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The Battle At Land’s End Pt 3: The Natural Order Of Things

Lord Taros stood in the branches of a tall oak in the early hour before dawn when all was silent and the birds had yet to start their song. By the light of the moon he could see far down the savanna. It appeared to be empty, though he knew his enemies had talents that might make them disappear.

Taros did not think it magic; he thought there was a reason for everything. To call it magic is to admit you don’t know what the reason is. He thought it folly to be appease the gods this way because the gods already think men are fools. He cared not to prove them right so he was a law unto himself.  Taros was beholden to nothing and no one but honor.

Fires in the distance convinced him they were not in immediate danger. Fearbringer would be loathe to attack without an overture. It was, in fact, what Taros was looking for; an acolyte messenger from the Druid.

Just before dawn the acolyte arrived. It was for Taros to send him back dead or alive.

“The Druid will make a sacrifice,” said the messenger.

“What does the Druid ask of the people of Antallis?” Taros replied.

“Blood sacrifice,” he answered, and then he said, “One soul only.”

Taros did not expect such a number. It was a token, yet an admission that they were wrong to trample the bones of the dead. Far more would die if he went to war but it galled him as Bear knew it would.

Taros eyed the young man and decided his fate.

“Give me your hand!” he commanded.

The acolyte held out his right hand as Taros drew his sword. He struck swiftly, but he did not take the hand; he merely drew a deep crevice across the young man’s palm.

The acolyte stood stoically, pain etched on his face and his blood dripping to the dirt. Taros sheathed the Sword of Theosadartis, took the man’s bloody hand and put it to his heart, smearing the blood over the white tunic of the acolyte. The message was clear.

“Blood does not take blood,” said Taros, “It is the law of the Gimric.”

Taros turned his back on the young man and returned to the grove.

Bear saw the acolyte return. From afar, even with the aid of the bi-focus, it looked like he was a dead man walking, but when the acolyte repeated Lord Taros’ words the Druid went white as a sheet.

“Blood does not take blood,” he said to himself because there could be no doubt what was meant. Lord Taros wasn’t just saying he would not offer even one soul.  He was calling himself the son of the High Chief, a claim that Fearbringer was all too eager to endorse.

The three stood together, War Chief, Druid and acolyte. A crowd had formed; most had heard that the messenger was a demon locked in the dead man’s body. The bloody heart was the proof of it, or so they said, but Fearbringer knew otherwise.

“Who here says Taros is not the son of the man called Mountain?” he challenged.

There was a rustle in the back of the ranks and then a lance flew through the heart of the acolyte.

Fearbringer stood unbowed by the death.

“Blood does not kill blood!” he said, expecting the murderer to be rousted. Instead, the murderer stepped forward. He was Sky Crier. He hated Taros like no other.

“Demon blood is not my blood!” he cried, “Nor is it the blood of my fathers. Druid! Is it not law that a man be freed from the spirit that binds him? Is not Lord Taros that spirit? Did he not claim my due? Did not my father’s house fall on him because of it? Who here does not think these things?”

Hundreds had gathered at the sounds. The sight of River Bend flattened to the ground and the funeral garlands and the body of the man called Mountain convinced them even more than the claims of his aggrieved son.

There was no doubt after that who would be the next High Chief of the Gimric.

The son of Mountain looked over their heads and received their accolades. His smile was one of profound satisfaction; of certain vindication after his years in the wilderness.

There was a time when the son of Antallean kings was more respected than Sky Crier, and he was the son of a Gimric High Chief. It was the priest’s doing, but the priest was gone now; he could not interfere with the natural order of things. Because Sky Crier was the new High Chief it was said by many that the natural order of things was reasserting itself.

Sky Crier hated Taros but he liked what Taros was. To a Gimric warrior it was not a paradox; it was the natural order of things, and why they could drink with their enemies one day and bury them the next.

“Placate the gods with the death of Taros!” demanded the new High Chief, “It is the right of the son to see his father avenged!”

“Taros did not kill your father!” exclaimed Fearbringer.

“Justice demands the death of their Lord!” countered Sky Crier, “A Chief for a Chief. Nothing less will satisfy.”

“Whom will it satisfy?” challenged Fearbringer, “The gods? I think not.”

“You dare to speak for the Druid!” accused Sky Crier, “I will hear it from Bear!”

