LORD OF THE BRASS HOST



LORD OF THE BRASS HOST, by Dariel Quiogue:

In the stillness of a moonless night, the final sounds of picks breaking through stone sounded as loud as armies.  Five grave robbers knelt muttering eagerly around the hole they had made through the roof of a buried tomb, shining torches into the yawning vault below.  Glints of firelight danced ruddily on golden caskets, exquisite porcelains and carvings of jade, but the robbers and their burly, cloak-wrapped master had no eyes for them.  Instead they stared at the incredible sight half-seen in the deeper recesses of the imperial tomb — rank upon rank of soldiers in armor, all of heroic stature, and made entirely of brass.

“We cannot enter this from the roof,” the grave robbers’ leader said. “Too high — hard to haul things up, and if we open the hole too wide the whole roof might give.  A trench must be dug . . . there,” he chopped a hand toward the south side of the hill after taking his bearings.  “Where the old entrance is.”

“You did well to show me this,” the cloaked figure said with silky satisfaction.  By his voice, he had clearly known the command of soldiers, and his accent carried a hint of the capital. “Name your price.”

The grave robbers — mere peasants trying to augment their meager livelihood — made haste to kneel and knock their foreheads on the ground, now that they had a better idea who they were dealing with: a high-ranking officer of the Imperial Army perhaps, or the scion of some provincial lord.  Certainly on the Emperor’s business, may Heaven grant him peace and long life! They named an amount, never dreaming they had guessed his rank far too low.

The cloaked man smiled, a predatory flash of white teeth in the torchlight.  “Hm.  A reasonable sum, I am sure, but I had thought to reward you with something else.”

The grave robbers’ leader started wildly, understanding the meaning behind the man’s words well before his lesser-witted compatriots — yet still too late.  Even as his grip desperately tightened on his pick, there was a sudden blur of silvery crescents, a whistling of surgically keen steel in its own wind.  Torches fell from suddenly nerveless hands.  Before the torches hit the ground, all the grave robbers were dead and the cloaked man’s sword was sliding back into its sheath.

And as the sound of hoofbeats faded away as the killer departed upon his horse, the spilled blood pooled and trickled and was swallowed by the yawning gulf of the violated tomb.

* * *

The Snow Leopard rode into Tali with half his band and a price of ten thousand silvers on his head, but the gate wardens barely even looked at him.

To the bored and thirsty soldiers manning the city’s western gate, the Snow Leopard was just another barbarous outlander entering a city whose livelihood centered on dealing with barbarous outlanders.  For as long as the mountain passes remained open, Tali would see caravan after caravan pass through its gates, filling its streets with outlandish colors and the babble of foreign tongues all haggling for the treasures of the Qujin Empire.  Double-humped camels, placid yaks festooned with sonorous bells, chunky steppe ponies and high-stepping chargers all plodded down Tali’s streets, bearing merchants, mountebanks, nomad herdsmen, and now human wolves in the guise of an unsuspecting caravan’s guards.  Briefly averting his face from the guards lest they mark his rare gray eyes, Orhan Timur the Snow Leopard passed through the cavernous arch of the city gates and into Tali’s dusty, clamorous main street.

A hulking giant clad in dirty furs kneed his horse next to Orhan’s and whispered, “By the Winds, my chief, these people are all sheep!  Do you see how careless those guards are, how shabbily they keep their arms? Send a message to the tribes, wait a fortnight at most, and we can open the gates to our brother-wolves and ride away rich men for life!  No more piecemeal raiding of caravans for us — sack this city and make yourself Khagan again!”

Orhan shook his head.  He looked pointedly toward one of the stout square bastions studding the yellow sandstone walls, and the giant followed his gaze.  “I think not, friend Togrul,” Orhan said softly.  “See those banners?” He nodded at the bastion, crowned with an array of red-and-gold pennons.

“So much pretty cloth — I’m sure our women would like some.  Once we have women again, that is.” Togrul gave a wolfish grin.

