THE BULLS OF WAR

Chapter I

 

“So much wasted on the land of Valogar.  Countless men.  Chests of gold.  And for what? 

 

For a land of poor soil, few coffers, and a savage people. 

 

It’s a blemish on a map, best scorned and forgotten.  It’s nothing, this Valogar.

 

Yet – it is everything.”

 

Last Speech of Lorrion Vallius to the Rokhish Imperial Council, Y. 363 P.C.

Central Valogar, 5th Day of the Tenth Month, Year 371 Post-Cataclysm (P.C.)

 

Ten years, two months and this morning, Kyrus thought, blinking away drops of sweat.   Yet still… still it’s not any easier.

For the thousandth time, his hand slid to a blade’s hilt, body braced against a gust ripping through the sweltering berry thicket.  Wide eyes scanned the crush of steamy greenery all around him, ears hearing only his own short breaths and a heart that pounded like a drum.  Even as the wind petered out, his anxiety held firm, held him frozen in place.

Ten bloody years of this… a wonder I’ve any wits left about me at all.  He grunted.  Or do I have any?

He’d grayed since then, since his first days in Valogar.  Wrinkled too.  Bones ached from the constant marching, mind frayed from the perpetual fear of knowing they were out there, somewhere, always itching to add another Rokhish scalp to their belts…

It’s never going to be easy, he chided himself with a shake of his head and a swat of a branch, hum of cicadas returning.  Never was, you knew that from the start.  That’s the dream of the weak, the naïve… dreams have no place in this hell.

The gray column of bearded Rokhs he led into the brush had come to a halt with him, taken by their leader’s concern.  They knew that forage missions in this foreign land were about survival as much as they were finding food for their camp.  Gauntlets to be run, the soldiers called them.

In truth, Kyrus hated the patches themselves as much as any Natives within them.  Hated their denseness, hated their thorns that poked every bare piece of flesh, hated everything about them.  “A lifetime of training for what?” he grumbled.  “To go and fight where it’s too tight to swing a damn sword?  Barely room to even piss.”  He lowered into an observant crouch with a grimace.  “You bastards out there today?  Hm?  Bet you’re not… bet you don’t have the –”

A blackbird landed on a branch above him, jarring him from his thoughts, his paranoia, his false bravado.  With a frustrated sigh, he rose and returned to the line’s midpoint, hoping he was right – hoping that the Native danger was imagined yet again, that it was yet another false alarm.

“Alright, carry on, then, dammit,” he barked, annoyed and embarrassed to have stopped for nothing.  “Carry on!”

As the line relaxed, he found his teenage son at his side, dark braided hair cascading down his back, blue eyes full of guilt and indignation.  It was his alarm that brought the column to a halt, his word to his father that he’d seen something in the brush.  The problem was that lately he was always seeing something in the brush; three times during this march alone, in fact, and the Elder was at his wits’ end with it.  In that moment, he saw no blood of his, no beloved son, no new Academy graduate, only an undisciplined young man – no, an undisciplined young soldier, and one who was quickly turning the rest of the troops ornerier with every delay.

“That’s the last time, aye?” he quietly burned through gritted teeth.  “No more of this nonsense or you get the lash.”

“I-I’m sorry, pari, I thought –”

No more.  And it’s not pari on the march, it’s ‘General’, I’ve told you that too many times!”

“Aye, I said I’m sorry, but I –”

“I don’t want ‘sorries’, I want obedience – now obey!  You cannot keep squealing every time you see a leaf move!  So why do you keep making me repeat myself?  Why embarrass me, embarrass our name?  You see me watching for ’em!  We’re all watching for ’em, aye?  All worried about them!”

 

“But I think –”

The Elder’s face flushed a furious red.  “You either know or you keep it to yourself ’til ya’ do, it’s that simple!” he growled, finally quieting the boy.  “Now do you know you saw something?”  The Younger looked back towards the spot where he’d been so certain of a threat, but offered no response.  “Next time’s the lash,” his father snorted and looked to his eldest at the front.  “Alright Bulls, final push now!  Be drinkin’ and eating soon enough!”

Rhythmic marching had resumed, men stripping branches clean of red berries along the way.  In the lead was Kyrus’s oldest son, Kylius, who did nothing to hide his annoyance with his little brother’s interruptions.  At only two years removed from the Academy himself, Kylius’s spot at the column’s head was hardly one of honor more than it was a deadly rite reserved for newer recruits - a rite that paid no mind to the family he was born to.  Indeed, ‘the younger the blood, the younger they bleed’ was a maxim beyond challenge among the legions.