Bear thought for a moment. The image of the acolyte with the lance through his heart was the most compelling argument one could make.

“If the death of Lord Taros will end this madness,” said Bear, “then may his blood be on the hands of the gods themselves.”

Fearbringer left, afraid he would be required to make war upon an innocent man.

Taros already knew what was required of him. He was a Captain of the Cabeiri and that made him far more powerful than a mere king. He was not endowed with talents as his Dactyls were but he had no need for special powers; special powers do not make a Captain of the Cabeiri. What makes a Captain of the Cabeiri are instincts.

Taros’ instincts told him to expect an attack: two days hence at an hour before noon. It would not be enough time to get his people to the old Kriti Highway. He would not see them swatted like flies so he had no choice but to make a stand at Land’s End.

Taros knew that the Gimric would be camped on the savanna the night before. It was not Gimric practice to march to battle and fight the same day. It made them stronger warriors but it also made time for their enemies to prepare.

Taros had an army as well, though it was small one. The Antallean Royal Guard under the command of Cheiron would attack the Gimric at dawn when they must look into the sun to see the attackers. It was a suicide choice; a few soldiers riding onager are no match for an army a thousand strong, but if he could break the spirit of the Gimric Taros had a fighting chance at getting his people to the Lasithi Valley.

The center of the grove had been cleared and the trees turned into weapons of war. It was a measure of how large the grove was that two thousand refugees could still find a place in the shade.

All around them the work went on. Ditches were deepened on three sides. The rear flank was left open in case of retreat. Into the ditches were set lines of sharpened stakes, some the size of a man to prevent scaling, and others set at heights to skewer an attacker’s belly. Beyond that was a firewall ready to be set alight.

Stones the size of big man’s head were gathered and set in piles next to newly made engines of war. Catapults would be used to send the stones flying at the Gimric. If they got close enough to be no longer in range rams made of tree trunks would get the stones rolling at fatal speeds down the gently sloping savanna.

The ram was invented by Daedalus. It came to him as he wondered how to counter a close attack. He caused ten foot logs to be suspended from six legged pole towers. Six men pulling a rope could bring it back enough so that when it hit a stone dead center it knocked the stone clear over the ditch and set in rolling at a high speed down the savanna.

Taros had work for everyone. Older children did the debarking and sharpening of the stakes. Younger children cleared the ground of small stones and rocks and filled in holes that could slow down the stones rolling on their grimly fatal mission.

Their strategic disadvantage was an almost complete lack of water. They had enough to drink, but not to make war. If the Gimric used fire in the attack they would have no choice but to douse it with the drinking water.

“If the Gimric burn the savanna we will all die,” said Taros.

“Then we must burn it first,” advised Sword Master Cheiron.

“There is no wind,” observed Taros.

“Nor was there a wind yesterday,” agreed Cheiron.

They looked at the sky. Clouds were forming over the Aswal desert.

“It will be our last resort,” said Taros, “I do not easily aggrieve our Mother.”

Two hours before dawn brought no sleep to Fearbringer. Why did Antallean fires burn through the night? Taros must know they were there. Did he think he could best an army of a thousand warriors? Sky Crier would make them his slaves but it was better than death. What makes a man challenge his fate? Gods? Demons? How does one decide between the two?

The omens were against them. Why didn’t the Druid see it? The dirt where they lay was fresh and moist.  It would burn but slowly, depriving them of the weapon of fire and engulfing them in smoke. The winds were against them as well, either blowing in circles or holding a westerly course.

Fearbringer did not want to attack into a headwind because it gave the advantage to the Antallean archers; their arrows would be carried by the wind, but lances thrown by the Gimric would fall short. If Taros chose to attack at dawn there was no telling how it would end.

All of these doubts he had voiced to the new High Chief. Sky Crier was young and rash. He let hubris speak for him. If he fell the Gimric would fall.

Bear no longer trusted the gods because they did not rise and battle the forces of terror. They did not descend from the heights and restore order to the world of men. For all he knew they might even have provoked the lions. Many were saying it and Sky Crier was among the loudest of them.

Bear had a vision. He heard chuffing at his ear, but it was not so near. Lions, two of them, and the specter of death, stood between himself and Land’s End.

“You have seen death,” said Sky Crier.

