The Origin of Angels

The Origin of Angels
by Mischa Laurent

Story Notes

Title: The Origin of Angels
Wordcount: 26,303
Originally Posted: Creation of Angels(1) Lord of Angels(3): July 9, 2002. Army of Angels(2) Grissecon Booklet: Oct 10, 2003.

Author: Mischa Laurent
Contact: thedarkvoice@hotmail.com

Dedication: For Michael. “Angels alone”

Disclaimer: All items contained on these pages are non-profit amateur fiction. The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire and all characters named in those books are the copyright of Storm Constantine and her publishers. No infringements on the copyrights are intended. These stories are for personal enjoyment only and should be reproduced, electronically or otherwise, only for this purpose and never for profit of any sort.

The Origin of Angels

Foreword

The evening meal was over, the dishes washed in the stream and the babes, children, horses and dogs long since fed.

Grizzling offspring were put to bed in the caravans as the lamps, strung from the trees around the grove were spluttering and swaying in the warm evening breeze.

Now was the time for the tribe to sit around the fire and share with each other the day’s events; to discuss plans for the morrow and finally, as the evening sky darkened from violet to velvet, to sip their beer, reminisce and gossip.

The younger men were engaged in a discussion, talking politics as usual and it was turning into a heated debate, one that the tribal leader, Aarron, wanted to deflect to more placid channels.

Honing in on the subject of the quarrel, he sipped his drink and gazed into the flames, Aarron heard talk of Gelaming edicts and proposed changes to the protected zones.

As a human tribal leader, he should be concerning himself with such things, he knew. But the night was so pleasant and the warmth of the lingering summer had made him lethargic after a hard day of herding cattle through the passes toward winter grazing. He didn’t want to get involved in such a debate tonight.

One name kept recurring in the increasingly loud row; that of the General in charge of the Human Protectorate, General Ashmael Aldebaran, a name Aarron had had reason both to curse and to praise in the past.

The General’s verdicts in matters of dispute had gone both for and against Aarron and his people in the past and this was what the young men were discussing yet again. Would Aldebaran find in their favour this time in their case against the neighbouring tribe who had tried to claim their summer fields as their own?

But Aarron was feeling too good tonight to be bothered with it and sought a way to change the subject without having to quell the discussion forcefully. Looking around the fire, his gaze came to rest on the face of an elderly man named Joshua. The wrinkled visage was apparently lost in thought, eyes turned inward as they stared blindly into the flames, and Aarron had a good idea what he was thinking about.

Joshua was not blood kin of the tribe of Finlata, but he had been a useful and productive member for longer than most of the young bloods of the tribe could recall. Even Aarron, who knew he had at least fifty human years to his credit, could recall Joshua from his childhood. Even then, fifty or more years ago, he had been an old man, quietly going about his duty of tending the horses and keeping the caravans supplied with kindling.

But there was one fact that Aarron had almost forgotten until tonight, a fact that he was sure the youngsters, gesticulating wildly across the flames at each other, were unaware of and it was this piece of almost-forgotten information that he intended to put to use for the sake of peace.

“Joshua.” He said quietly, his voice carrying all the weight of authority to interrupt that he needed. “You knew General Aldebaran, didn’t you?”

All conversation ceased as astonished eyes turned toward Joshua. Joshua Smithy, as he called himself, was a most unremarkable character, the kind of person who tended to be overlooked and taken for granted by all. The quietness of his nature and his disinclination to gossiping or discussing his past, would lead most to think (if they thought of him at all) that Joshua was nondescript and that his life would be likewise.

That this unexceptional individual, so casually dismissed as boring and unimportant in any major way, could possibly be acquainted with such a luminous personality as General Aldebaran, in any way, shape or form, was a shocking and almost unbelievable idea for most of them. They sat stunned, their mouths gaping at the very suggestion by their chief that Joshua might possibly know such a Har.

Joshua nodded, oblivious to the stir the casual statement had aroused. “I did.” He confirmed. “Many years ago, when I was a lad. I knew Aldebaran.”

“You did?” August, the most mercurial and curious of all the younger lads, was the first to speak. Aarron could have confidently laid a bet with no fear of losing, had he needed to predict the first questioner.

“But, how? Where did you meet him? What is he like?” August leaned forward, his posture conveying his earnest intent. The other lads followed likewise; the air suddenly peppered with questions as the curious began their inquisition.

Aarron leaned back against his log, content. He vaguely recalled the tale from childhood, but much of the detail escaped him and he was kind of looking forward to hearing it again if the lads could persuade the reticent Joshua to tell it. Even if they failed, the peace had been restored and Aarron could at last enjoy his beer in relative harmony with the balmy summer night.

But it seemed the boys’ discussions had fired old Joshua’s memory and he almost seemed to smile as he dipped his tankard into the barrel for a refill. Perhaps it was the debate; perhaps it was the beer and the clement weather that loosened his tongue, or maybe he was just in the mood for a bit of storytelling. Whatever the case, Joshua settled further down into his lambs’ wool robe and began to speak.


The Creation of Angels

“I was a lad who grew up in a tribe not much smaller than this one.” He began. “‘Course, things was different back then, we lived far away from the protected zones, had never heard of ’em, and the country was still wild. Wraeththu was the devils that haunted our sleep, them what our parents would scare us with if we misbehaved. “Be quick.” My dad used to say to me. “Don’t linger or the Wraeththu will getcha.”

“We believed, oh yes indeed we did. ‘Cause the wild tribes was still on the loose back then and we often had raids. Our tribe didn’t move about like y’all do, we had a little settlement in the hills far to the north of here, where we kept our cattle and horses in the valleys, hidden like. Second or third generation removed from the cities, we were, I forget which, and never having no visitors or the like, we didn’t know how things was moving and progressing further south. No idea, you see, that life was settling down, that the Gelaming and the Parasiel had come and made things better for us. So we stayed hidden in the hills, fighting off the wild’uns and thinking the world had gone to hell and we was the only sane ones left.”

Joshua paused for another sip of his drink and to check how his story was going down with his listeners. To a man, they were all riveted, postures eager, leaning forwards and nodding their heads as they recalled the histories they had learned in the travelling schoolhouse that followed their route for part of each spring season. Even some of the other tribesmen, those who had been occupied with their own talk and games of chance, had abandoned them one by one and crept closer to the main fire in order to hear Joshua’s story. He nodded, satisfied and went on.

“My duty, as my father’s only son, was to care for his stock. He was the blacksmith and kept a dozen or so horses, some for ploughing, but mostly they were fine and sturdy animals that the men of the town used to defend when we were under attack.”

“I’d move them around from waterhole to stream and back again, according to the pasture, but always keeping them within calling distance of town, just in case. This particular morning, I’d been sent out to look for one of the mares. She’d not come down with the others for her daily oats and my papa was concerned, ’cause she was due to foal.”

“I found her easy enough, not that far away, but just waiting patient-like for her newborn baby to find its legs. I remember leaning on her flank, remember too the steam rising from her hide, the call of the birds in the trees, the rivulet clinking away to my left. Remember all that, enjoying the peace of a summer morning before the day’s work begins when I heard the first gunshot.”

“I ran, God, I ran as fast as my legs would go, down the side of the stream, up over the bank and onto the rise behind the town. All the time the gunfire and the screams of the women ringing in my ears. The men was yelling and the Wraeththu was doing the same, calling to each other over the firing.

I could hardly catch me breath; stopped in the trees about a hundred yard behind the first of the houses and found I couldn’t move no more.”

“Death everywhere, there was. We’d gotten complacent, you see. Long time since we’d been raided and we thought our scouts and our lookouts and our hiding place was the best. Men was coming from everywhere to defend us, but they was coming one by one, no organisation ya see, and the Wraeththu was just cutting ’em down like wheat.”

“Middle of town there was this strange road with two metal rods running along it; disappeared down over the hill and made its way to the bottom of the mountains. Maybe it went further, I don’t know, I never followed it more than that. Nothing grew on this path, ’cause it was covered with grey chips of stone and only a few weeds could get through it here and there. We kids used to call it the Devils Road, ’cause it came up the hill and ended right in front of the cliff wall. But we never thought that the real devils would ever use it! Guess they found the end that came out on the plains and just followed it uphill to see where it went.”

“My memory goes a bit hazy after that. I can see the Wraeththu on their horses with their braids and war paint, flashes of silver from the sun shining on the guns and knives. I can hear the women screaming as they were cut down, the babies crying in the houses as they burned around them and the groaning of the men that hadn’t been finished off, but that’s all.”

“Next clear thought I had, I was out on the plains, alone, and there was a group of horsemen coming toward me across the grass. All my folk were dead; I knew that even though I couldn’t clearly recall how I knew, nor how I’d gotten to be where I was. I guess I followed the Devil’s Road meself, down out of the mountains, but I don’t recollect doing it.”

“They was Wraeththu, of course, them horsemen. But I was half dead and beyond caring ’bout it. Picked me up and put me in the saddle before ‘im, one did. I suppose I was surprised they hadn’t killed me on the spot, or maybe I was remembering one of the stories from home, ’bout how they could make you like ’em, I dunno. But I jest sat there and let ’em carry me off, not caring ’bout it one way or the other and eventually, I guess, I began to realise that these Wraeththu wasn’t much like the bastards that had just murdered my entire tribe.”

Joshua drew breath and looked around at his captivated audience, a twinkle in his eye.

“‘Course, it turned out they was Gelaming. But, y’all had figured that part out already, hadn’tcha?”

Reaching down beside him, Joshua picked up a couple more logs and threw them on the dying flames. Sparks swirled up into the night air, ignored by his rapt audience. Two of the tribes’ women, Ara and Deb, bought over another keg of beer and then withdrew to their own fire.

“I dunno how to describe it to ya.” Joshua shrugged. “The first real sight a lad has of a Wraeththu. Most of you grew up around ’em so ‘t ain’t anything at all to you.”

“That’s not true!” It was August who complained, his compatriots nodding their agreement. “It always takes my breath away, seeing them again, especially the Gelaming, when they first visit camp after the winter.”

Joshua nodded, but disagreed. “True enough. But kin yer imagine what it’d be like had you never seen one ever before in yer life?”

“Lawd.” he went on before anyone could answer. “I was part terrified, mostly amazed at what I was seein’.” He reminisced. “These folk on their shiny horses was nothing like the painted horrors I’d seen from a distance. Nothing at all. It was like coming before the face of God his-self!”

“Some of them what picked me up was dressed kinda the same; all done up in soft black leathers and chains, but they was clean and kindly, no war paint, no weapons I could see and so soft-spoken I had to bend to hear ’em.”

He laughed quietly. “Imagine that! Me, a lad not ten summers old, scared half out of me wits and forgetting how to talk, and here I was mounted up on one of them there magical ponies they got, bending in close so I could hear what they was saying.”

“Well, they picked me up, like I said, and jest… rode off with me. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it to begin with. But I knew they wasn’t gonna hurt me and not just cause they said so, neither. There was just something about ’em; something mild and calming-like.

I figure now, of course, that they used that mind magic on me; in order to quieten down a hysterical lad, but back then, I had no idea why I wasn’t shitting my pants like I shoulda rightly a-been.”

“We rode for a while, easy-like, and I do recall them asking me a few questions. But I know I didn’t answer ’em, ’cause like I said, cat had got me tongue and I was afeared to speak, or jest couldn’t. After a while they stopped askin’ and we rode, seemed like fer hours, ’till we got to this camp they had set up in the lee of the hills.

Huge, it was. Busy, too, with hara scurrying everywhere and magic horses in such numbers they covered the plains all around. Silk tents and bright banners fluttering from ’em; I had never seen such a sight in all my short life, and if me voice had been on the verge of coming back, let me tell ya, one look at all that grandeur and pomp was enough to silence me for a month of Sundays.”

“All around was these beautiful folk; going about their business as we rode on in. I couldn’t decide, was they menfolk or womenfolk? Knowing all along o’course that they was both; we wusn’t that ignorant! But still, she was a sight all right and something I never did forget.

We pulled up outside this big tent and the har I was riding with slid on down and offered me his hands. I scooted down offa that animal under me own steam, thankee very much.

They might have bin my saviours and all that, but I wasn’t quite up for trusting them just yet. Too much of me parents’ warnings in me yet.”

“Inside this tent was massive; partitioned off by silk and cane, desks everywhere, laden down with maps and weaponry bundled willy-nilly in all the corners. That har feller I rode in with directed me to a chair and bade me stay put while he went somewheres. I stayed there, jest watching and looking at all the stuff going on about me and presently he came back with this other har fella.

They both stood in front of me and stared and I sat up straight like my mama taught me and tried not to crap my britches. This new fella was kinda like the first, in that he had yeller hair and them shimmery blue eyes like some of ’em do. He was all dirty and dusty like he’d bin out ridin’ and hadn’t taken no baths since; black leathers and chains like the rest of ’em, hardly any kind of covering t’all, not like decent human folk would wear and his hair was sticking up all over the damned place as if he never brushed it or nuthin’.”

“The two of ’em was doing that head-talkin’ stuff they do; discussin’ little ole me like I wasn’t never even there and arguing about what to do with me, which I didn’t find out about ’till later on.”

“When they finally started talkin’ out loud, I found out I was in a war camp of sorts. These… Gelaming had come to rout out the bastards who’d dusted out my family and clean up the countryside. Kinda gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling to hear that; these hara looked to me like they knew their business and I felt a little more kindly disposed toward them after that.

The upshot of this conversation was, that they couldn’t be having no human lad hanging around the camp while they went out and did their cleansing and it was then that I discovered that they was discussing, arguing rather, about what they was gonna do with me.”

“The first fella, the one who’d bought me in, his name was Arahal and he was telling this other fella that, as he was heading out to some other place in the morning, he should take me along and drop me off someplace.”

“This other fella didn’t like the idea much and kept saying how he knew nothin’ ’bout human children and how he had burdens and time constraints and the like, but the first fella was wearing him down and in the end he agreed to me tagging along.

He kinda sighs and then he leans down so him and me are more or less eye to eye and he tells me to be ready to leave at first light. He says that Arahal will find me some food and a bed for the night, plus all the fixings for travelling and that I should mind Arahal and he’d see me right, okay?

So I jest nods and he straightens up and leaves, kinda like he was pissed off, but resigned, you know what I mean?”

“And that,” Joshua added. “Wuz the first time I ever laid eyes on Ashmael Aldebaran.”

“Bright and early the next mornin’, I was up, fed, washed and stood in front of a horse, ready to go. Looked to me like the Gelaming was planning to go somewheres too, what with all the racing about, the animals being readied and the warriors who wuz up at that ungodly hour. We wuz like the calm in the centre of the storm, even if my escort did have a face like thunder when he arrived.” Joshua chortled. “Looked to me like ole Ashmael was none to pleased to be leaving when the fun wuz jest about to begin.”

