Three weeks had passed since Zalaz's call for all men of age to take up arms. Travelers on the roads through Dacia found themselves in the company of armed men, all moving towards the west. The first of the legions arrived and set up an encampment before the village that called itself a city, Asser. An hour away from Dacia, Asser was unassuming for all the village's claims of greatness. Their deep wells and rich vinyards were the only thing truly of note about Asser. Now, however, those wells were busy at all hours of the day and the grapes were untended upon the vine because the servants were learning the craft of war.
Zalaz rode through Asser with Sorenan at his side. The pair were a
strange sight. Zalaz with his white light armor and clothes seemed to
gleam brilliantly in the weak light of dawn. Sorenan wore black.
Zalaz's black hair was bound up in a braid that bounced against his
back as he rode his bay horse along the streets where as Sorenan's
tawny gold hair was free and teased by the wind. The horse he rode
was as black as the dead of night and restless. The stallion tossed
his mane frequently and strained against Sorenan's control, wanting
to move at a brisker pace than the walk he was forced into.
People from the village watched them move towards the encampment
with some curiosity and some dread. The young women who had lost
their sweethearts to glory's call watched with bitterness. The
children followed in their wake excitedly, to the dismay of their
mothers. They were nearly to the edge of the village when a boy
darted out from between the brick houses and almost under Sorenan's
mount. As the child's mother pulled him back with a cry of alarm,
Sorenan reined in the horse hard. The black horse reared and the
child screamed. Hooves crashed to the earth moments after the boy was
pulled back. Sorenan looked down at the lad, who stared up at him
with awe and fear.
"Stay back if you would live to be a man," Sorenan said.
The boy nodded as his mother clutched him to her breast. She stared
at Sorenan as though he was some sort of monster. Sorenan scowled and
looked forward. As he rode forward and caught up to Zalaz, he shook
his head with disgust. "They would declare me a demon,"
Sorenan said bitterly, "They whisper that I am a monster."
Zalaz looked over at him with an inquistive expression. "I care
because they would use it as justification against them,"
Zalaz nodded. They rode in silence the short distance to the
encampment. Though the men assembled were within their own lands,
Zalaz noted with approval that a watch had been set. The guard
stepped forward to challenge them. He then saw the sash about Zalaz's
waist. The younger man bowed deeply as he stepped aside. Zalaz
frowned at the sight of how poorly the guard's armor fit him. They
rode deeper through the tents until they reached the pavillion of the
Someone had noted Zalaz's approach and word had reached the
commander that the Lord High General had come to them. Thus, when
Zalaz and Sorenan emerged into the open space at the center of the
encampment where the commander's pavilion stood, that man was waiting
for them dressed in his armor. With a white breastplate and brown
pauldrons, the stocky commander seemed to have rushed to put his too
clean armor on. Zalaz inwardly scoffed at how the commander's clothes
beneath the armor looked rumpled, as though they had been hastily put
on. He suspected that within the pavilion, the commander's woman from
the night before was rushing to dress herself and attempting to
determine what exactly she should do.
"What news is there from the west?" Zalaz said to the
commander. The man before him swallowed anxiously, never having
anticipated that he would actually speak with the Lord High General
himself. Zalaz waited, restraining a dry remark about how words would
have been a more effective mode of communication rather than staring
at him. The commander looked over at Sorenan with some discomfort.
"Well," Zalaz said, "What do your riders know? I
presume they have returned already."
Starting slightly with surprise at Zalaz's words, the commander
turned his gaze to the general. "They returned last night. The
cities of Kist and Levanth are fully evacuated. Midthar has yet to
begin their evacuation. They insist there is no threat and the
summons of their men an attempt to grab power," he said,
dreading Zalaz's response. Zalaz looked at the commander with his
loose right pauldron, waiting for any additional details to be
mentioned. "The guard of Midthar have been set against your
men," the discomforted man continued, sounding apologetic, "The
messengers returned with warning that Midthar would repel any who
come for her people. They deny that Temna has turned against us."
