage his temper?  So Arton can meet his mommy?  So Sham, the wizard-boy, can have an outing?  To teach the remnants of the Theban Sacred Band how to get along without their brothers?  That lot is grieving so, it will take more than new horses and new tactics to heal them.  And it’ll take longer than I want to stay at the world’s anus to wet-nurse them.”

“We go where the commander says we go.  We do what he wants done.”

The colt hit the boards with his hooves and charged Sync, in the middle of the pen.  A whip cracked.  The colt surrendered, stopped, and went back to the rail, ears pinned, eyes rolling.

“Who knows what he wants today?  Not you.  Not me.  He’s not seeing anyone.  Strat doesn’t need this trip.  Neither do I.  Somebody’s got to stay here with the Riddler – if she’ll let us near him.”  Now Crit took two more steps toward Niko and jabbed a finger at his chest.  “You should stay.”  The finger withdrew, but Critias was too full of truth to stop.  “This is your mess.  Running away won’t solve it.”

Niko took a deep breath and grabbed his temper.  “If you’ll have them ready to travel, two days hence, we’ll leave,” he said.  If:  a small opening for compromise, an acknowledgement of rank necessary with this man, who was protective of his partner, Strat – and everything else teetering on the edge of oblivion here.  None of them had ever seen the Riddler take so long to heal, if heal he would.

Damn the Theban Sacred Band and all it had cost them.  But Niko had command, and command must not be wasted, not spent foolishly, nor respect and camaraderie lost in anger.  Niko’s mouth was full of barbs.  “I’m going to take those Bandaran-trained boys.”  Crit would never understand Bandaran stricture.  Or care.  “And the Thebans, and the best Stepsons who’ll sojourn.  And leave some in Sanctuary a year or two, if I can.  Come with me, or stay behind.  This is no time to argue.”

Now it was out, open discord.

Crit said, “Time?  Stealth, you haven’t even had time to look in on your own wounded Stepsons.  What would the Riddler say to that?” then turned on his heel and walked away, his long stride giving Niko no chance to stop him unless he wanted to run after Crit like a penitent child.

Too much anger.  Too much helplessness.  Too much grief.  Niko couldn’t bring himself to meet with the Thebans yet.  He knew he should, but he couldn’t face the ghosts in their eyes.  So Crit had had to do it.  If Tempus didn’t recover, then what?  The Sacred Band would be at Cime’s mercy.  They served at Tempus’s pleasure.  All this talk of Niko being Tempus’s inheritor was only that…talk.

He went to see his sable mare.  Then, on foot, he fled the walled citadel and went down to the shore, through the town where nothing ever had been wrong before, where people lived happy lives free from want and the worst thing that ever happened was a bar fight among Stepsons or moldy hay coming in from surrounding farms.

Tempus and he had brought horses down here to work them in the surf on better days.  He was too angry even to think, too taut and regretful to bring the mare.  He might make another mistake.  The mistake he had made was a worse error than he’d ever thought a man could survive.

Would the Riddler live?  See again?  Walk again?  Lead again?  None of them could get in to visit, to find out.

Niko’s fury, at himself and the gods, was driving him, he knew, as it had driven him for so long before he’d joined the Stepsons.  He’d lost one partner soon after, then a second.  He couldn’t lose another.  Tempus was supposed to be eternal.  At least, everyone said he was.  Had they so angered the gods, trying to save the Thebans, the fated dead, that Tempus would be taken from them?

Niko walked knee-deep into the surf as if the tide could cool his anger.  Long ago, his rage had driven him to maat, his discipline of will and equilibrium, justice and balance, and those had driven him on, to the Sacred Band and the Riddler’s service, where he was – finally and correctly, he thought – Tempus’s right-side partner, learning day by day what his commander had to teach.  He was, at long last and great cost, an avatar of Enlil on his own.  With the Riddler hurt, his anger was nearly ungovernable.

Long spear, thunking into flesh.  Man staggering backward, impaled, groaning.

He whispered to the surf, “Help me help him.”  Only pounding waves answered.

Thebans.  These unlucky Thebans were bringing their fate home to roost here, looking dazed and amputated, full of silent grief for their lost brothers and the entire world they’d known.  Better off than dead.  He would take them to Sanctuary, the most luckless town he’d ever seen.  They would fit right in there.

And he and Straton, Tempus’s two witch-cursed Stepsons, would face their fears – or their doom.  It didn’t seem to matter.  Greater dooms win greater destinies.  This, his commander had taught him.
The next day, after Niko had gone to Cime, helmet in hand, begging assistance and pleading for mercy, apologizing until he thought his heart would break, she relented and let him see the Riddler.

*

Not long after that, Niko rode beside Tempus as the commander, still healing, led his Sacred Band of Stepsons on their best horses into Lemuria’s mystic portal.  And out again, to emerge – by dint of Cime’s Lemurian power – right onto Sanctuary’s northwest shore, with every boy-soldier and Theban bringing up the rear, just as the Riddler had planned.