“Those are the banners of the Imperial Army, Togrul.  And they are certainly not sheep,” Orhan said quietly.  “The Red Banners leave the drudgery of gate guarding to the Governor’s rabble, but if the city is attacked they will be in charge.”  He clapped the giant’s shoulder.  “I want exactly the same thing you do, friend Togrul.  And I will take it soon enough, my own way.  You will be a lord and leader of ten thousand again, I swear it.”  The predatory gray eyes locked on Togrul’s.  “Until then, I want no trouble from you and the men. Understood?”

“As you say, my chief.”

“Good.  See to our lodgings, and collect our pay from the caravan master for appearance’s sake.   Here — find yourselves some wine and girls.”  Orhan tossed a purse and Togrul caught it in eager hands, and then before Togrul could ask where the chief was going, Orhan was off his horse and disappearing into the teeming crowd.

* * *

The Morning Wisteria had seen better days as one of Tali’s more luxurious inns.  Traces of its former grandeur still showed in the fading richness of its painted paper lamps and elegant furnishings, but the tables were scarred by daggers and here and there were ominously dark stains that had proven too deep to wash away.  The common room and the upstairs gallery overlooking it were if anything even noisier than the street outside, the loud clatter of cups and dishes and the laughter of drunken patrons easily drowning out more private conversation.  Moreover by dint of experience its patrons knew better than to mind others’ business here; doing otherwise was known to result in sudden ends.

But such an ambiance had its uses.

Orhan slipped into the common room, blending easily enough as he was only one of several there garbed and armed as a western nomad, even to the dust-veil he kept drawn over mouth and nose.  A few hard-bitten veterans, however, marked the gliding catlike stride and the well-worn hilt of the Yarkandi scimitar at his hip and eased back, letting Orhan pass with more space than they were wont to give.  A quick whispered exchange with one of the pimply boys carrying trays of steaming food directed him to the gallery, and a small table with a lone occupant.

This was a burly Qujin, tall yet very thickly built and quite fat, his bearlike appearance accentuated by a thick beard and long hair worn carelessly loose instead of in the traditional Qujin topknot.  A long scar from just below the left eye to the chin marred his otherwise darkly handsome features; only Orhan’s keen eyes and suspicious nature revealed the scar had been cleverly painted on.  A very heavy-looking broadsword leaned against the back of the man’s chair.

Orhan raised a grimy fist. “You sent me this,” he said, displaying a gold ring on his finger. “Talk.”

The Qujin smiled. “Ah. Welcome to Tali, Snow Leopard! Have a seat — we have much to talk about, we princes in disfavor.”

“Orhan will suffice, Prince Sun Jian.”  The gray-eyed chieftain smiled without humor.  “A common enough name among us nomads.  Calling me anything else might result in an unpleasant situation.  Even for you.”

“Indeed?”  Prince Sun Jian laughed with genuine pleasure.  “I do believe you are serious, my barbarian friend.  You may even be fast enough to draw that Yarkandi scimitar and take me before I could cut you down.  But let us not speak of such uncivilized acts.  I mean you well.”  He poured wine into two tiny cups, passing one to Orhan after tasting it in tacit show of good faith.  “You really do have gray eyes, just like a snow leopard’s. How strange.

“But — you may guess I did not summon you all the way from your wintry mountain haunts for idle chatter.  You are here because I see much in common between us, despite the great difference in our origins.  I have questioned many nomads about you. You were born in a land we have never even heard of and taken as a slave by the Murjens when you were seven. You saved the Khagan’s son from a tiger when you were sixteen, freed and made a warrior of the tribe for your valor, and rose to lead the Khagan’s armies.  When the Khagan and his son were slain by treachery, the assembled warriors of the Murjen acclaimed you the new Khagan — only to be unseated by treachery yourself.  By your own blood-brother Jungar Khan, so I hear.  You had a crown and lost it — just like me.”

Orhan stirred, his interest now piqued.  “Your father still lives, unless my news is late.”