"So be it," Zalaz said, "We will leave them to
their fate. However, if word comes that Midthar needs aid, we must be
ready to march. It may be the most distant city of the empire but it
will be the first that will be assaulted. Clearly Zafar has forgotten
our discussion." A disturbance at the western edge of the
encampment caught the general's attention even as a runner came from
"Riders," the man gasped as he reached the commander,
"We can't tell who they are." The commander looked at
Zalaz, whose sharp eyes could see the wave of activity move through
the encampment. Men looked to their weapons. Some began to move
towards the edge of the encampment as others looked to their leaders
"How many?" Zalaz demanded before the commander could
"It is a small party. We think twelve. The others are
watching them. Olthos should be coming next with more information,"
the messenger said. The commander started to say something when Zalaz
cut him off again.
"Return to your watch. Look if there is another party behind
them," Zalaz said, "Send word as soon as you sight any
others in their wake or if they come bearing the standard of Temna.
Black field with a gold spear peircing a red sun." The guard
nodded briskly, saluted Zalaz and then his commander before turning
to race back to his post. Zalaz looked at the commander. "Keep
arms at the ready," Zalaz said, "No one moves until I give
word. These may be friends of Dacia. Or they may be a scouting party
of the enemy. When they reach the encampment's edge, bring them to
Zalaz dismounted. Sorenan followed in his wake. A footsoldier took
the reins of both horses. Where the commander looked untried and
unsteady, the footsoldier bore the mark of a seasoned fighter. His
scars and cool demeanor at the prospect of the enemy bearing down on
them, compared to how the commander flushed and his lieutenants
paled, sat well with Sorenan. Sorenan decided if he couldn't have
Zalaz at his back, the man holding their horses may be a good choice
compared to the ones who would insist on the 'honor' of defending
Zalaz motioned the commander with him as he entered into the
pavilion. One of the commander's subordinates moved to stop Sorenan
from walking into the pavilion when Sorenan fixed him with a look.
Sorenan's eyes, which had been almost olive green, lightened to the
color of amber as they narrowed. The other man paled and made a
warding gesture as the angered man passed by him. For once, Sorenan
decided that the whisper he was a demon might actually have been
Once inside the tent, Sorenan noticed Zalaz and the commander at a
table with a map unfurled. Standing near the cot, attempting to will
herself into invisibility was a dark eyed woman who looked barely to
be an adult. "An escort will bring you to Asser," Sorenan
said to her. She jumped a little at Sorenan's words, not expecting
someone to actually speak to her. Zalaz looked up from the map and
saw the woman standing there. He looked over at Sorenan and noticed
the anger simmering in him.
As the general opened his mouth to call for a soldier to perform
the duty that Sorenan declared would be done, a footsoldier burst in
to the tent. "The riders are coming into bow range, Lord High
General," he said, "They bear the standard of Temna. No
others are behind them. They appear to be unarmed." Zalaz and
Sorenan exchanged a look that spoke volumes. The commander was
"Do we bring them before the Empress?" Sorenan asked.
Zalaz looked down at the map and drummed his fingers on the table.
"Yes, with an armed escort and we accompany them," Zalaz
said with out looking up, "Pick the men you think best suited."
Sorenan nodded and walked out as the commander summoned up the
courage to attempt to argue with the general as to who should
accompany the coming party. Sorenan didn't need to listen in to know
that Zalaz was about to educate his subpar commander as to what his
duties were and just how far his rank allowed him to go. He was,
however surprised when Zalaz had not raised his voice.
Sorenan looked at the men about the innermost circle of the
encampment. He noted with some approval that most of them were like
the man who still was holding the reins of the horses. He pointed to
nine men. "You, fetch your weapons and spears," he said.
The lieutenant nearest to him looked as though he was about to argue
when Sorenan fixed his leonine eyes on him. "Clear a path for
the messengers to come through the encampment," he said to the
lieutenant, "We will not give them a chance to see our numbers
but they will know we were awaiting them. Each man along that path
will be armed and facing them. I want our guests to be ... welcome
and secure." The lieutenant looked at him confused by Sorenan's
The nine that Sorenan ordered to arm themselves returned to him as
the other man gave the orders that Sorenan demanded. Zalaz walked out
of the pavillion. He looked at the armed men that Sorenan selected
and gave a small nod of approval. "The envoys will not be
pleased with their reception," Zalaz said dryly. Sorenan scoffed
as he mounted his horse. Zalaz mounted and watched as an aisle formed
between the ranks through the encampment. All along the sides of that
aisle, warriors stood as though awaiting formal inspection. "It
may be that you will do well at this after all," Zalaz said and
Sorenan rolled his eyes. With a small, feirce smile, the general
said, "Let us meet our guests."