 

He shot a look towards the opposite end of the column, finding his veteran Tygustus and his three-man rear guard maintaining a steady, unflinching air.  While the rest of the column had swords and coats of mail covering torsos but leaving arms bare, the rear guard bore sleeves of steel ringlets and teardrop black shields emblazoned with the four-horned Bull of Stygus – indeed, they were there solely to fight, should the need arise.  With a look that belied his many years and battles, Tygustus nodded under Kyrus’s gaze.

 

Why can’t they all be like him?  Strong, ferocious, never bothers his commander with a speck of nonsense.  Just takes orders and sees them through.  Alas… 

Kyrus shook his head in lament, hands wringing sweat from the silvery black hair matted against his skull.  Always something on these bloody runs.  Always something and today it’s my own blessed flesh and blood.  He sighed.  Then again, we always seem to make it back in one piece, don’t we?  No reason to think otherwise today, so think right and it’ll be so.  He wanted nothing more than to be done for the day like the rest of them, roasting meats back in camp, downing the aged grog they’d carted with them from the Provinces, burying the terror of daily life in a sea of spirits.  Gods above, do I want that drink!  The inklings of a grin appeared, but a bird’s piercing screech quickly sent it back into a scowl; within seconds, he could barely think at all, the bush suddenly alive with dozens of the shrieking bastards.

He tried to distract himself from the noise by letting his eyes fall on his youngest again, the lad’s sleeveless mail and tunic hanging loosely off a skinny frame.  Seeing through the Younger’s mask of defiance, his father marveled at how far he’d come since he was – despite the Elder’s strict discipline – a stubborn, spoiled little eight-year-old being sent off to the War Academy in Avergon, a school that only his highborn blood and lauded family name gained him entry into.  True to form, he took orders as insults and loathed anyone that criticized his technique, a spite that carried him through the eight brutal years as a cadet.  Nevertheless, his petulance changed after graduation and a few months in the Valogarian countryside, hundreds of miles from the hearth and home of Imperial lands north and west.  Fear crept in here, where allies and enemies looked the same; where not a night went by without an alarm horn blown or a Rokhish life taken.  It was hard to blame him for letting the shrieks and the crush of the patches get to him, for seeing enemies everywhere.

He’s a good boy, a strong boy, but he’s scared still, Kyrus thought, pondering how much harsher he could have been, what things he could have said to quell his son’s fears, his unbecoming cries of alarm.  But then he frowned.  No, he should be scared still… gods above, I’m –

Shadows molded into one as the sky darkened above them, ceasing the birds’ screeching in an instant.  Just like that, his pulse quickened again, thoughts of comfort and grog and family vanishing into the steamy air.

“God of light,” he quickly whispered to himself, prayers always on the tip of his tongue on the march.  His ears rang as the column again grinded to a halt, this time on their own accord.  “Don’t you leave me now… just give me a few more minutes… just a few, so I can get on through these patches.”

No one stirred as a deafening silence took hold.

“Son?” he called out quietly into the darkness, eyes squinting, searching.  “Son, you thought you saw something back there, aye?”

“I don’t know that I did,” the Younger offered coldly.

The Elder’s temper overtook his fear for a moment, but he caught himself.  “I don’t like havin’ to scold ya’ like I did, you know that.”

His son grunted.  “Well, I’m telling the truth, I don’t know –”

“I’m not asking what you know anymore – I’m asking you to tell me again what you think you saw, because I saw nothing.  So be a man now, be a soldier.”

“I am.”

The father’s hand latched on his son’s neck, feeling a sweaty lather underneath.  “Tell me now.”

With a wince, his son’s façade finally cracked, turning pale blue eyes on the commander.  “It was a m-man, I think, I saw —”

A lone shriek returned as the Elder’s eyes widened. 

He leaned in closer.  “A man?  Them?  You’re cert–”

The shrieks multiplied.  Louder this time, though less high-pitched.  More guttural.

“Aye!  I mean, I think so… looked blended into the brush.  I swear they were—”

They?  Natives?”

“I-I-I saw –”

“Kyrus, bloody tell –”

“Ambush!”

* * *

“Whoooooooooo!”

Spears flew everywhere.   Grayshirts dropped where they stood.

 

“Damn it all, double lines!  Double lines!  Back to back soldiers!  Brace up!  Brace for charge!”

War cries and Rokhish screams drowned out swords unsheathing. 

“Whoooooooooo!”

The crouching Elder suddenly became lost in his surroundings, recognizing nothing, seeing just a dark green mass, overbearing and hostile.  From his awkward squat, he whispered again for divine mercy.  “Great Stygus, god of war, give me the strength!  Give me the strength, I beg you –”

The man on his left crashed into him, green-tipped spear protruding from his chest.  It was only a moment before the poison set in and the gurgling ended, the man’s face frozen in horror.  It was a ghastly expression, but one that snapped the Elder back to awareness.

