Stands a Shadow
Prologue: 'The Shining Way'
It was like being at sea, this plain of grasses that stretched to the brink of the horizon and beyond; the eyes filled with sky wherever they looked. In the milky brightness of day the twin moons hung lonely and high, the smaller of the two a pale white, the larger a pale blue, each cupped in darkness and clearly spherical in form; reminders, to any observer with knowledge or imagination, that the world of Erēs too was a monstrous ball tumbling through the nothingness, and that they too were spinning with it.
“Thank the Fool there’s no wind today,” remarked Kosh, sitting poised in the saddle of his prized war-zel. “I haven’t the stomach for another burning.”
“Nor I,” replied Ash, and tore his gaze from the far moons, blinking as though returning to himself and the world of man. The air lay thick and hot today, shimmering above the stubby grasses that stretched between the two armies. The heat waves were causing the dark, glittering massif of enemy riders to loom with an unreal closeness.
Ash clucked his tongue as his own zel tossed its head again, jittery. He was a lesser rider than Kosh, and his zel was young and still untested. Ash had not given this one a name yet. His previous mount, old Asa, had fallen with a ruptured heart in their last skirmish just east of Car; a day in which the smell of roasting meat had hung like a pall above their fighting, while the enemy Yashi were burned alive in the great wind-driven conflagration Ash and his comrades had sent gusting into their ranks. Later, his soot-stained face streaked with tears, he had mourned for his dead zel as much as for his comrades fallen that day.
Ash bent forward and stroked his young zel’s neck with a gloved hand. Look at that pair, he tried to communicate to the animal by thought alone, eying the still form of Kosh and his trusted mount. See how proud they look together.
The young zel skipped once on its hind legs.
“Easy boy,” Ash soothed, still stroking the muscular neck of the animal, flattening the grain of its course hair, black as pitch between the bands of white. At last the zel began to settle, began to snort the fear from its lungs and calm itself.
Leather creaked as Ash straightened in his saddle. Beside him, Kosh uncorked a waterskin and took a long drink. He gasped and wiped his mouth dry. “I could do with something a little stronger,” he complained, and then pointedly offered none to Ash. Instead he tossed it back to his son, his battlesquire, standing barefoot next to him.
“You’re still sore at that?” asked Ash.
“You could have left me some, is all I’m saying.”
Ash grunted, leaned between their mounts to spit upon the ground. Blades of tindergrass popped and crackled as they absorbed the sudden moisture. It was the same all across the plain; a constant background noise could be heard - like uncooked rice raining down on far shingles - as the secretions of the two armies wrought a chorus of similar minute reactions from the grasses beneath their feet.
He looked right, over the head of his own son and battlesquire Lin, the boy standing there in his usual quiet absorption. Along the line, other mounts were prancing edgily beneath their rider’s attentions. The zels could smell the enemy war panthers in the odd scrap of breeze, leashed within the distant ranks facing them in this nameless spot in the Sea of Wind and Grasses.
The People’s Revolutionary Army were outnumbered today. But then they were always outnumbered, a fact that hadn’t stopped them from learning how to win against an enemy overly reliant on grumbling conscripts and the established, hierarchical forms of warfare as laid out in the ancient Venerable Treatise of War. Today, the confidence of the old campaigners was apparent as they waited for the fighting to begin. This was it, they all knew, the big throw of the die; everything that either side could muster had been committed to this final confrontation.
A cry rose up and spread along the ranks; General Osho, leader of the Shining Way, cantering on his pure-black zel Chancer past the lines of the Wing, these men who today would anchor the left flank of the main formation. A lance bobbed upright in his hand, a red flag trailing from it above the dust that coiled from his mount’s hooves. An image was stitched across the cloth, one-eyed Ninshi, protectress of the dispossessed. It was snapping and fluttering like a flame.
Osho rode with the easy grace of a man taking an early-morning ride for the pleasure of it, as confident as the rest of the veterans of the Wing. Their strategy for this battle was a sound one, and it had been proposed by General Nisan himself, overall leader of the army and military hero of the revolution. They had voted overwhelmingly in its favour when the army had held its general assembly during the night.
With the main body of their forces acting as bait for the overwhelming numbers of enemy Pulses, and with feints to the flanks designed to entangle the overlords’ predictable Swan’s Wings, the real killing stroke would be delivered by the heavy cavalry of General Shin’s Wing, the Black Stars, hidden in the long-grasses to the south-west, directly behind the position of the Shining Way. With every Wing of the enemy engaged and ensnared in the action, they would sweep around long and fast, and in all the confusion take the centre of the enemy from behind, hoping to create the type of rout they had seen countless times before.