“He come over to where I was a standin’ and offered me a leg up onto the horse, but I scrambled up meself, not likin’ the look in his eye when he saw me there. I figured the less I riled him, the better off I’d be. Musta shown on me face though, the way I wuz feelin’, cause he stood back a step or two and smiled at me. Hands on hips, head cocked to one side in that way and smiling mightily; lucky fer me I already had me feet in the stirrups and me bum firmly planted, else I’d ‘ve falled off again fer the very shock of it.”

“Wasn’t used to having Wraeththu smiling at me like that, no Sir. Seen in the morning sunlight like that, all fresh washed and combed, ain’t nohar I’ve ever seen to compare with that one. Fine-looking he was. ‘Well,’ he says to me. ‘Seems like you and I are going to be riding together for a while. We’d better introduce ourselves; I’m Ashmael.’

“He waited for a minute or two to see if I wuz gonna answer him, but I couldn’t. Oh, I wanted to, more than anything, but there was this buzzing between me ears and this lump in me throat that wuz telling me that, if I spoke to them (the Wraeththu) I’d be admitting to meself that all me kin wuz gone.” He shrugged. “No logic in it, o’course, but then I was a kid and there’s not much logical about kids and the way they see things.”

Joshua took a deep breath and another swig of the beer, to ‘whet his whistle’ and then continued.

“So, he looks up at me and says, ‘I need to call you something. How about… ‘ and he looks at me fer the longest minute before saying, ‘Joe. I’ll call you Joe. How’s that?’

Well, it was pretty close to me own name, so I nods and he smiles at me again before turning around to get mounted himself. He fer sure knew my real name, picked right outa my head, but I guess he didn’t wanna spook me any more than I already was. Arahal come over and bade me farewell, then he turns to Ashmael and gives him a bit of a ribbing ’bout this babysitting business and some line about how he should be riding on ‘ordinary’ steeds, seeing as he had this human kid with him and couldn’t take no lane rides. I didn’t know what they wuz on about, so I just sat there and looked around with eyes like saucers at all the glory that is the Gelaming in full flight, eh?” He snorted at his own jest.

August made a noise in the back of his throat like he wanted to speak and Joshua turned rheumy eyes in his direction.

“Were you mounted on a Gelaming horse, Joshua?” August asked breathlessly.

“Yep.” Joshua confirmed. “Pretty little thing, too. I believe her name was Danziel.”

“Wow.” This was Mick one of the youngest men of the tribe, only having reached his majority this past spring. “Did she… speak to you?” He wanted to know.

“Of course not!” August huffed. “They don’t speak to humankind and even if they did, we can’t hear them!”

“Well, that ain’t strictly true, young August.” Joshua gently chided. He addressed himself to a crushed Mick. “She did speak to me, but that wuz later on. If you don’t mind, I’d kinda like to get to it in me own time, eh?’

The boys subsided, Mick satisfied and August suitably chastened. Aarron gave them both a stern look, before returning his attentions to the far side of the circle where Joshua had resumed his storytelling.

“We rode out, Ashmael trailing a pack animal and headed South, away from the camp.

All morning we trotted along; miles and miles of waving grasses and not much else.

Most featureless and boring damned landscape I’ve ever seen in me life. Never forgit it; just grass and boulders and the odd yeller daisy to look at. I wuz jest perched up there atop this horse, listening to this buzzing in me head and wondering what was to become of me.

We stopped fer something to eat, as I recollect, and then rode on until the sun wuz almost ready to set. Hadn’t hardly spoken a word all day, neither of us, until him riding up front, pulls to a halt and points at this extra big boulder off to the left of us and tells me that’s where we’ll be camping fer the night.”

“I ain’t never been so glad to get down off a horse. Every part of me wuz aching and protesting ’bout all that damned bouncing around. Took the saddle and tack off the mare meself, I did, without him asking me to and went to tie her down fer the night. Then he turns to me, Ashmael does, and tells me not to bother, that she won’t wander off.

He musta been able to tell that I didn’t believe him. I wuz looking about at all this vastness and thinking how any mare, no matter how loyal, would have a hard time figuring out which rock we wuz under, so he comes over to where I wuz and says to me, ‘Joe, these horses are special. They’re not like regular animals, they can think, just like we do. And, if you listen just right, they can talk to you.’ He taps the side of his head and grins at me, then leaves, walks over to the pack horse and starts unstrappin’ the tents.”

“Let me tell ya, I was kinda dumbfounded. T’wasn’t that I didn’t believe him…

Nope, truth is, I didn’t believe him, I was thinkin’ that these Gelaming must be tetched in the head somehow, to go ’round spouting such foolishness. And then, be damned, if this horse didn’t turn around and she looked at me as if to say, ‘He ain’t lying, boy.’

Real intelligent-like. I let go that rope in a darned hurry and Danziel just kinda flicked her tail across me face and put her head down to graze, pretty as you please.”

“Time I had me scattered wits in order, Ashmael had the camp set up. Coupla small tents, a fire and a pot hanging over it, bubblin’ away. I could tell he was used to travelling, way he went about it, quick and efficient-like. I wandered over and huddled down with me back to the boulder we wuz sheltering behind. It wuz one of them crafted-like stones, the kind you see down near Nettle Creek, ya ken? Bigger than them, tho’, with that shiny type stone wedged in amongst the darker stuff.”

Aarron nodded. He knew what Joshua was talking about; the stones that ringed Nettle Creek were of the kind his people called Remnant Stones and were sacred to his ancestors. They could be found in all kinds of places and situations, many times in the least expected locations, like on these plains Joshua was talking about, and this fact had become part of their mystique.

“We had our supper and settled down fer the night, but I was finding it kinda hard to go to sleep. Couldn’t keep me eyes shut, no matter how hard I tried.

It wuz okay, I wuzn’t as frightened as I had bin, even tho’ I still hadn’t figured out quite what was happening to me yet. But everytime I shut me eyes, I could see them warriors, all painted and bloody and whooping and it seemed to me that, if I went to sleep with one of their kind across the fire, then I wuz gonna end up joining me parents in the Great Beyond. No logic to it, like I said before, jest the imagining’s of a scared kid. But that didn’t make it no better.”

“After I’d been tossing and turning fer quite some while, he sighs and sits up in his bedroll and looks at me. ‘There’s nothing to be frightened of, Joe.’ He tells me. ‘Gelaming are not like the renegades who attacked your settlement. We came here to stop the raids.’ Well, I knew that, but it hadn’t made me feel any better so far and it didn’t help any now. But I couldn’t tell him that, so I jest sat up in me blankets and stared at him. I musta looked like a little hooty owl, all bundled up in that bedroll, but he jest looked back at me all patient-like and then he says, ‘You know, Joe. I remember what it’s like to be frightened of Wraeththu-kind. I used to human once.'”

“Well now.” Joshua wiped his mouth clean of beer foam as he waited for his audience to reassemble. A break to the trees had seemed like a good idea, since some of the youngsters didn’t seem able to hold their water and he’d taken his own advantage of the intermission to refresh his baccy supply from his wagon. He lit his pipe and looked around. “Everyone who’s comin’ back here?”

“So, where was I? Oh yeah…”

“I still didn’t answer him, but my eyes must have got as big as the moon when he tole me that. I knew the stories ’bout the blood and the changin’, but jest to be lookin’ at ‘im, I’d ‘ave sworn he was pureborn. Had that kind o’ aura ’bout him. He’s a big feller, not in size, in size he’s bout the same as most of ’em, skinny as all git out and nothing to speak of round the shoulders or nuttin, but ‘e was taller than a good few. It’s that air he has about ‘im what makes you notice when ‘e walks into the room. All fine and noble and commanding, with jest enough disrespecting to make you like ‘im. He’s always had that, has the General.”

“Anyways, he nodded at me, kinda confirming he’d noticed me interest and, folding his hands behind ‘is head, he begins to tell me the story I is about to relate to you. Which is kinda funny if you think about it. Here’s us, sitting round the fire and such, me telling youse a story about me and him sitting round a fire and him telling me a story. ‘Nuff to make your ‘ead spin.” He chortled.

“‘I was a human boy, same age as you are now, maybe a bit older, first time I ever heard of the Wraeththu, too.’ He tells me.”

‘My parents used to whisper about them in the drawing room before dinner, thinking the children were all still upstairs. But we weren’t. My brother and I used to sit on the staircase and listen to them talk, especially when they had people over for dinner. My father was a business man and had dealings with the government; many of our guests were senators and army generals and the like. They knew more about the situation outside than we did and we used to sit there with our ears pricked, taking it all in.’

“‘Sound familiar, young Joe?’ he asked me. I nodded at ‘im and he smiled in a funny kind of a way and then he asks me if I wants him to tell me more. ‘Course I did, but I reckon too that he knew I was afraid to sleep. I’d a done anythin’ to keep me mind away from what wuz spinnin’ about inside. So he leans back agin and starts ta tell me.”

‘It all sounded very romantic and dangerous, but, even then, while I was curious about them, I never wanted to become one. As the years passed and the situation grew worse, I joined the militia that protected our home. By now, I knew even more about the Wraeththu, their growing population, their differences and how they went about adding to their numbers.’

‘Our populace was depleting rapidly, through death and desertion, which is why I ended up commanding a unit at such a young age, barely fifteen, I think. The Wraeththu we were fighting were much like those that you are familiar with, Joe. Wild, barbaric killers, all dressed up in their war paint and feathers, full of their own strength and importance and determined to exterminate the human race for no reason other than that they could.’

‘We ended up surrounded by them. The compound was the only stronghold left in the city; in fact, the city lay in ruins around us, mostly deserted and those who had remained found themselves the sole target of the local tribe. Fighting went on sporadically over a period of months. We had the firepower thanks to the foresight of our powerful residents, but we didn’t have the numbers. The Wraeththu had the numbers, but were hindered by their lack of effective weapons. It was a stalemate and any good commander of the opposing forces would have cut his losses and moved on, but the Wraeththu were drunk on their own power and madly determined to best us. So it went on.’

‘It became guerrilla warfare. We’d make forays out of the compound for food or to pick off a patrol and they’d make raids against the fence, or to ambush one of our patrols. I got to be pretty good at it; had a reputation for getting my men out and back safely and when it came to successful hunting too. Seemed I had my father’s knack for stealth and planning; he’d only ever used it in business circles, but his son was good at putting it to more deadly use.

The Wraeththu knew who I was, just as I knew their best leaders and planners. There was one, a big har with coal dark skin and a Mohawk haircut, who almost always turned up at some point during one of my planned excursions. For a while I thought I had a leak in the ranks, but it wasn’t that, he was thinking like me, thinking what he’d do if he was me and always trying to outflank us. It worried me; few of them were sane enough to plan so effectively and my concern was that he’d manage to rise in rank and, if he could take command, we’d be in real trouble.’

‘Medical supplies were running low and we made a plan to head out to the warehouse district on the edge of the city, where we’d heard there was a secure building still full of hospital equipment. It was a long way from the compound, so I decided not to send a full patrol; we could not afford to risk that number of men for a rumour that might prove false. But, if the scouting party did meet with success, we could send out more men to retrieve the supplies. I was to lead and I chose to take three others with me, to cover the points. We had to wait two more nights for the moon to wane completely and then we moved out.’

‘The warehouse was there all right and full of the supplies we needed. We broke in and took what we could carry, then secured the lock again as best we could before heading back. We almost made it, too. We were only half a block from the walls when they hit us; two full patrols, waiting in ambush. Mohawk was their leader. I didn’t find out until much later, but he had planted the information about the warehouse right where we’d find it, knowing that I’d lead a small party out there to check. I never expected anything like the double patrol we encountered. He’d out-thought me at last, laid his trap, hoping to catch me and, like a fool, I’d walked right into it.’

“You’d a thought, wouldn’t ya, that a kid would be riveted to the spot by an exiting story like that? Well, I was, but still, next thing I knew, it was morning and I was blinking me eyes against the dawn. Funny, too, that I’d had not one bad dream. Slept like a baby, right through the night.”

“He was already up, fussing with the fire, coaxing it back to life and putting a bowl of oats to the coals for breakfast. I wuz fast developin’ a bad case of hero worship, like kids get, and seein’ him standing there in jest his trousers with the sun doin’ its utmost to turn him into bronze, didn’t make it no better. It was a sparkin’ in his hair, turning it gold and makin’ light of all the fuzzy hairs on his arms; he looked to me like one ‘o them statues like dey have in that muzy-eum in Naris.

He musta known what I wuz thinkin’ too, the sly dog, ’cause he turns around and gives me a wink, and me not even having made one single noise yet. He knew I was awake and a watchin’; he sure did, and it didn’t bother him none.”

“That day was jest like the first. We saddled up and rode out over those goddammed endless plains. Occurs to me now that this here expanse of grass was the main reason why my folk’d stayed hidden so long. How come they never knew nothing ’bout what wuz going on in the rest of the world and how the troubles wuz mostly over, and such. Only an idiot would cross those grasslands without a good reason. They was better than any mountain range or any damned desert I ever heard of for keeping folks apart.”

“Same routine come nightfall, too. Exceptin’ I was ultra-polite to that horse ‘o mine, yes Sir. I wuz trying my best to be a helpful feller, too. Laying out the bedrolls, gathering sticks for the fire, scarce as they was out there, and rubbing the plates clean in the grass after dinner. I wanted back into that story, I did. I figgered if it worked at keeping the nightmares away fer one night, might work again.

‘Sides, it was interesting fer a young lad, even if it were a bit nasty in spots. Ole Ashmael, he wasn’t sparing me none ‘o the details, nope. He wuz telling it to me jest like it happened, I reckon, and I respects him for that, even to this very day. Ain’t no point in coddling kids, jest makes ’em all weak and mewly. Youse gotta tell it like it is and tough titties if they don’t like it.

So, we’s settle down, him with his cup ‘o wine and me with me hooty owl blanket and he starts telling the story again.”

‘There was no point in fighting them really. We’d be dead or captured no matter what we did. Best we could hope for was to take a few of them with us and that’s what we decided to do. Covered on every side, ten of them to every one of us, it was desperate, but I, for one, had no desire to be tortured or worse and I guess the others felt the same. So we hunkered down behind an upturned truck and started firing. Our ammo was limited to what we’d been able to carry, so we didn’t fire unless we had a target.

What struck us as strange, right from the beginning of the exchange was how reluctant they seemed to really pound at us. What you need to understand is that they had all the advantages, more bodies, more weapons and all the time in the damned world and yet they were hanging back. Usually they fought like furies, throwing themselves at us with the suicidal abandon of madmen; we couldn’t work it out.’

