Tooth and Blade: Book One by Shad Callister
coming December 2018 from
Keltos absently rubbed his mare’s nose as he listened to the generals argue themselves into a killing rage.
Gull calls punctuated the sound of the breakers hissing on the strand, hard sounds on soft, but somehow seamless. At Keltos’ feet, the surf washed repeatedly over an abandoned helmet, a well-made bronze with flaring nasal and cheek guards. Watching the empty eyeholes slowly fill with wet sand saddened Kel, and he returned his gaze to the sea.
The ship captains added their own voices to the furious quarrel now, screaming about the tide and pointing vehemently at the storm clouds forming to the west. The generals ignored them, their own faces crimson, mouths opened wide to pour abuse onto each other. All around them men struggled with their horses, with each other, with barrels and crates, trampling the sand into a gritty gruel.
Keltos gazed east, across the wide and changeless sea. There was something unearthly about it, so vast and somber. The gulls seemed to speak his name, inviting him to set forth upon the gray swells, returning across the trackless water to the far sun-kissed plains of his birth. To come home.
He looked down again at the fast-disappearing helmet. The dark eye sockets returned his gaze, reminding him that there was no going back. Not for him. His life was here now, in Ostora. Here, or not at all.
Hetta, his mare, snorted and nuzzled at his ear. Keltos barely noticed. Let the sea be wide. Let it separate the two lands, he thought. The veil of water offered freedom to some. A fresh start from which he could not now turn away, whatever the generals decided.
But still the sea beckoned. Let go of this place, it said, and forget its terrifying dangers. Leave the Ostorans to their struggles. Or were those the words of one of the generals? Keltos lost track, waiting, holding Hetta on the edge of the surf as the argument raged on.
Keltos high-stepped, pulling his sandals free of the sucking sand, and backed Hetta a few steps inland to firmer ground. The rest of his troop, forty in all, milled nearby in disorganized ranks, their formation forgotten. Every man’s face was uneasy. Some busied themselves with their harness, pretending to be absorbed in the task, but they were all listening, waiting. The outcome of the quarrel would decide their fate.
Keltos tugged Hetta a few paces to his right and took a place next to his closest friend. Makos was his same age, six feet even, bronzed skin and dark hair in tight little curls. But where Keltos was slim and wiry, Makos was of stockier build and musculature that won every contest of strength between the two.
Makos shifted to make room for his comrade, and Keltos leaned close. “Which way does the tide turn?”
Makos whispered back. “Jaimesh wishes us to stay. The infantry are with him. But the cavalry captains are split, and the charioteers are all for going back.”
Keltos nodded. It was an unbelievable mess that seemed to worsen by the hour. Rumors flitted back and forth among the ranks. The infantry tended to be more plebeian in their ranks and pragmatic in their direction; duty in the Ostoran colonies was an opportunity for them. The cavalry, however, and especially the charioteers, were largely aristocratic and many of them found a prolonged stay this side of the sea repellent. Far easier to gain the king’s favor by fighting alongside his own forces in the homeland.
Still, there were some, like Captain Pelekarr, who had taken a liking to their post in the new land. The lack of royal oversight had allowed more than one canny officer to carve out a niche in Ostora. Some of the local barons got their start that way.
As Keltos listened to the shouting, he noticed that many of the officers remained silent, waiting to see which side gained support before speaking out. His own commander, Lord Jaimesh, was forcefully advocating a stand for Ostora. The venerable cavalry general’s honor and bloodline was unquestioned, but his defense of the colonists’ plight won him few friends among his fellow aristocrats.
“What of the settlers here?” he bellowed. “Are we to leave them at the mercy of the barbarians and the creatures of the wilderness? They won’t last a year without us! What of the blood spilt to hold these lands? Is this the Kerathi army or a pack of craven curs?”
Keltos flushed with pride at his commander’s spirited appeal, but others shouted the general down.
“Traitor!” screamed Lord Iscabos, an influential chariot general. “Oath-breaker! Have you forgotten our duty to our sovereign and king? With war at home, every fighting man is needed. Defiance of his commands is treason. You would see the realm divided!”