Once Tempus’s vision returned, by Enlil’s grace, the Evening Star couldn’t interfere with the commander’s wishes.  Niko sympathized.  No one could.

Steady drizzle falls.  The sky above is restless with scudding clouds.  A furious storm masses behind them, out to sea, throwing black spears of rain down from heaven’s walls.  Dark waves flee inland, surly, breaking on the beach.

Riding toward the ochre walls of Sanctuary on his sable mare, with the Riddler beside him on his gray Trôs horse, Niko catches Tempus’s eye.

Tempus stares back, baring his teeth:  “Enlil rides with us, Niko.  Every step of the way.”

Wet wind blows like the breath of the gods on Niko’s neck.  Rain falls harder.  Thunder cracks as distant lightning skewers the sea. 

Since the storm is coming near, and his commander sitting easily on his horse, Niko doesn’t doubt the Riddler’s word.  Enlil, ancient storm god of the armies, is with them; and Vashanka, the local storm god; and Niko’s maat.  And perhaps even the Theban goddess, Harmony, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite.  Good.  They will need every man and god and skill among them in this hellhole.  Even his sable mare knows it.  She raises her head and challenges the heavens as they jog along, the Stepsons two by two, Crit and Strat close behind:  sixty-six fighters, all told, come into the city-state of Sanctuary through the Gate of Justice.  Maat is justice, as well as balance.  In all the years he’d served here, Niko had never ridden through this gate.  Maybe it will be lucky for them this time, with a child of Sanctuary’s storm god, a warlock’s son, a seer and all the saved Sacred Band of Thebes in tow.  But Niko isn’t counting on it.

4.  Two Gods Storming
Drought has clutched Sanctuary in her withering hand, year after year.  Now comes the storm, its squalls howling off the sea, whipping the waves high, swamping boats and rocking the ships of Sanctuary’s young navy so seamen rush to weigh anchor and ride out the gale as best they may.

Parched earth and fields cracked open from drought can’t absorb all this rain, where ground has turned so hard that horses’ coffin bones bruise year-round and a body needs an axe to dig a hole.  The runoff steals topsoil from the fields and moves it, silting creeks, turning ponds into lakes and crops into waste.  Pastures flood and granaries give up their stores to the ruin of salt and water.  When the storm passes, then clean-up will begin:  broken trees and wrecked wagons can be dragged from roads, roofs repaired, wells cleaned of drowned rat and cat.  If the storm ever stops.  If the fierce gale abates.  If the sun comes back in the gray-black sky and the gray-black sea stops churning up its contents to strew the shore with sea wrack and jellyfish and sharks and whales and worse.

If.

Around walled Sanctuary, the storm swells the White and Red Foal rivers till they burst their banks and lap against cellar, step and statue.  The seaborne storm soughs and blows and whistles and sings its salty song, so that those old enough to remember wizard weather take shelter in their attics, digging out old, half-forgotten warding charms.

But this storm is no wizard’s work, some say, for no charm or ward forfends it.  Sixty-six Stepsons have come riding into Sanctuary, some say, bringing the storm and the wrath of the storm gods down upon them all.  The gods are angry at Sanctuary, some say, for becoming too irreverent:  a lesson must be taught.

All this time, the rain rains harder and the gale gusts fiercer.  In the palace, a priest called Torch orders sandbags laid.  Meanwhile, the oligarchic council tries the power of prayer and prays as it has never prayed before.

Down on Wideway and up past the docks, word of the Stepsons’ coming spreads like the swelling tide of brackish water and people worry for their lives.  Mothers hug their children tight and caution maiden daughters, while older women stare out their windows with dreamy eyes, remembering days gone by.

On the Street of Red Lanterns, at Amoli’s Lily Garden and Phoebe’s Inn, whores bolt their doors.  At the Aphrodisia House, a harlot named Shawme, dreaming of heroes, peeks out her shutters but sees only the wild wind, swirling rain in arabesques as if invisible lovers dance amid the storm.  The storm sees the girl and caresses her face, then moves on.

In the Bazaar where the city-guard captain, Walegrin, has taken down a soggy awning from outside his sister’s shop, a blousy S’danzo seeress named Illyra reads her cards.  She looks up at her big brother and says, “Arton is coming.  My boy is coming home,” but she is not smiling, not  in the face of this awful storm.

Walegrin, soaked to his sandy braids and needing to get back out there among his men, says, “What else, Illyra?  I know that look.”

“Death, reversed.  A son of the storm god.  A son of sorcery.  A son of fate.  The Three of Swords, reversed.”  Hoops shiver madly in her ears as she lunges toward her brother, grabbing him tight.  “Don’t go back out there tonight, Walegrin.  Don’t.”

Nevertheless, the city guard’s captain goes back to his garrison, hoping that someday his sister (who’d lost two children and adopted a third) would mend.  Fortunetelling was a poor living where magic didn’t work.  The storm sees the soldier at his duty where guardsmen heft sandbags to stem the tide and goes another way, whistling.

