Blood glistened in the sunlight, sweeping from the edge of Elamouf’s blade in a crescent spray. A foe fell, lost to the Echo, to the darkness that had stolen his soul. Heat pounded through Elamouf’s veins, his throat parched, his skin no longer able to sweat, ragged breaths dragged through his lips, air that smelled of blood, of dust, of battle’s sweet taste.
He turned, looking for someone to fight, to kill.
There was no-one left.
His men staggered around the side of the dune, dispatching the enemy wounded with swift thrusts of the blade. These were their brothers once, their brothers of the sand, but the enemy were no longer men, lost in the Echo of the Volcano’s call, lost to the people. Still, they deserved a quick death for all that they had been before they gave up the songs of the people and embraced emptiness.
So few of the Tresendi left, so few.
He had rode to battle with fifty men, now barely fifteen remained upon their feet. They could not fight again, they could not win again, it was over.
Lefan, Elamouf’s Losna lay upon his side, his great reptilian head slumped upon the dune. The great lizard’s maw was coated in the blood of enemies, but his side was ripped open, pierced by many spears, and his blood streamed across the sand.
Elamouf staggered to the dying Losna. He needed to drink, to quench his thirst, the heat pounding through his veins, the lightness of his breath, the vice tightening around his head, but first he must see his steed into the afterlife of the Losna. A place where they were free once more and lived amongst others of their kind with no humans to torment them with war and baggage.
‘Ho now. Ho now,’ Elamouf murmured to Lefan as the beast lifted his great head to accept the caress of his master’s hand. ‘Go in peace, my friend, you fought well, you ran as fast as the wind, you roared with the sound of thunder, you carried me across the sand to the destiny of my race. Ho now. Ho now. Go in piece, my friend.’ The knife did its work and Lefan’s eyes dimmed and closed for the last time.
Elamouf was surprised to find tears in his own eyes. He did not think that he had enough moisture in his body for that final homage to a faithful servant. He wiped them from his cheeks with his blood smeared hands and placed them upon the Losna’s dead eyes. ‘Ho now, Lefan, greatest of the Losna.’
Staggering upright, Elamouf went in search of water.
He found it beside his brother Critanos.
‘Will you look at that,’ Critanos said holding up an arm that now lacked a hand. ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ His eyes gleamed from pashac juice, which dulled the pain, but dulled the mind as well. The stump of his left hand crudely bandaged and smeared with silvered honey to stop the bleeding and protect from infection.
Elamouf found three waterskins beside his maimed brother and drank his fill. Clasping a hand to his brother’s shoulder he took his leave and began to search for wounded amongst the bodies lying upon the dune.
The enemy he killed with a brief flash of the blade. As was fitting and right. They were lost to the Echo and did not deserve the obligations of mercy. But some of his own men were beyond his aid, beyond the aid of any man, moaning, whimpering, dying slowly in the broiling heat. The blade flashed no more keenly then, but always accompanied by the tears of grief and the words of the song.
‘Battle is honour and honour is life. Blood is the water of the soul. Go now in peace and tranquillity to the place where the waters run free. Leave the dust, the heat, and the misery of this world’s chains behind. Go now, my brother, my comrade, my friend, to the place where the waters run free.’
He found his uncle Barad engaged in a similar task and the two men stopped upon the dune. Barad was young, the youngest son of his father’s father, born in the twilight of that man’s life. He had learned much since the Volcano roared and had become the rightful heir to Elamouf’s responsibilities. It was time to proclaim him so.
‘Ho, Barad, hope of the Tresendi,’ Elamouf said, bowing slightly, but remaining upon his feet.
Barad dropped to one knee at the sound of those words. ‘Ho, Elamouf, honour of the Tresendi.’ He bowed his head and then lurched back to his feet.
Around them, men who could dropped to their knees and bowed to both the leader and the heir to the leader of the tribe. Those that could not, simply covered their eyes with their hands and those who could not do even that closed their eyes in homage.
‘Ho,’ Elamouf said and broke the tableau. Men continued their work of gathering their wounded upon the slope and separating the Tresendi dead from the carrion of the enemy corpses.
‘You name me heir of a tribe that is broken, nephew,’ Barad said. There was no bitterness in his voice. He would have done the same as Elamouf. There were no other choices for men such as them.
‘Yes,’ Elamouf agreed. ‘But if I fall, the tribe must know who to follow.’
‘And if we both fall?’
‘Then the tribe will be no more.’
‘We must leave these lands.’
Elamouf nodded. ‘Yes, we must. We can no longer survive in the sight of the Volcano.’
‘Where will we go?’
‘To the Shonri. We have things they will need returned.’
A rumbling beneath the ground. A scream far off across the slope. A blaze of heat that tore through the air.
‘Salands! Salands!’ a man screamed. One of the enemy wounded, consumed by flame, by his allies from the Volcano, even as he screamed.
Erupting from the ground the Salands lifted their stumpy arms out wide. The cracked rock of their skins fissured to show the blazing magma beneath. Four of them, these creatures of the volcano, only four, but that was more than enough to destroy what remained of Elamouf’s forces.
He turned to tell Barad to gather what men he could, to flee, to take the women, the young, and the old, to gather the weapons of the Shonri hidden beneath the sand, to flee, to run, while Elamouf fought to hold back the Salands.
‘Ho.’ A hand clasped upon his shoulder. Critanos there, a sword tucked under his handless arm and a wild smile upon his lips. ‘I am with you, brother.’
Then around the edge of the dune, Shonri came, with their Scryer-marks blistered red by the effluence of the Volcano. Six lost-Shonri, enemies that a hundred men could not fight. Nobody could flee now.
‘Death has come,’ said Barad.
‘So let us spit in his eye,’ said Elamouf. He drew his battered sword once more and screamed his battle-cry.
The Salands advanced. The lost-Shonri blocked any retreat. All was lost, but honour would be spent here upon the sands.
‘Look,’ Critanos lifted his sword, pointed at the top of the dune.
Four figures outlined against the sun.
‘What now?’ Barad muttered.
Elamouf laughed, recognising the burly figure in the centre of the group. ‘The Shonri have come to us.’
Birsin led two of the other Shonri down the dune at breakneck speed to attack the lost-Shonri at the bottom. A flurry of dust, movements too fast for a human eye to see, before the dust kicked up by their feet became a cloud that obscured the combat.
The other Shonri, alone, attacked the Salands. Two whips of glistening force curled and slashed through the air. Ripping the Salands apart.
‘Look at him dance,’ Barad breathed. ‘Oh look at him dance.’
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