I was raised in luxury. I make no apologies for this, one cannot influence one’s parentage after all. Nor do I find much to regret in a childhood lived amongst opulence with numerous servants and excellent tutors to nurture my ever-curious and talented mind. So there are no tales of hardship from my youth, no epic of struggle against the inequalities and injustices of life. I was born to a family of noble lineage and considerable wealth, received an exceptional education and was thence facilitated into court service via my father’s connections, and although loyal readers will be aware that heartbreak and grief were not absent from my life, I had never known a day of physical exertion in the thirty-six years preceding the events detailed in this narrative. Had I known, of course, that the voyage to the Unified Realm, where I would begin my work on a complete and unbiased history of that terrible but fascinating land, would ensure an end to my previous ignorance of labour, degradation, humiliation and torture, please rest assured I would have happily leapt over the side and endeavoured to swim home through countless miles of shark-enriched waters.
You see, by the advent of the day on which I choose to begin this tale, I had learned pain. I had learned the lessons of the whip and the cudgel, the metallic taste of one’s own blood as it gushes forth taking teeth and resistance with it. I had learned to be a slave. That is what they called me, for that is what I was, and despite whatever nonsense you may have heard or read since, I was never, at any point, a hero.
The Volarian general was younger than I expected, as was his wife, my new owner. “Doesn’t look a scholar, true-heart,” he mused, looking me over from the comfort of his couch. “Bit too young.” He reclined in silk robes of red and black, long-limbed and athletic as befits a soldier of some renown and I was struck by the absence of scars on the pale flesh of his legs and arms. Even his face was smooth and completely unmarked. By now I had endured numerous encounters with warriors from several nations, but this was the first to be entirely unscarred.
“Does seem to have a keen eye though,” the general went on, seeing my scrutiny. I immediately lowered my gaze, bracing for the inevitable cuff or whip-strike from the overseer. During the first day of my enslavement I had seen a captured Realm Guard sergeant flayed and disembowelled for glaring in the direction of a junior officer in the Free Cavalry. It was a quickly learned lesson.
“Honoured husband,” the general’s wife said in her strident, cultured voice. “I present Verniers Alishe Someren, Imperial Chronicler to the Court of the Emperor Aluran Maxtor Selsus.”
“Can this really be him, true-heart?” The general seemed genuinely interested for the first time since my entrance into this finely appointed cabin. The chamber was huge for a ship-berth, richly decorated in carpets and tapestries, tables generously laden with fruits and wine. But for the gentle sway of the huge warship beneath my feet we could have been in a palace. The general rose and approached me, eyes examining my face closely. “The author of the Cantos of Gold and Dust? Chronicler of the Great War of Salvation?” He stepped closer and sniffed me, nostrils twitching in disgust. “Smells like any other Alpiran dog to me. And his gaze is far too direct.”
He moved back, waving idly at the overseer who administered the blow I knew was coming, a single, hard strike to the back with the ivory handle of his whip, delivered with practised economy. I stifled the shout of pain, caged it behind my teeth. Crying out was considered speech, and speaking without consent was a fatal offence.
“Husband, please,” the general’s wife said with a tinge of annoyance. “He was expensive.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” The general held out a hand, a slave scurrying over to fill it with a wine cup. “Don’t worry, honoured wife. I’ll ensure his wits and hands are left intact. Won’t be much use without them will he? So, scribbling-slave, how do you come to be here in our newly acquired province, mmm?”
I answered quickly, blinking away agonised tears, hesitation was always punished. “I came to research a new history, Master.”
“Oh excellent. I’m a great admirer of your work, aren’t I, true-heart?”
“Indeed, husband. You are a scholar yourself.” There was something in her voice when she said the word “scholar,” faint but present. Scorn, I realised. She doesn’t respect this man. And yet she makes him a gift of me.
There was a brief pause before the general spoke again, a slight edge to his voice. He had heard the insult, but chose to tolerate it. Who truly holds power here?
“And what was its subject?” the general enquired. “This new history of yours?”
“The Unified Realm, Master.”
“Ah, then we have done you a service have we not?” He chuckled, delighted with his own humour. “By giving you an ending.”