“Indeed he does,” Sun Jian growled.  “And I, his eldest born, was Crown Prince Imperial — but Chancellor Li Feng, that pox-faced eunuch, poisoned Father’s ears against me, whispering rumors that I planned to seize the throne.  I had no such thing in mind — then. But I was stripped of my rank, a spineless idiot I refuse to call my brother made Heir in my place, and the eunuch contrived to send me here to the border, as far from the Capital as one can be without leaving the land of Qujin.”

“A mere bandit chief seems a poor ally with which to start a rebellion, Sun Jian,” the Snow Leopard noted with some amusement.

“No, indeed,” laughed the prince.  They clinked cups, and Sun Jian poured another round.  “I need your help to procure the means to seize the throne. Have you heard of the Lost Emperor and his Host of Brass?”

Orhan shook his head.

“Good — it’s only an obscure legend by now, thanks to our Imperial scholars’ fine hand at altering history to order,” said Sun Jian.  “The Emperor Zhao Lung was a tyrant, one of the great conquerors from our past, though if you read our chronicles he never existed.  He also had a great fascination for wondrous things: the potions and philters of alchemists, the secrets of wizards, and most of all clockwork toys.  Once there came to his court a foreign artisan whose works combined incredibly subtle clockwork and masterful sorcery.  The court called him Toymaster, for none could pronounce his barbarian name.  It was said the Toymaster could create mechanical beasts that were almost like the real thing, mimicking all their movements and seeming to have lives of their own.  Zhao Lung was a warrior first and foremost, and it did not take long before he dreamed up a martial application for the Toymaster’s talent.  ‘Make me an invincible army of clockwork warriors!’ he said, and the Toymaster perforce obeyed.

“He had to, you see — for our clever Emperor had seen to it that the Toymaster had married, and now Zhao Lung took his wife and child away, with the promise he could have them back only after the work was completed.  But even as the last of the ten thousand brass soldiers was finished Zhao Lung found that he was dying of old age, or maybe a slow poison.  Myself, I think the poison more likely.  But to keep the secret of the clockwork army from falling into anyone else’s hands, he had the Toymaster put to death.”

“I think I see the end of this tale,” Orhan interrupted brusquely.  “The army was buried with the Emperor, and the site of the tomb was forgotten — thanks to your creative scholars — but now you’ve found it. You mean to awaken them for your rebellion.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t trust sorcery, Prince Sun Jian.  And if you’ll let me give you some advice, neither should you.  Magic’s a stinging viper — seize the head and you’re poisoned by the tail, seize the tail and you’re poisoned by the fangs.  There are other ways I could help you gain your ends, if you’ll pay my price.”

“None else will do,” Sun Jian said gravely.  “Except for my own regiment, I cannot trust any other unit of the Imperial army.  I’ve no friends at court; I’ve never had use for their simpering sycophantic ways. I cannot even trust the peasants hereabouts to dig up the brass army for me, for the Chancellor has his spies everywhere.  Only inside this one city I rule am I free of his informants.  But let me have a victory, and allies who also hate Li Feng will start rallying to my side.”

Orhan stood up slowly and made the hand-over-fist Qujin salutation again to Sun Jian.  “I thank you for the wine.  My men and I ride back to the mountains tomorrow.”

Sun Jian sighed with theatrical resignation. “I’ll take help wherever I can get it, Snow Leopard.  If not from you, perhaps from Jungar Khan. The gold I’m willing to pay will do much to decide the loyalty of the desert tribes between you two.”

Orhan’s hand dropped to his sword hilt.  His eyes blazed. “You will not,” he gritted through clenched teeth.

The prince held up both hands in a placatory gesture.  “I’ve no choice, just as you.  Have you not known the unease of being hunted by assassins?  Do you not see your only chance of a free life is to seize the grand prize for yourself?  We can be of benefit to each other, we two.  A bargain between princes, eh?”  He offered another cup of wine.

“It seems you have me.  Very well, a bargain.”  Orhan accepted the wine and sat down again to hear the details.

And as they talked, each was already planning how to betray the other.  They were princes, after all, and for them it was the way of the world.

* * *

“I am a Murjen warrior! Am I a mule or a dirt-grubbing peasant that I must do this?”  The giant Togrul wiped dust-streaked perspiration from his brow with one arm, then shot a reproachful glare at his chief.