‘Then I saw him. Mohawk. And I knew why. So did the others; they all turned and looked at me. This wasn’t an ambush and we weren’t supposed to end up dead. This was a capture, and I was the target. If I hadn’t been able to figure this out for myself, there he was, standing in plain sight on top of a pylon, letting me know. I think the only thing I said was, ‘Uh-oh.’ or something equally inane. That’s when I started thinking about trying to bargain. Let my men leave and I’d surrender, or something like that. But one of my men, an old and trusted friend, laid his hand on my arm and shook his head.

He knew what I was thinking and was telling me, ‘no’. He was right, too. Mohawk may have had a bit more sanity than the majority of his compatriots, but he there was no way he’d let them walk. More than likely, he’d make the deal and then send his troops after them anyway. So, we did the only thing we could do. We prepared to die, one way or the other.’

‘I don’t remember the fire fight, or getting hit. My next memory is of coming round, trussed up like a turkey on the floor of a warehouse somewhere and of six or seven nasty looking warriors with guns standing around watching me. I don’t what the hell they thought I was gonna do, but they didn’t take their eyes off me, even though I was just lying there, bleeding and groaning. I guess my reputation was even bigger than I thought.

I was bleeding from a gunshot wound to the shoulder, but not too much. Actually, I could feel blood under me too, so I was pretty sure the bullet had gone right through and I was able to move my arm a little, as far as the ropes would let me, anyway, so I was thinking that it wasn’t too badly damaged.’

‘I started looking around me; I don’t know whether I was looking for a possible escape or just… looking, but I had nothing else to do. That friend I mentioned earlier, the one in my squad, was there on the floor not far away, but there was no sign of anyone else, so I had to assume they were gone. I could tell it was him, even though he was facing away from me and seemed to be still unconscious. He had blond hair and it stood out against the grey of the concrete like a Kamagrian in a sauna.’

“I musta made some kind of move or maybe even made some noise, ’cause Ashmael stopped his talkin’ and looked over at me. Guess he’d been miles away, thinkin’ ’bout them days an’ all the pals he’d lost, ’cause for a second there, he looked like he’d forgot where he wuz at. Then he smiled and shook his head, tellin’ me to never mind, he’d explain them Kamagrians some other time.”

‘I knew they were waiting for him to show up and eventually he did. Came swaggering in through the doors, congratulating his warriors with pats on the back and checking the injured; all professional concern and soldierly camaraderie. He took his time, coming over to us and when he got there, he just stood there and stared down. I did my best to just stare straight back at him, to not give him an inch, but it was a hard thing to do.

I was hurting and worried, scared even. There were two choices open to him about what was going to happen to us and neither of them appealed to me very much.’

‘He was spectacular to look at, I’ll give him that. As I said before, he was dark-skinned, that delicious warm shade of brown, like mink, and he decorated himself accordingly. Whereas the rest of them wore blacks and blues, all his paint was pale. His face and arms were painted in rich red ochres and shades of white and taupe. The mohawk that had named him for us, was a striking complement to the hard angles of his face and he wore it really long at the back, almost to his waist. Even his clothing was better kept and better quality than that of his troops. All leather of course, [Wraeththu have a fetish for leather that never quits] but his vest was ivory in colour and decorated with that substance too. Silver chains around his neck and arms, everywhere he could attach them, with hundreds of tiny ivory amulets dangling from them.’

‘He turned his head and said something to one of the others, who leaned down and turned my friend face up. Then Mohawk gives him the same staring routine, pretending that he was trying to decide. He never spoke a word to either of us; we were human and that made us unworthy of his words. He just stared down, wanting to see the reaction he was going to get, and said, “Incept them both.”‘

“Now, you gotta understand, this here storytelling marathon took place over several nights, and even sometimes as we wuz travellin. I jest don’ see no reason fer interruptin’ me narrative with all the borin’ ole details about us two riding on and on.

Suffice it ter say that it took us nigh on six days to cross that there infernal grass ‘fore we got anywhere near the place we wuz headin’ and that, durin’ that time, he was a talkin’ to me and a’ tellin’ me stuff, but I wuz still as hushed up as always. Iffen there’s somethin’ I needs to say, I’ll jest says it, but I ain’t gonna give no blow by blows, ‘kay?”

“‘How much do you know about the process of inception, Joe?’ He asks me. I shook me head and lifted me shoulders. I knew it involved blood and a change, but I wuz beginning to suspect that most of the nasty tales my folks had told, were a little wantin’ in the truth department, if yer know what I mean.”

“‘Well,’ He says to me. ‘These days it’s all about ceremony and safety, but I imagine that what you’ve been told is closer to the reality as it was then.’

‘We were clumsy in those days, just feeling our way through the process without any clear idea of how it worked or what we could do to help it along. This made it a bit messy, to put it mildly. And, when it’s being practised on someone who is both injured and as reluctant as we were, it becomes a nightmare.

Not that they cared if we suffered with it, but I know they wanted us both to survive and come out the other side, even if their motives were questionable.

I’ve heard horror stories from some hara; dirty knives in alley ways, no care to speak of, brutal tales that make my blood run cold. So we had it relatively easy in that respect, not that it felt like it at the time, of course.’

‘This tribe called themselves the Huinn; they no longer exist, a lot of the neophyte tribal groups from those days perished or were absorbed by larger and stronger entities. The Huinn were eventually swallowed by the Varrs, which is ironic if you think about it; makes me Varish, once removed.’ (He laughed)

‘They were as barbaric as most tribes were then, but they did have some basic rituals in place. They were used to unwilling converts it seemed, because their forale house was a room set up in the basement of the warehouse with cell doors and old operating tables with straps. We spent a couple of days in the cells, me having my wound tended to and my friend, his head injury.

No food and lots of water to purify our bodies, then, on the third night, they held us down and shaved our heads.

Pissed me off no end that did. (Another laugh.) I’d always been so conceited about my long hair, my minor rebellion and here they were, long, flowing locks every damned one of them, butchering mine. They had the beginnings of the rituals but not the details. The shicawm is supposed to be a total clean shave, a ritualised surrender, but all we ended up with was short back and sides.

I still have it, kind of as a reminder, I guess, but mostly because it’s easier to keep out in the field.’

‘After that was done, they hauled us out and strapped us to the tables. This was their version of the harhune; Mohawk arrived downstairs, took out his knife and held it up, muttered a few words that sounded like swearing in an appallingly bad French accent and then cut us, one after the other. Some hienama, huh? We were screaming and yelling and cursing, so I didn’t see him leech his own blood, but he did and we were given the infusion, then left to sweat on the tables for the three days of our althaia.’

‘It was appalling really and I shouldn’t be so casual or humorous about it, but it’s not a thing I care to remember. So I suppose, Joe, that I’m just telling it best way I can. Kind of like how you’re dealing with your bad memories the way you find best helps. Nothing wrong with it; just so you know I understand, eh?’

“‘E looked to me like them memories wuz a lot worse than ‘e was lettin’ on, but, as I wuzn’t quite up to sayin’ nuthin’ yet and as I wouldn’ta bin able to say nuttin’ comfortin’ anyways, bein’ only a lad, I jest sat real quiet and hoped my face’d let him know how sorry I wuz.

I don’t remember him tellin’ me no more of the story that night. I mentions it ’cause it was only early when he stopped talkin’ and rolled over in his blankets to sleep and it kinda sticks out. I jest lay there awake and thinkin’, y’know.

Wuz beginnin’ to seem to me that these folks wuzn’t so different from us after all. Dey had the same kinda troubles and thought ’bout a lot a things the same way we did. Wuz a revelation fer a lad raised on hatred and fear and I spent a lot o’ time that particular night revising me opinions somewhat.”

‘How do I describe althaia, the changing, to you without putting you off, young Joe? You see, where I’m taking you, a township called Armis, the Wraeththu and the humans live together quite at peace with one another. I’m hoping there’s a human family to take you, in fact, I’m sure there will be. The human population has re-stabilised itself at last, but there are still plenty of couples without children.

But the thing is, when you are ready, you will most certainly be offered an inception.

It’s not offered at any particular age; the criteria now are maturity and physical readiness, rather than any chronological standard and you don’t have to accept.

But I’d rather not prejudice any decision you’re asked to make by frightening the pants off you, either. Would you rather I skipped this part?’

“Well, there wuz a fine ole quandary for ya. One the one hand, I wanted so bad to hear every piece of this tale he wuz willin’ to share with me, on d’other, it didn’t sound too savoury a portion to be chowing down on late at night, like.

But this storytelling had gone beyond two travellin’ companions chewing the fat or even a case ‘o someone attemptin’ to pacify a frightened boy. It was more about him clearin’ his mind, I reckon, while at the same time he wuz going a long way toward settlin’ mine.

I figgered he needed to tell me and I need ta hear the lot ‘o it; ‘specially since I might be asked the question one day. Never wuz no use goin’ inta somethin’ blindfolded; only made fer more misery and fright than wuz really necessary, I reckon. So I shook me head ta let him know ta go on with it. ‘Okay, on your head be it.’ He warns me.”

“It lasts about three days and, even with the best of care, it’s not what I’d call a gentle experience. Your whole body has to change and it causes pain to do it. Things inside shift and make room for other things to grow. You have a fever and you see things that aren’t there, you vomit and your bowels void constantly and without warning. Skin flakes off as the body swells violently and it’s humiliating to be fed and changed like a small child. My worst memory is of the wound I took to the shoulder. It was beginning to heal at the time and I have a distinct recollection of blood, pus and body fluids jetting from the hole and of our jailers packing it with cloth when they got tired of cleaning it off the walls.

Being chained up the entire time just makes it worse. Not that you could help yourself anyway, but knowing in those rare, lucid moments, that you’re still a prisoner on top of everything else that’s happening is pretty demoralising.

Then, when the change is complete, the pain just… stopped. No gradual waning, no half-hearted returns, it just goes as suddenly as it came.

And, then, you’re left with this. My wound was gone, only a small round scar that looked as if it had been there for years, to remind me that it had ever happened.

A body that looks outwardly the same, but one that you know has changed fundamentally inside. A little on the outside, too, besides the cosmetic changes, you know, the way we look. But I’ll leave a little mystery, because it’s a pleasant one and you might choose to find out for yourself one day. (He grinned at me and refused to say more, crafty bastard. Never did find out what he wuz on about, tho’ I has me suspicions.)

‘There’s an addendum to the process of althaia that I need to mention. When the changing is done, it is not fixed in place until the new har has taken aruna. That’s sex to you. You know about sex? (I nodded, embarrassed.) Good. Saves me having to explain it. This is not to say you revert back to human without it; you can’t, it’s more a spiritual adhesion. Becoming har means becoming more than human, there’s an addition to the soul that must take place, else the rebirth can not function as it should. The physical aspect needs the spiritual in order to flourish; without it the human mind battles with the Wraeththu body and no matter which aspect triumphs, there is chaos. Some go mad, others become dull and almost witless; there is no way to predict what will happen. ‘

‘So, at the first opportunity after the three days of althaia, there is a ceremony that culminates in the first, sacred aruna for the new har. Unfortunately for my friend and myself, there was little ceremony.’

‘Once again we were taken to the first floor and once again Mohawk made an entrance.

His true name was Jass, but I still think of him by the name we gave him and always shall.

It was he who baptised us. Aghama knows where he got the names from; probably some discarded book he’d picked up somewhere, but he christened me Ashmael and my companion, Vaysh. We were bathed and inspected at gunpoint and then separated for the grand conclusion to his pseudo-ceremony.’

‘I’m not going to describe it to you, it’s not worth it. Suffice it to say that it was mostly disagreeable, painful even and that most would consider it pelki (rape) and would suffer from it. I refuse to. It happened, badly, but it did happen and, as I’ve since discovered it can be a whole lot more pleasurable than my first time would indicate, I refuse to let my initiation cloud my view of a most wonderful pastime. It doesn’t pay to dwell on the less savoury aspects of life, Joe. We can only move on and hope not to repeat them, maybe even to learn from them.’

‘I was thinking about this earlier, in relation to what I’d said to you about choice and how, if I’d been asked if I wanted inception, I’d have refused it. And it would have been such a waste, Joe!

The only Wraeththu I knew about were these primitive murderers, who didn’t have a clue about their own physiology or spirituality and who only concerned themselves with acquisition and death. I’d never have willingly chosen to become one of them; no matter how glamourous and mysterious it seemed to a young lad.

But now, knowing what I do about the advantages and possibilities of it all, I can look back and see that it was the best thing that could have ever come my way, despite the method. Something to think about, anyway.

Ignorance is no excuse for not taking chances sometimes, no matter what older and wiser heads might tell you, eh? Could turn out to be the best thing ever!’ (He grins at me)

‘Well, we were Wraeththu now, but little more than prisoners, nonetheless. Mohawk couldn’t trust us; a rare instinct, he had. I would have run at the first opportunity, but that wasn’t to be for some time yet. First we had to endure being locked up at night and chained during the day. I spent my first year as a Wraeththu working as an indentured servant! There were others like us; captured defenders, forcibly turned, but we didn’t know any of them. Apparently the Huinn had been battling on more than one front. One har told us that they made a speciality out of scouring the ruins for the places where the few remaining city dwellers hid themselves. It was all about numbers, about building up your tribe to sufficient size that it not be threatened by other groups. About that, and taking vengeance on your opposition, of course.

Mohawk made certain I knew just why I’d been specifically taken and changed. No higher motive with him other than the settling of scores. He didn’t like being laughed at and some of my excursions had given just that result amongst his peers. Being bested didn’t sit very well with him and we suffered for it.

But I never gave up. I knew he’d lower his guard or slip up one day and, when he did, I’d be ready for it.’

‘The prisoners we shared cell space with were gradually absorbed, one by one, into the greater population of the tribe for various reasons. They proved they could be trusted or a position became available where Mohawk felt they could be useful and still kept under close watch. It wasn’t an ideal way to run any army, but he was pressured by a growing lack of recruits and his own reluctance to seek new territories into giving a certain amount of freedom to those he trusted least, myself and Vaysh included.

They say it only takes one second of wavering for an opportunity to present itself and in our case it was surely true.’

The problem was water. Mohawk hadn’t the foresight to locate his encampment close to a clean source, so he always needed fresh water brought in, usually by slaves under guard or trustees. But someone kept picking off his delivery teams and he ended up with only Vaysh and me to send, along with one guard. It wasn’t hard; in fact it was ridiculously easy. The guard was short on experience with… everything and it was a simple matter to overpower him and take his weapons.

