The Right Hand of God
Fire of Heaven - Book 3
Two proud men faced each other over a low stone table. Both men nursed deep anger and bitterness. Each hated the other. They found themselves drawn together nevertheless by expediency and desire. Each man sought to govern his emotions, successfully so he thought, and each watched scornfully the other man’s pitiful attempts to retain his equanimity.
‘Escaigne remains well hidden, despite the treachery that saw us betrayed,’ the Presiding Elder said. For a moment he considered confessing just how many of his people had been taken by the Instruian Guard, but decided to keep secret the paucity of his remaining force. Better to make the agreement first; better to avoid ceding the leadership of any alliance to the deranged man opposite him, especially on the basis of the number of followers.
The Hermit smiled. The man’s thoughts were written plainly on his face. Watcher of the Sixth Rank, he had proclaimed himself. Watcher indeed! He could see nothing!
‘Unlike you, I have lost no followers,’ he told the Presiding Elder. ‘But some of them will die, I have seen it; holy martyrs who will be enthroned above us at the right hand of the Most High. Their example will serve to inspire the remainder of the Ecclesia. They will be seeds sown into the fertile ground of belief, and as the fire falls on Faltha I will reap a harvest of true believers.’
The older man snorted. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that if I were you. I predict that many of your Ecclesia will come flooding into Escaigne once they realise the emptiness of your promises. We offer them a chance of revenge against the corrupt Council, of setting real fires, not running after some numinous spiritual flame that achieves nothing. Your most sensible option is to join with us. Commit your people to Escaigne, the next rulers of Instruere, and I will see to it you are given an exalted place among our ranks.’
‘I forbear to remind you of the many Escaignians who found real meaning in the Ecclesia,’ the Hermit answered testily. ‘Perhaps a few of them may return to your dubious care, but even they will come back to me when they discover you offer them nothing but the darkness of a windowless room.’
‘Not for much longer!’ The Presiding Elder stood and leaned forward over the table, his arms spread wide, hands on the cold stone. ‘With or without your help we will reclaim the leadership of Instruere.’
‘Reclaim? You’ve never led Instruere!’
‘The Watchers were always involved in leadership,’ the Presiding Elder growled.
‘As were the true believers of the Most High!’
‘Then why can we not work together?’ The leader of Escaigne tried reason for the last time. This fool was probably not worth the effort, and everyone knew how badly his ill-equipped, untrained rabble would fare against the Instruian Guard. Still, the Presiding Elder’s plan required expendable soldiers, people to blunt the swords of the guardsmen, and he was unwilling to preside over the deaths of any Escaignians. These religious fools would serve him well.
‘Of course we can,’ the Hermit replied with forced sweetness, nearing the end of his patience. Why should the Anointed Man of God be subject to the wishes of an unbeliever such as this one? The day would soon come when all such would be placed under his heel!
Pulling himself together, he continued. ‘The question is, who leads? Since both of us are men unaccustomed to following the wishes of another, it seems that we will not easily arrive at an answer. So, in the interests of our common goal, why do we not share command?’
‘How would that work?’
‘Simple. We do nothing without the agreement of both. Should this agreement not be sought, the alliance will be considered broken from that moment. And be warned! I have many ways of seeing, ways a Watcher cannot comprehend.’
‘Save your mysticism for the gullible,’ the Presiding Elder snapped. ‘You are more persuasive when you trouble yourself to think. Very well, we will join our forces together — for a time. But at the first sign of treachery I will have no hesitation in abandoning you and your followers to their fate.’
‘And I yours,’ the blue-robed Hermit agreed, stretching out his right hand. The sallow-faced Elder took it in his own, and for a moment the two men were linked as one, each squeezing as though to break the bones in his ally’s fingers.
The Gates of Instruere
The camel train snaking its way up the Pass of Adrar looked like all the other summer trains from Ghadir Massab — heavily laden, slow moving, and shimmering in the scorching heat. The train halted again and again like some hesitant reptile as the drivers stopped to water themselves, their beasts and their slaves, in that order. But, the bandit leader reflected as he watched it draw closer to his ambush, unlike all the other trains that travelled through Hamadabat on their way to the Central Plains of Faltha and to Bhrudwo, this one appeared here. Why not on one of the longer but less dangerous passes to the east?