“That is talk for cowards and fools!” That was Lord Lakon, an infantry general of fearsome reputation. His troops had killed more barbarians than any other legion, and it was well known that he had taken an Ostoran wife. “No reliable word has reached us from the king! His Majesty has more than enough soldiers at home to put down whatever rebellion he faces. We are needed here, and anyone who says different is looking to their own ambition, not the good of the realm. Dogs and cowards are they who take ship! May the sea swallow them!”
On it went. Some of the junior officers were forced to physically hold their seniors back, to prevent them from drawing daggers and falling on each other. The ships were starting to rise and fall as cold waves rocked them from below and the wind pushed at the sails, riding the swells like horses pulling at their tethers. They, like their masters, were eager to be off. The crews lined the decks and gunwales, waiting for somebody to give an order.
“So this is what a retreat looks like,” Makos said, disgusted. “Without a single enemy at our backs.” His mare, Brel, tossed her head behind him, yanking Makos’ arm holding the reins. He grunted and gave her ear a soft flick. “Be still, pretty one.”
One of their troopmates, Aslom Forta, turned his head to the dark line of trees that ran along a low bench a few miles inland, just visible from where they stood. “Not at our backs, perhaps, but they are there. Hiding. Waiting to strike.”
“At least we never saw defeat in battle,” said Keltos.
Makos snorted. “We never saw battle at all.”
“But we weren’t driven out, like others have been,” Aslom insisted. “If we leave, we choose to leave. Heads high, honor intact.”
“Think again,” said Makos. “Soldiers do as they’re told, so no matter what happens we won’t be choosing anything. I like to think we’d have fought here until the last barbarian was dead. That’s what I signed up for. But one unconfirmed rumor of civil war in Kerath and the careerists panic—they’ll miss the chance of promotion! That’s why we’re on this beach.”
“What’s wrong with being noticed by the king and promoted?” Aslom asked. “We all want the same thing. Quelling a rebellion back home is better than hunting raff in Ostora.”
“I don’t care one way or the other,” Makos said. “I just think it’s mad to rush home on a rumor. We shouldn’t move until we know for sure.”
“By then the war could be over!”
“What if there is no war, or the conflict has already been snuffed out? We’d look like fools deserting our post.”
Keltos listened in silence. Makos had the right of it. The last merchant ships to arrive had indeed brought news of turmoil in the Kerathi homeland, but details were scarce. The ship captains swore it wasn’t true, but the sailors whispered that the high king was dead and his heir was fighting for his life against powerful opportunists. Maringon, a powerful eastern province, had rebelled before in the time of Keltos’ grandfather. Who could say which rumors had truth to them at a thousand leagues’ distance?
The silence from official channels had provoked this day’s bitter quarrel. No one knew for sure if the king needed them. On the one hand, the first ships arriving home to reinforce the king stood to have honor and riches heaped upon them at the hands of a grateful ruler if the silence was the result of desperate military circumstances. King Anmar was known to be generous in rewarding his allies.
On the other, if the Ostoran legions abandoned the colonies without good cause and sailed home for naught, they would be labeled deserters. His Majesty was as vengeful as he was generous.
Ostora was fighting for its life against barbarian incursions and brutal dangers inland. Without Kerathi troops, the Ostorans would stand virtually undefended. And despite sneering references to Ostora as a backwater, its raw resources fueled the kingdom: lumber, grain, and above all ore. Without the tin mines, bronze could not be made, and Anmar ruled with a bronze fist. Bronze was life.
Little wonder then, the flaring tempers of the chieftains. A right choice meant wealth and power undreamed of; a wrong choice meant death.
“We wait for orders, or we go not at all,” an infantry general named Brinar called out.
But the charioteers answered that if war had arisen, the enemy might send false orders to delay them. Such had happened before, they pointed out, during the Scarlet Summer rebellion. The Kerathi nobility were masters of deception and intrigue. It paid to be wary of tricks.
“They care nothing for false orders,” Makos whispered. “They care not who wins. They just want to be there so they can pick the winning side.”
Keltos nodded. He trusted his sergeants, and he trusted Captain Pelekarr and Lord Jaimesh. But no one else, least of all the chariot captains.