With head kept low, he pivoted to see Tygustus at the rear kneeling with shield held high, rejecting javelins with ease.  For a brief moment, however, their eyes met, the sergeant’s expression that of a man reliving a nightmare, of someone not far from earthly deliverance.

 

The war cries ceased. 

 

The assault paused.

 

Bushes lightened as clouds parted way, a tresswork of shadows cast upon the Rokhs.  Kyrus found the column riddled with dead and wounded, soldiers everywhere keeled over on a floor of dead leaves slickened by squashed berry pouches.  Dying moans provided a somber serenade as all gasped for breath in the cauldron.

 

“A quarter down, at least?  Dammit!  Maybe a third?  Dammit!” he muttered.

 

The Elder wet his lips through quickening breaths, head darting back and forth, when he saw the Younger staring stoically ahead with blade at the ready, tears spilling from his eyes.  His father leaned over to him, thoughts moving faster than he could say them.

 

“Son… Kyrus… you need to listen to me, now more than ever.”

 

The Younger’s lip quivered uncontrollably.

 

“Son, you stay next to me, you do what it takes to bloody stay next to me, aye?  Nod at me, Kyrus!”

The boy gave a rapid nod.

 

“Good… good… now, whatever comes outta this bush, no matter what, you stay here until I tell you.  On my word, you make a run back out the way we came, but listen – you run too soon, they’ll cut you down; too late, they’ll seal the path, so you must run when I say you should, aye?  Once you make it out, don’t ever, ever look back in this direction until you’ve reached camp.  Am I understood?”

 

The Younger bit his top lip ’til blood trickled out, but nodded once.

“Now son… if I should fall…”

“Stop it, pari!” the Younger choked out, tears gushing.

“Listen to me!  If I should fall, you don’t forget this!  Any of this!  You carry on, you carry my name and you do it with pride!”

“I’m not leaving!” the Younger protested, swordhand shaking violently.

 

A shout came from the rear guard.  “Bolster the flanks, men!  Compress the line!”

 

The Elder rose to find Tygustus scrambling to rally the shaken men.

 

“I can see them!  Attack on the rear flank coming!” Tygustus yelled.  “Compress the damn line!”

 

The column shortened as Kyrus tried desperately to make out a foe so perfectly blended into the foliage. 

 

“Whoooooooo!”

 

The bellows repeated every few seconds.  Branches shook uncontrollably, as if the very bush frothed for battle.  A terrifying effect.

 

“Demons in these woods,” Kyrus breathed, humidity choking him as restless clouds once again blotted the sun.  This is it.  This is really it, I can feel it.

 

“Alright men, brace yourselves!” he finally shouted, rush of the moment seizing him.  “You are men of the Empire, you are the Bulls of

Stygus, the Bulls of War!  You’re meant to die for a better cause than this, I promise you!”

 

The enemy grew louder.

 

Closer.

 

“So brace yourselves!  Brace for charge, dammit!  Brace for charge!”

 

The Imperials found their nerve and let out their own war cries.

 

“For the Glory of Man and Empire!  For the Glory of Man and Empire!”

“Whoooooooooo!”

 

“Brace for charge!”

 

The charge came.

 

Scores of wild-eyed warriors exploded out of the bush, swarming the column like wolves.  Painted green and white, Native blades swung at any bearded man within reach.  There were three for every Rokh, doubly so against the rear and front ranks.  On a path barely fit for four, cramped soldiers fought off rushes on all sides, sheer force crushing man against man. 

 

It was hell.

 

It was Valogar.

 

Two emerged on the Elder’s left, one with a cleaver, the other a war hammer; he jammed his sword into the former’s throat, but the latter smashed his free arm.  Kyrus furiously headbutted that one – twice, three times, the Valogarian’s white facepaint smearing over his forehead.  Blood gushed from the Native’s nose until Kyrus gutted him from the side.

 

He glanced up and down the line.  At the rear, Tygustus had the flank attack at a standstill despite the odds, but the column’s opposite end appeared obliterated.  With only swords and little battle experience, Kylius and —

 

Kylius!

 

With horror, Kyrus recalled his eldest in the lead and desperately craned to find him over the carnage of spears and blades and limbs.  Where are you, son?  Where are you my-

 

A hand clutched his throat like a vise; Kyrus looked down to see the man’s scythe clip his calf.  With an anguished cry, he stabbed at the choker’s belly, spilling him open without breaking his grip.

 

“Drop… you filth…” Kyrus wheezed.

 

As both men fell to their knees, his vision yellowed, lungs screaming for air.  Releasing his sword, he shot fists into his enemy’s blood-red eye, but the blows steadily weakened.  Consciousness giving out, he fell backwards with the man on top.