Escaping the district was a piece of cake for the two of us. It was our territory as much as it was the Huinn’s; my only regret was that we couldn’t go toward the compound and see what had become of our families.

For one thing, that was where he would expect us to go, once he realised we’d escaped. But mainly, neither Vaysh nor I wanted to see the truth, or to have it see us. We preferred the imagining of a compound still secure and our families’ safe to what might be a reality of death and destruction. We were Wraeththu now, there was no going back.

‘Those days were good, despite the obvious pressures. They’re still some of my fondest memories. We crawled through the ruins of the city avoiding the patrols and made our way to the outskirts, the remnants of what used to be the suburban sprawl. The homes were almost all entirely gone. The well-kept lawns and gardens had taken over, running rampant across the asphalt and the concrete and we often found pieces of people’s lives strewn through the long grass. We camped beside fallen chimneys and caught rabbits with lengths of string to start with, but we soon realised that to have any chance of proper survival, sooner or later we were going to have to find someone to steal the essentials from.

That didn’t sit very well with either of us at first, but it soon became clear that it was survival of the fittest, even out here in suburbia. A couple of times we had to flee for our lives when a group of humans smelled our cooking and attacked us for it. But we were still in strict possession of our human moral standards so, when we did go looking for a victim, we made sure to choose a lone Wraeththu.

He was a surly drunkard, high on some concoction that had not yet worn off and we hit a bonanza when we targeted him, because he was loaded down with gear, weapons, even a horse. It was comical rather than violent; we didn’t have to overpower him at all. He simply turned his head too quickly when he heard us approaching, and passed out.

He had spare clothing, which we both needed as we were dressed in rapidly disintegrating rags, as well as an old hammer with no handle and a pitted chisel, both of which we needed to remove the bands around our wrists and what was left of the chains. I still have the scars, see?’

‘Having one horse and some weaponry made it easier to get another and so on.

Both of us mounted made for ease of travel, easier to search for targets and an easier retreat afterwards. But we only stole until we were selectively equipped; our moral standards were declining, but not that quickly!

Finally, we moved out, away from the city. Being just two, we were in constant danger from large bands of roaming humans, not to mention the tribes and we felt we’d do better out in the open, so to speak.

It turned out to be the best thing we could have done. There were other, lone Wraeththu also travelling whom we met and learned a little from; and larger groups of not so aggressive tribal hara who also took us in for various periods of time.

Some humans, too, had made for themselves fairly safe sanctuaries and, so long as we approached them correctly, they were more than willing to trade goods and information. We were doing pretty well, both of us blossoming as Wraeththu away from the chains and cells. Vaysh took to dyeing his hair every opportunity he got. I never knew what to expect when he finally emerged from the baths at the various towns we visited. Sometimes it was red or pink, at other times he came out with a different shade on each separate lock. Made hunting for game when we were on the road interesting, let me tell you; every rabbit and partridge within a thousand square miles could see us coming. Combine that with our growing predilection for black leathers and silver jewellery and we were pretty nigh blinding in the sunlight.’

‘Vaysh and I became a lot closer during this time. We learned a new word, chesna, which is the Harish equivalent of the human mating bond and found that it applied to us.

Beyond that, I’ll not say much more on this subject. I’m sure you’re more interested in the exciting parts of my story, rather than the romantic, and besides, it would feel… strange, even disrespectful to my memories of that time to chat about them around the fire, no matter how pleasant the company. (He smiled.)’

‘In time, we found more honest employment. The human settlements that I mentioned and quite a few of the permanent Harish ones, were in dire need of advice and guidance on the home security front and I found my experience as a warrior could be put to good use. Vaysh was more of a planner and organiser of more peaceful concerns than me; he hired out to co-ordinate food supplies and stockpiling, emergency plans, medical needs and the like, whereas my forte was military and I began to hire out as a mercenary.

I also forged a tight company of hara that I could call on whenever we had a new job.

Some, like Phylax, travelled with us, and are still with me now. Others I could ‘call’ on when needed, with my rapidly developing occult powers.

To that end, we developed a friendship with a shaman in one of the Harish towns and he travelled with us, giving us caste training as we moved about. I managed to move from Ara to Algoma within this period, but Vaysh was otherwise occupied most of the time and only managed to raise his level to Acantha. It was a good life, kind of like the old Wild West stories my father used to tell me of wanderers like Jesse James, John Wayne, Billy the Kid and the like. We moved in and protected the settlers from the outlaws, then moved on. We were a good team and in great demand and we saw a lot of the country that way.’

‘About two years after our escape from the city, we found ourselves employed in a small, human farming community only about one hundred miles away. We’d come full circle and had ended up almost back where we’d begun. This township had been suffering through a lot of raids from a local tribe and was anxious for some organisation and some advice about their defences. We were still taking our payment in goods rather than currency as there was still a tendency by most established tribes to print their own money and that could make commerce difficult.

Vaysh and I had been toying with the idea of making a foray into the city to see if we could find out, discreetly, what had happened to our families. It had preyed on our minds for a long time, despite our best efforts to put that life behind us and we had almost agreed to try, were planning on riding out for a couple of days while things were still quiet at the settlement, when the raiders came.’

‘And, lo and behold, there he was, large as life and twice as ugly, mounted on his big black horse and not changed one iota since we’d seen him last. Mohawk! The Gods were smiling on me that day, Joe. And let me tell you, I smiled right back.’

‘Have you heard the old saying, “Vengeance is a dish best served cold?” Well, I’d had a little more than two years to chill mine and I was more than ready to dish it up. There were around fifty of my mercenaries present in Georgeton right then, which looked to make the percentages around seventy to thirty in the Huinn’s favour. But that didn’t account for our advantages. I knew the Huinn inside out and Mohawk himself even better after a years’ forced study. He, on the other hand, did not know we were there. Sure, he would have been able to see the numbers and count the forces raised against him, but when it came to knowing precisely who he was facing or the determination I personally had, he’d no clue.’

‘Still, stealth was required and no small amount of trickery. I bought to bear all my newly-acquired skills in negotiation and the town leaders agreed to donate a goodly number of wine barrels to our cause.

The plan was simple and, because it was, it worked beautifully. I sent Phylax out the back way with a horse and a pack animal laden down with the very enticing barrels and he rode a full circle and headed back to town, right under the noses of the encamped Huinn.

Naturally, they gave chase and naturally, the ‘terrified’ Phylax lost his grips on the reins and the wine fell into enemy hands. Phylax made it back behind the barricades safely and the Huinn rode off, whooping and hollering, to celebrate.

That night we rode quietly out to where they were partying and left the horses around the river bend. We unpacked some other things we needed and made our way on foot to the trees around their camp.’

‘Oh, they were a happy lot, Mohawk included, so drunk and so drugged on the little ‘extras’ we’d added to the casks courtesy of our shaman, that I doubt if they’d have noticed a earthquake right beneath their feet. Of course, as tribal leader, Mohawk’s share had been rather larger than anyone else’s and he’d made the most of it. He was blind drunk and almost comatose, lolling about under a tree not five feet from where we’d emerged from the undergrowth.

Snatching him was easy, we did it with no alarms being raised, no one even noticed, so involved were they with their drinking and pairing off.

But we had to think ahead. Mohawk was safely stowed away on a pony and under heavy guard, but we still needed something that would make the Huinn think twice about trying to retrieve their leader once they finally figured out where he was at.

So again we hit them with the little extras out of our shaman’s favourite dirty trick bag. A little war paint, some feathers and some hocus pocus and we had ourselves a nightmare beast, just the thing to scare the beejezus out of a raggedy bunch of inebriated hara, none of whom had two brains cells to rub together.’

‘I’ll tell you straight, Joe, I’ve lived a long time and I’ve seen some strange and some funny sights, but I have never, ever seen anything quite like what happened that night.

Vaysh was the volunteer beastie and he leapt down from the branches of that tree, howling and screeching for all he was worth.

At first, none of them even noticed, but a couple who were sharing breath in the long grass not three feet alway finally looked up, only to be confronted by this apparition in feathers. Grey face paint, with whitened eyes and a fake beak, the multi-coloured hair all daubed with mud and decorated with animal bones, the fur and feather cape and boots, with not a stich on beneath; those hara turned whiter than snow.’

‘Vaysh pretended to not even see the audience he’d so rapidly assembled; he danced on the grass in the moonlight, moaning and groaning and rolling his eyes back in his head while he spouted these incantations Puisse, the shaman, had taught him.

It was horrible to watch, even for us and the effect on the Huinn was… galvanising. I swear to you, Joe that clearing was empty before Vaysh stopped spinning and the only sound to be heard was the wind in the trees and the vanishing drum of hooves as the Huinn scattered in all directions.

Most satisfying campaign I’ve ever been on, not a drop of blood shed and yet everyone was rewarded. Georgeton never needed to call on us again; the forest surrounding the town is apparently haunted by an apparition called the Grey Man and nohar ever dares spend the night beneath the trees there.

As an added bonus and as payment for the wine we ‘borrowed’ the city fathers also received their first indentured servant. Big har, strong but stupid; kind of slowed down by the brain damage he sustained whilst imbibing too freely of some doctored wine.

I think they gave him twenty years to pay off all the damage his raids caused to the good citizens of the town. He did reimburse them and then chose to stay there and open a little business. He’s the town’s only cooper, I’m told.

‘There were many more adventures and many years of wandering and working after that. We never did venture back into the city. Our families were behind us finally; dead or alive we had revenged ourselves on the Huinn and were satisfied with that.

Our band of mercenaries grew as well and, in the end, we could field well over two hundred men when required. More of them travelled with us all the time and we must have made quite a sight as we galloped along the roads between jobs. The leathers worn by Vaysh and I were adopted by our men; it gave a sense of unity as well as being practical for identification in battle. Our success had made us relatively wealthy and strength of numbers meant we could afford to advertise our affluence with rings and necklaces, gold hair clips and silver decorations on our saddles.’

‘But even this life paled after a while for Vaysh and me. I grew tired of seeing only conflict wherever we rode. The number of settlements and of peaceful hara was growing, but they were still isolated from each other, distrustful and suspicious of one another, but with good reason.

The raiders continued to flourish; in fact their strength grew with every passing year as more and more of the small, aggressive tribes united and gained power. We began to talk, late at night, about the need for an accord amongst the peace lovers that would match the might of the warrior nations that were forming.

But we weren’t the only ones beginning to think this way. Rumours began circulating about certain places where like-minded individuals were gathering in an attempt to formulate a workable response to the growing threat. Names were bandied about; Saltrock was one, Basik, Neahome and Castelan were the others we heard.

Eventually, tired of the constant moving about, the hostilities and the losses, Vaysh and I decided to part company with our band and head off in search of one of these towns.’

‘We left the troupe in Phylax’s capable hands; they had plenty of work to carry one with and competent leaders to replace Vay and me without too much fuss. We’d decided on Basik as a possibility; the intelligence we’d gathered indicated that this town was somewhere we could reach without too much trouble. There was no hint as to where the others might be located, so, with very slim evidence, we rode off in search of Basik.’

‘It took us four months, but we found it. A tiny hamlet, hidden in the hills and filled to the brim with the kind of forward thinkers and strategists we’d be hoping for. They accepted us into their midst and we wasted no time in making ourselves useful. Within a year we were both gainfully employed. I was in charge of the town’s defence and Vaysh was in his element, planning and administering with the town council.

I truly believe I have never been happier than I was at that time. Everything was falling into place; we had the excitement of planning for the great, peaceful nation that we felt Wraeththu could be, good company, a little danger now and then when the raiders occasionally found us and, of course, each other.’

‘But it wouldn’t last, couldn’t last, nothing that good ever does. There’s always something that’s going to come along and ruin it all. In our case it was a har named Thiede.’

An Army of Angels

(Grissecon program book. Oct. 2003)

The breeze lifted the smoke and carried it away. It also brought to our ears the screams and pleas of the dying warriors below. Vaysh curled his lip in distaste over the scene and turned his head to me.

“Must we linger here?”

I calmed my restless horse with my hands, never taking my eyes from the celebrations of the victors below them.

“We need to see which way they go when they leave, Vay. Can’t have them turning up on our doorstep.”

Vaysh looked downhill once more. The celebrations showed no signs of abating; the warriors in their paint and finery gathered around one of the burning vehicles, whooping and hollering, weapons held above their heads, while to their left, their fellows searched through the bodies, stealing from the corpses and summarily executing any who still lived.

“They look like Indians in an old movie.” He observed, disgustedly.

I gave a short laugh. “Someone down there probably saw the same film you did.”

***

All afternoon we waited on our hilltop for the bandits below to gather themselves and depart. The horses grazed on the other side of the hill, tethered to prevent them wandering up into view.

I might have appeared perfectly relaxed, chewing on a stalk of grass, body laid out comfortably, but I was keeping watch.

Beside me, Vaysh contemplated the scenery, refusing to give the carnage below any more credence by bearing witness.

The rolling hills to the north gradually gave way to the sharper gullies and peaks where he and I sat. The summit of the mountain that protected them rose abruptly from the earth behind him, covered by cloud and mist, even on the clearest of days. Within this maze of networking valleys, dead ends and sudden rises, lay the small town we called home.

Formerly an isolated human town, Basik was a home to disaffected Wraeththu seeking shelter from the tribal storms that rocked the land and had grown into a quite sizeable community, one that I was in charge of protecting.

Vaysh had little to do with the town’s defence. He had ridden out with me today, merely to spend some time alone with the har with whom he was chesna. We had seen so little of each other lately, that even the prospect of spending the day patrolling the rough hills on horseback had seemed a bearable idea.

Coming across the raiders in the middle of our murderous rampage had been the vilest of misfortunes. I may well be used to such sights, but Vaysh, insulated by his duties on the council had not seen much of fighting and death for the longest time. Not since he and I had first set out to find Basik, footsore and weary, drawn by stories of a place hidden in the hills where Wraeththu lived in peace.

“Why do we do it?” He sighed. “Why can’t we just… get along?”

The question was rhetorical, but I answered anyway.

“Because death always accompanies birth. It’s the nature of the beast, Vay.”

It was an old argument, one we had had many times before and now as then, there seemed no fitting comeback. Still, he tried.

“I can’t accept that.” He shook his head sadly, pale hair flying about his face like wind-whipped silk. “We are… better than this.”

“Supposedly.” I disputed. “Not yet, though. Not until the first throes are over. Until there are more who think as we do and less who see this as an opportunity for profit or power.”

“Inception is supposed to burn away our humanity.” Vaysh argued. “Har like those down there need guidance, need to be taught the proper way. Not killed on sight.”