“Because your Khan says so,” Orhan said, grinning.  Like Togrul he was stripped to the waist and sweating freely from exertion, having wielded pick and shovel with his men all morning — as he had for the past eight days.  The result of their work was a deep trench cutting into the side of an artificial hill that was the Lost Emperor’s tomb, and now they had just broken through the stone wall facing the burial chamber.  The tomb was in hilly country not too far from Tali, but sparsely inhabited for the rocky land was not only outside the border, but provided neither good farming nor pasture.  It was likely no one even knew they were there.

“You’re a sly jackal, my chief, shaming us into this work by doing it yourself,” Togrul complained.

“A great khan knows when to lead from the front,” Orhan observed.  “I mean to be one — again.”

“At the price of making poor Togrul a mule.  Aiiih!”

“If you say so, my friend,” laughed the gray-eyed chief. “Come now, one more stroke men — the stones are loosened enough, I think, and one more knock will make us a door.  Together now!”

They picked up their picks and gave the tottering wall another great stroke, then another, and another — then the whole thing went tumbling into the darkness of the chamber.

Orhan called for torches, and with the flaming boughs in one hand and drawn swords in the other, he led his men into the crypt.  The nomad bandits murmured in appreciation at the treasures thus revealed, but tempered by a healthy fear of the dead and the sorcerous spells such as were said to guard these burials.  Prince Sun Jian had cavalierly thrown in all the treasure they could carry away from the tomb as part of the price, and the men quickly began filling their sacks with the choicest items.  Ignoring the gold and magnificent wares littering the outer chamber, Orhan plunged on.  He had to see this fabled clockwork army for himself.

The brass soldiers stood at attention in the main burial chamber, their faces and limbs throwing back fiery gleams from the torches.  They were arrayed as if for review, bronze-headed halberds shouldered, rank upon perfectly aligned rank facing a raised dais upon which rested the Lost Emperor’s jade sarcophagus, surrounded by yet another double rank facing outward.  The sarcophagus itself was flanked by two great gold-plated statues of Guan Dao, the Qujin god of war.

Each brass soldier was over six feet tall, their individually distinct features making plain they had been made off living models. Their eyes were extremely realistic, save for the irises which had been replaced by simple round apertures; even the torches could not shine into the depths behind those dead mechanical eyes, save as a set of tiny crimson sparks. Their armor crawled with fine Qujin writing. Shining his torch on one of the soldiers, Orhan deciphered the inscriptions as mighty oaths of eternal loyalty to the Emperor Zhao Lung.  He noticed a slot in its back, just above the hip, where he supposed a key must be inserted to wind it up.

“What we are looking for should be hidden here somewhere — it could be anywhere,” Orhan whispered to his men.   For no reason he could name, whispering seemed wiser than speaking aloud.  “Some of you — Argan, see to it — continue bagging and hauling the gold.  The rest of you follow me and keep your eyes open.”

Uneasily the bandits fanned out, edging around the ranks of the brass men.  A deathly hush like the stillness before a storm settled upon the crypt, where every booted footfall seemed to drum like an alarm. Something made the hairs prickle at the back of Orhan’s neck. Did a hollow pair of eyes just shift to track his movement?  Was that a creaking of verdigrised joints? Keeping a tight grip on his own instincts to turn away and flee, the Snow Leopard made his way to the dais, paused before it, and slowly placed a foot on the first step —

And the army of brass came to life in an explosive grinding of gears.

Ancient metal screeched against metal as they pounced upon the hapless bandits.   Out of the corner of his eye Orhan saw his men being mowed down, hacked to pieces or spitted on halberds, staggering and jerking like hooked fish while others were riddled with crossbow bolts, even as he himself dove aside to avoid the halberds of several automatons attacking him.

One nomad, perhaps braver than the others but not very wise, brought his scimitar down in a great cleaving stroke against the clockwork soldier’s neck.  The steel blade shattered in a shower of sparks.  The next second the nomad was writhing in mid-air, borne up by the halberd sticking through his chest.

