General Nestlor felt as old as the world.
Which, he reflected gloomily, is almost certainly what everyone else thinks as well. Still, they must think I’m pretty far gone if they think I’ll let this blistering idiocy stand.
Thirty years ago, when he’d led the alliance of the old ways against Xenegesh’s growing empire, no-one could have convinced Nestlor of anything but his own invincibility. Powerful, virile, charismatic, he’d been the very image of a perfect Arakul. Millions had flocked to him when he’d let it be known that he would not bow to the usurper and his new-fangled ways.
But that had been a long time ago. Nestlor was fifty-seven years old now, and every old battle-scar seemed to ache. Every small draft in his yurt seemed like a bloody gale. He was still a physical match for almost any Arakul in the great armies of Xenegesh, but he couldn’t run a bull Malkadon to ground any more, and any time anyone hit him it throbbed for hours. Still, he was in many ways a different man to the man he’d been back then. Back then he’d been full of ideas and promises and dreams. He’d called Xenegesh and usurper and the upstart and all sorts of other things. Now he was one of Xenegesh’s Generals. His chosen sons and daughters, as the Supreme Lord himself tended to say. At times he’d even thought himself high in Xenegesh’s Counsel. The point being, once he’s dreamed of preserving the ancient ways. Now he was busy stamping them flat and just hoping that a few managed to hang in there. He’d been a dreamer. And now he was a pragmatist.
And there were two turd-brained idiots standing in front of him. He leaned on his desk and glowered at Battle-group commanders Kohan and Belagash. They’d come in about ten minutes before, being herded by Nestlor’s strongmen and yelling insults at each other. Nestlor had unceremoniously told them to shut up and had then ignored them for as long as it took to make them feel like whipped pups. And sure enough, they were looking distinctly sheepish and uneasy as he turned his baleful glower on them.
“So, the question I have to ask,” he growled, “is whether you two are actively attempting to undermine me and yourselves, or whether you are so bloody stupid that it didn’t actually occur to you to think about your actions.”
Belagash was slightly the more stupid, it turned out, because he was the one who tried to argue the point.
“My lord General, Battle group commander Kohan has insulted me and my tribe. I demand-”
Nestlor’s fist smashed into the desk with such force that both men jumped in surprise.
“Alright, you pair of daft puppies, since I am forced to explain this to you, I will start with tradition. Since we’ve only had the new ways for oh, I don’t know, thirty odd years, I will go back to the ancient traditions that you grew up with, and which as you know I have a great fondness for. Do either of you have the room in your heads for the Oath of Brotherhood?”
It was Kohan who replied this time.
“All Arakul are brothers when war with the weak races beckons.”
Nestlor nodded slowly.
“Yes. Exactly. And then again, my regulations are quite clear. There are to be no hostilities between my officers. Any complaints among senior command will be dealt with by me. Now, leaving aside the fact that you two trashed a senior command mess yurt with your original spat, my sources are now telling me you’ve been gearing up your Battle groups to attack each other!
Belagash decided to be an idiot again.
“But my lord General, you must understand-”
“I understand,” snarled Nestlor, “that you both command a hundred million men. Between you that is full twenty percent of the entire Seventh Division! And you were ready to drag two entire battle-groups into a ruinous war with ourselves for your own bloody egos!”
The two commanders at least had the grace to look embarrassed. Nestlor sighed and leaned back in his Malkadon-pelt throne.
“There are two thousand Hasturex not six days sail from us here,” he said quietly, “and somehow they’ve got wind of this. No doubt from our friend the Grand Hierophant. And their commander’s been pestering me for two days. He wants the Hasturex to take control of the situation, which I assume means dragging you two geniuses away to be tortured until you aren’t even the same shape you went in!”
The two commanders now look terrified. Nestlor sighed again.
“Do you know how much effort it took to convince Xenegesh not to affix a permanent battalion of Hasturex to this Division? I argued with him, not at small risk, for a long while. I told him that the most veteran Division in his army didn’t need his scythe-wielding psychopaths babysitting them. Every other General has at least ten thousand of them following him about. I told Xenegesh I could handle my own internal affairs and this is how my trust in my officers is repaid?”
