Lucian takes my arm and starts walking me from the circle. The waiting blacks move apart so we may pass and he heads us out and towards the grassland, away from the village.
Bring food, he instructs the old man sharply and cuts the link before a response could be made.
We walk in silence amongst the steady pressure of the wind and the whispering grasses. On a reasonable rise, he stops, takes a deep sigh and sits down, facing away from the circle, the standing horses, the burned village and their enemies invisible beyond the horizon, and looks out across the vast emptiness of the grassland beyond.
I sit next to him. Lower to the ground, the wind is a little less aggressive.
High above us is a tiny orange yellow sun, far away it seems, and the grassland stretches until it is blurring into itself and you can’t make out a dividing horizon at all between the blue green of the land and the grey blue of the sky. Perhaps there is none. Perhaps this place is the inside of a giant bowl. I don’t want to even think like that here, today.
“Do you have to kill them all?” I ask Lucian with some resignation.
He keeps his gaze steady out to the far away.
“What would you have me do instead?” he asks gently in reply.
I don’t know what else I would have him do. What alternatives were there? The horse people had served us truly and him and Sepheal too, King Malme and his knights way back when, for a long time indeed. They were a resource which was too valuable to risk to chance and further attack.
“Will you spare their women and children?”
He shrugs. “That depends on their values.”
For a moment I don’t understand, then I remember. Some peoples, some tribes had a strong tradition of blood that could never be broken, and even tiny children needed to be slain for they would grow up to be their father’s avengers for certain. Others did not have these values and just became what they grew up to become.
For the sake of us all, I seriously hoped it would be the second choice.
Behind us, the old man approaches. There is the boy with him and two women carrying a woven mat with what provisions had survived the looting and the attack. I follow Lucian’s lead and we ignore them. They are relieved, put down the mat and scramble away as fast as they can, the fate of the enemy warrior still strong and bloody in their memories.
“Does it always have to be like this?” I ask him, with a sigh.
He gets up and moves graciously down the hill to where the food lies amidst the grass. He picks up the gourd, a few of the meagre bits and returns to me, placing the dried food into my lap and sits down again, swirling the gourd and turning the ferment into our approximation of wine. Then he takes a long, slow drink of it.
I am very hungry but have no appetite. Listlessly, I chew on the unflavoured, unleavened breadlike substance in the shape of a large coin, and through the food I re-state my question, “With everyone being so afraid of us, wherever we go?”
He takes another drink and smiles fractionally. “To be sure, it does have its advantages.”
I take the gourd from him because the dry stuff is sticking in my throat. Lucian’s wine is not bad this day, a little too thick for my liking and nowhere near sweet enough but good for all that.
“I find it uncomfortable,” I say eventually.
He really smiles now and looks at me, his head slightly to one side.
“That could be because you still think of yourself as one of them, and not one of us.”
“The rulers.” He stops smiling and returns to the distance, his shoulders dropping slightly as he aligns himself with the emptiness, the space, the endless rushing wind and the unknowable horizons.
I shake my head and drink some more wine, pick up a shrivelled fruit and bite into it. It is rubbery and resistant to my teeth, tastes old and fermented. I make it turn to straw in my mouth and chew and swallow automatically, aided by some more wine. It is gently warming my stomach and easing the pressure of the wind in my head.
“How did we get to be the rulers?” I wonder out aloud and Lucian does not respond. I take a piece of cured meat, two coin breads and the remaining fruit from my lap, get up and move up closer to him, laying my head on his shoulder and trying to see what he saw when he looked at the nothing landscape that stretched beneath us and before us.
It caused him to briefly become aware of my existence and wake up enough to take the gourd from me, but he refused the food with a grimace.
I threw it out in front of us as a kind of offering to the sea of grass.
“When are you going?” I asked him.
He shot me a sideways glance, then reached back, put his arm about my shoulder and drew me to a level with him. I leaned into his embrace.
“You will let me go and do the killing by myself then,” he asked evenly and I felt myself blush.
I shook my head.
“I didn’t mean it like that. When are we going?”
The wind was blowing my hair across my face and he picked up a strand between his fingers and wrapped it around. The ring on his hand flashed its minute lightning strikes and I watched it in fascination.
“When the sun goes down.”
“Why so late?”
He sighed and released my hair.
“It is more dramatic. Lord of Darkness and all that.”
“But you are not,” I couldn’t help saying and caught his hand in mine. It was a very big hand. Big, strong bones. I had repaired this hand how many times now? And how many more would there be?
“Well,” he said with some dry amusement and I was glad he was not angered at my careless statement, “I am sure they don’t care in the end if they die looking up at the stars or at the sun. Dying is dying, in the end.”
When I did not respond, he added, “And you don’t need to keep being afraid that I will be angered by your words. My anger should be none of your concern.”
But it is. I am afraid of it, it kills me. It really hurts me.
That is a very strange thing. Why do you feel that way?
I don’t know. It’s like, not like you don’t love me anymore, more like, I have done something wrong.
You can do no wrong.
The very sincerity of his statement caused me a moment of the strangest sensation, a strange heat across my back and a fear, as well.