Meanwhile at the mercenary hostel north of town, in its common room where dusty weapons from bygone wars hang on rufous walls, sixty-six fighters make themselves at home, filling bowls from the sideboard with possets of curdled milk and wine and honey while Straton works out stabling and the order of the watch.

“We’ll get it, the three of us, whatever stuff you want, sir,” says Shamshi, the boldest and oldest of the young guard, to Straton, who has assignments to make from his customary corner table.

It’s crowded in the common room.  Strat hasn’t seen it like this since recruitment for the war on Wizardwall was under way.  Today, it was crowded with men of his.  There weren’t half a dozen other mercenaries here when the Stepsons had arrived, just the eye-patched guildhall master and a cook to see to things.  Somehow they were managing to find a bed for every man and a stall for every horse.  Now Strat was sending out the seasoned pairs to help with bulwarks, road-clearing, and general citizen-saving in the storm.

“Shamshi, take this list, then, and Arton and Gyskouras, and this.…”  Strat pulled a fat purse from under his woolen chlamys.  “Bring back what you can.  And mind those horses, in the rain.  The Riddler will have your guts for bowstrings if you lame one.”  Fair-haired Shamshi was already backing away, a flush in his cheeks, head down, wizard-gray eyes on his feet, as if the young Stepson were bowing his way out of an audience with a king.  “And come right back.”

No chance of that, a fool would know.  Strat stripped off his chlamys and flung it on a bench.  Niko was out at the old Stepsons’ barracks, assessing the stabling:  eighty stalls com-prised the stables – four barns for twenty horses each:  two in line, parallel to the front gates; one perpendicular on either side.  Plenty of work, to refurbish those.  Crit was managing a hundred things, as Crit was wont to do.  Straton was keeping watch over the Thebans (who’d roached their hair in mourning and wandered about, dazed, wounded and bruised, holding on to one another).  The split in his scalp itched, where a curved shortsword had cleaved his helmet and kissed him deep.  Long spears, thunking into flesh.  Men staggering backward, impaled, moaning.

And, of course, Strat was watching over the man upstairs.  The Riddler was holed up in his old corner room, resting.  What did it mean?  The commander never slept, could work every man of them into the grave.  Or could once.

Was there something, as Niko and Crit thought, unlucky about the Thebans?  Did the Fates, who predestined all men’s lives, take offense at saving these?  But this storm was a consecration, wasn’t it, of their mission?  Straton read it so.  The guildhall master said they’d broken the drought here, riding in with two storm gods squalling in the Stepsons’ wake.  There’d been a long drought here.  The Sanctuarites should be happy with the rain the storm gods brought.  Maybe they would be, when the emergency relief crews got done.

No use wondering, with so much left to do.  The storm-lashing this little city was taking was just a portion of its due, to Straton’s way of thinking.  And the omen of storm was always the best of signs for Tempus and his Stepsons, a sanctification of this, or any, foray.  If you are a man of the Riddler’s, in good standing with the Sacred Band of Stepsons, any storm is bound to clear your way.

Or at least Strat hoped so, because he’d just sent Sync and Gayle down by the White Foal Bridge, where Crit had made Straton promise, under any circumstances, not to go – where the necromant Ischade once kept a small, unassuming house; where Straton had gone too many evenings, ten years past.  And where he went in his dreams, sometimes, still.

He rubs his left shoulder, twice arrow-shot, never right but not too bad today; his scalp wound plagues him worse, scabs pulling on his hair.  Sync and Gayle would see to that house, and any in it, to rescuing anyone who needed help down where the White Foal River found the restless dead another home.  Although the witch who lived in his dreams needed no man’s help, and never would.

He decided he’d go see his ghost horse in the stable out back, the ghost horse she gave him.  The ghost horse needed to know that they weren’t going back down there.

Not this time.

5.  Stepsons and Mothers
The summer storm was easing up – not stopping yet but not boxing your ears or slashing you across the face or snatching the breath from your nostrils – when Arton finally convinced Gyskouras and Shamshi to cut through the Bazaar.

“Over here.  This way,” Arton urged the other two trainees, guiding his horse around the wreckage of a produce stall.  Some daylight remained, even if the light had that pearly quality of supernal tantrums abating.  The sky, no longer boiling like a stewpot, was just a featureless mass of wall cloud.  This was as he had foreseen it.

Time to find my mother.

All had unfolded in accord with his foreknowledge.  They had money and horses.  They were away from the senior staff, young Stepsons loose on the town.  After facing so much death on the Chaeronean battleplain, Arton needed to know if his foresight was right:  if his mother was still alive.  War seared its specter into your memory.  Doubled the beat of your heart.  Humbled you because it would take you if it could.  Living had become very important, the only thing that mattered.  His blackened eye; his scored cheek; his left forearm and hand, blistered from hefting his wicker-framed bronze shield:  none of these mattered.  The bragging rights he’d so wanted didn’t matter.  Breathing mattered.