He laughed again, drinking from his wine cup, and raising his eyebrows in appreciation. “Not bad at all. Make a note, Secretary.” The bald-headed slave in the corner stepped forward, stylus poised over parchment. “Orders for the scouting parties: the vineyards are to be left untouched, and halve the slave quota in the wine-making regions. The skill set should be maintained in the fief of . . .” He paused, looking at me expectantly.
“Cumbrael, Master,” I said.
“Yes, Cumbrael. Can’t say it has much of a ring to it. I’ve a mind to propose a complete renaming of this province to the Council on my return.”
“One must be a Council-man to propose to Council, honoured husband,” his wife said. There was no scorn this time, but I noted how he hid a glare of fury in his wine cup.
“Where would I be without your readiness to remind me, Fornella?” he muttered. “So, Historian, where did we have occasion to welcome you into our family?”
“I was travelling with the Realm Guard, Master. King Malcius had given me permission to accompany his host on its mission to Cumbrael.”
“So you were there? You witnessed my victory?”
I fought down the immediate upsurge of hellish sounds and images that had plagued my dreams ever since that day. “Yes, Master.”
“It seems this gift has more value than you realised, Fornella.” He snapped his fingers at the secretary. “Pen, parchment and a cabin for the historian. Not too comfortable, don’t want him nodding off when he should be writing his, no doubt, eloquent and stirring account of my first major triumph in this campaign.” He came close to me again, smiling fondly. The smile of a child with a new toy. “I expect to be reading it by morning. If I’m not, I’ll take one of your eyes.”
My hands ached, my back strained from hunching over the short-legged table they had given me. Ink was liberally spattered over my mean slave’s garb and my vision swam with exhaustion. Never before had I produced so many words in such a short time. Parchment littered the cabin, filled with my often stumbling attempts to craft the lie the general wanted. Glorious victory. There had been no glory on that field, fear, pain and slaughter amidst the stink of death and shit, but no glory. Surely the general knew this, he had been the architect of the Realm Guard’s defeat after all, but I had been commanded to produce a lie and, dutiful slave that I was, bent to the task with all the energy I could summon.
Sleep claimed me sometime past the peak of night, dragging me into night- mare freshly stoked by my enforced remembrance of that day . . . The Battle Lord’s face when he knew defeat was imminent, the grim determination as he drew his sword and rode straight at the Volarian line, cut down by the Kuritai before he could strike a single blow . . .
I scrambled to wakefulness at a hard rap on the cabin door, stumbling to my feet as it opened. A house slave entered bearing a tray of bread and grapes, plus a small flask of wine. He placed them on the table and left without a word.
“I thought you might be hungry.” My fearful gaze fixed on the sight of the general’s wife in the doorway. She wore a gown of red silk embroidered with gold thread. It did much to enhance her figure. I switched my gaze to the floor. “Thank you, Mistress.”
She came in, closing the door behind her, taking in the sight of the sheets covered in my feverish script. “Finished then?”
She picked up one of the sheets. “This is in Volarian.”
“I assumed my master would wish it so, Mistress.”
“Your assumption was correct.” Her brows furrowed as she read. “Elegantly phrased too. My husband will be envious. He writes poetry, you know. If you are particularly unfortunate, he may recite it for you. It’s rather like listening to a duck with an unusually annoying quack. But this.” She held up the sheet. “There are Volarian scholars of great reputation who would be shamed in comparison.”
“You are kind, Mistress.”
“No, I’m truthful. It’s my weapon.” She paused then began to read aloud. “‘Foolishly the Realm Guard commander gravely underestimated the guile of his enemy, attempting an obvious and mundane strategy of engaging the Volarian centre whilst his cavalry sought to turn their flank. He reckoned without the sublime tactical acumen of the general Reklar Tokrev, who anticipated his every clumsy move.’” She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Clearly, you’re a man who understands his audience.”
“I’m glad it pleases you, Mistress.”
“Pleases me? Oh hardly. But it will please my honoured husband, dullard that he is. This doggerel will be on the fastest ship back to the empire by tomorrow evening, no doubt with instructions to produce a thousand copies for immediate distribution.” She tossed the sheet aside. “Tell me, and I command you to speak honestly, just how did the Realm Guard come to suffer such a defeat at his hands?”