You do what you will. Say and speak your mind to me. If I anger, that is not your concern. Only mine.
You might hurt me in return.
I would hope that I shall not.
You might stop loving me.
I did not know how to respond to his certainty. It scared me and yet it pleased me, powered me in a way that I had never experienced before.
When did you decide this?
To love you? That was never my decision. I saw you. To speak freely of it and to admit it to me and you?
He paused and thought about it, and clearly a memory arose of a sea of pain, face pressed into shards and rubble, and a terrible sadness that if he was to die here this night, he would not be able to see the girl again.
I took his hand and kissed it gently. He watched me doing so and remained relaxed, passive. Beyond him, the orange sun was making its way towards the horizon, becoming more and more distorted and bigger as it did so.
“We might as well get on with it,” Lucian said aloud, retrieved his hand from mine and stood up, flexing his shoulders. As I didn’t rise right away, he turned and looked down at me.
“I will go by myself,” he said. “There is no need for you partake of what is essentially my business.”
The unspoken thought behind this statement included both the relationship with the horse people, as well as the divide – you always send the Lord Of Darkness to do your dirty work and you would stay at home, in your brightly lit palace, looking at pretty things, bright things, and never a picture of suffering and slaughter need interfere in your cosy dreams at all.
I rose fluently and faced him squarely.
“I will ride with you, my lord Tremain,” I said, formally and there was no doubt that he had hoped I would.
I hope it will not disturb you too much, he send with a touch of concern, and I couldn’t help but copy his dry laugh with precision.
I don’t think there’s much left for you to do and me to re-live that would disturb me at all, never mind too much.
He found this reply somewhat troublesome but chose not to get into this conversation, and instead started down the hill with even strides. I followed him and, with the eyes of many riveted on us both, endeavoured to keep up some form of elegance and composure that would befit a goddess or a queen. I didn’t make a very good job of it at all but they didn’t appear to notice.
The blacks still stood like statues apart from the odd flicking ear or swishing tail.
Two detached from their circle, stepping backwards, turning and approaching us. I recognised them both very well and both recognised me in turn. They were pleased to see me again, to catch my scent and both were ready to feel my most familiar weight on their backs once more, in spite of what I had put them through. Lucian took over with a too heavy control; I had no doubt he had a negative reaction of sorts at my relationship with what were his own horses although he suppressed it well enough.
He kneeled the left black for me so I could mount easily, and he himself mounted with elegance and powerful ease even in the absence of stirrups and tack.
Controlling both of the horses and me tightly, he exploded all four of us straight from the stand out and into the slow hills which were fading into the dusk, unravelling to clarity before us as though we were carrying a faint light of our own that went where we went, with the setting sun behind our backs.
It was actually nice to be horse born again. My black’s movements were totally familiar to me, one of many memories specific to one particular individual horse that looked just like the next and yet had his very own qualities, his very own way of running, his own length of stride and how he held his head and neck at any given kind of landscape before him. This was his world, he was made for running here, everything was right and so we flowed across the brown green dusk-softened grasses as though we were flying.
It was not long before we came across an abandoned campsite, fires in large, dug out safety areas still smouldering, and many items having been hastily discarded, including a couple of old women who sat clinging to each other amidst the grasses. Lucian did not even falter the horses strides; he killed them with a thought as we sped by, following the very obvious trail of feet, dragging and hooves out into the darkening, ever darkening lands beyond.
I had no idea of how these people could ever have hoped to hide from us here.
There was nowhere to hide. There were no trees behind which to cower, no caves into which you could recede, no rocks to shelter you. The darkness and the dragging mist might have been some help, but Lucian did not need his eyes to see them, nor did he need to look down onto the ground where they patterns were marked on all levels and where they had attempted to lay a false trail and go at right angles into the night.
They lay alone and in small family groups in the grasses, well away from their belongings and the best of the stolen things from the old man’s village and were praying to some elder gods and guides in shapes of animals. Some of them were praying to us for forgiveness too, and hearing their minds churning beneath the everlasting wind and Lucian’s quiet deadliness of volition by my side was disconcerting.
Abruptly, he halted the horses and warned me for a show of rearing. Duly, both the blacks screamed as one and reared with care and came back down onto all fours just before I slid right off the slippery, sweaty back.
In front of us, a bright red light appeared in the shape of an eight pointed star, the top and bottom reaching right to the ground and as high up as right into the night sky that was beginning to reveal a tight glitter of narrow stars, far, far above. The minds in the grass trembled in undoing and then Lucian’s call stood like a terrible fanfare to come to him for judgement.
One by one, against their will and in utter terror, the enemies of the horse people rose from the grass, illuminated red, like they were corpses from an ancient battlefield as stiffly lurched towards us.
There were probably about 50 of them all told and children included. Amongst them were young women who belonged to the other tribe, as terrified of us as the rest of them.
They assembled in an untidy bunch before the red star, with Lucian and me forming the corners of a triangle that contained them all, and I looked down upon them and saw nothing but people that were about to die, most likely in a particularly gruesome fashion.
I called to Lucian to halt this endeavours.