“Vay, your lost lambs would murder us all without even blinking. Don’t delude yourself.” I turned toward my chesnari, a smile on my face to soften the words. “I know your intentions are all good and don’t get me wrong, it’s a noble cause and one I subscribe to heartily. What we disagree about is the timing.

You want it all now; I think it is going to take time. Time and a couple of generations removed from… this.” I illustrated my point with a sweep of an arm toward the dying fires below, the bodies and the drunken, staggering hara who had caused it.

“But we can’t progress if we don’t begin.” Vaysh voiced the argument that had been doing the rounds of the council lately. “We have to start somewhere.”

“True. We do. We start small, build our numbers, then we enforce. As much as you would like to picture all the warring tribes as misguided and misinformed, the truth is that they enjoy living the way we do. They chose it, Vay. Just as we chose to seek a different way. Superior strength is the only thing they respect. Only that will make them listen.”

I finished talking and returned my attention to the valley below. Sighing quietly, Vaysh did likewise, noting the preparations for departure by the victors.

The fires were almost out and the ravens waited in the trees for their feast to begin. We knew that they would have it, there were too many bodies for the two of us to bury before nightfall and rekindling the fires for a cremation might attract the wrong kind of attention.

Despite his impassioned words to me, Vaysh was intensely practical. He knew that the hara below would see us as prey rather than fellow Wraeththu, but the idealism that drove him suffered for it.

However, there had to be a beginning point, some means by which we could reach out to the Wraeththu that roamed this vast land and teach them. The citizens of Basik were a start, a community of likeminded souls whose focus was on peace and the development of our newborn race.

We wanted the same things; I just couldn’t see them happening anytime soon, not with the world in such a state of flux.

Vaysh believed absolutely that what we needed was a plan. This was not an impossible task, with a method and complete commitment on the part of those involved, he believed that we could begin to reach out into the heart of the strife torn world we had inherited and begin to make some sense of it.

***

We arrived back just as night fell and found the community in an uproar. Lights blazed from doorways as hara ran about, bent on various tasks. Questioning a passer-by, his arms full of blankets, yielded the information that the town’s population had just undergone a sudden and dramatic increase. A small caravan of travellers had found its way into the valley that hid Basik from the world and the council had decreed that they could stay.

I was not happy with this decision, but there was little I could do except fume quietly. The two of us stabled our horses and headed for the council house to check out the new arrivals.

It was a mixed bag that met us when we entered the hall. Hara mingled with humans, children ran about underfoot, screaming and playing. Chaos reigned as Vaysh and I sought to pick our way through the crowd to the tables where the council members were gathered.

“…facilities are limited, but adequate for the moment.” Farah, the council secretary was saying as we finally reached the front of the room.

He was speaking with three of the new arrivals, two hara and a human male about fifty years of age.

“I’m sure they will serve our needs admirably.” The taller of the two hara replied. “We are grateful for your hospitality and don’t wish to put you to any trouble.”

“Of course, if you all decide to stay…” Farah’s words trailed off as he spotted Vaysh. Clearly relieved to see someone more suited to organisation and delegation, he backed away from the conversation, indicating Vaysh with a gesture.

“Ahh, here’s Vaysh.” He said. “He knows more about this kind of thing than I do.”

The travellers turned toward Vaysh and me, ready with a polite greeting. The first thing I noticed about the har who had spoken was his strange appearance; something about him made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Extremely tall, with vivid red hair bound up in bands of copper, the stranger had the scariest eyes I had ever seen. A feral golden colour, they seemed to encompass more than mere physical appearance, taking in everything with one sweeping glance. It made my teeth ache. He sees inside me. The disquieting thought came from nowhere.

Rather well dressed for refugees too, I thought, forcing my mind to more mundane matters. Bright woollen robes covered trousers tucked into boots little ravaged by hard travel; they looked well fed and not at all harried, as other newcomers to the township had been. The taint of the outlands had not worn on them as much as it should have done.

By contrast, the human male did appear to have suffered the deprivations of hard travel. His clothes were stained and torn, totally unsuited to the cooler climate of the mountain terrain. However, here in the valley, the temperature was considerably warmer than in the hills that surrounded them. The sheer cliffs protected the town from the brutality of the winter weather this high up; creating a microclimate that had been instrumental in the decision by humankind to found the town all those centuries ago.

I often laughingly referred to the place as Shangri-La.

The human male had removed his dirty, torn coat, but still carried it slung across his shoulders. The two strange hara looked healthy by comparison.

Vaysh was fascinated. There was a tangible feel of power emanating from the two of them, as if magic were leaking from their pores. It was attracting and repellent at the same time. He could hardly bring himself to tear his eyes away from his study and begin to address their concerns. The other har was much less compelling than the strange red-haired one. His face was kind, his eyes gentle rather than frightening and it was to this har that Vaysh addressed himself.

“Come with me and we can get organised.” He said. “We’ve plenty of room for temporary guests but, if many of you decide to stay, then we shall need to rethink accommodations.”

The human looked grateful and nearly in tears. “Thank you.” He said in a low voice. “We’ve been travelling for so long, searching for a safe place. If it wasn’t for…” he indicated the two Wraeththu by his side as his words choked off into sobbing.

The red-haired stranger stepped smoothly into the breach. “We’d heard of this place, of course.” He said, smiling. “And when we joined our travelling companions, “he patted the crying man on the back. “We decided to lead them here to safety.”

“How did you hear about us?” I spoke before Vaysh could ask. I shouldered my way forward, full of suspicion.

“Oh, various places.” The har answered smoothly. “We get around, we’re traders, or rather we were, until we lost our goods in a raid a few days north of here. This town is a bit of a legend amongst Wraeththu.”

“And humans.” The man cut in. “We’d heard of it too. Of a place that welcomed peace-loving hara and humans alike. But we didn’t think we’d any chance of ever finding it.”

I had to be content with that. The suspicion remained, but, short of outright accusation, there was little I could say.

Filling the silence that fell, Vaysh again made his offer to leave the hall and we all moved toward the doors.

I was forced to stop, organising the hara who had begun arriving with the blankets and food into teams to supply the spare huts.

The man was called aside by one of the human families as we reached the front doors and stayed behind as the others stepped out onto the darkened street. As they stood waiting for him to rejoin them, I heard Vaysh ask,

“Will the two of you be staying as well? We do have the room; most of it just needs renovating.”

“For a couple of days, yes. But permanently? I don’t think so. We have things to take care of elsewhere.” The dark-haired har was the one to reply, his companion watching all the activity in the street with lively interest.

“You must realise then…” Vaysh began hesitantly, only to be interrupted.

“That your friend in there will wish to satisfy himself about us before we are allowed to go on our way.” This came from the redhead, his weirdling eyes glowing in the darkness.

Vaysh felt embarrassed. “Well, yes. We need to be sure, you see. Our security depends on it.”

“Most admirable.” The har said shortly. “I am rather tired, is there somewhere we could rest.”

The other har smiled at Vaysh to take the sting from the haughty tone his friend used.

“Of course.” Vaysh replied quickly. “Follow me.”

Abandoning the human to my tender mercies, he led them to one of the huts that already had its door open and the fire within lit. It didn’t appear to have been allocated and Vaysh was willing to court my displeasure at his usurpation just to be rid of the strange, mercurial har for the night.

“My thanks, again.” The dark-haired har said in the doorway. His companion had already entered and was strolling about the small room, inspecting it. It was as if he had forgotten that Vaysh was there, so complete was his concentration and the dismissal it implied. Vay wondered if his friend spent all his time apologising for this kind of behaviour.

“See you in the morning.” Vaysh took the two steps down back onto the road and then turned.

“Oh,” the thought had just occurred. “Your names? The council will want to know.”

“I am Orien.” The dark har told him. “My friend’s name is Thiede.”

Taking a mental note, Vaysh waved goodnight and left, turning his attentions back to the logistics of getting all these new arrivals settled for the night.

***

“I don’t like him. He’s creepy.”

“Ash!” Vaysh turned from the mirror where he was plaiting his hair ready for bed and looked at me.

“Well, I don’t.” I was unconcerned by Vaysh’s horrified reaction to his statement. “There’s something… I don’t know what it is yet, but I will. I don’t trust him.”

“Time will tell.” Vaysh soothed, trying for peace. He pushed his chair back from the dressing table and joined me on the bed.

Embracing, we shared breath for the first time since that morning. Vaysh tasted the residual anger and concern that had prompted my statement and sought to calm the troubled waters. He told me about his conversation with the two strangers and then, with his head resting on my chest, wrapped in his strong arms, he said,

“The council agreed that we couldn’t be allowed to go until we are certain of their intent. That should be enough for now, surely? A couple of them even agree with you that there is something fishy about them. Callas said that there is a strange aura emanating from him and he would know. Maybe you’re not wrong, Ash, but we can’t judge them based on feeling.”

“Callas is an able hienama,” I agreed. “If he senses something, we’d do well to pay attention.” Seeking to change the subject, I teased him a little. “You’re too soft, Vay, it’s your biggest, and your most attractive, fault.”

Vay harrumphed in response to this gem and then grew solemn again. Much as he would have liked to brighten the mood as I wished, the strangers, Thiede and Orien, had captured his attention and he could not let it go.

“I know I’m not always as careful as you are, Ash, and I let my beliefs overrun me at times, but, if we’re to succeed at all, we need more trust, not less.”

I drew Vay’s face upward with a finger under his chin and planted a tender kiss on my chesnari’s lips.

“One day.” I whispered. “Right now is not the time for trusting. Trust gets you killed, gets us all killed if I’m not careful. I have to be careful, Vay. Every soul in this town relies on me not to get it wrong; that is a trust in itself and I take it very seriously.”

Vay just looked at me, quietly stunned. Although we had been chesna for a while now, I had never been one for revealing much of myself, for talking about feelings instead of actions. This small disclosure was a rare thing and as such, Vaysh seemed to treasure it. He encouraged me to go on.

“You were gently raised, Vay. Even if less gently incepted. Living your entire human life on a ranch and coming to the city for such a short period is not the same as being raised there. Intellectually, yes, you can understand the way it was, but I lived it and the blood and the dying burnt my innocence away.” I raised myself up on one elbow, pinning Vaysh with my gaze and my words bought tears to Vay’s eyes.

“It’s your innocence I treasure, Vay. You have purity in you that I lost long ago. That pure decency is one of the things I love about you, something we all love, but it doesn’t stand you in good stead when situations like this come up. Your first instinct is to nurture, to offer aid and succour, mine is to suspect, to question. A contrast, sure, but together I think we make a pretty good team, don’t you?”

In response, Vay snuggled closer to his chesnari’s flank. I flicked off the lights and lay back down.

“We are a good team.” Vaysh agreed. “Contentious at times, but it’s a good balance, I suppose. At least, I keep you from running amok.”

“Amok, eh?” The rumbling he could hear coming from my chest told Vaysh I was laughing silently. “I run amok, do I? What about you?”

“I do not run anywhere, least of all amok.” Vay strove for a superior, haughty tone, even as the laughter began to bubble upward from his chest as well. “I am efficient. Yes, that’s it. Efficient.” He paused. “Especially at high speed.”

I laughed aloud and rolled over, pinning Vaysh to the bed with ruthless ease.

However, while my strength and ability was far superior to Vaysh’s, I had well-hidden weak spots, all of which Vay knew very well and he employed his forefinger with devastating accuracy.

When the tickling session and the resultant hilarity had subsided, we collapsed back onto the bedclothes once more. Breathing heavily, and more than a little aroused by all the physical activity, Vaysh panted,

“You’re all hot and sticky.”

“Hmm.” I thought about it. “I need some water.”

“Get your own.” Vay challenged saucily, turning his head so he could see my expression.

A gleam of teeth in the darkness and then,

“I rather thought you’d get it for me.”

I rose up again and leaned over Vay, pinning him.

“I can’t get up.” Vaysh pointed out.

I shrugged, “Well then, you can be my water.” his voice deepened into tones Vaysh knew well, rough with desire. “Be soume for me, Vaysh.”

***

“…hope to reach a consensus and form a tribe of our own. That is the goal, anyway. Achieving it is difficult with so many hara from so many different tribes here.”

I heard Vaysh’s voice as he passed by the open door of the council rooms. As usual, when on his favourite subject, his tone was passionate. I knew that Vay was speaking to Orien and Thiede; they had been joined to Vaysh’s hip ever since their arrival two days previously and it was starting to wear on my nerves.

Passing by without entering, I made my way down the street to my own front door.

Tossing my jacket negligently toward the rack as I passed through the hall, I went into the small library and poured myself a drink, feeling the need for one.

Sighing, I lowered myself into a chair and sipped, one leg thrown up over the arm. Basik had been hectic since the late night arrival of the refugees. Most had decided to stay, the relative peacefulness of the town and the welcome the unthrist hara among them had received, made Basik a haven they were reluctant to give up.

Consequently, I had been busy, not with supply and allocation, which was a job for others, but with sorting out the new hara. Some would make excellent additions to our troop of defenders, others had skills in areas like weaponry that we sorely needed, but mostly, I was occupied with security, who could be trusted and who would bear watching. Thiede and Orien were on the second list.

Secrets! It all boiled down to secrets. The two of them were hiding something. Whether it held a threat to the safety of our hidden town, I was unable to determine and I was frustrated.

Vaysh had taken to them immediately, showing them around the town, explaining our hopes and our goals, being too damned friendly in my opinion!

We won’t have any bloody secrets left, if Vay has his way, I thought sourly. The two of them, on the other hand, seemed to have plenty.

There was nothing I could put my finger on; extensive questioning had revealed nothing more than two well-travelled hara with no obvious affiliations to any hostile tribe, but something in their eyes, in the slightly superior smile that Thiede affected whenever I asked a question, told me that they were keeping something back.

And the questions they asked! The ostensibly light-hearted conversation the four of us had had last night over dinner had left me feeling drained and exhausted, as if my soul had been peeled back and examined.

However, for the life of me, I could not recall any specifics about the evening, not even the nature of the questions. The wine had been good, but not that damned good and the impression I was left with was that someone had been messing with my mind. It was impossible, nobody was that good, Wraeththu skills had not risen to such a level as to be able to infiltrate and leave no trace and yet, I could not shake the feeling of… invasion.

The front door opened and I assumed it was Vay, coming back from his latest philosophical discussion with our guests.

However, I saw Thiede’s bright hair first, followed by his lanky frame and those yellow, sarcastic eyes.

“May I come in?”

“Sure.” I didn’t get up, I didn’t even move. Come into my parlour, I thought nastily. Let’s see how we do if I take you on one at a time.

Thiede took the chair opposite mine, declining my offer of a drink. I sat quietly, making no effort to open the conversational channels, I simply watched.