 

Fight, the Elder thought plaintively as he felt himself slipping into the blackness.  Fight… fight -

 

A sword’s hilt caved in his attacker’s head; blood showered Kyrus’s face.

 

Prying free of the lifeless hand, his sight cleared to see his namesake standing over him, whirling to impale another charging Native.  With so many on both sides having fallen, the Younger had room to swing his sword the way it was meant to be – and swing it he did.

 

Five down…

 

Six down…

 

Seven, eight…

 

The Elder watched in slack-jawed wonder as his son struck down nine before his eyes, an image of Stygus himself but for tears streaming down dirty cheeks and a body that teetered in sudden exhaustion.

 

A groan shook the Rokhish line; Kyrus turned to see the crushing news – mighty Tygustus brought down at last, two killers grinning ear to ear over his broken body.  He glanced around for Rokhs to avenge the great man’s death, for someone to punish the Natives’ hubris, when reality struck -

 

There was no one left. 

 

No soldiers.  No Kylius.  No Tygustus.

 

No, the only men left were a father, his youngest, and two cursed Natives, closing fast.  A twisted sneer of the Fate gods if there ever was one.

 

Gods above, don’t let this be it, he pleaded, waves of fear reverberating through his defenseless body as he tried righting himself on his one good leg.  He’d always hoped to die well, but now that it was here… 

 

Don’t let me die in these filthy patches… don’t let my son, my last blessed son…

 

“Now, tob’!” he screeched through crushed throat.  “Bloody run now!”

 

The Younger’s head wobbled wearily towards his gasping father.

 

“Get out!  Through the bush, go!  Don’t forget this—”

 

A pike burst through the Elder’s chest from his back, silencing him.  He looked down at the protruding weapon in confusion, until his killer kicked him off face first to the ground.

 

His breaths grew slower but louder as his sight faded to dark, pain so intense it turned euphoric.  This is it?  This is it… this is…

 

I’m sorry, my boys… I’m sorry, my wife, my beautiful…

 

* * *

“Pari!” Kyrus the Younger screamed as his father fell before him.

“Pari!”

 

He crawled helplessly towards the Elder’s lifeless body, desperate for one last moment with his hero, the man he adored.  Crawled over the dead, the dying, feeling more akin to them at that moment than to anyone living – until his vacant eyes locked on his father’s murderer, he and his comrade nothing but silhouettes against the thicket’s opening.

 

“No… no!  You… no!  C-curse you!” he roared unintelligibly, breaths growing heavier, hands grasping for weapons on the path’s floor as he stood.  One enemy limped badly while the other’d lost an eye, but it was the latter’s bloody pike that Kyrus fixated on.

 

The contemptuous pikeman kicked his father’s head as he passed, pasting it with a ball of spit.  “Lahama helila onahi, anafa?” he said, appearing to chide the Younger.  “Soatu.”

Kyrus watched the bloody phlegm drip down the Elder’s hair as the Valogary words rolled in his head.  He didn’t know much of the vile language, but he knew 'soatu' – 'coward.'  He gripped his cleaver and sword tighter as spittle dripped from an open mouth, silently advancing. 

The Native’s smile disappeared.

 

“Asi, naza…”

 

Still no response.

 

“Diamy!  Dia—” the pikeman’s face was split down the middle by the cleaver whirling end over end, collapsing him.  The man at his side halted, eyes widening at the scrawny specimen standing before him. 

 

“Ayr hazi atam…” the man quivered, pointing to Kyrus’s father then pointing to his own chest, then skywards.  “Ayr!”

'Ayr'… 'father.' Kyrus frowned but said nothing, heart afire.

 

The Valogarian pointed at the sky again.  “Ayr hazi tinamandra!  Onahi hazi tinamandra nafitana!  H-h-hazi v-vakanai!”

'Vakanai'… 'family.'

“That was my family,” he finally growled in broken voice, pointing at his father’s corpse.  “Vakanai you – you – you –”

 

Kyrus’s tears welled up, bladehand shaking again.

 

The Valogarian took one tentative step back, and in a flash Kyrus’s blade was deep in his chest.

 

“Vakanai!” he screamed, yanking the sword back to give one final hack at the Native’s neck.  Kyrus watched him fall, watched the blood mix with green paint to form a grotesque brown.

 

And then it was over.

 

He was alone.

 

Alone in a horrible, overwhelming silence that would certainly never end.

 

Kyrus dropped his crimson weapon and sank to his knees at his father’s feet, letting emotion overtake his quaking body.

 

“Pari, no,” Kyrus said through sobs.  “Pari… pari, I’ll never forget... I won’t, I can’t, I promise you…”

 

The clouds parted way to cast a red glaze over the thicket.

“Never.”