The two men rode sedately through the encampment with their nine
companions marching at their backs. As the Lord High General and the
Sword-bearer of Ashur passed, a whisper went through those who stood
watching behind the guard. Zalaz noted with some satisfaction that
discipline held though the curious men wanted to get a better look at
them. Zalas and Sorenan stopped at the edge of the encampment and
watched as the riders drew closer. The banner of Temna snapped in the
wind as the party, which was actually six men, reined in their horses
and stopped before Zalaz and Sorenan.
"Give us passage," the lead rider demanded, "We
come bearing a message from King Ashera, first of his name and
blessed by Adar, god of all gods, ruler of Temna. We speak only to
the Empress of Dacia, she who is the Daughter of Julara." As the
man spoke, Zalaz's expression turned still and Sorenan's became
"We shall give you passage and an escort. I am Zalaz, Lord
High General of Dacia. You shall be under my personal protection,"
the general said solemnly.
The leader of the party turned his gaze to Sorenan. "The
demon of the north rides with you," he said, "Your offers
of protection are worthless with it at your side."
Zalaz's ferocious smile returned. "Say what you will, the
Sword-bearer of Assur remains with us. You are welcome to return to
Temna with your words unsaid," he replied in an almost pleasant
tone. The man before him dressed in black robes frowned.
"It rides before us," the lead messenger said, "If
it threatens us, we shall cut it down."
Zalaz's smile vanished and a stony look replaced it. "Arrogance
does not become the messengers of Temna. Speak against the
Sword-bearer of Assur again and you will not like the consequences,"
Zalaz replied, all pretence of pleasantries falling out of his
manner. The subordinates of the messenger looked between themselves
uneasily. "Come, if you would see her Ladyship," Zalaz
The messengers said nothing as Zalaz and Sorenan turned their
mounts and began to ride back through the camp. As they followed, the
escort surrounded them. "You would threaten us with your men of
arms," the lead messenger said.
Sorenan called back of his shoulder, "They are for your
protection. We would be remiss if we allowed harm to befall you in
your duty." Uncomfortable silence reigned as the party passed
through Asser. The hill that Dacia stood atop looked green and
inviting, almost a paradise to the desert men that rode with Sorenan
and Zalaz. The leader of the party looked about himself with some
The group traveled over the road to Dacia the lead messenger
commented, "Your fields seem ready for harvest yet no one is at
work." Sorenan said nothing, as did Zalaz. The hostile silence
worked to make the envoy party uncomfortable and intensely conscious
of their lack of substantial arms. Of the entire group, only the
leader bore a sword. The subordinate messengers silently plotted how
they would seize the weapons of their escorts if it was necessary.
Though Zalaz and Sorenan seemed to ignore the group of men riding
behind them, they were paying them close attention, listening for any
conversation between them.
The gates of Dacia came into view as they made their way up the
hill. The city guard stood watching as the little party approached.
Someone noted that the riders with the general and Sorenan were
surrounded by an armed escort. When they passed the outer walls, a
second armed escort surrounded the party. "Yet more men to
threaten us," the envoy said.
"Dacia does not threaten," Zalaz answered, "They
are for your welfare within the city. Some have grown suspicious of
Temna and would greet you unpleasantly."
"Are not your guard sufficient?" the envoy demanded.
"The city watch is not under my command," Zalaz
responded, "If the commander of the watch deems it necessary to
provide you protection, then he will do so. As he has." The
messengers were ushered through the marketplace, where the people of
Dacia watched them uneasily. Soon, they were at the courtyard before
the temple of Julara. As they came to a halt, Mina stepped forward
from the portico with Marcos at her side. Members of the city guard
stood posted about the courtyard at the various entrances.