Lord Jaimesh was the heart and soul of the Cold Spears, a cavalry unit raised from Kel and Mak’s home province of Tekelin. The general was a short man, wide and impossibly dense, a slab of meat with a mind singularly brilliant in the art and execution of war. Ironically, Jaimesh was a sloppy rider; he sat his horse like a sack of grain. But he was one of the kingdom’s great cavalry set-piece battle tacticians, and it was his brilliant success in the field that had attracted young Keltos Kuron and Makos Vipirion, among many others, to his banner.
Now that brilliant mind had decided that remaining in Ostora and defending the colony was the best course of action, and Keltos trusted his general. There was more to his confidence in the man than mere loyalty, however. For better or worse, Kel was in Ostora now. He had no other home. A return to Kerath was not an option for him. Privately he prayed that the Cold Spears would remain in Ostora; otherwise he’d have to decide between desertion and imprisonment.
Suddenly, the shouting died down. The waves continued to wash across the beach, but a hush had fallen over the chieftains’ drama. Keltos saw with something close to panic that Iscabos had drawn his sword, and behind him his supporters had followed suit. Lord Iscabos was wealthy and renowned for his skill. His sword was iron, where the others brandished blades of bronze.
Keltos had seen officers quarrel before—even a couple of duels. But this looked ugly.
Lord Lakon stepped forward. “Put it away, Iscabos,” he murmured. “You have no enemy here.”
“No?” Iscabos’ voice was deceptively soft. “I serve the high king. Whom do you serve, Lakon? Say now, and be ready to stand by your words.”
“The same as you. We quarrel over how best to serve, not whom. Put it away.”
Iscabos looked left and right, assuring himself of support. Kel saw Captain Pelekarr, who stood at Lord Jaimesh’s side, slowly drop his hand to his sword—careful, like he always was. All around, men were doing the same, straightening up and quietly making ready. Kel heard Makos draw a slow, deep breath.
“Stand down, Iscabos,” Lord Lakon again intoned, getting a nod from Jaimesh and a few others. “Or I will see you arraigned before His Majesty.”
Lord Iscabos smiled.
Then he lunged. His iron blade swept up, and Lakon staggered backwards. Blood sheeted in the air.
There was an instant of silence as a thousand breaths sucked air and hands ripped swords from scabbards. As Lakon collapsed to the ground, both sides surged together with a feral roar.
Madness. The clang of bronze drowned the cries of the gulls and the thunder of the surf. Men screamed in rage and pain, bodies swirled, and sand was trampled and kicked in sprays. The ship captains, lacking a stake in the quarrel, fled back to their ships.
In the first moments of sudden violence, Keltos felt numb, weighted down by shock at seeing his own comrades falling upon each other. Beside him he heard Makos yelling. His friend had drawn his bronze saber, and now he rushed to the side of Captain Pelekarr. Horses were forgotten and left to wander in the melee. Kel followed after his friend in a daze, pulling his own weapon free of its covering and swinging it at Iscabos’ men alongside Makos.
The captain, dutiful as always, was attempting to drag their general away from the fray, but Jaimesh was bull-strong and flailed his way forward into the press. Pelekarr quickly realized the futility of escape and resigned himself to defending his general. His sword soon stained itself crimson as he battled to keep Jaimesh clear. Jaimesh, for his part, strove to overtake Iscabos and avenge his murdered fellow general. Iscabos, surrounded by his staff, gave a shrill laugh.
Makos and Kel fought their way as close as they could to Captain Pelekarr. Above the din, Makos called sharply to the captain. “Orders, sir?”
Pelekarr delayed a response just long enough to take an opposing charioteer’s arm off at the shoulder, then shouted over his shoulder. “Help me get the general out! Clear me a way!”
Kel darted forward, Makos at his side, but they were too late. Even as they moved to flank the captain, a tall charioteer dressed in Iscabos’ livery with hair dyed at the tips grabbed Pelekarr’s armor from behind, hauling backward on the top of his backplate and sprawling his length on the sand. Men piled over the cavalry captain as other charioteers charged forward, smashing into the Cold Spears who sought to help their captain regain his feet.
Lord Jaimesh stood alone against Iscabos now, cutting wildly at his nemesis. His stroke went wide as the wily chariot general stayed back and waited. He saw what Jaimesh did not: Iscabos’ tall second in command, with another shorter charioteer who carried a cold sneer on his face, approaching Jaimesh from either side.