“No,” argued Fearbringer, “You have seen what has come to pass. It is the priest’s doing. It was he who led the lions to the holy place!”

“No,” answered Bear, “The priest has no power over them.”

Late that night the figure of the priest was seen kneeling in the starlight. He should not have been seen, though he was, and lions cavorted about him. They came as spirits and their terrible roars made cowards of brave men.

Sky Crier had no room in his plans for fate, priests, lions or the specter of death.

“When a war chief does not make war, he is not a chief,” judged Sky Crier.

“A high chief cannot make war,” countered Fearbringer.

“I declare that the high chief and the war chief are now one in the same,” announced Sky Crier.

“Then you have come to your senses?” asked Fearbringer.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Who are you, now that you are no longer Fearbringer?” asked Sky Crier.

“You demand of me a name!” shouted Fearbringer, “Call me Wise Tooth, for I shall gnaw the bones of your grandchildren!”

“Treachery!” spoke Sky Crier.

“Wisdom!” countered Bear, “I stand with Wise Tooth.”

“Then you shall die with Wise Tooth!” cried Sky Crier and he walked angrily away.

Helios Hyperion stood in the starlight. He could not convince the lions to go back to the caves. They smelled blood. They’d tasted flesh. Nothing could keep them from the war.

Lions are disdainful of men. Lions think of men as men think of the other animals; as something less than godly and unworthy of eternal life. They make it their job to snuff us out when our arrogance eclipses our wisdom. Lions know on whose side they will fight but they aren’t telling. Short of throwing himself upon the mercy of the Goddess of the Earth Helios could not stop the slaughter.

Taros saw him standing in the starlight. He could not say for sure, but he moved like the hated priest from Iolcos.

“That is the priest,” agreed the Sword Master.

He put his articulated mono-focus into it’s place in the belt at his side.

“I can’t begin to guess what he’s doing out there,” he added.

“Talking to the lions,” answered Taros, “Trying to decide which way they’ll turn.”

“Why does that interest him?” wondered Cheiron.

“He does not fear the Earth,” reasoned Taros, “He fears what stands behind her.”

In the Gimric war tent a different kind of discussion was taking place.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” Wise Tooth asked the new War Chief.

Sky Crier said nothing in reply. He just hunkered down with his battle plans and tried to make sense of Taros’ defenses.

“Why did the fools not burn the savanna?” he said, “They must know that if I put it to the torch the winds will do my work for me.  Yet they keep the fires burning as if we are fools who understand nothing.”

“The burn for the firewall,” said the man formerly called Fearbringer, “It is made of dry timber rubbed with oil. It doesn’t burn. It explodes, shooting missiles anywhere from three inches to three feet long. It happens so fast there is no time to run.”

“Wouldn’t it maim them as well?” asked Sky Crier.

“Yes.”

Sky Crier’s face went pale as a sheet, but just for a moment.

“Only a fool would hasten his own death,” he reasoned.

“It is a weapon of last resort,” explained Wise Tooth, “as is burning the savanna.  The earth is wet. If you set it alight the smoke will choke us all. If you meet him head on you may not lose but you cannot win. That is the genius of Lord Taros.”

“They have engines,” said Sky Crier, “On six legs, from which a ram is suspended.”

“I have heard of no such thing,” confessed Wise Tooth, “What is nearby?”

“Round stones in piles,” said Sky Crier, “Do you think they could be driver engines?”

“I suppose.”

“For what purpose?” asked the son of Mountain.

“To drive round stones down the savanna, perhaps,” guessed the former War Chief.

“They are slightly uphill, aren’t they?” remarked Sky Crier.

“Significantly,” replied Wise Tooth, “It might not seem so just standing here, but in the hunt it could be the difference between life and death.”

“Hmmph,” grunted Sky Crier, “I’m not done with you. You will carry out my designs with an eye to the details I may have missed.”

“If you mean to attack Lord Taros I cannot help you. He has the high ground. He has food and water for a siege. There is nothing to burn to make him use it. We cannot mount an attack uphill and against a firewall. We can attack from the east but only as a column. There is no room to deploy. If we split our army and attack from the east and the west we cannot maintain communications in the thick of the battle.”