I swallowed hard. She could command truth from me, but what protection could she offer if she carried such truth back to the marriage bed? “Mistress, I may have used some colourful phrasing …”
“The truth, I said!” Strident tones again, full of authority. The voice of a woman who had owned slaves all her life.
“The Realm Guard fell to weight of numbers and betrayal. They fought hard but were too few.”
“I see. Did you fight with them?”
Fight? When it became obvious the tide of battle had turned I flogged my horse bloody to escape to the rear, except there was no rear, the Volarians were everywhere, killing everyone. I found a convenient pile of bodies to hide in, emerging in darkness to immediate capture by the slave hunters. They were an efficient lot, keen to assess the value of every captive and my worth had become apparent after the first beating extracted my real name. She had bought me at the camp enclosure, plucked from the shuffling, chained mob. It seemed they had instructions to bring any scholars to her. From the handsome purse she handed the overseer, it seemed I was a considerable prize.
“I am no warrior, Mistress.”
“I should hope not, I didn’t buy you for your martial prowess.” She stood, regarding me in silence for a moment. “You hide it well, but I can see it, Lord Verniers. You hate us. We may have beaten you to obedience but it’s still there, like dry tinder waiting for a spark.”
My gaze remained firmly on the floor, concentrating on the swirling knots in the planking, fresh sweat beading my palms. Her hand cupped my face, lifting my chin. I closed my eyes, fighting down a fearful whimper as she kissed me, one soft, brush of her lips.
“In the morning,” she said. “He’ll want you to witness the final assault on the city, now the breaches are in place. Make sure your account is sufficiently lurid, won’t you? Volarians expect some colour to their tales of slaughter.”
“I shall, Mistress.”
“Very well.” She moved back, opening the door. “With any luck our busi- ness in this damp land will be concluded soon. I should like you to see my library in Volar. More than ten thousand volumes, some so old there are none who can translate them. Would you like that?”
“Very much, Mistress.”
She sighed a laugh before leaving the cabin without a further word. I stared at the closed door for a long time, ignoring the food on the table despite the growling emptiness in my stomach. For some reason my hands had stopped sweating. Dry tinder waiting for a spark.
True to her prediction the general had me brought to the foredeck in the morning to watch the Volarians finally take the city of Alltor, under siege now for more than two months. It was an impressive sight, the twin spires of the World Father’s Cathedral rising from the closely packed mass of housing within the great walled island, linked to the mainland by a single causeway. I knew from my various researches that this city had never been taken, not by Janus during the Wars of Unification, or any other previous aspirant to Kingship. Three hundred years of successful resistance to all conquerors, now about to end thanks to the two breaches torn into the walls by the massive ship-borne ballista barely two hundred yards offshore. They were still at work, casting their great stones at the breaches, though the rents pounded into the walls seemed fairly complete to my unmilitary eye.
“Magnificent aren’t they, Historian?” the general asked. He was dressed in full armour today, a richly adorned red enamel breastplate and thigh-length cavalry boots, a short sword strapped to his belt, every inch the Volarian commander. I noticed there was another slave seated nearby, a stick-thin old man with unusually bright eyes, a charcoal stub in his hand moving over a broad canvas to capture the general’s image. The general pointed at one of the ballista, holding the pose and glancing over his shoulder at the old slave.
“Only ever used on land before, but I saw their potential for bringing us victory here. A successful marriage of land and sea warfare. Write that down.” I wrote it down on the sheaf of parchment I had been given.
The old man stopped sketching and gave the general a grave bow. He relaxed from his pose and went to a nearby map table. “Read your account,” he told me. “Clever of you, being so restrained in your flattery.”
A fresh spasm of fear lurched in my breast and I briefly wondered if he would let me choose which eye he would pluck out.
“But an overly complimentary account would arouse suspicion amongst those at home keen to read of my exploits,” he went on. “They might think I had exaggerated my achievements somewhat. Clever of you to know this.”
“Thank you, Master.”