The battle had shaken all three of them.  Life seemed so fragile, each Sacred Band fighter so vulnerable.  They were being as brave as they could manage to be.

 Gyskouras, called ‘Kouras’ by his friends, sidled his chestnut horse close to Arton’s bay.  Red-haired, green-eyed Gyskouras, chin attempting a beard, was Arton’s childhood friend.  They’d gone to Bandara together and now were Stepsons together.  Kouras was the son of the storm god Vashanka and a temple dancer, so everyone said.

Arton wasn’t anything special in Bandaran terms or in any other terms:  he could part the veil, sometimes; see the future, a little; but often didn’t understand what he saw in time for it to do much good.  He hadn’t foreseen how terrifying the Chaeronean battleplain would be.  Long spears, thunking into flesh.  Men stagger backward, impaled, crying.  Arton had a hawkish nose, sharp chin, dark hair, and eyes that gave him a predatory look:  from this, his war name, ‘Hawk,’ had come.  But not his foresight, nor Kouras’s god-blood, nor Shamshi’s warlock lineage seemed protection enough after Chaeronea.

“Is this it, Hawk?” Kouras said under his breath.  Kouras had taken a cut on his neck where an arrow grazed him, a spear wound on his hip, and a long slice down his arm from a sword’s bite.  But Kouras healed like lightning:  you could hardly see angry flesh around his scabs, today.

“It?  I think so,” Arton replied, softer than his horse’s complaint when it couldn’t grab an apple from among the leaves and casks and kegs and crates littering the street.

Where the street widened, Shamshi brought his horse up to theirs; rain dripped off his helmet.  Sham, of all three, had taken the worst wounds on the battlefield, but no arrow through his thigh or long gash on his shoulder fazed him; the spear that should have ripped apart his lung was somehow turned aside by armor; it was as if he felt no pain from any wound he took.

Now they were riding three abreast through fabled Sanctuary, boys in Stepsons’ clothing with weapons on their hips.

“Is what ‘it?’  You think what’s so, Arton?” Sham snapped.  Sham was still angry and defensive about misbehaving in the ranks, earning all three of them two days and nights of punitive drill.  Shamshi was handsome, with pale hair and the body of a man, not a youth.  On Bandara, Sham had mastered several mysteries and was said to have the makings of a formidable adept.  Sharp, careful, always wanting to lead, was Sham.  But Arton didn’t trust Sham.  And Sham trusted only himself.  “Well, Arton?  Speak up,” Sham demanded.  “Are you lost?  This street isn’t on Straton’s list.”

“We’re going to find Arton’s mother now,” Kouras announced, using that ‘son of the god’ voice that made his wispy beard immaterial.  Sham wouldn’t argue with Kouras, not directly.  Kouras had a berserker streak when aroused.  The wall cloud above pulsed bright.  Twice.

“Well…so be it,” Sham retorted.  “Just make sure Stealth hears that I’m saying, here and now, it’s not on our list and if we weren’t ordered to stick together, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

“Noted.  For the record,” Kouras said, a veiled rebuke.

For the record in eternity of what we do and what we say, that never can be altered:  Bandaran protocol.  “For the balance of the thing,” Arton chimed in, completing the ritual statement.  He didn’t add that in his premonition Sham was with them when he found his mother, therefore Sham must come along.

And then they were there:  at the S’danzo seeress’s shop – where Arton’s life and his destiny had begun.  The shop matched his vision:  small and somewhat drab, a bit poor with rot in its wooden steps.  Only the awning out front was missing.  The awning should be there….  Arton slipped off his bay; Kouras got off his chestnut.  They tied their horses to a hitching post by the steps.

Sham didn’t dismount.  He eyed the fortuneteller’s sign.  Straddling the blue roan, he scowled down at them, his swordsman’s shoulders squared and his helmeted head cocked:  “You’re going to use the Stepsons’ money?  For this?  Get your fortune told?”  Sham was contrary by nature.  “Stealth will drill us till we can’t see straight.  I want no part of this….”  The roan began backing up, obedient to his shifting weight and one soft cluck, a touch of rein.

Kouras said, “You’ll come or be damned, Sham.”  Thunder rumbled.

Arton shivered.  It was never good when Kouras talked like that, cursed like that:  son of the storm god.  Lightning flickered on the other side of town.  Rain spattered down Kouras’s face, off his arms, glistening like oil poured out for the gods.  No one knew if Gyskouras’s curses were merely talk.  Or more.  Arton shivered again.

Shamshi grumbled under his breath, dismounting from the roan’s off side.  How much older was Sham?  Four years?  Five?  Kouras was nearly as tall, but heavier-made, with big bones that belied a natural grace.  Arton was slighter, compact:  just a peasant boy who’d gotten into Bandara and then the Stepsons on a fluke and Kouras’s coattails.