He was not surprised.
I thought that you would say something, sooner or later.
Lucian, there must be an alternative to this. Do you/we have to keep going on with this ….
This what? This our obligation? This our duty?
Torturing them and killing them is not our duty!
Would you have me let them go?
I thought about it. With the way things stood here, it was really not an option.
Can you not just execute those who led them into the division, into this war?
It tends to absolve the others from their responsibility.
But they had no say in the matter!
They could have chosen differently. They did have a say, and a do as well.
But not the children, surely!
Ah. You will always plead for the useless vermin.
I’m not pleading, Lucian. And they are not vermin. They are people, like we are.
Quite unlike what we are, my dear.
His amusement and condescension angered me deeply and yet at the same time, he was right of course. They were nothing like what we were. They did not have our power, our resources. It was ridiculously unfair.
Isca. My dearest. I will leave the decision as what is to be done here to you this night. I will leave it entirely to you. The decision and all the consequences. Will that suffice?
For a moment I was thought- and speechless. What was this, and yet, I could fully understand what he was doing. It is an easy thing to wail and moan, yet another altogether to accept the consequences with full understanding that it was your decision that caused things to be. Whatever I decided, and whatever the outcome, this night would be on my hands and all the days that would follow.
Lucian, you are very cruel.
So be it. I will think and make a decision. Will I have to implement it too?
I am at your command, my lady.
Oh but he really had me now. If there was any killing to be done, I would have to do it myself, even if I was to ask him to do it in my place. It would amuse him, to be sure, and would re-cement his opinion of me that I was nothing but a child.
I made an effort to pull myself together. Sternly, I told him, Have these people sit. Guard them. I will take a ride, away from here and consider. You will have my decision on my return.
His amusement made me grip the horses mane so tightly that the long suffering black gave a snort and a step back in protest and I had to bite my lip. I commanded the horse to move out into the dark grassland, beyond the range of where the blood red star shed its light, and drew the tightest sets of shields around me I knew how to construct.
I set the black to sweep in a large arc around the central point where the star stood like a beacon in the night and thought about the possibilities. The easiest was to just kill all the men and put the women and children back with the original village, hoping that it would be a long time until another tried to challenge the never ending servitude to those far away gods who never did a single thing for them in return.
Or, I could look through their minds and just precisely kill the ones who were responsible for it all, men or women, for I was under no illusion that the men could have done this thing without their wives support.
Mercy wasn’t something that these people had a great understanding of. They would simply consider us to be weak if we did not live up to their standards of terror.
Really, none of this would have happened if we had put in an appearance now and then. Lucian had not used them for anything much and had never visited here since he came with Sepheal, hundreds of years ago, dozens of generations. Legends fade and need to be re-drawn in fresh colours to make them stay strong and convincing. None of this, however, could help me with my current predicament.
There was no getting away from it. I would have to execute the ringleaders and all those who silently or not so silently had given their support.
The rest would be returned with all the goods to the main village and would help to reconstruct.
Together with a good strifing, that should do the trick.
I turned the horse back towards where Lucian sat relaxed and easy on the huge black and the trembling people clung to each other and their crying children.
He was watching me with great interest as I searched their minds. I marked each conspirator and when I had found them all, ordered them to their feet and had them move forward and face me, standing.
It was the overwhelming majority, including women with babies at their breasts and children clinging to their skirts.
I had sincerely hoped it would have been only one or two of the men.
Into their minds, I spoke clearly.
You may save your children.
The women turned back and handed their babies over to those who had remained in the kneeling position before the unwavering red star. The older children struggled and cried and clung and some of the oldest refused to be separated from their mothers and fathers at all. I considered and allowed them to stand with their doomed progenitors.
There was about half of them left now, and some fell to their knees to try and beg for mercy.
I sympathised with their predicament but the choice had been made a long time ago.
I pronounced the accusation, and the judgement. The words came to me easily and the phrases formed smoothly.
“You are guilty of high treason against the Lords of this land. For your punishment and for the education of those who come after you, you will die this night. May the fires of your suffering be a warning to others.”
I called lightning from the sky and had the first be struck, the leader of the tribe, a big man who had kept an impassive face throughout the proceedings so far. It was an extraordinary thing. The brilliant blue white crack appeared, sought and found its target and set the man on fire instantly, shaking him violently, his screams mingling with the screams of the onlookers. I kept the lightning in place until the man had been reduced to a charred doll that fell apart before it hit the ground when I finally withdrew it.
One of the group, a brother to the man, was about to step forward to declare himself to be next, an act of defiance and heroism that would have made good fodder for a song and tale if he had been given a chance. As it was, the lightning struck him before he so much as could raise a foot or open his mouth. One by one, with care, I worked through the condemned until the last, a young boy of perhaps ten or eleven, who had changed his mind a while back about the wisdom of standing with your elders but for whom the realisation had come unfortunately a few minutes too late. I felt sorry for him and blew him apart in an instant, saving him the suffering of the others and creating for the onlookers a memorable finale to the performance.
Into the whimpering, gasping silence that followed, I said,
“Remember this night. Return to your duties. It has been done.”