He stood up and leaned across the desk at the two ashen commanders.
“The Hasturex would have cut you into tiny pieces and fed you to the crows by now. I’m going to give you a second chance which you clearly do not deserve. Both of your battle-group will be assigned to rear echelon duties until I’m satisfied. Which may be some time. Now, remove yourselves from my sight and from my encampment before I decide to do something sensible and have you both executed.”
The two turd-brains almost fell over each other in their efforts to get out of the yurt. After they had gone, Nestlor relaxed slowly and regarded the fragile flames flickering in his salt-crystal candle-holders. Some of the Generals were getting all het-up about the sorcerous glowing orbs that the priesthood used to light their lairs, but Nestlor’s traditionalist tastes ran deeper than keeping an arms-length between himself and the scythe-wielding loons. he didn’t care for metal command-centres lit by sickly-green magical globs. He didn’t much care for sorcery at all, not when there were perfectly good swords available.
Mind you, that was, he’d always thought, the reason that Xenegesh valued him at all. Nestlor’s victories were second only to the Supreme Lord’s own, and since that long-lost day on the battle-wracked tundras of Karmadon, when Xenegesh had held him at sword-point and spared him, he’d bluntly told Xenegesh the truth. It was why the Seventh Division was allowed to continue in ways that some of the others held to be distasteful old fashioned. Nestlor had never been afraid of Xenegesh, and that lack of fear made him a usefully truthful ally.
Except that these days, it seemed that Xenegesh might be tiring of hearing Nestlor’s often adversarial counsel. He still accorded him high honours and spoke to him and of him as a friend and respectfully, and to anyone else the Supreme Lord’s aloof and cold demeanour was unchanged, but Nestlor could feel the differences. Just a few occasions where he had not been consulted, or politely refused audience. And then, there was the rise of the new men.
Jarlok. Mornghast. Khallankar.
Nestlor could barely stand to be around them. They were all twenty years his junior, but that wasn’t the problem. There were others of that age that he held dear. No, it was their entire attitude. They’d been barking pups when he’d been leading armies in the Unification Wars. Not only did this give him a rather distasteful view of their shameless and untempered ambition, it also meant that they’d never really been exposed to the old ways. They were boys in Xenegesh’s court, and they’d been more or less weaned on the new ways. Which in itself wasn’t the issue as such… but without a background in the traditional Arakul values the new regimes didn’t make any sense. The idea of uniformity and the greater destiny needed to be couched in an understanding of the Ancient Oaths and the gods of Fire and Ice. And that was the trouble. The new men didn’t seem to believe in anything, either gods or codes of conduct. They were without faith or honour. It made them efficient commanders, and in their careers they’d all managed staggering numbers of impressive victories. The downside was that without those older ideals, they were exactly what the weaker races thought the Arakul to be: cruel and treacherous savages.
Which was, in many respects, why Nestlor had a sizeable pile of intelligence reports on the great Karhwood desk in front of him. He’d made no secret of the disdain he held them all in, especially the vile Mornghast, and he didn’t think them above retribution. He had an entire network of loyal scouts keeping eyes on the movements of those Generals and their forces. He feared terribly that one of them would strike at him and force him to retaliate, which would utterly shatter the Oath of Brotherhood. As long as he fought alongside them, at least he would be able to keep that sacred duty at least roughly intact. He knew that the loathing he felt for them was at best a distortion of the Oath, but at least he kept to the letter of it. All he hoped for in that respect that a time would come when the war against the weaker races was concluded, at which point he would happily gut all three of the awful creatures.
The flap of Nestlor’s yurt was pulled back, starting him from his reverie. He kept his eyes on the reports in front of him, though he focused at the top of the scrolls of parchment, keeping the flap at the top of his field of vision. He hadn’t summoned anyone, and he was interested to see who would enter his presence without a summons. The vague uneasy notion that it might be an assassin was what kept him in a position of seeming distraction.
A tall, whip thin Arakul with sickly glowing green eyes and ornate dark blue painted patterns on the fur of his face stepped silently into the yurt. He wore simple black robes with a single, strange symbol hanging from a silver chain around his neck. It was an unsettling mess of curving lines and shapes which seemed to deflect the eyes continually, and which was unhelpfully referred to by those who wore it as the Untranslatable Sign. In any case, the wearer was wearisomely well known to Nestlor, and frankly he’d have preferred an assassin.