“Back! Everyone back outside!” Orhan roared.  The nomads ran pell-mell for the hole in the wall, those with sacks dropping them, howling in terror.

But instead of joining them in flight, the Snow Leopard rushed back toward the dais.

Togrul followed, and the two began fighting and weaving their way toward the dais.  “You should get away, my khan!” Togrul bellowed, parrying a stroke meant for Orhan.

“Not until we have what we came for!” cried Orhan.  He parried a halberd thrust, shouldered aside another assailant — getting a painful bruise from the hard unyielding metal shoulder as he did so — then pulled Togrul with him.  The act was a hairsbreadth none too soon, for the brass warrior Togrul had overset had gotten back to its feet and drawn a sword, its movements now faster and smoother as if the fall had merely shaken the crud loose from its joints.

But now they were only steps away from the dais.

Orhan darted forward, dodged another halberd stroke, and by bobbing and weaving as an old pheasant outwits the falcon, made his way to the dais without taking any hurt.  In that brief mad rush the Snow Leopard avoided death more times than he had done in the past several years. The automatons surged after him, and Orhan leaped lightly on top of the sarcophagus.  “Here now!” he taunted the brass men.  “Here I am! Strike!”

Half a dozen halberds flashed down as one.  But in a desperate dive that took him off the dais entirely, Orhan leaped away and the halberds smashed only against the sarcophagus lid. It shattered.  Orhan sprang back, again ducking the clumsily wielded polearms, and thrust his hand into the open coffin.

Suddenly the automatons froze. Deathly silence once again reigned in the tomb, broken only by the panting of the two human warriors left within.  Orhan triumphantly held up what he had taken from the sarcophagus.  It was a big brass key. “Stand down!” he roared in Qujin, a language that had barely changed in a thousand years. “Return to ranks, and await my orders. By this key I command you!”

And as if they could indeed understand him, the automatons creaked and shuffled, reformed their ranks and were still.  It was as if nothing had happened in the tomb at all — save for the blood and parts of what had been Murjen warriors strewn across the flagstones.

“Praise the Winds!” Togrul said and exhaled in loud relief.  “How did you know what to do?”

“Prince Sun Jian told me of this key, but not where to find it,” Orhan replied,  panting and relishing every assured breath  “Only after they attacked did I realize the truth.  What’s the most precious treasure in this chamber? This key. Whoever holds it is Lord of the Brass Host.  And where would the Emperor hide this most precious of his treasures? As close to his breast as possible.  Inside the coffin.”

Togrul flashed a wolfish grin. “Well, now you are Lord of the Brass Host.  Keep the key for yourself, and let us march into the steppes and break Jungar Khan’s back!”

Orhan shook his head.  “No, these clockwork soldiers move too slowly to catch a Murjen host on horseback.  We’d end up beating only air. I’ll turn the key over to Prince Sun Jian as promised, though I’m going to raise my price — even if he finds the addition a bit surprising: I’m going to ask for Tali.” He thoroughly enjoyed the look of utter perplexity upon Togrul’s face, and enjoyed it even more when the giant’s expression turned to one of delight.

The Lost Emperor’s tomb rang with wolfish laughter. Had they listened more closely, though, they would have realized there were three voices laughing, not two.

* * *

Great barrel-drums so large they had to be carried on wagons boomed in joyous dissonance with myriad lesser drums, gongs and cymbals, counterpointed by the shrill thin paean of Qujin pipes.  Parti-colored confetti snowed from the walls and windows as Tali celebrated the return of its conquering hero, so recently shown to be favored of the gods.

Following the gaily bedecked drum-wagons, Sun Jian rode a white charger at the head of his Red Banner cavalry, from time to time making modest little bows in acknowledgment of the crowd’s cheers.  The applause swelled even louder as the cavalry contingent finally cleared the gates, revealing the Prince Imperial’s mark of divine endorsement; marching with clashing, ringing tread, polished armor and metal faces blazing in the sun, the Brass Host ponderously entered Tali as saviors, ten thousand strong. And behind, in a rusting rattletrap cage on wheels drawn by donkeys, was the man who had tempted divine wrath by raising his hand against his Prince and rightful Emperor.