“In we go, then, God Child.  And let it be on your head,” Sham teased harshly.

Kouras looked away, into the blowing rain, muscles ticcing on his fuzzy jaw.

The threesome climbed up the steps, Arton in the lead.  Arton knocked.  Knocked again.  A little brass peephole opened.  It closed.  Someone muttered behind the pine door.  Then the door creaked open like a sepulcher.

A woman stood there.  Was this she?  What did they look like to her?  Three young wet Stepsons on the prowl, weapons at the ready.  Belatedly, Arton wished he’d worn his helmet, like the other boys:  in it, he looked more impressive than he was.  But it hurt his bruises and it was full of rainwater, hanging upside down from his horse’s saddle.

“Yes?” said the woman.  She made his heart beat fast, so beautiful was she, all bright colors and deep soft eyes, curly hair and long circles of gold in each ear, buxom and young and….  Arton blinked and a matron, tired, swollen-eyed, with mud on her skirt, stood there.  But the gold circles hanging from her ears were the same.  She peered at him. “Are you coming in, soldiers?  We’re not really scrying today, but I can…will….”

Arton said, “We want to see the seeress.”

Kouras said, “Are you the S’danzo, Illyra?”

Sham said, “Can we get this over with?  Come in out of the rain?  This scruffy fellow here might be your son, Arton – if you’re Illyra.”

The woman said, “Yes.  Oh.  Well.  Do come in, then,” as if sons showed up on her doorstep every day.  Then she fainted into Arton’s arms.
 

6.  Breath of the Gods
On the Chaeronean battleplain, the remnants of the Sacred Band of Thebes saw the spear impale Tempus.  They saw him fall.  Yet now he lives.

Wanting neither too much to live nor too much to die.  Tough talk.  The Thebans were not so tough now, in Sanctuary, ripped away from all they’d known and all they’d cherished but life itself and one another.

As he rode his dappled Trôs horse south along the White Foal through summer streets, blessedly alone on this warm gray morning, Tempus knew he’d been right to do it:  to bring his new Sacred Banders here where everything was always wrong, where venal fools played at small men’s games and battles even smaller.

Sanctuary is changed, a mere decade’s difference, nothing very daunting to a man who’s seen centuries come and go.  The streets wind the same way; people scrabbling for a living scramble now, as people always do, to reestablish normal life in a wild storm’s wake.

The Sacred Band of Thebes needed Sanctuary, a place to acclimate and integrate with his Stepsons.  Here they would learn new ways:  burn their dead as Stepsons do; thank new gods; and meet new challenges where honor and glory are enough.  They were his now, and would step up to even greater things:  fight for life itself and everlasting freedom of the human spirit.  But not yet.  Like Sanctuary, throwing off the damage of the storm, they needed to put their backs into tomorrow, not cry for yesterday.

The Thebans must heal, to join with his greater Sacred Band.  Damaged and wounded, ripped and sundered, they sojourned now in a strange new country.  At least they were not in the country of the dead.  They needed a place to live, to renew their pride, to forgive each other and their pain – not feel guilty that they’d kept the breath of the gods in their nostrils while their brothers had died.  Long spears, thunking into flesh.  Men staggering backward, impaled, screaming.

How had he thought he could do so much without an awful cost?  ‘Let me spare twenty-three pairs of yours destined for tomorrow’s battleplain, and all my Sacred Band will stay and fight beside you, till the end.  And I, myself.  And mine.  And what price there is for that, you and yours will not pay it.’  No matter, it was done.  And this thieves’ world couldn’t care a whit where a man was from or what strange tongue he spoke or ways he had, as long as he was useful.

Drab and sullen Sanctuary would teach them much, toughen them up and grow them up while they learned to sing a different song.  They were not in the beautiful hills of home now.

Tempus’s horse knew the way to Aphrodisia House; the clip-clop of its long stride soothed him.  Peepers chirped far off.  When he got there, he’d invite Molin Torchholder to come and have a talk.  Meeting Torchholder, the priest, at a brothel seemed fitting.  The Street of Red Lanterns was full of debris, broken shops and shattered dreams and young men cleaning up in gangs, hoping for tips better than coppers from the madams.  Niko would be unhappy, left behind, but Tempus was not a child to be tended.  A wind blew in off the disgruntled sea, memory of the storm.

He wore shabby leather duty gear, helmet hanging from his saddle, nothing to identify him.  Yet men scurried off and women grabbed their children:  an armored, mounted mercenary in these streets should not be underestimated, even early in the day, before the taverns opened.  And the Trôs under him was all warhorse, impossible to misconstrue.

Three city guardsmen, sweating in the muggy air, emerged from behind a wagon of sandbags.  They barred his path, spread-legged across the whorehold’s narrow street.  One was big, heavy, with sandy war braids and a captain’s badge on his shoulder.  Perfect.

“Need help, Citizen?” the city guard’s captain, Walegrin, said.

