Prince Teluko threw back the flap of his tent and surveyed the remnants of his brother’s once mighty army. A cold drizzle fell over the hills from low gray clouds. He wore no helmet or hood. Rain soaked his hair and pattered against the steel of his armor. He looked over his shoulder in the direction of Tanshe-Arat, the Home-in-Exile where his wife and daughter awaited his return. But he knew he would never see their faces or the beauty of his city again in this life.
Teluko closed his eyes and listened to the rain and the sounds of the army around him: weary men speaking in hushed tones, the quiet whickering of the horses, the creak of wagons moving across wet earth. His anger drained out of him. Nothing remained but an overwhelming sadness. They would be obliterated by their enemy. They had already suffered two crushing defeats that had killed more than half of their men. The coming battle would be the last.
He heard steps behind him. Teluko opened his eyes and turned to face Suvendis, his chief war priest. “My prince, we should speak,” said Suvendis. He regarded Teluko from beneath the crimson hood of his robe, pulled down low over his blue skullcap. He gripped the witchwood staff at his side with fingers so gnarled they seemed carved of the wood itself. His expression was stoic, unflinching, but Teluko knew him better than anyone save Suvendis’s companion priests, and the prince knew the older man was troubled. And who would not be troubled in times like these? Teluko wondered.
Teluko nodded and followed Suvendis into the priests’ tent. A servant hurried to the prince as soon as he entered and offered a cup of wine. Teluko took the cup and drained half of it, then dropped down into a small folding chair beside the long plank table, its scarred surface covered with maps and candles, where his other priests waited. He drank more of the wine, then held out his nearly empty cup. At once another servant appeared and refilled it.
The priests all regarded him with the same guarded expression Suvendis had worn; as with Suvendis, Teluko could sense concern and worry in all of them. They consider themselves to be more than the rest of our people, different and somehow better — and in some ways they are — but when faced with the annihilation of our race they feel the same fear as the rest of us. They all bowed and took their places across from him.
The prince took another sip of wine. “Suvendis said we should speak.”
“We need to plan for the morrow, my prince,” said Hodentu, the youngest. “The Atalari will arrive by mid-afternoon. Most likely they’ll deploy their front lines to the north and south in an attempt to contain our flanks.”
“And what do you suggest?” asked Teluko. “There’s nothing but open land behind these hills. If we don’t stand here, then where? At the very foot of our homes?”
“My Prince, we must do something,” said Hodentu.
“My brother lies near death,” he said. “His own priests have refused to let me see him. This is where he commanded us to come before he collapsed on the field. I have no authority to change that unless he dies or commands me to take control of our forces. There’s nothing else to be done.”
“The king’s wound was a grievous one,” said Odalendë, his deep voice rumbling from the shadows of his hood like the grinding of boulders. He was a huge man, tall and broad and thick; his neck was nearly as big around as one of Teluko’s thighs. “It has been five days since he was struck. I fear he may be dead and that his priests are holding that from us to keep the army from complete despair.”
“My brother is not dead,” said Teluko. “I would have felt his death. The bond between us is deep, deeper than even the closeness of being twins.”
“The king’s priests have been working strange magic whose purpose I cannot fathom,” said Suvendis. “When I was refused entry to the king’s tent I sensed powerful forces within. I don’t know their purpose, and Nanjelkir told me nothing.”
The name of Asankaru’s chief war priest set Teluko’s teeth on edge. Nanjelkir was the one who earlier had refused Teluko entry to his brother’s tent, saying it was the command of the king that he receive no visitors.
“It’s not fair,” said Gythero, second in authority after Suvendis. “We have the right in this!”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Suvendis. “Might is all that is important, and might is the one thing we do not have this day.”
“Fairness and rightness had never been part of our dealings with the Atalari,” said Teluko. Their histories told that the Atalari had always hated and feared them. They could not understand why the People of Theros chose to live underground and believed all manner of sinister motives for that choice, even after the reasons were explained to them. Our eyes and skin do not love the sun’s light or its heat, Teluko thought. We are better suited to the cool caverns beneath the mountains, and see best by the light of our lamps. When they walked above ground it was in twilight and darkness. Why was that so difficult to understand?