“That uprising was most fortuitous,” Orhan said while offering a wry smile at Sun Jian from where he rode in the place of honor at the prince’s right.  “Or should I again offer a drink to your superb planning?”  For all their differences, the campaign of the last several weeks had begun to create a bond between the two leaders.

“I have to admit, it was both,” said Sun Jian, reaching again into his purse to scatter more coins into the delighted crowd.  “It would never have done to just march the Brass Host into the cities — that would cause too much fear.  But if they were seen to be my rescuers­, then the people would embrace them.  All that was needed was someone to rescue me from.”

The prince caught a flower tossed from a balcony by a shyly smiling girl-child. He ceremoniously sniffed it, then affixed it to his cloak brooch; the crowd roared its approval.  “Originally I had meant to fake an assassination on myself, exhibit the assassins’ corpses to draw the peoples’ ire, then bring up the Brass Host as my gods-given avengers, rising from the earth to defend me from Li Feng’s evil.  But that idiot Gao Rong did more for my plans than all my agents ever have!”

They shared a hearty laugh, and waved again and scattered coins to the sheep-innocent crowd.  So loud was the noise surrounding them that carrying on a secret conversation was ironically easy — there was simply no way anyone could overhear.

Gao Rong — governor of Lajien and a known crony of the Chancellor who had engineered the prince’s disposession — had been dealing with a peasant rebellion in his own province, but had made the mistake of invading Sun Jian’s domain while pursuing the insurgents.  The governor’s rapacity and corruption was a well-known fact, so Sun Jian’s sudden espousal of the peasants’ cause was predictably well-received.  In fact, it had made him so popular they were clamoring for him to take the throne even in towns his agents had yet to buy support in.  The defeat of Gao Rong at Harfei, made all the more dramatic by the sudden appearance of the brass men on the side of the prince, had begun a greater rebellion that would soon be marching toward the capital.

Orhan replayed in his mind the arduous march over the unused high passes after receiving Sun Jian’s hurried message.  The crumpled missive read: Gather the brass men and secret them in the hills above Harfei. Orhan accomplished this just in time to set up an ambush for the army of Gao Rong, when the first arrows were loosed between Gao Rong’s men and Sun Jian’s.  And Orhan himself had loosed that very first arrow — fired from a hill behind Gao Rong’s positions — and with it dropped the horse of one of Sun Jian’s men.  Engineering the battle had been easy, once the first drops of blood had been drawn and the men angered beyond the point of thinking to ask questions.

And everything is going better than planned, the Snow Leopard thought to himself.  Soon the prince would march on the capital, taking the Brass Host and most of the border garrisons with him.  Tali and the other cities of the west would be left with only token forces to hold them.  And I, governor of Tali!  Has ever a wolf been left in charge of a bigger flock of sheep?  Togrul was even now making the circuit of the desert tribes.  Soon the hordes would be here — let Jungar Khan have the barren desert, but Orhan Timur would carve out his kingdom from the rich lands of the Qujin!

Sun Jian will have me watched, of course, Orhan cautioned himself as his reins were caught by a waiting soldier and he was deferentially led up the steps to Sun Jian’s palace where the victory celebrations would be concluded.  No matter.  I will be doing nothing to raise anyone’s suspicion — because all the work is now being done by my messengers, beyond the border.

Sun Jian was clapping him on the shoulder again.  They were inside the banquet hall, and the prince was personally ushering dignitaries to their seats.  “I have just been told we have dancers from the Jangzir performing for us tonight!” he bellowed into Orhan’s ear, for the din in the hall was overwhelming.  “It’ll be just like an after-battle celebration back home for you!”

“My respects, Prince, but far too many cheap whores say they’re from the Jangzir Hills,” Orhan said and laughed.  The women of the Jangziri tribes were fabled for their beauty and their skill at the amatory arts.  “Chances are your eunuchs played you cheap and got you only those!”