The ropes of red hair were unconfined today, snaking around Thiede’s throat and down across his chest as if hugging him. Long, long arms with spidery fingers rested comfortably on the arms of the chair and the thin legs in their covering of soft leather were crossed at the knee, one foot dangling. He looked not at all disconcerted at being studied so closely or so silently.

“Where are the others?” I asked little churlishly, my attempt at intimidation an obvious failure.

“Vaysh and Orien went down to the stables.” He flashed a smile I assumed was intended as friendly, but his pointed canine teeth made it look more like a threat. “Horses are for travelling on, not for admiring in my opinion, so I came back. You don’t mind the company, do you? I saw you come home.”

How did you do that? I wondered. Seeing through brick now, are we?

I didn’t say it, instead asked, “Speaking of horses, I did remember to tell you last night that you are free to leave whenever you wish, didn’t I?”

Thiede laughed. “Too much of that excellent wine, Ashmael? Yes, you did mention it. Orien and I will be on our way soon, possibly tomorrow. I think we have imposed on your hospitality for long enough.”

“You are welcome to stay as long as you like, Thiede. I’m sure Vaysh has told you as much.”

“Ahh, yes. Vaysh. A most admirable har, very helpful and welcoming.”

Where I am not. I finished the sentence for him, grinning to myself.

Thiede waved one elegant hand negligently in the air. His nails were like claws. Hideous, I thought.

“Places to go, things to do.” Thiede accompanied his wave with the platitude.

“Yes, well.” I answered. “Vaysh is very helpful to those in need. He can afford to be, as the security of this community is my concern, not his.”

“Such diverse personalities, you and he.” Thiede added, ignoring my pointed observation. “A startling contrast for two hara who are chesna, don’t you think?”

“We complement each other.” I said flatly, my eyes narrowing with perceived danger.

“I meant no offence.” Thiede soothed. “Just the opposite. It’s an admirable partnership, that’s what I was trying to say. Have you been together long?”

“Yes.” I said flatly. I felt as if I were losing control of the conversation, not a welcome feeling, especially after the strangeness of last night. Growing anger sparked my tongue. “What is it about you that I don’t like, or trust?”

“You don’t? I’m crushed.” Thiede looked far from upset by my outburst. Despite the dramatic gesture of hand to heart, he looked highly amused. “I assure you, Tiahaar Aldebaran, that there is nothing being kept from you that would compromise your security.”

“That’s very neat, Thiede. I cannot recall the last time I heard such a slippery sidestep.” I leaned forward in my seat, poised to leap and every muscle taut. “Nonetheless, I want some answers to the concerns I have about you and your friend. As you say, this town is known in the world outside this valley and keeping it safe, keeping the folk here alive, is more important to me than your measly secrets, believe me.”

Although he did not show any fear, Thiede did lose the superior smirk and the beginnings of respect dawned on his face. “My apologies, Ashmael.”

At last, Thiede looked sincere. I backed down a notch, but remained on the edge of my chair.

“Sometimes, I get a little full of myself, as Orien constantly reminds me. Perhaps what you are sensing about us is caste-related. Both Orien and I are Nahir-Nuri, still a rare thing among Wraeththukind. The… vibrations, the aura might be what you are sensing?”

I tilted my head to one side, considering. “Perhaps,” I conceded. “That would probably be discernable. However, I was thinking along the lines of something a little more… tangible. It is your intentions I am worried about, I’m afraid, not your internal structure. You have been asking many questions. Care to explain the interest?”

Thiede’s smirk briefly returned. “You mean in the township in general, or Vaysh in particular?”

“Can we please just stop the game playing?” I was rapidly losing patience with this recalcitrant guest. “Answer the question.”

Thiede’s face darkened the threatening tone. “I wouldn’t advise trying anything rash, Ashmael.” He growled. “I doubt you’d survive it.”

I smiled coldly. “Most probably not.” I was forced to agree. “But you’d have to wipe out an entire town in order to get out of here and I very much doubt that you’re prepared to do that.”

Thiede’s smile was equally chilly. “True.” He conceded. “You see, you do know me. At least, as much as you need to. Pointless violence and slaughter is one of the subjects your Vaysh and I agree on; there’s too much of it.”

Leaning back in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his face, Thiede was quiet for a moment. I waited, equally patient.

Then, “My interest in the town, I assume is relatively understandable. I find what you are trying to achieve here commendable and I have enjoyed learning about your philosophies and your goals. Your mate, Vaysh, I find equally intriguing. His idealism and gentle ways are a rarity in these troubled times. I find it refreshing and his company and his conversation give me hope for the future of our race. It seems to me that, one day, Vaysh will be a leader among Wraeththu and I will be pleased to someday say that ‘I knew him when’.” He paused, as if for breath and then fired off a last sarcastic volley. “Is that enough or would you like my shoe size while I’m at it?”

I came to my feet in one swift movement; Thiede was unable to hide his tiny jump of surprise. Looking down on the red-haired har made me feel a whole lot better and more in control of the situation. The answers I’d been given went some small distance toward the complete truth, but the feeling of dread still touched me whenever I heard Vaysh’s name coming from between those pale, obstructive lips.

When I spoke, I made my words precise and final. I turned away from the fire and from the har sitting beside it, making my parting shot as I headed for the door.

“I have no choice but to accept what you say, Thiede, and to let you leave. It all sounds very plausible and laudatory. Nonetheless, take it as gospel that, should I ever discover you have betrayed this place or these people in any way, I will hunt you down and decorate the plains with your entrails.”

They were gone before nightfall.

***

The ambush was quick and brutal. An opportunity presented and the chance taken. They were disorganised and haphazard in the execution of their raid and my team of guards were quick to mount a defence and repel the would-be bandits, but not before they managed to make off with a couple of the packhorses and one of the wagons travelling in the convoy along the trade route.

Riding at the head of the column, my mind elsewhere, I had only lightning reflexes and long experience in combat situations to protect me.

Cursing, I turned my horse around, peering through the dust the fleeing horses had raised, trying to count the cost of my inattention.

Distracted by my own anger, eyes trying to take in all the damage, I didn’t at first see the empty wagon seat where Vaysh had been sitting. When it finally registered, I charged through the chaos on horseback, dismounting even before the animal had come to a complete halt beside the wagon Vaysh had been driving.

There was blood. On the wagon seat, on the reins, on the backs of the sweating, terrified animals in the harness. I found my hands were shaking as I rounded the far side of the wagon and saw the horror on the ground.

A veil of fair hair, body flung down brokenly and the evidence of a life rapidly waning with each ragged, fading breath.

“Vay?” Dropping to my knees beside the prone body, I gently rolled him over, cradling the bloody head on my lap. “Oh, God. Vay!”

The wound was a perfect circle, a tiny dark mouth through which life bled relentlessly into the red soil. Hands became coated in it as I tried vainly to quell the bleeding and I was muttering to myself as I pressed down, ignoring the sympathetic gathering behind him.

“My fault. My fault.” I remember moaning, rocking back and forth. “They weren’t supposed to be here, Vay.” I told him. “We scouted. The area was clear. There was no one. This can’t happen.” The last words came out in a shriek as I felt the final breath leave the body cradled in my arms with such rigorous care.

“No.” Louder and louder, the scream intensified, pulling at my sanity and drawing it upward into the sunlit sky, tearing it away as my soul tried to follow Vaysh… and failed.

“No. Nononononononono…”

(Five Years Later)

I was drunk, pleasantly drunk. It was a condition I had become both accustomed to and fond of in the last few months. This inn was a nice place, no one bothered me and the betica was particularly good. I could not remember how long I had been there, or even the name of the hamlet, but it didn’t bother me, time and place no longer my concern.

Blinking like an owl, I stared down into the bottom of the glass and found it empty. The jug too, was in the same condition and I banged it hard on the table, indicating to the pot har that I wanted a refill. While I was waiting, I leaned back into his seat and looked around the room. The inn was full, no surprise really, as it was the only one in town. The usual eclectic mixture of tribes and styles were present, from the torn leathers and furs of the Uigenna and the bland weaves of the townhars, to the motley silks and feathers of the whores that were a fixture in any bar. None of it was interesting. So long as they left me alone, I was content.

No one ever approached, other than to serve drink or wipe the table. Something in the eyes, I told myself with cold, alcoholic humour. That, or the solid ten inches of steel protruding from my belt.

I am a nasty drunk, I told myself, the only outward sign of my amusement a tiny creasing around my mouth that might have been a smile. One of the whores noticed and gave me a come-hither look. But I wiped the enticing smile from the painted face with a single, sour glare and the whore quickly turned back to the more lucrative, amenable har by his side.

The pot har returned with his jug and poured a glass. Grunting my thanks, I returned my attentions to the drink and my own thoughts. There was a dead fly in the glass and I flicked it out onto the table before taking a swig. I didn’t even have the energy to be angry. What a sad state of affairs. What a sad case of a har, an annoying little voice in my head, said to me. It had been doing that a lot lately. Oh, shut up, I told it, rather savagely. No. It taunted. You used to be worth something once. What are you now?

Dead, I told it. I am dead inside and glad to be so. The glass was getting empty, so I refilled it in the hope of quieting this unwelcome companion. That won’t help. the voice said sadly, Haven’t you worked that out by now? Vay is dead, it went on relentlessly. You are not. Live!

I shook my head in negation and answered aloud. “Death is a subjective state. Breathing has nothing to do with it.”

Some of the hara in the bar turned toward me when I spoke and just as quickly looked away. Realising what I had done, I bit my lip and drained the glass. That’s right, I thought. Look away. Don’t see what is right under your nose! This is pointless. No point to Wraeththu, no salvation, no better way. It is all a lie, a huge cosmic joke to which we are not privy. Just drink your wine and forget it, that’s what I am going to do.

But, it had been different once, hadn’t it? I had believed, even striven toward that dream. Tried my hardest to make it a reality. But it had all come crashing down in a hail of gunfire; had melted into a pool of blood at my feet.

Why did you leave me, Vay? The betica was not giving any answers. It hadn’t for years.

Basik was now only a fond memory in more ways than one. The happiness, the sense of purpose that I had found there had been burned alongside the body of my chesnari and the town itself abandoned.

A large tribe of Uigenna had discovered the hills and had found them a safe haven, much as the townsfolk of Basik had before them. The settlement had become untenable and they had packed up and slunk away. Or so I’d heard. I had left before it happened, running away from the reminders of the way life had been before it had been burned to ashes.

I met up with a har I had known there, on a lonely road, miles from anywhere and had found out that home no longer existed. The humans had retreated further into the mountains, hoping to make the high places into the secure citadel that Basik had been. Some of the hara had scattered to the larger Wraeththu towns that were slowly beginning to spring up here and there. Looking for safety in numbers, I supposed. A few others, like Farah, were headed for another place he had heard of, out in the desert somewhere. I had turned down my former friend’s invitation to accompany him on his search for the settlement by the soda lake and we had parted ways.

Farah and I had never really gotten along, although the dark-skinned har caused me no great offence. Farah was what my father used to call a pen pusher, more concerned with the way of doing things than the result. We would drive each other to distraction within hours. Besides, Farah was a reminder that I did not want. Every time I looked at him, I would see a reflection of Basik, of Vaysh, and of the har that I used to be. I didn’t want that.

***

There was a fly in my drink, wasn’t there? Or was that the last drink, or maybe the one before that? I was so intent on staring down into the bottom of the empty glass, trying to focus on its invisible contents that I didn’t at first notice someone standing on the other side of the table.

When I did see the long legs and the fingers tapping impatiently at the wood, I smiled, feeling quite mellow, and waggled my glass in my visitor’s direction.

“Fly.” I explained. “It flew away.”

There was a snort of what could have been laughter, but might just as easily have been disgust and then my bleary eyes saw the figure kind of fold over in the middle and shrink. It took me a few moments to realise that the har had only sat down and had not really shrivelled and even longer to recognise him.

“Thiede!” I forced my limp body upright. Then, “The bad penny returns.”

“Tiahaar Aldebaran.” Thiede’s greeting was regal and stony, completely wasted on someone who was incapable of listening for nuances. “Enjoying the inn’s hospitality, I see.”

“Yep.” I agreed, smiling my nastiest smile. I raised my glass in a toast to all inns. It was empty.

While I concentrated on getting the betica from the jug into the glass, I could feel Thiede studying me.

You do that, you sanctimonious shit. Take a good, long look. Then I wondered if Thiede could hear my thoughts. Probably. Not that I cared.

Glass full once more, I straightened up, holding myself steady with one arm over the back of the bench, and looked directly at Thiede for the first time. The small portion of brain that was not overwhelmed by the betica’s effects, was telling me to be careful. There was purpose as well as amusement in Thiede’s gaze; other than that, nothing much had changed about the tall har since I had seen him last.

Still dressed in the same fashion, the long tunic over the fancy-patterned pants, the coiling ropes of red hair and those dreadful yellow eyes that challenged one to stare directly into them.

I failed the challenge. My gaze shifted down again, toward Thiede’s overly long arms and the thin fingers that rested on the tabletop. He still had the long, curling nails, I saw.

“Hideous.” I said, not realising at first that I’d spoken aloud.

“So I’ve been told.” Thiede replied quite mildly. “However, I like them.”

So affable and so out of character! What did he want? I could feel myself beginning to sober, tension dissipating the alcohol as enhanced genetics dealt speedily with the intoxication. This was too casual an encounter to be an accident. There wasn’t enough surprise on Thiede’s part, no comments about my presence in a town so far from Basik, no evidence of distaste for my appearance and my drunken state. He knew I was here, I concluded.

For the first time in forever, I was forced to think of myself, as others must see me. The slovenliness of dress, the stained and torn clothing, ragged hair and dirty fingernails that had seemed unimportant minutes ago, now made me want to squirm and hide. Not for vanity’s sake, but because I suddenly felt that I would need all the weapons I could harness to face Thiede. Well, at least my weapons are in good order, I thought. I’ll bet he noticed that much hasn’t changed. My hand dropped to finger the hilt of his knife, Thiede’s’ smile acknowledging the movement.

I should run you through with it, you bastard, I thought. My dislike of Thiede was intense and emotional. The tall har seemed to rub me up the wrong way simply by breathing.

It wasn’t any one thing about Thiede, it was all of them; the arrogance, the confidence in complicity that he projected, the rank odour of secrets wrapped in enigmas that made me want to puke and run.

Instead, I copied Thiede’s insouciance. “So, Orien not with you?”

Thiede shook his head. “Saltrock.”

“You turned him into a salt rock?” I feigned surprise. “Bit biblical, isn’t it?”

I snickered at my own joke.