“Not a compliment, merely an observation. Look here.” He beckoned me closer, gesturing at the map on the table. I knew Volarian cartographers to be renowned for their accuracy but this was an extraordinarily detailed plan of Alltor, each street rendered with a clarity and precision that shamed the best efforts of the Emperor’s Guild of Surveyors. It made me wonder just how long the Volarians had been planning their invasion, and how much help had they enjoyed in doing so.
“The breaches are here and here.” His finger picked out two charcoal marks on the map, crude slashes through the finely drawn walls. “I will be assaulting both simultaneously. No doubt the Cumbraelins will have prepared all manner of unpleasantness on their side, but their attention will be fixed entirely on the breaches and therefore will not be expecting another assault on the walls.” He tapped a point on the western-facing wall marked with a small cross. “A full battalion of Kuritai will scale the wall and take the nearest breach from the rear. Access to the city will be secured and I expect it will be in our hands by nightfall.”
I wrote it all down, careful to resist the temptation to slip into Alpiran. Writing in my own language might arouse his suspicion.
He moved away from the map table, speaking with a theatrical air. “I find these god lovers to have been a valiant enemy, the finest archers I’ve ever faced in the field, truth be told. And this witch of theirs does seem to inspire them to great efforts. You’ve heard of her, no doubt?”
News had been scant in the slave pens, confined to snatched whispers of overheard gossip from the Free Swords. Mostly it comprised grim tales of yet more defeat and massacre as the Volarian armies ravaged their way through the Realm, but as we were whipped ever southward into Cumbrael the tale of the dread witch of Alltor had come to the fore, the only gleam of hope in a doomed land. “Scant rumour only, Master. She could be merely a figure of legend.”
“No, she’s real enough. Got the truth of it from the company of Free Swords that fled after the last assault on the walls. She was there, they said, a girl no more than twenty, in the thick of the fight. Killing many men, they said. Had them all strangled, of course. Worthless cowards.” He paused for a moment, lost in thought. “Write this down: cowardice is the worst betrayal of the gift of freedom. For a man who runs from battle is a slave to his fear.”
“Very profound, honoured husband.” The general’s wife had elected to join us. She was dressed simply this morning, the glamour of her silk gown exchanged for a plain muslin dress and red woollen shawl. She brushed past me, closer than was seemly, and went to the rail, watching one of the ballista crews working the great windlass that drew the twin arms back for another throw. “Be sure to find room for it in your account of the impending bloodshed, won’t you, Verniers?”
“I shall, Mistress.” I watched the general’s hand twitch on the hilt of his short sword. She baits him at every turn. Yet he holds his anger, this man who has killed thousands. What is her true role here? I wondered.
Fornella’s gaze was drawn away from the sight of the ballista by the approach of a small boat, oars dipping in the placid surface of the river at low tide. A man stood at the prow, barely recognisable at this distance but I noticed her stiffen at the sight of him. “Our Ally sends his creature, honoured husband,” she said.
The general followed her gaze and something passed across his face, a twitch of anger but also fear. I felt a sudden urge to be away from this scene; whoever approached, I knew I did not want to make his acquaintance if he could arouse fear in the hearts of such as these. But there was no escape, of course. I was a slave and had not been dismissed. So I could only stand and watch as the boat came ever closer, the Volarian slave-sailors catching the ropes as they were tossed to the deck, tying them up with the kind of efficiency that only came from years of fearful servitude.
The man who hauled himself onto the deck was of middle years and stocky build, bearded and balding, his features largely devoid of any emotion. “Welcome,” the general said, his tone carefully neutral. No name or greeting, I realised. Who is this man?
“You have more intelligence to share, I assume?” the general went on.
The man ignored the question. “The Alpiran,” he said in Volarian tinged with an accent I had come to recognise as coming from the north of this fallen Realm. “Which is he?”
“What do you want of him?” Fornella asked in her strident tone. He didn’t even glance at her and my fear found new depths as his gaze scanned the deck until it fixed on me. He strode forward, coming close enough for me to smell the stench of his unwashed body. He stank of death and a complete disregard for any human standard of cleanliness, and his breath was like a gust of vaporous poison as I cowered away.
“Where,” he demanded, “is Vaelin Al Sorna?”