“Today is the day brothers!” General Osho roared with passion. “Today is the day!”
Men raised lances and hollered as he passed by. Even Ash, not one for outward displays of enthusiasm, felt a rousing of pride as the men cheered and pumped their fists in reply. His son was one of them.
A plume of dust rose around the general as he drew his war-zel to a halt. With dancing steps he turned the mount to face the far enemy ranks. At the sight of them the zel snorted and swiped its tail. Together, Osho and Chancer waited as silence fell.
“By the Fool’s balls I hope he’s right,” grumbled Kosh with a nod to their charismatic leader. “It’s time we brought these boys home to their mothers, don’t you think?”
It was a question hardly needing a reply.
Around them, ranging through the ranks, the daojos whipped at the rumps of zels and shouted for the men to draw tighter in their formations, reminding them of their orders and the basic preparations for the fight.
“I hear the overlords offered a casket of diamonds to any general willing to turn tail.”
Ash flicked a grassfly from his cheek. “Phh. When haven’t they tried to buy us out? Today is hardly different.”
“Ah. But today is the day.”
They both chuckled, their throats hoarse from the smoke of the pipes and the campfires of the night before.
It was true, what Ash had said. In the early days of the revolution, when the People’s Revolutionary Army was little more than a rag-tag force lacking confidence, cohesion or any notable victories to call its own, the overlords had offered each fighter in the Army a small fortune in unchipped diamonds if only they would desert to the other side.
Some had defected to the overlords’ ranks, a great number in fact. But those who had refused the offer, who remained to fight on despite the sudden impossibility of their position, had found an unexpected strength in their collective refusal to sell out to the those who would own and exploit it all. Amongst the ranks, where many had become demoralised by hunger, bitter losses, and the constant threats of capture or death, a renewal of spirit came upon them all, a sense of righteousness and brotherhood. It was the true beginning of the cause. From that time onwards, slowly but surely, they had begun to turn back the tide.
“It does feel like an end to things, don’t you think?” Kosh asked.
“One way or the other,” Ash replied, glancing down at his son.
Lin was unaware of his scrutiny. The boy supported the upright bundle of spare lances in his hands, and the spare wicker shield upon his back. His eyes were wide with a fourteen-year-old’s sense of wonder. Specks of reflected sunlight shone in his dark pupils, the whites bloodshot from the heavy drinking of the night before. The boy had sat up late around one of the campfires, joking and throat-singing with the older battlesquires of their Wing.
A different person, Ash now thought, to the half-starved urchin who had stumbled into their base-camp two years ago, having run away to join his father as his battle-squire. The boy’s bare feet had been shredded from a trek that most grown men would have baulked at.
And for what? For the love and respect of a father who could no longer tolerate the sight of him.
Ash felt a sudden kindling of pain in his chest; a sense of overwhelming shame. In that moment he felt the need to touch his son, to reassure him with the press of a hand like he had with the zel a few moments before. He lifted his gloved hand from the pommel of the saddle and reached out with it.
Lin glanced up. Ash gazed down upon the heavy brows and the turned-up nose that reminded him so much of the boy’s mother, and of her family he’d grown so much to despise. Features that seemed not in any way to be his own.
His hand stopped halfway between he and the boy, and for several heartbeats they both stared at it, hovering there, as though it represented everything that had ever stood between them.
“Water,” Ash muttered, though he wasn’t thirsty. Without comment, the boy hefted up the bulging skin.
Ash took a sip of the tepid, stale water. He rolled it about in his mouth, swallowed a trickle, spat the rest out again. Where it fell the tindergrass hissed and crackled. He returned the skin to Lin and straightened in his saddle, angry at himself.
“They come,” announced Kosh.
“I see it.”
Across the entire enemy front, a roiling carpet of dust began to rise into the air. The Yashi trotted forwards in their formations, high banners bobbing from the backs of riders, flying the colours of Wings and their shifting locations of command. Horns sounded; windwhirls wailed like calls to the dead, the sounds washing slow and rhythmic over the ranks of the People’s Revolutionary Army. Ash’s zel snorted, becoming lively again.