“Grand Hierophant,” he said without much effort at sounding welcoming.
The Grand Hierophant inclined his head silently and stalked soundlessly across to the desk. He seated himself in one of the Karhwood chairs. Nestlor regarded him and wished he could be bothered to conceal his sour expression. He’d managed to keep the Hasturex off of his back, but that he seemingly made their superiors, the Priesthood proper even more intent on meddling with his affairs. Xenegesh had refused to extend his indulgence as far as the sinister clergy, and Nestlor often had the suspicion that he had the dubious pleasure of the wiry supreme priest’s company more often than any of the other Generals. The man’s unsettling ability to appear without warning without a ship to have brought him did nothing to allay Nestlor’s unease.
“General,” replied the Grand Hierophant in his whispering, sibilant voice which nonetheless seemed to be delivered directly into Nestlor’s ear, “I hear you’ve had a problem with some of your senior officers.”
“Always to the point, Hierophant,” Nestlor said with a stiff chuckle, “and yes. Something of a disagreement over honour. It has been resolved.”
The Grand Hierophant regarded him, unblinking.
“I appreciate that you prefer to work outside the regular disciplinary chains,” he hissed, “but I would like to offer the assistance of my Hasturex in chastening these errant commanders.”
Nestlor forced a smile.
“Thankyou. That’s kind. But as I said, the issue is settled.”
The Grand Hierophant’s unblinking stare did not falter.
“Still, they have violated important regulations at an critical moment, General,” he said, “my Hasturex could make a quick but lasting example of them.”
Nestlor scowled.
“Both men are capable commanders, priest. And I have disciplined them. The offence will not be repeated, and I know that both men will work all the harder to restore themselves to my good graces.”
“As you wish.”
Nestlor sighed heavily.
“We both know that isn’t why you’re here. Our differences regarding the command and discipline processes are nothing new. So what can I do for you?”
The Grand Hierophant rose noiselessly to his feet and paced to examine Nestlor’s trophies.
“Nothing, really. I was due to come here anyway. There are rumours, General. Rumours of secret cabals practicing the old ways, of shamans holding to the old ritual and superstition.”
Nestlor chuckled.
“I think you’re jumping at shadows. Xenegesh banned shamanism thirty years ago, along with the rest of the old rituals. Any shaman left practicing would be an old man by now. Hardly a lasting problem.”
The Grand Hierophant’s gaze snaked around from the Malkadon tusk he was apparently looking at to regard Nestlor.
“It would be if they were secretly training apprentices. My Hasturex have found several small groups training such apprentices in a number of Divisions. Obviously, they have been put to the sword. But given your dislike of Hasturex involvement, I’ve had to move several of my priests into your Division’s encampments to search. Obviously, with the power of my priests at work it shouldn’t take as long.”
Nestlor carefully refused to show his annoyance. He knew full well what the Grand Hierophant was playing at. He was showing Nestlor that barring the Hasturex from his army hadn’t stopped the Priesthood from exerting its claws.
“However,” said the priest suddenly, “there is a matter I should discuss with you. You issued the General order to advance yesterday. Your units are currently mobilising.”
Nestlor frowned.
“What of it?”
The Grand Hierophant turned away and leaned in to look closely at the Malkadon tusk.
And then suddenly he was standing directly over Nestlor, leaning into his face, his blazing green eyes only a snout-length away.
“You gave a benediction. You said ‘may the gods of Fire and Ice go with you’. Hardly an appropriate message to send to a billion soldiers when we have so carefully weaned them off of their superstitious old ways.”
Nestlor snarled and surged to his feet, forcing the Grand Hierophant to give way.
“It was a simple turn of phrase, priest! I was raised with that benediction, and all it was taken to mean was good luck. I speak a good luck charm, and what? You believe I am harbouring shamans? Or is this just another way of attempting to get your priests a permanent home in my army?”
The Grand Hierophant met his gaze unblinkingly.
“Calm yourself, General. I meant no offence. I simply suggest that in future you think more carefully on what you say. I believe that the Supreme Lord is an agreement. And having delivered that message, I will be about my business.”