“Certainly not!” countered the prince, grinning broadly.  “We of the blood royal do have a standard to maintain, you know.   Come, take wine with me, and judge the dancers for yourself.  But first, sit, for I have a present I would have laid at your feet shortly.”  Sun Jian guided the nomad chieftain to a chair and signaled a beautiful slave girl to pour him wine.  Then he clapped his hands.

The entertainment began, and as Sun Jian took his seat, so did the feast.  Tali being right on the border, its food was a mix of traditional Qujin and the rougher, heartier and spicier fare the nomads enjoyed when the herds were fat or the raiding good.

Orhan was offered tray after tray of delicately stuffed and artfully shaped dumplings, spiced meat on skewers, a dish of smoked eel — strange to a nomad palate — as well as heart of ox and lip of fish, paw of bear and a tiger’s —  “I don’t think I’ll be needing that, thank you,” he told the diaphanously clad slave girl offering him the dish, and was rewarded with an earthy giggle.  He accepted other supposedly aphrodisiac delicacies, and quaffed his wine.   It had been a long march and a rousing good fight — celebration was definitely in order.

Then Sun Jian clapped his hands, again signaling for attention.  “Friends, good men of the Empire — I give you one of the most daring and dangerous leaders of men I have ever known, Orhan Timur, once Khagan of the Murjen!”  There was a profound and alarmed stir.  “Yes, friends, the mercenary captain who has fought so brilliantly for us is none other than the fabled Snow Leopard himself. Had I but known! The devil of the mountain passes, who fleeces your caravans and flees without a trace every time.  The leader of a bloody-handed band of brigands . . .”

Orhan kicked back from the table, drawing his sword — but before the blade could clear its sheath, steel was at his throat, a guardsman he had never noticed behind him holding sword to his neck, and four Qujin arbalesters had their weapons leveled at his breast.  “What in the name of the mad gods?” he spat, as more guardsmen disarmed him and held him in an iron grip.

Sun Jian continued speaking.  “This man I have come to trust, indeed, to love like a brother, was plotting against us all along.  He was only waiting for me to turn my back before he summoned the desert tribes here, to sack and plunder our city of Tali!  And here is the proof!”

There was a sound of scuffling, a rattle of chains, and then Orhan’s heart sank.  Staggering under the weight of stout wooden yokes and heavy iron chains, Togrul and Orhan’s other messengers were roughly pushed along by grim Qujin soldiers.   All were battered and bleeding, and there was a lot of dried blood streaking the corners of Togrul’s mouth.   The giant Murjen tried to speak, but Orhan simply found him unintelligible.

Because Togrul’s tongue had been cut out.

“Behold!” cried the prince with a gesture. “Messengers, sent to raise the tribes!  Returned to us by our friend and ally who exposed the plot, Jungar Khan!”

Orhan’s teeth skinned back in a silent snarl of rage.

“They’ve talked,” said Sun Jian softly, almost regretfully, as he approached Orhan.  “All save the big one, which so angered my interrogators they tore out his tongue.  Your term as governor of Tali is finished, Snow Leopard.  As future Emperor, I had to choose for the good of my realm — and Jungar Khan is only half as dangerous to it as you.  So I will give you to your rival, and thereby purchase peace on my western border.”

“The way of princes,” Orhan said through clenched teeth.

“Indeed.  I regret most deeply.  Guards — take him away!”

* * *

Heavy feet tramped the dirt and broken shale of the pass with a bone-ringing metallic tread.  The wolves and foxes that haunted the mountain fastnesses by night were all in hiding, the wolves not even daring to howl at the intruder.  A shepherd boy, driving his flock home late, was the only person to witness the advent of Guan Dao — and he paid for it with an arrow through his heart, a great bronze missile the height of a man.

The implacable archer stopped to withdraw the shaft from the body, then touched the tip of the bloody arrowhead to its lipless, unmoving mouth.  The fires glittering inside its hollow eye-sockets flared a hellish crimson, and a mocking laugh rang echoing against the rocks.  The shepherd boy’s eyes were fixed in death, open and staring in horror while seeming to wonder why Guan Dao, the war god of his people, had singled him out for doom.