Sanctuary was too curious, these days.  But never mind.  Tempus halted his horse.  He let the city guard look him over, waiting for recognition to dawn in Walegrin’s eyes.

Then it did:  “I’ll be damned and resurrected.  Look what the storm blew in.”  Walegrin came two steps closer.  “Is there a revolution set for Ilsday?  An undead festival?  Palace coup in the offing?  The Prince/Governor’s fled to Ranke.  Nobody’s here but the oligarchs and us simple folk.  What could the likes of you want here?”  Flashing a cautionary hand-sign to the two men flanking him, both brashly fingering their hilts, Walegrin took one more step toward Tempus.

The Trôs pinned its ears, bunching its muscles under him, ready to spring forward at a touch of leg.  He patted its dappled shoulder.  “Good to see you too, Walegrin.  Ask Torch to meet me in Aphrodisia House.  At your soonest pleasure.  And come yourself, if you wish.”  He signaled his horse to walk on.  It snapped at Walegrin as it came abreast.  The soldier backed off.  The horse walked by.

Everything on the street was fraught with menace that could yet turn deadly.  His back crawled, riding away from the city guard toward the whorehouse of his choice.  These locals were up to their necks in muck-pits overflowing and looters and every kind of fool out to take advantage in the storm’s wake.

But no arrows chased him, only the occasional dog.  He drop-tied the Trôs horse outside Aphrodisia House, rather than ride it up the stairs as he fleetingly, rebelliously, so wanted to do.  Thieves’ paradise or not, a fool trying to steal that horse would find he had hell by the reins.

Inside, the fleshy Madam Myrtis took one look at him, blinked, and then primped herself in his path, all powdered breasts, perfume and musk.  “It’s too early, sir, for my girls.…”  She stared.  Put her hand to her throat.  Her whole faced jiggled and she said, “But for you, of course…whatever you require....”  Whispers on the upstairs landing:  young girls and boys peeking between the balusters, giggling, hands over their mouths.

“A quiet room to talk to a man or two.”  Rooms here were much safer than in the palace or any tavern in town.  He was trembling, an unexpected wash of weakness.  His chest hurt; muscles spasmed across his breast.  Damn the gods and their games.

Myrtis took him to a room that smelled of smoke with a round table and six chairs and left him without another word.  He sat heavily, Cime’s voice ringing in his ears:  “How could you let this happen, Tempus?  How could these Thebans be worth so much?  Oh, gods, what have they done to you?  What are we going to do now?”  He had never heard her so frightened, not in all their centuries.  But once he’d nearly lost her, and he recalled how he’d felt then:  to be the one who must find a way where there was none, to save your beloved from certain death; to save your future; to buy another day, or ten, or a thousand, from the ruthless Fates.  Even though he couldn’t see her face, she’d made him feel profligate, an utter fool.

The wound in his chest hurts so much now that his heart is threatening to stop.  Again.

He puts his head in both his hands, elbows on the table, and just breathes.  God, leave off.  Take me or don’t, but be done with Your anger and this game.  He thinks he knows what Enlil wants, but he has preparations yet to make.  And the god is not talking to him today.

Some thousand beats of blood in his ears later, the door opened.  “Torch,” he said.

“Don’t get up,” said Molin Torchholder, the priest who was half Nisi warlock, and swished to a seat in a commotion of robes.

“I wasn’t going to.”

Behind Torchholder, the blond city-guard captain took up a position outside the open door.  “Close that.”  Torch motioned and the door swung shut.  “What is this, Tempus?  To what do we owe the pleasure, after so very long?”  A decade of age and line and spotted skin on Torch’s face reminded Tempus of just how long.

“I want to buy or lease the old Stepsons’ barracks.  I’ll be billeting sixty to a hundred fighters here, as in times gone by.  You can hire them, or others will.”  He sat back, praying his body would cooperate, crossing his arms over his chest.  Under his chiton and his leather armor, it feels as if the wound is seeping.  What if blood leaks out, runs down his leg, onto the chair, the floor, for anyone to see?

“Meaning we’re going to need you – and yours?”

“Meaning someone will.  So say the gods.  You might, if we can agree a price.”

So they haggled:  Torchholder set a price for Tempus’s purchase of the barracks and the hundred surrounding acres; Tempus set a price for the hire of the Band by the month and year and a statement of work listing responsibilities for stability operations.

Costs were argued, apportioned.  The Band would augment the city guard as necessary but manage its own missions; be on call to discharge Sanctuary’s ground-based military treaty responsibilities and defend the city-state in emergencies.  Expeditionary warfare and countering magic or sorcerous incursions were agreed to be outside the scope of work.  The palace would provide funding, logistical support, materiel and equipment; the Band would provide strategic planning, personnel and implementation for crisis management as well as peacekeeping, including site security for public events on a cost-plus basis.  Tactics, techniques and procedures were left to the discretion of the Sacred Band.