He turned and began to slink silently away. Nestlor called after him.
“Who are you, Grand Hierophant? Every time we speak I ask myself. You stamp out the gods of Fire and Ice and yet you call yourself priest. Who is it, I wonder, that you worship?”
The Grand Hierophant looked back, his unfathomable green gaze meeting Nestlor’s.
“I am the Grand Hierophant. If I had another name it is unimportant. And perhaps that title is simply a turn of phrase.”
Nestlor smiled tightly at having his own words thrown back at him as the priest slunk out of the yurt.
The General flexed his muscles, gathered up his sabre, and then headed for the flap of the yurt.

The day was overcast outside, and a biting wind was banging around the high moorland. Much as his tolerance of it wasn’t as great as it might have been, Nestlor still appreciated the reminder of home. He ignored the hammering cold as it lashed at his flesh and made his greatcoat billow out behind him. As he wandered across the parade ground before his yurt he received hundreds of perfect salutes from the veteran troops drilling and running weapons maintenance. Nestlor nodded and made comments to random soldiers as he passed. Nestlor was nothing if not a man who led from the front, and he held that the day he didn’t make time for his soldiers would probably be the day that he took a blade that a more appreciated soldier would have made an extra effort to block. Not that disloyalty would be a problem with the soldiers in this area: in principal, the ten thousand troops garrisoned in the inner command area were his personal bodyguards, but Nestlor didn’t much care for wandering about his own camp surrounded by a great crowd of cronies. He couldn’t get the mood of the men if his appearance was heralded by a legion of heavily armed flunkies. He only called upon them in battle, and even then he drove a lot of the senior bodyguards to distraction by insisting on standing right in the middle of the front rank alongside his standard. If nothing else, it gave him a better view of what was going on.
Nestlor strolled through the hundreds of yurts of the bodyguards, across the edge of the moorland, and stood on the abrupt cliff edge that he’d decided to station himself on. Five hundred feet below, a warmer plain of a light blue-green grass stretched away for miles in the distance, finally becoming the shimmering dark red of the ocean forty-three miles away. And as far as the land went, in every direction, Nestlor could see his forces. He saw drill-grounds hastily marked out on the grass, he saw cities of yurts. He saw massed groups of Arakul on manoeuvres, though individuals were for the most part too small to see except close by. He could see great columns of Malkadons being herded now and then, and liked to imagine that he could hear them trumpeting. And overhead, slowly flapping down and rising up from the great fields set aside for them, the vast shapes of warships, like colossal ravens, each capable of carrying a hundred thousand soldiers. About them, like small gnats, Nestlor could see the tiny forms of raiders flitting back and forth, guiding their mighty cousins down. The embarkation was going well, he had been told an hour before. Of the hundred million camped here, ten percent of the entire Division, almost eighteen million had been embarked this morning alone. A hundred and eighty warships ready for the journey. Another eight hundred and twenty-two here. Almost ten thousand more, loading up the might of the Seventh Division across a dozen Realms. Nestlor fully intended that the Division be ready to sail before three days were out, though this meant working day and night until then. The Malkadons in particular would require special attention. Though many warships had been modified to carry the great warbeasts, they were not known for their gentle tempers when in confined spaces, and Nestlor was sure that they would could to some grief over the issue before the coming sail was over. Still, Nestlor deemed the trouble acceptable. Certainly, nobody had used Malkadons in war with the weak races before because of the sheer trouble with moving the damnable creatures. Speed had always been of the essence, and numbers of troops much smaller in the past. In the coming war, timing might be important but speed wouldn’t be. Much as Jarlok had shouted his mouth off about catching King Xariel with his trousers down at the last Great War Council, Nestlor knew it wouldn’t happen. The sheer mass of troops they were marching was prohibitive of a lightning campaign. In order not to get separated and annihilated piecemeal, the Arakul fleets would have to stay on a single Lyda-current, and the only currents large enough to carry such vast numbers of ships were the massive, slow, wasging currents which would make for a slow war of great, smashing sieges. Nestlor knew they could win. But haste would only cause trouble.