Zalaz brought the party to a halt in the center of the square. The
city watchmen moved away from the party to join their breathren in
arms at their postings. People peered around them as Zalaz's soldiers
moved a distance away from the envoys. Zalaz dismounted. Sorenan did
so as well as a servant came running to take their horses. As their
mounts were lead away, Zalaz watched Sorenan walk to stand at
"Blessed Lady, holy Empress, she who is the Daughter of
Julara," Zalaz called loudly, his voice filling the air with its
strident tones, "I bring an envoy of Temna to your presence."
Mina looked down on the party still mounted behind Zalaz. She watched
as Zalaz stepped aside, his hand resting upon the hilt of his sword.
The lead envoy looked up at Mina, clearly displeased that she stood
"We come bearing a message from King Ashera, first of his
name and blessed by Adar, god of all gods, ruler of Temna," the
man in black said, "He demands that the Empress surrender
herself to his protection and submit Dacia to his rule as a
protectorate. King Ashera promises that the Empress will be attended
with all honors due to her as the Daughter of Julara. He gives his
word that Dacia shall prosper under his benevolent hand."
Mina looked down at him, disappointed that her intuition about the
envoy was correct. She turned her attention to Marcos. "He
offers us subjugation and humiliation," she said in a voice that
was loud enough to be carried to the envoy party. Marcos's expression
had the unearthly calm that came from Ashur's hand being upon him. He
set his hand upon the sword at his right side.
"King Ashera does not intend to humiliate you, Empress,"
the envoy said, "He would treat you with all honor and
"His demands must be answered in kind," Marcos said. He
stepped forward, with Sorenan at his side, he walked down the steps
of the temple. As the Sword-bearers of Ashur approached, the lead
envoy dismounted. Following their leader's example, the rest of the
party dismounted. "General," Marcos said, "Attend me."
Zalaz approached. The lead envoy stepped forward to be lead up the
His expression of shock remained fixed upon his face as his head
fell to the ground after Marcos's sword flashed in the light. The
span between drawing his blade and beheading the lead envoy was
shockingly small, even to Zalaz's seasoned eye. The others of the
envoy attempted to mount as the three men approached. Zalaz and
Sorenan hewed down two men each as Marcos wounded a third. The last
two men of the envoy had some how managed to mount their horses
before Zalaz and Sorenan were upon them. With the practice of years
of experience, the two warriors pulled the unarmed men off their
horses. Sorenan killed his captive as Zalaz forced his to his knees.
The horses had run towards the other end of the courtyard, where they
were captured by the guardsmen.
Marcos walked up to Zalaz's captive who stared up at him in
terror. "You will bear this message back to Ashera. Tell him
that Ashur's wrath has turned upon him. Tell him that Adar kneels
before Ashur, father of all gods, and so shall Temna before the
Daughter of Julara if they dare march against her," Marcos said
in a flat tone. He brought up his sword and cut the captive man's
right cheek as Sorenan came forward and cut the left. "These
marks from Ashur's sword will help you remember this message,"
Marcos said. Marcos turned his gaze to Zalaz.
"Behead the bodies and fix the heads upon the saddle of this
envoy's horse. Bind him and fix him to his mount. Drive him from our
presence," he commanded. The captive, who froze with terror as
Marcos and Sorenan cut his face, attempted to break free from Zalaz's
hold. Marcos returned his attention to the prisoner. "It is
Julara's mercy that you live," he said, "Her Daughter would
have you bear this message. Be thankful for it, because Ashur would
have you killed as well."
"He will kill you," the captive screamed at Marcos and
Sorenan as they turned and walked up the steps to stand with Mina.
"Adar will wipe you from the earth. Dacia will kneel," he
shrieked as he was dragged to his horse by Zalaz's men. Marcos looked
over at Mina, a silent question in his eyes.
"He will keep his tongue to bear the message," she said,
"Let him be gagged." Zalaz heard Mina and passed word to
his men. Soon, the envoy was bound to his horse with the heads of his
companions. He glared at Mina and Marcos with hatred. The guards
closed in around him and he was escorted away along the path he had
come. A servant had brought cloths for Marcos, Sorenan, and Zalaz to
clean their blades. The city watch turned to return to their posts
when Mina raised her hands high.
All turned to look at her. "War comes upon us. The journey
from Temna to here is three weeks time. All who take arms do so with
the blessings of Julara and Ashur," she called out to her
people, "Forces come to us from through out the empire. We shall