When water had been brought and they had all but come to terms, there was a disturbance outside.  And then that disturbance was inside, under wraps:

“Niko, join us.  Torch, you remember Stealth, my right-side partner.”  Nikodemos came to stand by Tempus, behind his seat, only a brush of his hand on the Riddler’s shoulder and his empty eyes showing his temper.

    The palace priest, who had been Sanctuary’s actual ruler for so long, looked up at Nikodemos and shook his head, a tiny movement.  “Now I believe it, that you’ve brought that whole accursed Sacred Band of yours.  You know magic is in decline here, these days.  No troubles with witches or warlocks.  No work for this…kind…of fighter.”

“This is not the old Band, or at least not all.  Be gentle with my new fighters, Torch.  For your city’s sake and your own.”

“I think we have an agreement, Tempus.  Your hire’s set,” said the priest.

There’s the breath of the gods on these dice.  Go carefully, Molin.  “Fine, the deal’s done.  Torch, you’ll be happy to know that your storm god Vashanka has returned, within his son, Gyskouras – your scheme, fulfilled.  Let’s hope the god and youth find you pleasing in their sight.”  Torchholder had arranged the god’s ritual rape of a temple dancer, years ago:  Gyskouras was the issue of that mating.  “And the youth is with my Sacred Band.”

“Oh?” said the priest.  “Oh.  I see.”

“Riddler,” said Niko at the same moment in a whisper, “I need to speak with you.”

“We’re finished here,” said Tempus.  And they were.

Outside, Niko’s sable mare, tied to the post, had her tail over her back, winking lewdly at his Trôs and nickering come-hither propositions.  This was a whorehouse, after all.   If those two horses had been any closer or poorly trained, there’d have been a breeding in the street.  Tempus climbed up on the Trôs and had to remind it of its job.  His chest felt better; he hadn’t left a trail of blood behind; at least the god had spared him that humiliation.

“Commander, there’s a problem with the trainees.”

“Then put it right, Niko.”  Stealth was sheepish, coming after him and finding nothing wrong.  “We’re moving out to the old Stepsons’ barracks in the morning.  Send Sync and Gayle out to see what else we’ll need to do there.”

“This will be the third time we’ve moved in there,” Nikodemos reminded him, eyes searching:  judging how he rode, watching where they went, and not daring to ask what he wanted to know – how Tempus was healing.

“It’s better, every day,”  he told Niko without being asked.  He hoped it was, this wound, which would have killed him if he’d been mortal.  The god was never slow to heal his avatar unless he was very angry.  “We need to deploy the Band, get those Thebans where they can do more than mourn their dead.  Have a funerary rite of our own out there, so those who came away with us can say farewell to those who stayed behind.”

For all the fated dead:  maybe that would placate the angry gods.  Maybe.

*

On the afternoon chosen for the funerary rites of remembrance, the sun blazed bright in a clear blue sky over the Stepsons’ barracks, so familiar from former times.  They could not have chosen a better day for this, Tempus thought.  Although the Thebans will honor men whose bodies lie back in Chaeronea, this rite is necessary for the survivors:  the grief of the living will go to heaven on the balefire.

Out in back of the training ground with its rail fence, where Stepsons drilled Theban Sacred Banders and each other, beyond the ancient amphitheater, all was nearly ready for the ceremony.  Grass, so bright green it was nearly blue, gave its sweet-smelling thanks for the rain.  On the hill, past the copse, the stone altar of the storm god was being prepared.  Men labored around the pyre, others on the empty ceremonial bier – some briskly, some gingerly (those hurt or still dazed).

Three men were dragging a tree limb toward the altar to add to the pyre when one, a Stepson, dropped in his tracks.  The Theban pair with him called out for help, gesticulating.

Men came running, shouting, crowding.  When Tempus got there, pushing the curious aside, it was too late.  One of his own Stepsons, half a Sacred Band pair, was dead:  lying flat on his back; sightless eyes open, staring at the sky.

“What happened?” Tempus asks, bands of pain crushing his chest.

“My partner and I were right beside him, pulling this branch.  He just sighed and crumpled.  Died as he fell, probably,” a Theban replies, nudging the nearby branch with a sandaled foot.

“Who are you?”

“Charon; and this is Lysis,” says the older Theban, heavy-set and strong with a square jaw, motioning to the young partner at his side.

The youngster with him speaks up, quavering, as Stepsons and Thebans gather closer around the corpse and Crit shoulders through with Straton:  “We didn’t do anything to him.  It’s not our fault….”

Charon, the elder Theban, his hair shorn in mourning, is a man of at least forty.  His partner is less than half his age, wild-eyed from the shock of unexpected loss heaped upon abiding grief:  Inexplicable death:  fortune’s disfavor.

“All of mine stand back,” Charon says.  “Give these men room.”  The Thebans widen their circle, each staring at the sudden corpse.

Crit kneels down, runs his hands over the dead man’s head.  Straton does the same.  They whisper.