“I see it as our best option,” said Sky Crier, “I leave it to you to decide the methods of co-ordination. I am the War Chief but you are in command of the hunters. They answer to you; you answer to me. It is the new order of things.”

Taros sensed the new order as well.

“Something has changed,” he said.

It was not tangible. There were no foul odors. There was no sudden silence. There was nothing but the feeling that the Gimric were not ready.

“Attack,” advised Cheiron, “If what you say is true then we have the advantage.”

“A small one, but our best advantage would be to not fight at all,” answered Taros.

It was still two hours before dawn. They had the entire time to reconsider.

Dawn broke and Taros was not willing to fight. Cheiron understood his reasons.

“You see the best in men,” he told his Lord, “Even when it is not to be seen.”

“The best in men is often hidden behind the worst in them,” answered Taros, “If I can save one person from a senseless death the delay will be worth it.”

“If you can’t…” replied Cheiron.

“See our nemesis, Helios of Egypt,” said Taros, handing Cheiron the glass, “He sits alone on the field of war. Is he there to stop it? Does he think he can?”

Gathered around him was a pride of lions, but they were not there to give comfort. In spite of their roaring and repeated threats they came not near enough for the priest to touch them, nor did he acknowledge their presence.

“Whose lions are they?” wondered the Cheiron.

“Need you ask?” replied Taros, “Cybele is never far from her snarling darlings.”

Wise Tooth had come to the same conclusion.

“Who’s side are they on?” asked Sky Crier.

“They are on no side,” replied the man who was once called Fearbringer.

“I will hear it from the Druid!” demanded the new War Chief.

“They belong to Annan,” Bear replied, “They will attack who is first to make war.”

Sky Crier would not hear of his plans being dashed.

“Then we shall first slay the lions,” he said.

“That is suicide!” declared Bear, “It is an affront to the gods.”

“Not if you do the slaying,” grinned Sky Crier, “A Druid may kill with impunity, yet it must be with my sword for it to be called a battle.”

“You cannot fool the gods in this way!” protested Wise Tooth.

“The gods are but fools,” answered Sky Crier, “That much is clear.”

Cybelea heard him and took note.

“Did you hear that?” she asked her sisters.

“I was appalled!” gasped Ishtar.

“Shocking,” agreed Themis, sipping tea.

I’ve a mind to feed him to my darlings,” added Cybele, “That’ll give him something to cry to the sky about.”

The Druid spent the day in prayer. He would not be seen by anyone. Once Sky Crier burst into his tent. Bear was meditating. He could not be roused.

That evening his meditations took him on a spirit journey.

He found himself on the savanna with the priest and Lord Taros.

“You have killed six of Cybele’s pets,” said Helios, “She does not care why. If you attack the refugees she will see your bones picked clean.”

“It is out of my hands,” answered Bear, “Sky Crier has no respect for the gods.”

As he said it, Sky Crier burst again into the Druid’s tent. Bear was still there, but Sky Crier had just seen him on the savanna with the priest and Lord Taros so he did what he had to do. He smote the traitor’s head off.

Bear reeled and fell to the ground in mid-sentence.

“You are murdered,” said the priest, “I will keep you alive. Now we must go.”

Bear nodded and took all the life that Helios had to give him, and so he was the first to learn the truth about the black priest. Helios was alive by the Power of Marduk burning in his heart, the same power that had once bound the Goddess Nibiru. The same life was keeping the druid alive as well.  The awesome, ultimate and inevitable truth was clear to Bear. Helios Phaethon Hyperion, because he was trained by the temple priests to be the master of himself, was in control of the Power of Marduk.  Because of this he held the life of every man woman and child in his hands.  He could give it to anyone he desired and he could also take it away. This time he chose to give the wounded druid to Taros.

Taros did not accept the prisoner.

“Take your hostage and flee,” he said to the priest, “I care not what happens to yours as you care not what happens to mine.”

Lord Taros turned and walked back to the grove. Cheiron was awaiting his report.

“Someone killed the Druid,” said his lord.

“How?” asked the Sword Master,  “He was with you and the priest.”

“In spirit only,” said Taros, “His physical body was lying unguarded. That is why the priest is able to save him. Like Helios before him he is becoming immortal.”

“There will be war,” said the Sword Master.

“Make your charge at dawn,” agreed Taros, “and Cheiron. Come back.”