They grabbed the cavalry general’s arms and wrenched them behind his back, forcing the saber from the man’s paralyzed fingers. Iscabos ignored Jaimesh’s enraged shouts as he stalked forward again, iron sword-tip snaking this way and that through the air.
Pelekarr bellowed like an ox and strove to rise, but a mass of charioteers still held him down. His sergeant was off to the left battling for his life, and his two banner-men could only watch in helpless rage out of the corner of their eyes as they desperately parried blows meant to put them out of the fight forever.
Iscabos didn’t hesitate. Kel saw the chariot general drive his iron point deep into Jaimesh’s side, between the ribs where the bronze breastplate and backplate were strapped together. Jaimesh gasped and sank to his knees.
“The general!” Pelekarr cried, his agonized voice soaring above the melee. “To the general!”
A surge of hacking, screaming bodies pushed Iscabos away into the chaos, and Kel and Makos finally grabbed their general by either arm, dragging him back and out toward their waiting captain. They each took minor cuts on the back and legs, but they were not stopped this time.
Pelekarr joined them, speechless with fury now, and together they carried the stricken commander clear. Fellow lancers Somber and Arcos joined them, guarding their flanks, as the small group won free and hurried down to the oceans’ edge.
Pelekarr took one look at the general’s wound and his jaw muscles clenched tight—Jaimesh had only moments left in the world. He snapped instructions, and the rest of the troop converged around their stricken commander, sabers out. Foemen swung wide around that grim hedge, seeking easier prey.
Within the circle, Pelekarr knelt at his general’s side.
“Water!” Jaimesh’s voice was hoarse. “For pity’s sake!” Kel met Makos’ gaze over the general’s head. They still held him between them on the sand. Makos was pale, and Kel knew he looked the same. It was hard to think of a troop without Lord Jaimesh. They all relied on him to be there at the head of the column, an unwavering star that had guided them and formed them into a true brotherhood of war.
Keltos muttered a prayer to Mishtan, but he already knew the god’s will. It was written on the crimsoned sand beneath Jaimesh’s body.
A water skin was pressed to the general’s mouth and he drank deeply, slopping liquid down the front of his breastplate. His head sank back. Captain Pelekarr gestured, and Kel and Makos laid Jaimesh down on his back, head cushioned by a hastily folded cloak. The general raised a trembling hand, and the captain bent close. Keltos was the only other close enough to hear his gasped words.
“This new world… make of it what you can. Make it better than the old. Defend Ostora!” Jaimesh struggled to breathe, forcing speech through a red froth at his lips. The iron gray head sagged, lolling to the side, and there was a final wet wheeze as the general’s soul passed.
For a moment, they all stared. Lord Jaimesh had taken the long journey, but it was a hard thing to fit the mind around. All about them the fight continued, and men died within arm’s reach, but the cavalry troop stood silent and bowed. It would have been death for any who disturbed their grief for several long moments.
Then the captain spoke. “Bear his body away from this havoc. We have no more place in this fight, and we have work to do elsewhere.”
They buried Lord Jaimesh at sunset, in a grave deep and sure, on a rise overlooking the sea. The surf boomed and the gulls called, but now their voices seemed to mourn with the horse troopers of the Cold Spears. The wind sighed among the salt grass where the general lay at rest. Two long columns of troopers faced each other, holding torches, forming a path down which their commander was borne.
Jaimesh wore his full armor and helmet, and he held his great bronze sword on his chest. Two shortened cavalry lances where crossed underneath him, and his shield covered his knees. Slowly they laid him down into the sand.
Captain Pelekarr spoke the words, a dirge in High Kerathi, and then each man scooped his shield full of sand and one by one they passed by, burying their lord. No one spoke.
Last of all they wrestled a tall standing stone into place, taken from the sea-strewn jumble at the headland’s edge. Words were chiseled into the stone, words that faced the darkling sea.
All men fade
All men pass
Ulcades Jaimesh, Lord of Tekelin
Died in battle at this place
Month of the Oak
Year of the Serpent
coming December 2018 from BARDE PRESS
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