Crit cranes his neck.  “Riddler, it’s Deon, Ari’s partner.  He took a bad blow to the head, on the battleplain.  You can feel the bump.  Big as my elbow.  It took a while to finish him, that’s all.”

That’s all.  Nearly all the greater Sacred Band is here now, silent and grave; Stepsons next to Thebans, united by the tragedy of Deon’s body crumpled in the grass.

“We’ll put him on the pyre,” Niko murmurs, once he’s shoved through the crowd and come up on Tempus’s right.  “Ari’s with the trainees, getting supplies.  I’ll send someone to get him.”  And even more quietly:  “Our new Sacred Banders will see what happens when one of ours goes to heaven.  ‘What is common, we must do.’”  Niko quotes what Tempus has taught him.

Now we’ll have Deon, a real body for our funerary pyre after all, not just memories of the absent dead.

So it goes that way, when the pyre is all made, the fire lit, and every Theban has cast a lock of hair, a piece of gear, a favorite treasure, and said his goodbyes to absent friends before the flames roaring high in the dusk as if to touch the sunset sky.

Then Tempus steps up and says the words for his Stepson, Deon, with Deon’s grief-stricken partner, Ari, by his side.  Nikodemos stands by the two of them.  Straton and Crit and all the friends of this departing member of his Sacred Band are there as well.

Everyone repeats:  “Joy to you, Stepson, and everlasting glory.”

Into the middle of the fire, where the body lies, comes the shade of Abarsis, Slaughter Priest, and takes Deon in his arms.  The spirit of the dead Stepson clings to Abarsis’s neck.

While the Theban Sacred Band pairs are awe-struck and murmuring, Abarsis locks his eyes on Tempus and smiles a soft, sad smile.  “Life to you, beloved Riddler,” says the shade, “and everlasting glory.”  Abarsis looks from Tempus to Niko.  “Tempus, Niko, it is hard to battle anger, for whatever it wants it pays from the soul.  Let this fire consume your anger and make of it an offering to the god.”

And the flames take two shades, Abarsis and Deon, to heaven.

As the pairs walk away in hushed silence to drink or game or prayer or duty, and the fire burns down and the stars come out, Nikodemos approaches Tempus where he consoles Ari, his grieving Stepson, and others wait their turn.

Tempus breaks away to join him.  Some creature rustles in the grass and moves on, unseen.

“Commander, did Abarsis speak to you?  I thought he did.”

“He said, ‘It is hard to battle anger, for whatever it wants it pays from the soul.’  Did he not say it to you?”  This warning from the Stepsons’ patron shade is one of Tempus’s own sayings, from his days as Herakleitos, before he left Ephesos; before the curse….

“He did.  I just…wasn’t sure I really heard it.  Or that you heard it.  Or that we both heard the same.”

“The god still loves us, Niko.  Gods and men honor those who have fought in battle.”  Although not the only way to interpret this visit from Abarsis, at least it is one way, the time-honored way.

Then they see the Theban, Charon, consoling all his friends, young and old (touching arms, squeezing shoulders, embracing the distraught), helping where he can as tears finally flow freely, now that the remnants of this band of brothers have time to grieve among their own.  Forty-six fighters, mourning their two hundred and fifty-four lost heroes:  it’s critically important that the survivors not lose heart.

In change is rest.

As he had thought it long ago, he thinks it again.  Perhaps healing can begin now.  They have seen Tempus, alive and ‘well’ among them, a miracle in their terms.  They have seen the shade who loves the Stepsons take a soul to heaven.
Now, if the gods allow, his Thebans can start to mend, and rejoin the living.

© 2010, Paradise Publishing

Kommentar schreiben

Probehalber öffnen wir wieder den Gästezugang für Kommentare. Wir werden sehen, wie lang es dauert. Da diese nicht automatisch publiziert werden, kann es eine Weile dauern, bis diese freigeschaltet werden

Please notice: If you are not a registered user, your comments have to de moderated. It may be last some time till it appears ...

- Bitte nehmt Rücksicht auf andere und kommentiert zum Thema und bleibt sachlich...
- Rassistische und diskriminierende Kommentare werden nicht zugelassen
- Kommentare werden begutachtet und dann - unverändert - frei geschaltet.


- Nur noch Administratoren [SuperUsern] ist es gestattet Kommentare zu editieren - bitte den Zusatz mit einem geeigneten Wort wie "Edit" kennzeichnen - oder zu löschen

- Wer Kommentare entfernt haben möchte, wende sich bitte via Kontaktformular oder Mail an den Administrator. Dann wird darüber entschieden.

Sicherheitscode
Aktualisieren

Wir verwenden Cookies, um Inhalte zu personalisieren und die Zugriffe auf unsere Webseite zu analysieren. Indem Sie "Akzeptieren" anklicken ohne Ihre Einstellungen zu verändern, geben Sie uns Ihre Einwilligung, Cookies zu verwenden.