The sun dawned as it had always done, spreading its warm and yellow rays across the land as it rose from its eastern gates in the lands of Vithela, arching up in a single glorious movement to encompass the world in its tread. Below it, refreshed and renewed from the death-sleep of night, all the world breathed out in a silent but visceral relief that the darkness had indeed been banished once more from the sight of the living.
Watchfires were allowed to die, or for those in which the land still lay chill and cold they burned on, warming the huddled men who stared out into the paleness of the still-shadowed lands, waiting for the things which lurked outside to come and claim them.
Spearpoints blinked and gleamed like witchfire in the tender and as-yet unstrengthened light of the sun, arrayed like talismans against the dark, standing like a forest of limbs serried and ranked against the things beyond their sight.
The dawn rose, changing into day, bringing sunstarts to the rivers and seas which lay distant and untouched under its dominion. Prayers and white knuckles greeted it, sacrifices and acclaim sustained it, and fear and hope accompanied its demise. Fear for the coming darkness, and hope for the coming dawn—a certainty that was not a certainty, a hope that was not fully seen as foregone.
Perhaps once, it was said, the sun had not died, and each day had blended into the next in a single unchanging rhythm of life: perfect and without marking of the troubles of time. Perhaps then the sun had hung in the sky as it does at noon each day, great and hot and full of fiery life: a great flame against an azure sea. Then, surely, there had been no fear, no loss, only the great warmth suffusing every limb, the soft and regular beat of the sea on the sand, even the wind in the trees and through the sheaves of the grain that called them and shaped them into great golden waves across the earth. What a time that was not a time that must have been.
Was it like it was at noon, when Yelm seems to halt his march across the sphere that marks his course? A trick, perhaps, or a long-remembered dream, but the time at noon seemed to have captured some of that old magic, wrested it from the past and brought it firmly and undeniably into the present, crashing down against the darkness and declaring that here, now, the sun had dominion as it did in ages past.
It was in this shape that the thoughts of Marcus Vitonius found themselves on the day of his departure. Behind him, cropping at the long green grass of the field outside his home, his horse waited patiently, or at least contently, in the unhurried way of animals who feel themselves secure in their surroundings.
He moved, twisting the unfamiliar weight of the metal covering adorning his body, the bronze scales rustling and whispering like water over rock, the burnished metal grown hot with the sun’s embrace. Below him, in the shallowness of the valley, faint sounds and calls carried on the wind, bearing with them tidings of change and unfamiliarity, the prospect of a land cold and harsh and unforgiving, of peoples filled with anger and resentment, and of death alone and unmissed far from his home.
The tiny masses of men, grown small with distance, moved and shaped themselves according to barely-heard commands, officers mounted on their horses directed and supervised as the great column readied itself for march. Ahead, at the front, stood the proud banner, the bifurcated moon ascendant over the symbols of Carmania.
The heavy weight at his side thrust itself into his awareness, the dead thing lying against its sheath like an adder frozen in rigor. He rested his hand on the hilt of the long and curved sword, trying by that slight contact to master the unease which coursed through him at the reminder of it. Touched by the hand of the Red Emperor it was said, a badge of office and a tool of death—a thing of death: made and forged of its very essence.
The wind stirred again in the grass, carrying a loud shout with it and the cracking of bannercloth; Marcus held his helmet more tightly under his left arm as he felt its horsehair crest flutter in the breeze.
“Get you gone,” said a voice, “or you will be left behind—in this as in all other things.”
“I am going, sister,” Marcus replied, his eyes hazy and dim as he stared up into the great ocean of the sky, feeling a brief and instant moment of vertigo as he felt he stood on the ceiling of a great and rolling roof above a limitless infinity of blue.
“You will be left behind should you delay.”
“So you have said.”
“And I will say it again if you do not leave us in peace.”
He turned to her, taking in her cold and wretched beauty, the anger which lay so close to the surface of her half-lidded eyes turning her into something other than what he remembered.
“Aye, I will go,” he murmured, setting his fine bronze helmet on his head and lacing the cheek-pieces together. “I will not ask you to kiss me.”
“That is good,” she spat, “for I have no love to send you.”
He walked silently to his horse, the long grass rustling softly against the leather laces of his tall sandals. The flesh was warm and firm under his fingers as he patted the animal, feeling the life and breath and powerful potential which lay beneath it. Soft and gentle eyes regarded him expectantly, the sweet grass momentarily forgotten at the unexpected contact. “Will you light a candle for me, sister?” The voice which spoke was barely his own, sounding small and sad and full of doubt.
“I will do no such thing,” she whispered, her back now to him, unseeing of the way his head nodded slightly as he pulled himself up onto the smooth leather saddle of his mount.