Nestlor inhaled deeply as he stared out across the vast encampment, and smiled as he picked up a familiar scent. He glanced to his right to see a hideous old Arakul standing at sharp attention. The soldier wore the uniform of the General’s attendant, but he was more than that to Nestlor. He was Nestlor’s oldest friend.
“At ease Hamokard,” he said quietly, “you’ll hurt yourself, standing to attention at your age.”
The ancient warrior snorted, his dozens of battle scars contorting as he did so to make him look even more ugly.
“Sixty-two is still young enough to beat some respect into an insolent young puppy,” he growled, though his words were punctuated with a wide grin. Nestlor chuckled.
“I’ve no doubt. How goes it?”
Hamokard shrugged stoically.
“About a hundred commanders have requested an audience this morning. Most of them were just asking for confirmations of orders. But they’re all eager to get underway and they seem to think we’re going to leave them behind. I politely told them all to get stuffed. Morale’s high, in general. Most of them have spent so long fighting the Unification Wars that they’re eager to get into something that actually looks like an enemy.”
Nestlor grunted.
“And yet it’s never as fun when it comes to that. And if they think this is going to be an uneasy war they’re very much mistaken. As long as one Draconis can still hold a sword this won’t be an easy war.”
Hamokard chuckled.
“Most of the men seem confident in our numbers. We outnumber the Hundred Orders by thousands to one.”
Nestlor threw a wry smile at the ageing Arakul.
“I wasn’t thinking of the warrior Orders, but then you already know that.”
Hamokard let out a gentle laugh.
“Old Thunderbrow, I suppose?”
Nestlor nodded, smiling at the name. It was an Arakul battle-name, given to a warrior of legendary status in case his true name was forgotten by the ages. Though he was the only Draconis ever accorded the honour.
“Exactly,” Nestlor said, “I was so cocky before I met him. I thought I was invincible, and that no force could overcome an Arakul army. I remember the afternoon I met him. They seemed like easy pickings, a group of beleaguered colonists blown off course by the tides of the Solar Sea. I went down into their camp and demanded that in return for their freedom they give us a week’s supplies.”
Nestlor felt a smile creep across his face.
“And then he appeared, with that massive hammer, and told us that the colonists were starving and needed their supplies. He told me that we could have his own share, but that was all. And you remember, Hamokard. Remember what he said when I said that that was unacceptable?”
Hamokard nodded slowly.
“He said ‘then you must fight me for them’. I also remember counselling you against it. There was something elemental about him, just leaning against his hammer.”
Nestlor laughed.
“Yes! What a fool I was! I thought you had run mad. Fifty Arakul warriors against him. One Draconis, and not even one of the warrior orders! It never crossed my mind that we might have anything to fear from one blacksmith.”
Hamokard nodded.
“Yes, we all learned a few things that day. You learned, among other things, to listen to the counsel of your elders.”
Nestlor barked out a derisive laugh.
“If I’d done that I’m sure we’d still have been skulking about on the tundras.”
Hamokard’s smile faded.
“Would that be so bad, Nestlor?”
Nestlor sighed, and stepped closer to the old man. They were forty yards from the nearest yurt, but still he did not care to raise his voice.
“There is something you need to know, old friend,” he said quietly, “I’ve just spoken to that odious villain the Grand Hierophant. He and his priests are hunting out secretly practicing shamans through Xenegesh’s armies. Any found practicing the old ways are to be put to death.”
Hamokard growled, deep in his throat.
“I do not fear that vile creature, Nestlor.”
Nestlor laid a hand on the old attendant’s shoulder.
“Brave as you are, Hamokard, he is powerful, and cunning. And I don’t doubt he is capable of reaping a terrible revenge on any he finds defying his Priesthood. Perhaps it would be best for you to cease your practice until he has moved on.”
Hamokard’s head snapped around, his expression fierce.
“I love you as a friend and respect you as an officer, Nestlor. I am grateful that you have allowed me to continue to serve the ancient gods of Fire and Ice, and I deem it noble that you have never come to me seeking personal gain from my powers. But I will never cease to perform the correct rites to appease and respect that which is mighty and pure. We are Arakul, Nestlor! If we do not make war in the name of those great gods to whom it is pleasing, then we are reduced to bloodthirsty reavers! Unless we observe the Oaths of honour and brotherhood then there is no greater purpose guiding our actions. And if it shall make me a martyr I shall never cease to uphold those traditions which keep the soul of our people alive.”