When the Atalari discovered that Teluko’s people could know their thoughts with a touch of the flesh, their initial distrust blossomed into fear and hatred. No matter that this power made learning the language of the Atalari simple, so that the two peoples could better speak and understand one another. That did not matter. It was a power the Atalari did not have, something they had never before encountered, and it shook the confidence of their Nation and filled them with dismay.
After a time there was open war between them. The People of Theros were driven from the north, out of the lands claimed by the Atalari, and created their Home-in-Exile.
The tent flap was thrown back. A figure entered, unannounced, his hood pulled low to conceal his face.
“The king has awakened and summons his younger brother,” said Tageluron, another of Asankaru’s war priests.
“Lower your hood and bow to the prince!” demanded Suvendis. “It is your place to show respect, Tageluron!”
Slowly, the other war priest lowered his hood and inclined his head at Teluko.
The prince rose. “Tell my brother I’ll be along soon. I haven’t finished conferring with my priests.”
“The king has commanded —”
Teluko raised his hand, but did not look at Tageluron. “I’ve given you my reply. I’ve tolerated your rudeness but you will not question me. I am not yours to command, though you may think otherwise. Now leave us. We have important matters to discuss that do not concern you.” He turned his back to Tageluron and took his seat.
Tageluron did not move. He was about to speak again when Teluko said, “If you do not leave at once I’ll have you whipped for disobedience. I am still a Prince of our people, and you will obey me or be punished!”
His brother’s war priest lingered a moment longer, then left the tent without another word.
“They grow arrogant beyond measure,” said Suvendis.
“They follow my brother’s lead.” He finished his wine and placed the empty cup on the table.
There was little more to say. The army was encamped on the eastern edge of the Beltharos, a wooded, hilly country that stretched all the way to the great cliff into which Tanshe-Arat had been delved. This is where they would make their stand when their enemy came. There would be no further retreat.
Suvendis and Gythero accompanied the prince to his brother’s tent. It was the largest in the army and the only one dyed scarlet, with gold and silver patterns worked into the fabric. Framing the tent flap were two tall pylons of black belku wood carved with incantations of protection and words of blessing taken from the tablets of Theros himself, the Lord-Father who first united the Nine Clans and made them a true people.
The rain had stopped. Gray tendrils of mist drifted above the ground and curled over the tops of the hills like specters of the dead. After he was announced, Teluko went to his brother and knelt. “I’m glad you have recovered, my king.”
Asankaru, propped up on a narrow bed near a glowing brazier beneath one of the three tent poles, gestured for his brother to stand. “Leave us,” he said to the war priests and servants. “My brother and I must speak alone.”
Teluko rose and looked at his brother steadily, the first time he had seen him in days. The king looked surprisingly hale. His wounding had been terrible: an Atalari spear had been driven completely through his upper chest, just below his collar bone. Teluko had not seen his brother fall — he and his legions had been furiously trying to keep their lines from breaking beneath the sheer weight of the Atalari onslaught — but when the hail and lightning abruptly stopped he knew at once that something had happened to the king. Invigorated, the Atalari surged forward and hacked their way through their forward lines, splitting the army in two. The call for a retreat to these hills had come moments later, the final order given by Asankaru before he lapsed into unconsciousness.
His wound was heavily bandaged in white linen that bound his left arm across his chest. The king’s face, though thinner and with a fringe of beard along his jaw, was lively and full of color. His eyes, the same deep silver color as his brother’s, glinted beneath his dark brows. “You look well, my King.”
“I have my priests to thank. If not for them I would have died.”
“Suvendis felt strange energies here while your priests tended to your wound, but he didn’t recognize the power they used. Is this some new thing they’ve devised? They would not speak to Suvendis, but if you —”
“I’ve no desire to speak of priestly powers,” he said. “It matters not how they healed me; what matters is that I am healed and prepared to lead our people once again. But I’ve lost precious time. I summoned you so that you could tell me your plans for our victory against the Atalari.”
“Victory? There are no plans for victory, Asankaru! All we can hope to do is hurt them enough before we’re destroyed so that they won’t take this war to our homes and slaughter our wives and our children!” A blinding rage rose in him. “How dare you speak of victory! It’s your arrogance that has brought us to the very edge of ruin!”