“It’s a place. A place like Basik. You do remember Basik, don’t you I?” Thiede’s eyes raked over my dishevelled appearance. “Maybe not.”

“Ooh, bitchy.” I deadpanned, totally unharmed by the jab. I was revving up now, the remaining alcohol combined with adrenaline to give me strength, ready for anything.

Instead, Thiede shook his head, composing himself. “Yes, it was. I apologise. I did not come here to cross swords with you.”

“No?” I took my cue from Thiede’s manner and became serious myself. “What then? You’ve admitted that this meeting is no accident without my even having to ask. So what is it you want, Thiede? Why are you here?”

“I want you to come and work with me.”

The remaining alcohol fled my system completely while astonishment replaced hostility as prime emotion.

“You want me to work for you? Surely, you are joking! Guarding caravans? What the hell for? One minute you’re making disparaging remarks about my shoddy state and the next you’re offering me employment?”

“Yes, well, put that way it does sound rather contrary but, if I were in fact looking for a guard for my caravans, then yours is the name I’d be hearing, isn’t it?”

Thiede leaned back in his seat, perfectly relaxed and controlled, before continuing.

“I know you’ve been earning your drinking money working as a mercenary; that is how I found you. Ask the regulars at any inn, ask those here, all say the same thing. If you want guaranteed protection for your produce, then Aldebaran is the one to hire. You’re a living legend.”

I laughed but the sound was without genuine humour.

“Can’t resist the little digs, can you? Certainly, I earn my money guarding settler trains and caravans, but I don’t know where you got the idea that I’d want to have anything to do with you or your goods!”

At this, Thiede leaned forward and fixed me with a mesmerising gaze, forcing my attention to his words. “I do not want you for protecting caravans, Ashmael. Although it is most certainly your skill as a fighter and a leader of men that interests me. And don’t for one minute think that I am not aware of your low opinion of my character, you’ve stated it often enough.”

“I have no…” I broke off the protest, realising that Thiede had almost certainly read my thoughts.

Thiede nodded. “That’s right. I can and I did. Now, be quiet for a moment and allow me to explain.” Satisfied that he finally had my full attention, he went on.

“The dream that was Basik has begun to come to fruition in Saltrock and in other places, Ashmael. It lives on and I have taken a hand in it. While you have spent five years drinking yourself into oblivion, things have been moving and changing out there.”

“Independent hara everywhere who are sick and tired of being robbed, killed and forced to kowtow to the tribes are rebelling in numbers. Great numbers, Ashmael, not the trickle that you witnessed in the mountains. The tribe that the hara of Basik always dreamed of becoming has been established and we are called the Gelaming. I was instrumental in their formation, they are my creatures. When you join us, you will be one too.”

“Your dislike of me is no secret, nor does it bother me a great deal. Proof of this lies in the fact that I have searched you out despite it. You specifically, Ashmael, because we need you.”

“Why?” I asked my head spinning in confusion.

“To lead my armies. It is that simple. I have seen for myself the leadership qualities within you.”

“I saw it in Basik, how your troops adored you, your devotion to them. You are a tactician without peer, level headed and charismatic, all the qualities I need for the task ahead. Even now, when you are at your lowest ebb, your reputation as a warrior remains of the highest standard. You are perfect for my needs and, for that reason, I have had you marked for this for a long time.

I was stunned almost beyond words. Fixated on the word ‘army’, I had hardly heard a word of the praise Thiede had heaped on and it was to this single word I returned when speech almost failed me.

“Armies?” I managed to choke out.

“Yes.” Thiede stated simply. “I have an army. Enough hara for several, in fact. What we lack is a General strong enough to lead them. Most of the smaller, hostile tribes have been dealt with. The time has come to reclaim the land from the largest and for this, an army is required.”

My scattered wits slowly came back together, bringing with it the sarcastic tone.

“What you are saying is, that the dream of a perfect world that Basik represented, has now become an overwhelming need in you to be top dog. Would that be about right? And you want me to lead this conquering army for you? What, so you can replace the Uigenna and all the others with your own monopoly? Excuse me, but I pass!”

My contempt for this plan obvious, I went to rise from the table, but Thiede’s hand restrained me.

“You misunderstand me, I. Perhaps deliberately, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt and explain further, if you will listen.”

“Do I have a choice?” I muttered ungraciously, very conscious of my inability to break Thiede’s grip.

“You will agree I trust, that the dreams the citizens of Basik had for peace were unworkable? And that your prediction of the long path to true enlightenment would be littered with bodies was correct?”

I nodded.

“My time in Basik left me with much to consider. The opposing ideas helped formulate my plan. My design is a compromise of the two views.” Thiede went on. “My army is a force for peace. Or perhaps I should put it another way; my army will enforce the peace. Conquer only those who resist the changes and, once the hostilities end, progress will be defined by education and by the enforcement of the law.”

“I see provinces and territories, ruled by each tribe according to our own tastes and traditions, with a central government comprised of representatives from each. Once peace is assured, the Gelaming will only make our presence felt through council. Does that sound more… congenial?”

Surprisingly, I found that it did. I felt a queer pang in my chest as hope stirred. Then Thiede overplayed his hand and my heart hardened once more.

“It is what Vaysh wanted most.” Thiede said softly.

I could see the thinly disguised light of triumph in the other har’s eyes and was disgusted, murderously so, by his blatant attempt to use Vaysh as leverage.

Standing so abruptly that the bench toppled behind him, my hand shot across the table and grabbed a handful of Thiede’s shirt.

“You,” I said softly. “Are not fit to utter his name. Speak it again and I will cut out your tongue.”

I released that grip with such force that Thiede was thrown back against the hard wood of the seat, wincing at the impact. Before he could recover, I was gone, leaving behind only the lingering aura of hostility and the sideways stares of the other patrons.

***

Straightening his clothes, Thiede could hear one clear thought coming from the pot har who arrived to clean up the spilled wine. ‘Fool!’

No doubt, the other occupants of the inn were having similar thoughts, but Thiede was not disturbed. Ashmael was dangerous and wild, but he did not know whom he was up against. It was only round one to Aldebaran; this contest of wills was not over.

Back in his room, Thiede settled down to communicate with Orien. Keeping his friend abreast of developments was no onerous duty; he enjoyed his thoughts and his input most of the time.

Tonight however, Thiede knew he was in for a large dose of, ‘I told you so.’ and wasn’t looking forward to it. Orien had very definite views about Thiede’s manipulations and was not afraid to make them known and to chastise where he thought appropriate. Because they were good friends of such long standing, Thiede tolerated it most of the time.

I did try to warn you. Orien’s initial reaction to Thiede’s report was predictable.

He has been deeply damaged by all that has happened and no amount of internal fortitude can alleviate it. Confronting him only aggravates the situation and makes him even less likely to comply with your wishes, Thiede. I did offer alternative ways of dealing with this. Perhaps now… ?

I will not be questioned about my methods, Orien. Aldebaran will come to appreciate my direct approach in time. When he sobers up, I should think. However, I have considered your recommendations and will use them if it becomes necessary.

Hearing Orien’s mental shrug, Thiede moved to change the subject with, How goes it on your end? Any promising leads?

Yes and no. Orien replied after a moment. Saltrock is a fertile place for recruiting exactly the kind of hara we are looking for, but as for finding anyhar special…not so far.

Well, I shall leave you to get on with it then. Thiede finished with a few minor pieces of information he needed to impart and then ended the contact with a fond farewell.

***

Lying back on his bed in contemplation, Thiede went over his problem with the recalcitrant Tiahaar Aldebaran. The greatest impediment to his eventual capitulation seemed to lie in his resentment of Thiede as an individual and not with any disbelief in their mutual goals. One of Orien’s earlier suggestions came to mind as an alternative to his own ‘direct’ method.

He was pressed for time and so needed to convert Ashmael to his cause with all possible haste; however, nowhere was it written that he couldn’t have a little pleasure of his own in the course of executing his duty.

***

My door stood firmly closed against intrusion. Thiede did not think twice; simply by wanting the door to be open, it opened. Inside, the room was in darkness but, considering the lateness of the hour, he must have expected it to be.

Awoken from a sound sleep with only scant seconds in which to orient myself, I was already standing beside the bed, ten inches of steel in my hand. Thiede was impressed and told me so.

Now that I had recognised my late night intruder, I returned the knife to its sheath and ran my fingers through my hair, distracted.

“Couldn’t this wait?” I said finally, when the silence began to stretch out.

“No.” Thiede said, giving a cheeky smile. “Strike while the iron is hot. Press home my advantage, or whatever the proverb is.”

“You don’t have an advantage.” I said semi-sullenly. “What you had is a dismissal, a rejection, an invitation to make yourself scarce.”

“What I want,” Thiede went on, relentlessly jovial. “Is a second chance. A few moments. Can you manage that?”

I smiled reluctantly, catching a slice of Thiede’s mood.

“At this hour? I can hardly manage to keep my eyes open, much less argue. Does that make you feel any better?”

Thiede took his opportunity and crossed the room to sit beside me on the bed.

He must have noticed that I had made some small effort to clean up, which he took as a promising sign. I had bathed and my hair was still damp, sticking up in all directions like a child’s. Still groggy from the drink and interrupted sleep, but hopefully more wholesome looking and appealing in the clean pants I had changed into for bed.

“I’ve been thinking,” Thiede began. He tried to appear contrite, subduing that which had led me to loathe him so intensely.

As much as Thiede disliked playing down his natural presence and power, it seemed he was prepared to do whatever it took to resolve this situation. Trying for a chance to get beneath my guard.

“. . . And I apologise for trying to use emotional blackmail to influence your decision.”

“But,” he went on before I could speak. “My enthusiasm ran away with me, nothing more than that and I am hoping you can forgive me. My passion for the subject matter made me reckless. I know you don’t like me, Ashmael,” he paused to look directly into my eyes, projecting trust and honesty. “And I can tolerate that for the greater good. We don’t have to like each other in order to work together and that is what I wanted to make plain to you. Please, do not let it influence you. Please, give my offer the consideration it deserves without letting your personal prejudice affect the outcome.”

He stopped speaking, head down to hide his expression, and waited.

***

I scratched my head, lost for words. I wasn’t fooled by Thiede’s apparent humility; it was too far removed from the supreme confidence that I knew inhabited that tall, lanky body for me to be taken in, but there was a certain sincerity hidden in amongst the platitudes.

He had a point, too. I wanted badly to believe in the things Thiede had outlined, despite my angry reaction to the use of Vaysh’s name. I acknowledged that what Thiede had said was true, regardless of his motives for saying it.

However, he wasn’t getting off the hook that easily.

“Nicely done.” I replied. “Very neat. I’d give you a nine out of ten if I were judging you on it.”

Thiede’s head came up and he looked at me with resignation written all over his face. I wasn’t buying that little performance either, but charitably decided to put him out of his misery.

“However, you are right. On all counts. I don’t like you, but I do want to believe you are right. More than that, I am tired of living like this; without any sense of direction or purpose. It is not in my nature to be passive for so long and I came to the conclusion earlier tonight that I’d be a fool to ignore this opportunity simply because I don’t like you very much. But,” and I fixed Thiede with a stern look. “while I don’t like you trying to use… his name to influence my commitment to you, I am willing to forgive you for it. This once.”

“I’m very grateful.” Thiede said, not looking grateful at all.

“Sure you are.” I grinned at him.

“No, truly.” Thiede confessed. “I am a little pressed for time and this speedy resolution helps me out immensely.”

I laughed long and loud at this admission. Thiede laughed too; a genuine smile of relief.

“There’s still the problem of us not getting along.” I warned him. “I can be as manipulative as you are and you can be just as nasty as I am when crossed, I am certain. We are both dominators, Thiede and I have no idea how this is going to work out. I tell you now, I will not back down from you. If there’s a fight…” I couldn’t help but shrug. “We may end up back at square one.”

“I’m prepared to take that risk.” Thiede said. “In fact, if you are willing, I can think of a way to clear at least some of the air between us. It won’t guarantee that there will be no confrontations between us in the future, but I can settle this question of my intentions right here and now if you like?”

“You can?” I tilted my head to one side, quizzical. “What’s the plan?”

“Share breath with me.”

Before I could either agree or refuse, Thiede took the initiative.

Trapped by long arms, moving so swiftly that my reflexes had no time to react, I found myself swept into Thiede’s embrace, my mouth opening in surprise just as Thiede brought his head down and captured my face between his hands.

Thiede exhaled, our eyes met, and my world began to spin.

Our mouths had not even touched and yet I could feel the power flowing between us as Thiede breathed in and out. When our lips did finally come together, it was like a punch in the gut, a combination of raw, primal power and essential purity that was both overwhelming and humbling.

Then the power began to abate and gave me glimpses of the soul beneath. Of course, there were dark areas, secrets to which I was not to be privy, but I would have expected nothing less. However, what I did access was pleasing, more likeable than I would have thought.

There was the arrogance and surety that was so much a part of Thiede’s formidable character, but also the honesty sensed earlier, the lucidity of purpose and the belief in the rightness of his actions, as crystal clear as the blue lakes of my childhood.

It was a place to drown in. Calm and reassuring, a therapeutic balm for a tormented soul and I was powerless to resist its compelling pull. Almost unconsciously, I found myself drawing on the strength and healing so readily offered, unaware of my own hands tangling in Thiede’s rich red hair or of the nearly inaudible sounds of pleasure I was making as the exchange slowly segued from its restorative melody into the deep, rhythmic beat of the erotic.

It was a battle of wills, half-heartedly fought, that Thiede was always going to win. I submitted to its intensity and was vanquished by the passion of our union.

Later, I watched Thiede leave. Content to let him go. I had renewed hope and some small measure of faith in myself. My battered confidence in my race had a new injection of optimism and, while I knew that I would never entirely get along with Thiede, I was certain that we could manage enough complicity to achieve our mutual goals.

***

So…? How did you get on? Orien asked.

Mission accomplished, as I told you it would be. Thiede told him smugly.

I am pleased. Orien’s mental voice was warm. Tiahaar Aldebaran will be a valuable asset, one we will sorely need in the years ahead.

Yes, well, we have him. A little damaged and somewhat fragile right now, but he has the strength and the will to overcome. My army of angels will be in good hands.

Orien went silent for a moment, and then he asked, Are you planning to tell me which of my two alternative plans you ended up employing?

What makes you think I had to resort to using your ideas? Thiede said archly.

A rich, mental chuckle reverberated through the link. Come on, Thiede, ‘fess up.

Oh, all right! We shared breath and he got to see my vast and wondrous nature for himself. Happy?

The vibrations you are giving off leads me to suspect that it was a tad more than breath you shared my friend, but I shan’t pry. Orien teased.