The bandits could hardly believe their good fortune. What fool would take a fully-laden train over the highest pass in the Veridian Borders? Straux, the kingdom to the north of these mountains, had recently declared war on the slave traders and their cargoes of human misery. It hardly seemed credible the slavers would risk their lives on this northern road, even if it meant they would avoid having to pay off the marauders who lined the more easterly route out of Hamadabat. Nevertheless here they were; and the band of robbers awaiting them, cutthroats and murderers sloughed off from more successful groups, knew that their luck had finally turned. Until now the bandits had managed to construct a meagre existence from preying on the few lone travellers foolish enough to venture across the Borders without an armed escort, but it had not been enough. They were hungry, tired and starved of the various entertainments a captive could supply.
The Veridian Borders were the worn-out nubs of old mountains, beaten into submission by the hot southern sun and the clash of winds from the desert and the more fertile, rainswept Maremma Basin to the north. The winds had carved the yellowing, grassless hills into a myriad of odd shapes. Adrar himself, the Golden Lion, presided over the head of the pass, while many other figures, most conjured up from local myths and legends, adorned the winding pass from mouth to crest. The best place for an ambush was directly below the Claws of Adrar, where the road narrowed between two steep talus rock slopes, just before it darted to the right, crested the mountains and began its journey down into Straux. Here the bandits waited.
Let the merchants think they’d made it all the way through the mountains, that was the game, then take them at the very last minute. Take them and have some fun with them, in the usual bandit style; then let one lucky merchant escape with his life, thereby ensuring their ruthlessness became a byword, all the better to attract more desperate men. This robber band had more to prove than any of the others, and each member had secret plans for any merchant or slave who remained alive after the initial exchange. The excitement rose as the camel train inched closer. One of the lieutenants drew his sword to clean it, and his arm was slapped down by the bandit leader in case the sun glinted on the exposed blade. Not that it matters, he thought. These merchants were either so foolish or so overconfident they had posted no scouts. They probably wouldn’t notice if he knifed one of his men in the back and sent him plummeting to the road. Briefly occupied with this thought, it was all the bandit leader could do to stop himself laughing out loud.
As the camel train passed a predetermined point the robbers divided into two groups, one to block the head of the pass in front of the train, the other to block the road behind them. Once the road was secure, they could take as long as they wanted over what would happen next.
At a signal, the still afternoon air was rent by the ululations of two dozen bandits scampering down the slope towards the hapless merchants. The bandit leader noted something minor had already gone wrong. When the group led by his second-in-command reached the road below the camel train, the merchants and their slaves had contrived to place themselves further down the road. Rather than trapping their prey up against the frightened camels, the robbers themselves were trapped. The bandit leader shrugged his shoulders. Killing rather than planning was his lieutenant’s strong suit. It wouldn’t matter to him which direction he faced when he killed.
The dozen or so robbers who ran shouting on to the path in front of the train found not the panic and terror their surprise attack was supposed to create, but an eerie silence, and one man standing to meet them. He wore a long, flowing black robe in the Bhrudwan fashion, though the cowl was thrown back to reveal a close-cropped head, a young but weather-beaten face punctuated with deep-set eyes. He stood the way an experienced fighter stands, balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to counter any thrust from his enemy. A Bhrudwan, the bandit leader mused. And a warrior. I might lose one or two of my men — it’s time they were culled anyway. I have nothing to fear. I have faced men said to have fought alongside the Lords of Fear themselves.
Perhaps the bandits might have had a chance of survival had they abandoned their original plan and focused all their attention on the lone warrior. But they did not, deeming him the sacrificial bait in some desperate gambit. Angered his trap had been sprung, at least to some degree, the bandit leader cried out a command, throwing his hindmost group at the merchants and their slaves, and ignored the lone man for the moment.