His expression softened and he smiled again.
“Besides, whilst his power is so great as to be terrifying, and he is undoubtedly a sly and cunning enemy, the Grand Hierophant is not as subtle as he would like to think himself. I do not know what power older than time he has sold himself to in exchange for his formidable power, but he does not have the ancient lore, nor a lifetime of study. There are things that, for all his power, he is blind to. I could never conquer him in a duel of power, but I know secret ways and truths which he has not begun to guess at. I can conceal what I am from him, even if he questions me directly. If I thought there even a chance he could discover me I would leave your service for your sake, and, knowing that my discovery would eventually be inevitable, and would up him and stab him through the heart so that I might at least drag him personally before the gods of Fire and Ice, there to answer for his perfidy. But there isn’t. Not until I’m a lot weaker and he’s learnt a lot more. And from what I’ve seen he doesn’t even know where to look.”
Nestlor smiled, unable to repress the feelings of relief. Not really for himself: Nestlor wasn’t worried about dying, given that he should have died thirty years before. But he didn’t want harm to befall the cantankerous old mystic.
“Have you any idea where he got all of his power from?” he asked, even though it was something that the two of them had discussed many times before. No-one had failed to notice that the Priesthood and their Hasturex flunkies all had glowing green eyes, the kind of eyes that they’d only ever seen before on Xenegesh. And since Xenegesh and the Grand Hierophant seemed to have Aethyric powers the equal of the greatest Draconis seers, let alone the lowly powers of the shamans of old, Nestlor had tried to quietly find out what exactly it was that was different about them.
“Not really,” admitted Hamokard, “to get that close to his power source I’d have to scrutinise him so closely that he’d not fail to notice me. I’d have to lower all my defences to get close enough. But I think the answer might be in where they came from more than anything. I mean… Xenegesh first appeared what… thirty-four, thirty-five years ago? He didn’t have many followers then. But he did have some. The Grand Hierophant, the Priesthood, the Hasturex.. But the first we heard of them was when Xenegesh butchered Jarkakesh the Brooding and seized his full tribe, securing himself another three million soldiers. But where was he before then? They just appeared.”
Nestlor frowned.
“Be advised, Hamokard. I dislike the Priesthood, but Xenegesh is a visionary. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but I don’t think we can doubt he has the future of the Arakul at heart.”
Hamokard nodded smoothly.
“Undoubtedly. And whatever power they have, Xenegesh is undoubtedly the one who deserves it. The Priesthood shouldn’t wield such power, least of all that vile overlord of theirs. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if he tries to usurp the Supreme Lord at some time in the future. I think it’s important that we should attempt to discover the origins of that power as a safeguard.”
Nestlor wasn’t convinced, but he didn’t pursue it. Hamokard was a stubborn adherent of the old ways and Nestlor strongly suspected that he resented Xenegesh as much as the rest of the new ways. But he let it go: it wouldn’t harm Xenegesh’s empire for Hamokard to secretly keep up the old ways, and it certainly would hurt Hamokard if Nestlor made a fuss of it.
He looked away across the sea. The sun, a cold blue star was now high above the water. Dawnfire was passing into Icegaze, and between disciplining his erstwhile underlings and fielding the Grand Hierophant he was quite far enough behind schedule. He glanced back at Hamokard.
“Go back to my yurt, and see to it that shipping of my personal effects begins soon. I want everything ready on my ship when I board tomorrow morning.”
Hamokard saluted crisply and disappeared back into the camp, leaving the General staring out across the camp.
Nestlor growled and shook his head. Like any seasoned campaigner, he wasn’t afraid of going to war again, but he hated hanging about waiting for it to happen. And as efficient as his army was, as endless as their resources, the sheer number of men did not make for a quick advance. More galling, General Jarlok’s troops of the Twenty-Third Division would be engaged whilst his own forces were still in transit. He sighed, and looked to the sun.
In fact, he thought gloomily, the scouting forces are probably entering enemy territory any time now…

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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