On this flank alone, the overlords’ forces numbered twenty thousand at least, a deep mass stretching to the right towards the haze of the battle line’s distant centre. Their black armour soaked up the harsh daylight; helms bobbed with tall feathers. Sunlight sparkled from thousands of metal points, a bright dazzle amidst the dust raised by the advancing army, as the hooves of their zels crunched the tindergrass of the plain into pieces fine as powdered talc.
Before the advancing Yashi, clouds of moths and flies rose up from the short grasses, and birds too in their thousands. They rushed over the heads of the People’s Revolutionary Army in a great crying wave of flapping wings, so many in number that the air cooled for a moment in their shadow.
Below, the zels snuffled and rolled their eyes as a hail of loose feathers and guano droppings fell upon them. His son Lin hefted the wicker shield over his head to protect himself. Others along the line did so too, so that it appeared as though they were sheltering from sudden missile fire. Jokes sounded from the veterans, laughter even, the rarest of sounds this close to a fight.
Ash wiped his forehead clear and surveyed the hardened men of the Shining Way, this Wing of the Army in which he had fought with for over four years now; an old veteran himself now at the age of thirty-one. The Wing numbered six thousand in mounted infantry. They wore simple leather skull caps tied down around their ears, white cavalry scarves knotted around black faces and wooden goggles to mask their eyes from the sunlight. Many of their armoured coats had long ago been painted with stripes of white like the zels the men lived and fought upon, and ornamented with the teeth of their enemy as lucky charms. Squinting, peering beyond these men, Ash could make out the great curve of the rest of the army, this great conglomeration of Wings.
He wondered how many would return to their families and their old lives if they won here today. The revolution had become a way of life to them over the years, bloody and cruel as it was. The People’s Army was a home and family to them all. How would they cope with giving up the freedom of the saddle, the bonds they had formed with each other, the highs of action, when they returned to their farmsteads and their regular, mundane lives armed with nightmares and faraway stares?
He supposed he would find out himself. If they won here, and Ash and Lin survived, he would return with his son to the northern mountains and their lofty village of Asa, to their homestead and his wife who he hadn’t seen in years; try to forget the things they had seen and done in the name of the cause. Yet he would miss this life too. In so many ways, he knew he was better at this than he ever had been at supporting a family.
Ash could feel the prayer belt wrapped tight like a linen bandage around his abdomen, its ink-brushed words pressing against his sweating skin. Within its bounds he carried a letter from his wife delivered to him only a week before. Her words, carved into a thin sheet of leather, had pleaded once more for his forgiveness.
“Father,” said his son by his side as the enemy grew nearer. The boy was holding aloft one of the lances, his face slick with sweat. Ash took it, and the shield too. On his left, Kosh’s son did the same.
“Are you ready?” Ash asked his son, not unkindly.
The boy frowned though. He leaned and spat in the same way as his father sometimes did. “I’ll stand, if that’s what you mean,” he declared maturely, though he said so in a voice still unbroken with age. There was anger in his tone, at the perceived insinuation that he might run on this day, like he had in his first real battle, overcome by it all.
“I know you will. I only ask if you are ready.”
The boy’s jaw flexed. His stare softened before he looked away.
“Stay in the rear, close to Kosh’s boy. Don’t come to me unless I signal, do you hear?”
“Yes father,” answered Lin, and then waited, blinking up at him, as though expecting something more.
The thin leather of his wife’s letter felt cool against Ash’s stomach.
“I’m glad you’re here, son,” he heard himself say, and his throat clamped tight around each of the words. “With me, I mean.”
Lin beamed up at him.
He turned and sauntered away, and Ash watched him leave as other battlesquires filtered back through the ranks. Kosh’s son joined him, slapping the boy on the back; a joker like his father.
A soft thunder rumbled across the heat of the plain.
The Yashi were charging.
Ash pulled the goggles down over his eyes and the scarf across his face. Beneath him, he could feel the tremor of the ground transmitted through the bones and muscles of his zel. He glanced to General Osho, as did every other man of the formation. Still the general refused to move.
“With heart,” he told Kosh.
Kosh pulled his own scarf up. Some kind of awkwardness kept his gaze clear of Ash. One way or the other, they would likely never fight side by side like this again; comrades, brothers, crazy fools of the revolution.
“And you, my friend,” came Kosh’s muffled reply.
They gathered their zel’s reigns tighter in their fists as General Osho levelled his warhead at the approaching enemy. Ash lowered his own lance.
Osho’s zel sprang forward.
As one, the men of the Shining Way followed him with a roar.