The king’s right hand clenched into a trembling fist. “Throw down your weapon and flee if you must, but the battle is not yet over, and I’ll hear no more of defeat!”
“You may not wish to hear of defeat, but that is what we face. What you’ve brought us to. You thought your powers as a Storm King would swing the balance in our favor even against a mightier foe, but you were wrong. I told you this would happen, I told you my visions showed me this plan of yours was doomed to fail, but you wouldn’t listen. Three times I dreamed of this doom. Three! Never before have I had three visions. But still you wouldn’t heed me. Your faith has always been in your powers, your strength, but this time they are not enough. I know because I’ve seen it. Deny it all you want, but when the Atalari destroy us it will be on your head.”
Asankaru, his teeth clenched, said, “I could have you executed for what you just said to me.”
“It matters little. If you don’t, the Atalari soon will. But if you have me killed it’s because you’re too weak to hear the truth. Certainly your sniveling war priests won’t tell it to you.” He shook his head, his mouth suddenly dry. “If Father were alive he would have never let you go to war.”
“That’s a lie! He’s the one who told me that one day we would grow strong enough to reclaim what the Atalari had taken from us.”
“I remember his words, Asankaru, and they were not spoken in earnest. He was trying to quell your hurt at finding we were not the mightiest people in the world. You were always proud, and his words were meant to soothe, not ignite a fire in you. If he’d known his words would lead to this he would have bitten off his tongue before speaking them.”
“You don’t know –-”
“No, Asankaru, I do know. I remember when you decided to field a great army to attack at the heart of the Atalari. ‘They’ve all but forgotten us,’ you said. ‘If we strike quickly and kill their Matriarch their army will crumble and turn inward to defend their borders. We’ll be able to return to our lost homes and live in peace.’ I thought it unwise but held my tongue. But after my visions I did speak out, only to have you accuse me of being craven and letting fear overwhelm me. You listen to me when my visions suit your needs and ignore me when they do not. You have doomed us all.”
“Your visions are not always clear,” Asankaru said. “You have been wrong in your interpretations before.” Some of the heat had left his voice, but anger still burned in his eyes.
“It’s been many years since I was wrong about a vision,” he said. “I am not wrong about this.”
“Despite your words, you don’t know how this will end,” said his brother. “We will be victorious. I’ve not been brought back from the brink of death only to fail now.”
“You delude yourself,” said Teluko with disgust. He turned to leave, then faced his brother once more. “Perhaps you were right. Perhaps I was craven. If I’d been braver I should have killed you when you refused to listen to me. It would have been a small price to pay to save our people.” Without asking the king’s permission, Teluko stormed out of the tent.
Suvendis and Gythero hurried to catch up with the prince, whose sudden exit caught them at unawares. “My prince, we heard shouting,” said Suvendis. “What is the command of the king?”
Teluko’s boots sank into the muddy earth as he marched back to his tent. He knew his priests had heard every word spoken; only a deaf man could have failed to hear. But they did not presume to point out that they had heard, waiting instead for the prince to speak. Soldiers saluted or bowed to him as he passed, but he paid them no heed.
He marched into his tent and shouted for wine. He gulped down the full cup that was handed to him and flung it to the ground. “I knew what would happen yet I followed him anyway,” he murmured. “I am at least as guilty as he is. Perhaps more so, because I knew with absolute certainty how this folly would end, where Asankaru at least has the excuse of his terrible pride.”
“My prince, are you all right?” asked Hodentu. “What did the king say to you?”
“Nothing that matters,” he said.
* * *
It rained again during the night, a heavy downpour that drummed noisily on Teluko’s tent. He slept little, and the few dreams he had were dark and troubled. By morning the storm had passed, though dark clouds still hung in the sky, blocking the sun and leeching the color from the world, so that everything seemed sad and gray and dying.
Teluko had heard nothing from Asankaru. He no longer knew what to expect of him. His brother was mad with his hatred of the Atalari; it consumed him like a fever. The prince did not understand it. Asankaru had never even seen an Atalari until he began his doomed campaign. Thousands of years had passed since the People of Theros had been forced from their homes beneath the mountains in the north, half a world away. The story was full of legend and myth, the true accounts lost over the long reach of time.