“Then I bid you farewell, my sister,” Marcus replied softly, “And if you should have a thought or care to send my way it would be welcome.”
Livinia turned to him, her eyes flashing fiercely in the sudden hatred which had marked her so distinctly in these later days. “Why should I have a care for you, brother,” she spat, “you who have paupered us, disgraced us: neither wife nor child do you have, nor deeds to your name, nor credit to your memory.”
The tired words washed over him like an acrid wave, and his closed eyes did nothing to diminish the sting.
“Go,” she spat again, “stare at the sky and think your maudlin thoughts. We have no care for you here.”
He raised his left hand in joined surrender and salute, the silence settling over him, wrapping him in its warm color.
The scoff which split the air lowered his hand. “When you lie dying at the foot of some painted barbarian, think on your life: the woman you might have had, the children you might have sired…” she paused, relishing the twist and tug of the final barb, “…the father you might have pleased.”
“I have not—” he stopped himself, biting down on the tired words that tried to force themselves from his lips. “I wish you a better life without me, Livinia,” he finished quietly.
“That would not be difficult,” she hissed, “Now go—for the last time: go.”
The inclination of his head rocked the hairs of his crest, and the cold glint of his dark blue eyes sparked in the sunlight. Marcus glanced upwards, feeling once more that awful sense of vertigo, of insignificance, and saw that no longer did the sun dwell in its perfect noon above him: now it had begun its long and ceaseless decline towards darkness and death in the west of the world.
A tossed head and racing heart brought him back to the present: the great and lively animal beneath him; the cold and silent woman who once ran to him for comfort and safety, all scabbed knees and wild hair; the army which lay like a great and nascent beast in the valley below.
Sensing, perhaps, with some indefinable quality of its own, his horse turned and began the slow progress away from the expansive home Marcus had known all his life. He turned back, reflexively, breaking the solemn vow he had sworn himself and saw for a moment the eyes of that little girl with the scabbed knees and wild hair; and then the eyes closed and the moment was gone. Her husband’s arm slipped around her waist, and her face soured and darkened, and Marcus turned away with a black and empty hole in his heart.
How long and how dim
are the threads which bind
and the stars which shine
upon us, each alone and wanting.
The words ran through him like a knife, the memory of those moments spent at his father’s knee, listening rapturously to the poetry of ancient days wash over him, cleansing him of the dissatisfaction which ate away at the very core of him.
As he approached, shoving away the thoughts of home and of his sister that trailed behind him, the tiny shadows below him gradually resolved, one by one, into men, armed and armored and arrayed for war: great shields and stabbing swords, bright mail and high helms, colored banners blowing bravely in the breeze—a sight fit for a song.
Old tales flooded back to him, of great battles fought on the foothills of a mountain which touched the sky, of wild men whose breath swept armies before them, of great dragons and strange mystics, the clash of empires and the ambition of men.
Marcus shuddered despite the warmth of the sun, feeling as if a chill wind had blown up and over him, and he pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. He looked up into the sky, taking comfort from the still and silent orb which arced above him, shining as it always did in its long and slow descent.
The leather gloves of his hands brushed the hard and warm metal armoring his torso, the bright disks of bronze shining like tiny suns in their fixtures, steady and solid, warding him against as-yet unset blows.
He set his hand back on the hilt of the death lying at his hip, gripping it tightly, forcing down the revulsion which welled up inside him and the sympathetic response which lurked deep within him in the place he dared not look.
Out in the east the road snaked out and away towards their destination, marking in its course the inevitability of what they were about to embark upon. Marcus wondered if it had been like this even in the time when the sun had stood still: things must have happened even without that marker to guide their memory, things must have changed from one moment to the next.
The knuckles in his hand cried out, and Marcus quickly relaxed his grip on the wooden hilt, thrusting aside once more the feelings which arose deep within him. He swallowed forcefully and looked down the shallow slope, his eyes questing for and finding the small corner which held his command: his banner—his men.
One thousand men, or thereabouts, including cavalry and auxiliaries: they would collect a company of archers from Tarsh as they passed through on their way to the conquered land of Sartar. Marcus did not much anticipate the prospect of armed barbarians joined to his proud Carmanian company. Yet Tarsh had been converted to the Lunar way, or so it was said: another Orlanthi kingdom fallen to the Goddess—may she be praised.
And Sartar was only the latest to fall, and nearly the last, leaving only the fragmented Holy Country to resist the long and inexorable march of the Lunar armies to the sea.
The sea. What was it like, he wondered. How did it smell in the morning as the sun rose above it?
A shadow passed over him and Marcus looked up as a sound of thunder cracked through the air.
It began to rain, though the day shone bright about him, and Marcus could see the tiny droplets of water come crashing down, shining like tiny stars.