A moment later his voice lowered and he became far more serious.

You chose not to tell him it all then, I take it?

Of course not. He knows all that he needs to for now. My plans for his former chesnari have not yet come to fruition; until we do, until Vaysh is ready, Ashmael is better off left in ignorance of the situation.

And if we fail with Vaysh?

We will not fail.

Thiede slapped his knee for emphasis, forgetting that the conversation was only mental.

The process has been perfected this time, I am sure of it. Even if there is a failure, he will not be told. You concentrate on finding suitable hara, Orien. In the unlikely event that Vaysh does not work out I will need more candidates. Leave the rest to me. I know what I am doing, and I cannot afford to lose Aldebaran. If, like those before him, Vaysh survives only partially intact, I will still be keeping him far, far away from my General!

But…?

Orien. Thiede warned him. Ashmael is incapable of processing the kind of truth you wish to impart. Trust me. It would destroy him. You will not take matters into your own hands. He is not to be told, understood?

Orien understood very well.

As the contact with Thiede ended, he sighed and then put the conversation behind him and went about the business of being hienama to the hara of Saltrock.

Thiede’s army would have its General, even if it were missing one of his angels.

***

First there was only the light and the cold, it was later that the warmth of lifeblood renewed began to manifest itself as sensation. Disparate, floating above the reality that had been the world, he saw the dust, the carnage that had been his body and he wanted to weep for its loss and the pain he could sense flowing from the one below. There were no tears, not for the longest time, as he had not the body to make them and even then, when the new vessel was launched, we were lost in the warm vicious liquid that surrounded this incomplete container.

***

“I knew we would succeed!” Thiede sounded exultant.

“Don’t count your chickens, my friend. We’ve come this far before…” Orien’s voice trailed off doubtfully.

Thiede turned from the genesis to stare at his oldest friend.

“Orien,” he said gently. “I know you have your doubts, I know we have failed before, but this one…” He looked back for a moment at the figure floating gently in the liquid womb. “This one has something special.”

***

There were dreams; at least he assumed we were dreams, which led him back and forth along the passageway that was his life. Life before life, boy before har, it passed by him and through him like a flowing river, the mouth of which was somewhere outside his saline cocoon.

He knew, without knowing how, that this life had not yet begun, not really. He was made, propelled, as yet helpless, into a sea of glutinous liquid which nourished and sustained him and which was tended to with a care that was dispassionate but intense. Again, this thought made him want to weep and he was unable to.

The formation proceeded as it should and Thiede was pleased. Soon, the physical side of the regeneration would be complete and it would be time to move on to the spiritual and mental aspect of the process.

His memories began to fade and nothing came to replace them. He resisted with all that was still he. The warmth and the love that had been ripped from him was his essence and he would not release it, despite the cajoling words and entreaties of his carers. Our promises were false and he held fiercely to the faded images of gold and blue, laughing eyes and tangled hair that kept him intact.

***

“Thiede it is not working. Despite all our care, he will not let go.”

“Time.” Thiede strode around the room, his boot heels tapping out his displeasure. “It will take more time. He will not be completely cleansed until the regeneration is physically sanctified anyway. By then, I expect most of the remaining hindrances to be removed. I shall deal with whatever is left during the ceremony.”

“To tear somehar from the arms of all he know and loves…” Orien shook his head sadly. “It cannot help but fail, Thiede.”

Thiede snorted. “Love! I know what you want, Orien.” He turned and fixed his friend with a vaguely contemptuous stare. “But even if I were to raise a harling of my own, (and I do not have the time) I tell you, it is the process itself that is failing somewhere, not some vague, human emotion that impedes its success!”

***

Embittered by their insistence, he chilled and became like the ice he had seen as his soul was sucked down into the vortex of his moist prison. He became unresponsive to their pleas and, finally, to their commands. Eventually, he heard the sour bite of failure in their voices and was pleased.

The Lord of Angels

‘It was a difficult road I’d chosen, but not without its rewards. The greatest were in besting my opponents, whether this was on the battlefield or around the tables of council or during dinners at fancy parties. Sometimes the more minor gratifications actually gave the most pleasure. Finding Phylax and the crew again, for instance. I had decided to seek them out, but it proved to be unnecessary.

Once again, Phylax had shown the sterling common sense and forward thinking that would see him rise far in the fledgling Hegemony and had bought the troop into the Gelaming fold himself.

The Gelaming, it seemed, were everywhere. At least that is how it appeared to most hara who came across us, thanks to our ever-growing numbers and the presence in our midst of Thiede’s ‘magical’ horses. Thiede was true to his word and to our shared vision and the Gelaming slowly crossed the country, sowing the seeds for peace.

He was also correct to admit that he needed me. An army there certainly was, but it was just a little… disorganised; troops doubling up on the same job or missing the need entirely. Morale was good, but cohesion was not their forte. Once again, with Phylax and my own men leading the way, the ‘uniform’ evolved into what folk recognise today as Gelaming style. If ever you come across a warrior dressed in black and wearing tons and tons of ornate silver jewellery, there’s a good chance he’s a Gelaming.’

‘We used whatever tools were needed; battle was often required in the early days but, as our reputation grew, many tribes simple ceded to us, defeated by the sound of our name rather than by any show of force. Not that we didn’t butt heads often, he and I. We may have shared the same dream for our world but the implementing of it often caused conflicts.

The victories in our little battles were shared evenly; sometimes he was right, other times he yielded to my view. It didn’t make me like him any better, he was far too crafty and manipulative for that, but I did manage a firm respect for his prowess at planning and execution of our goals.

Most of our immediate history is written down already; if you’re interested in it, there’s bound to be library in Armis. But there are still some things I could tell you.’

‘There’s the issue of Immanion. While I understood the need for an ultimate capitol city, I never did agree with him over its… appearance. Grand, yes, but Immanion in those days was a bit… much.

Both hard on the eyes and on the guests. How he expected to get any kind of cohesive thought out of those Hara invited to Immanion for the first time, I’ll never know. Impress them, certainly, but rendering them incapable of speech seemed counter-productive to me. Still, it’s better now. And, while we’re on that subject, I suppose I’d better educate you about our Tigrons etc.’

‘With Thiede always flitting in and out on one of his secretive forays, the building and running of Immanion was left basically to the Hegemony. It became our administrative centre, most of the residents working in one way or another for the Hegemony or its branches. Up on the hill a new structure just… appeared one day, which was not in itself unusual, Thiede had a fondness for the overly dramatic and we were all used to these sudden manifestations. But the size of the damned thing and its imposing and grandiose nature was something new and it caused some consternation amongst the locals.

Eventually, Thiede showed up and offered explanation, of sorts. It was as it looked, a palace, waiting, evidently, for its king.

It’s been written down in books that I was not too thrilled about the prospect of someone other than myself, reigning over Wraeththu, but that’s not quite it. I had more than enough to do without having to worry about welfare, reform, management and the like; I actually thought it was a brilliant idea to have some titular head to do our talking for us.

Save me having to do it.

But Thiede’s idea involved giving this… Har some actual power and I thought that was a rotten proposal, especially since Thiede was hell bent on bringing in some wet-behind-the-ears harling and indulging in a little on-the-spot training.

I had horrid visions of some jumped up little idiot swanning grandly around dropping ridiculous orders from his petal lips like they were pearls of immense wisdom. And, the first time I laid eyes on Pellaz, I thought that’s what I’d gotten.

Part of it was his absolute beauty. We’re a beautiful race, of course, but Pellaz-Har-Aralis is the most perfect and spectacular example of us, as he should be. He’s Thiede’s invention, his creature as he’s been called, and not in a polite tone, but I will admit now and only to you (He grinned) that, in making Pell, Thiede excelled himself.’

‘But what I saw in the beginning was exactly what I’d feared. A child, a harling, still learning the basics, not someone who could effectively direct an entire race! We butted heads more than once; it was deliberate on my part, I confess, I wanted to see what he was made of.

Once he’d proven himself to the Hegemony, and to me, it was a different story, which is not to say we don’t still have our battles, we do, but most of the time the agreement is already there, we’re just ironing out the details.’

‘The worst part of Pell’s arrival was not Pell himself, but the company he kept. Pell wrote about it himself, but he had no way of knowing what I really thought, or what I was really feeling when I walked into his apartments and ran straight into Vaysh.’

‘I don’t know what I felt to be absolutely truthful. At first, I remember vaguely thinking that here was a har who resembled Vaysh. By the time it began to dawn on me, clued in mostly by the expression on his face, he had disappeared and Pellaz had arrived. This was fortunate because it gave me time to think.

He was different, markedly so. The Vaysh I had known was no longer inside that body; that was clear. ‘My’ Vaysh would never have walked so calmly and so coldly from that room without acknowledging me or what we had been to each other. ‘My’ Vaysh would have never let me go on thinking he was dead; he would have known how I suffered with it and would have done everything in his power to alleviate it.

When I asked myself why, realised he had come to Immanion in company with Pellaz, the truth was obvious. Thiede had a hand in it.

I knew how Pellaz had been ‘made’; not the details, but the basic theory, and it was no big leap to conclude that something similar had been tried with Vaysh.

It all made sense. By drawing parallels between Vaysh and Pell, I could see the similarities; the personalities were alike (before), the possibilities would have been comparable from Thiede’s point of view.’

‘I grew to quite like Pell because of this; he still possessed a fair amount of his basic innocence, despite the veneer that living in Phaconia was giving him, he too had suffered a loss at Thiede’s behest and I found myself seeing echoes of the Vay I had known before Thiede’s experiments had scoured his emotions barren.

There were only two reasons why I didn’t go after Thiede over it. Firstly, and most importantly, it had been too long ago. Not in years so much, but in the changes I had undergone myself. It was only secondary to me that I knew about Thiede being the Aghama. Few Hara did in those days, but I was one of them. I didn’t subscribe to the worshipful notion that everything he did must be correct because of who he was, I’m far too cynical for that. Besides, I knew him too well, faults and all, to idolise him. ‘

‘So, I let it go. I did question Pell about Vay one night when I was a bit drunk not long after Pell arrived. He knew about us, apparently and discouraged the idea of my speaking to Vay about the past. While I would have liked to talk it out with him, a part of me wanted badly to avoid that conversation and I let Pell counsel me against it.

Maybe it was cowardly of me. Maybe I just didn’t want to know, to talk to a Vay who was not ‘mine’ anymore, but some stranger inhabiting a similar frame. Whatever the reason, Vay remained a memory far more pleasant and palatable than I think the reality would have been. I still avoid him when I can, even now. So Vay remains an unfinished portion of a life full of incomplete episodes.’

‘We were very busy just then as well. I was flitting backwards and forwards, literally, between Almagabra and Megalithica, laying the groundwork for our ‘invasion’ of that country. A warrior tribe called the Varrs had been creating all kinds of chaos there for years and were now in a position to think about turning their greedy eyes in our direction. My job was to organise the army to cut them off before they did. We couldn’t afford a prolonged battle; they were great in numbers, they had powerful magic and the people were suffering under their yolk. We wanted the situation controlled in haste; humans to the North of us were a waiting threat and to the East… well, we didn’t know for certain just what could be lurking in there. It was imperative we took control of Megalithica and harnessed her power to the greater good.’

‘My attraction to Pellaz as an echo of Vaysh led to a closeness that we still share today. Not physical any longer, in fact the physical side of it didn’t last long, but the mutual admiration society we founded has survived. I honestly think it would have turned out this way whether he reminded me of my lost love or not. I’ve learned over the years that Pell has a lot to offer as a friend and colleague; occasionally he even has a good idea!’

‘And that’s it, really; the end of my story so far, anyway. We managed to triumph in Megalithica and to survive the furore Cal created when he showed up in Immanion some thirty years later than he was supposed to. Even Thiede’s rather raucous and colourful ascension pales in comparison to what went before it.

It still hasn’t managed to bore me, the job, that is and I guess I’m a bit of a sybarite, enjoy my little luxuries too much to give them up and go searching for new pastures.

The next little challenge comes along and my enthusiasm fires afresh and… here I am, still commanding Thiede’s armies and rounding up miscreants.’

“‘Now’ he says after a rest and a sip of wine out of dat flask he is always carrying. ‘What do you think about all that, young Joe? Make you want to flee into the hills, screaming, or are you prepared to give us a try?’

Well, I thinks about it fer a second or two and then me rusty ole voice finally kicks back in and I manages to say, ‘There’s nothin’ in the hills no more.’ And be blowed if I didn’t jest bust out cryin’ and a wailin’ like a banshee and he has ta scoot around the fire and holds me safe ’till the sun comes up.

Ya wouldn’t ta thought ‘e ‘ad it in ‘im to be like that, wouldya? Well, he does and I ain’t never gonna fergit it, nor hear a single word said aginst the fella. No siree, the General, he’s all right in my book. Sterling, he is. Just sterling.”

Joshua fell silent, staring into the flames and his audience was reluctant to disturb his thoughts. But at least one of the young men still huddled around the dying fire had a question that needed answering and, at last, he ventured,

“Joshua? What became of you? After?”

Joshua raised his head. He looked tired; it was very late and the morning feeds would need doing soon, but he smiled anyway and answered as best he could manage.

“Well, we wuz only one day out of Armis and, with me voice findin’ its way back and all, I felt ready fer whatever this town would hold fer me. We rode in and, sure enough, jest like the General said, there was a family, more then one actually, willing and eager to take me in. I stayed in Armis ’till I wuz about yer age, August, and then, one day, a caravan ‘o travellers came thru and me, bein’ tired of me own fame, took to me heels and joined ’em.” He winked at Aarron.

“Did you ever see him again?” Mick asked breathless with anticipation.

“What were you famous for?” August asked at the same time.

“Yep.” Joshua nodded. “From time to time. Used to see him at the trade fairs sometimes and when there wuz disputes like this latest one. He always knows me, no matter how old I git and always nods ‘is ‘ead in greeting, but we never did speak agin. Well,” Joshua did not acknowledge August’s query, instead he rose to his feet and stretched cramped muscles. “Time we wuz all hitting our blankets, else we’ll be no good fer nuttin’ come sun up.”

He started to move away from the fire, avoiding the others who were also rising from their places. Suddenly, a thought occurred to August and he called out to Joshua to stop.

“What about Danziel? What about the horse? You said she spoke to you?”

“Ahhh, yeah, well…” Joshua scratched his thinning hair and turned to grin cheekily at August and the other boys who had stopped to listen.

“She didn’t speak to me, not exactly. Them kinds ‘o animals don’t speak in words; she kinda showed me a picture.”

“What of?”

“Why, an angel, ‘o course. That’s how I gots to be famous.”

The End

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