“My prince, we should pray before the battle begins.” He turned to face Suvendis, then nodded. “I’ll pray to my father for guidance. I feel he’s near me.”
“Of course he’s near. Our dead remain with us, to watch and protect us from the Unseen Powers.” “I wish he would appear to Asankaru and tell him what he has done is folly.”
“My prince, you know that we cannot see the dead. They are here, but not as —”
Teluko smiled at the priest. “So earnest! Of course I know that. Although it’s said the Atalari can sometimes see the spirits of our dead.”
Suvendis scowled. “In the old scrolls it’s written that the spirits they saw terrified them. They accused us of consorting with demons and other creatures of darkness. Their own beliefs are repugnant, if what’s written is true. They believe their dead journey to some distant place where they live in the glory of their gods and wait to be joined by those still living once they die. I do not understand it. Why would they want to leave the world where they had lived?”
“This world is all I want after death. Once I am dead, I will return to Tanshe-Arat and watch and guard my wife and daughter.” “As it should be.”
They knelt together, and Teluko prayed.
Father, protect our people in the days to come. I know this army will perish, but guard those we’ve left behind against our enemies. Asankaru has awakened their terrible might, and I fear in their blinding rage they will not stop until they’ve killed us all. How he wished for the power of his enemies, that he might speak to his father for just a moment.
He opened his eyes just as the war horns sounded.
* * *
The Atalari army would arrive within hours. Teluko wandered among his men, speaking small words of encouragement he hoped sounded sincere. His soldiers were not fools and knew they had little chance of surviving the coming battle, but a commander could not speak of defeat, no matter how certain it was. He did not speak of victory — such a lie was beyond him — but he told his men he believed in their bravery and the courage in their hearts. “We must be strong when the Atalari come,” he said.
Asankaru did not leave his tent. The scouts who had sounded the war horns went immediately to the king upon their arrival and remained with him for a long while.
Word reached the prince that the Atalari cavalry had grown to more than three thousand, and that at least three thousand foot soldiers had joined the army since their last battle. Despair filled him when he heard the reports. They will roll across us like an avalanche, he thought.
“Have Echareil brought to me,” the prince said to a servant. He pulled on his gauntlets and left his tent. A second servant handed the prince his helmet.
He mounted his warhorse and patted the animal’s armored neck. “This will be our last ride together, I fear,” he whispered.
He trotted toward the front lines on the northern flank. He had positioned two of his legions on low hills that swept upward to the west with a narrow valley between them, choked with brush and small trees. The Atalari would be forced to make a direct assault up the slopes of the hills to reach them. Teluko’s archers would inflict heavy casualties, and the lines of entrenched soldiers would be able resist an uphill attack for a long time. But in the end, the overwhelming numbers and magic of the Atalari would win the day. The powers of his war priests would not hold against the sorceries of their enemy.
But we will hurt them, thought the prince. We will make them rue this day for as long as their memory endures.
His war priests followed him on their black steeds. Neither the priests nor their horses wore armor of any kind. Each held his staff easily in the crook of an arm. They said nothing as they kept pace with the prince. He knew they were slipping into the trances that would ease their ability to call their magic and speak to one another with their thoughts, a power unique to those who underwent the secret rituals of their priesthood.
He heard some of the soldiers near him joking. It was good to hear men laugh at a time like this, and the prince smiled.
His priests spread out in a line across the hills and stood completely still, as if time around them had stopped.
He heard men call out and looked to the east. Horsemen raced toward them, sounding their horns. They were Asankaru’s scouts, and their appearance meant the Atalari were not far behind.
It did not take long for the Atalari army to appear. A line of armored horsemen formed the van, moving at a quick but steady pace. A low rumble like far off thunder reached him a few seconds later. Even in the dim light, their armor shimmered like rainbows, a sign of their inherent power, a shifting swirl of colors that the prince even now could not deny was beautiful to behold.
He felt a tightening in his chest. He heard a murmur run through the soldiers around him, and saw them point toward the king’s tent.
Asankaru had emerged in full armor, surrounded by his war priests. His left arm was no longer bound against him. The king looked at his army and raised his hands. His priests enclosed him in a circle and leaned their staffs toward him, the steel ferrules resting lightly on the sodden grass.
“Proud warriors of the People of Theros, this will be our final battle against our enemy!” His war priests used their powers to carry his voice across the hills so that to each man it sounded as if the king stood no more than a few feet away. “There are some that would have you believe this battle cannot be won, that we have already lost. But I tell you that you are better than that! I know your hearts, I know what you are capable of doing! It was I who failed you. I was not strong enough to do what was needed, and I almost perished because of my weakness. But no more! I will not fail you again! Prepare yourselves! Victory is ours!”
He threw back his head and shouted their ancient war cry, “Ei valros tehu Theros!”
Teluko realized his brother was mad. There was no victory to be had here. Asankaru could not face what was about to happen. Even with the Atalari army rushing toward them like a flood of death, he continued to believe they could somehow win the day.
Perhaps he said what he did to lift the hearts of these men before they die, thought the prince. He knew it was something he would never have been able to say. The words would have choked in his throat. He could not have brought himself to utter such a terrible lie. In that regard, his brother was much more suited to be king than he. Teluko could not inspire men; he thought and spoke far too literally to win hearts.
Asankaru threw back his head and unleashed his power as a Storm King, the first to be born to his people in more than five hundred years.
Teluko saw the power pour up from the earth and through his brother’s body. Crackling sparks of energy danced around Asankaru’s head like a swirling halo of stars. Even from this distance Teluko could feel the charge in the air; the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. The clouds above his brother thickened and grew darker as he bent them to his will. Wind gusted toward the Atalari army, whose foot soldiers — their spears bristling like a moving forest of steel-crowned trees — were now visible behind the charge of cavalry.
Asankaru’s war priests began an incantation. Teluko could sense the power on the hilltop surge to an almost unimaginable level. Their staffs shimmered with dancing blue light.
He heard Suvendis shout to him but could not make out the words, though it sounded like a warning, or cry of surprise.
What are they doing? he wondered. He’d never seen anything like this before.
Then a vast amount of energy exploded from Asankaru. The force of it shook the earth. Echareil staggered and whinnied in fright as he struggled to keep his balance. Around the prince, soldiers toppled or fell to their hands and knees.
What have they done? he wondered. Never before had the war priests been able to augment Asankaru’s powers as a Storm King. They were different magics drawn from different sources. What he was seeing should not have been able to happen.
They must have changed him when he was wounded and near death. The strange powers Suvendis sensed. It was the only explanation. Something that altered him, or them, or both, so that their powers could be used together. He wondered what price his brother had paid for such a transformation.
He looked up and saw the result of this impossible blending of magics. It was as if an inky curtain of night had fallen across the hills. The storm clouds Asankaru had created were as black as pitch and spread across the sky like a growing stain. The dark air took on a greenish cast as lightning flashed within the clouds. The thunderclaps were immediate and deafening. The storm was larger by far than anything Asankaru had ever before created. It awed and frightened Teluko to witness it, and for a moment his heart fluttered with hope that they might indeed conquer their foes.
But I had three visions of our doom! he thought. Was it possible he was wrong, that he had somehow misread the dreams that had haunted him? Perhaps it is only my own doom I saw, my own death in this place. He doubted himself, doubted his powers for the first time in years.
The magic of the storm continued to build, a charge in the air that rode upon the wind but was not truly of it. Lightning licked down from the clouds and struck the Atalari cavalry, followed by fist-sized balls of hail that smashed their helms and shimmering armor.
The prince looked at his brother and understood the price he was paying for such power. The king himself was little more than a blurry shape within the column of energy that roared up into the sky. The war priests kept their staffs aimed at the king, funneling their own power into his own. But it was too much — it would kill Asankaru in a little while if he continued at this rate. He simply could not contain it.
Three tornadoes spiraled down from the black clouds. They touched the ground and blasted dirt and debris into the air, then churned their way toward the front lines of the Atalari.
All around the prince the soldiers shouted, “The Storm King! The Storm King!”
Teluko whirled his sword above his head and cried, “Asankaru! For the king!” Then he spurred Echareil toward battle and wondered — truly wondered, for he no longer trusted his visions — how this day would end.