* * *

Summer nights in Tali, nestled as it was against the snow-crowned mountains and the high cold steppes beyond them, could get bitterly chill.  The hours before dawn were the worst.  Orhan’s breath steamed as he huddled in a corner of the wagon-cage he had been thrown into, muffling himself as best he could in the ragged cloak the guards had given him.   He had raged and kicked and clawed as he was dragged out of the palace and into this caravanserai’s stableyard, but now, with the patience of a hunting cat, he was content to keep his ears open while conserving his energies.

Sun Jian.  Jungar Khan. The names burned on his tongue as he silently vowed to personally see to their fates.

But now that his initial fury and the wine fumes were gone from his head, his mind was back to the calculating sharpness that was the mark of the Snow Leopard.  For all that he was in a cage, Orhan counted himself to have the advantage.  It was in Sun Jian’s interest to keep him alive until he reached Jungar Khan, and it was a long way over many miles of mountain passes, desert and steppe to the Murjen grazing grounds.  Sooner or later there would be a chance to escape —

Footsteps padded across the dusty ground, prompting his sleepy sentry to call out a startled, “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Change of guard,” came the thickly accented reply.

“About time, you southern sot,” the sentry groused, and stumped off.

Minutes later, Orhan heard a whispered voice: “Hey you — barbarian — you awake?”  The new guard was facing away from him, but he could see just enough of the man’s face to realize he was speaking out the corner of his mouth.  Orhan grunted assent.

“Good. Prince Sun Jian, he want you to have this.”  The guard proffered a tiny cloth-wrapped packet.  “Tell me say to you: this pill secret — secret formula of royal family.  No child of blood royal ever die in disgrace. You understand?  Take pill.  Get happy, dream nice dream, sleep.  Understand?  Prince say, you use to cheat Jungar Khan.  Say, this all he can do for you, so sorry.  Men to take you over border come soon.  You hide this well.  You understand me, eh?”

Orhan accepted the packet.  For a moment he considered throwing it away, but on second thought secreted it in his sash.  “Tell the prince I thank him,” he whispered.  “And if all goes well, I expect to drink plum wine with him in Hell — because I’m going to send him there myself.”

The guardsman replied not, but only spat at him, then moved away and began pacing his assigned beat.

Orhan composed his mind for sleep.   Hard as it might be to rest in this bitter cold, it would be far harder jouncing on the road in the blistering heat of day.  In two other prison wagons parked some distance away, his surviving men were also trying to get what rest they could.  He put aside his impotent anger for now, deliberately calling to mind visions of wide open skies and carefree rides across the steppe, his favorite falcon on fist, herds of glossy-flanked horses, the pristine crispness of the morning after a snowfall . . .

And was snapped to full wakefulness by a cry of sheer terror.  Screams echoed across the city — here, there, from every direction.  Drums pounded.  Booted feet clattered on rough-hewn flagstones.  The deep shouts of fighting men moving as one, then cries of agony and hysteria.  And now his wolf-keen sense of smell began to pick up the acrid tang of burning wood and flesh.  Orhan stood in the cage, a sudden wild hope flaring in his breast — the tribes! The nomads had followed Togrul after all and were attacking the gates!

But no — unlikely, he realized.  Not this soon.  And the sounds were coming from within the city walls, not without.  A mutiny?  Were enough of the garrison loyal to Li Feng such that they would rise against the prince?  Also unlikely; Sun Jian was too popular among the troops. And then an icy hand clutched around his heart.  There were troops inside the city whose loyalty had never belonged to him, nor Li Feng, nor Sun Jian — nor indeed to any living man.

His men in the other wagons had also awakened, and now they rattled their cage bars and cried out their terror into the predawn darkness.  Entreaties to the guards to open their doors were in vain — the guards had already fled.  The withes making up their enclosures clattered with hollow wooden sounds.  Wooden sounds?  Hope flamed again.

“Ho there! Men of the Murjen — listen!” Orhan barked.  “Your cages are of bamboo — only mine is iron! Rock your cages until they topple!  The bamboo will break!”

He heard a wordless growl that could only have come from Togrul, and the men, regaining their courage, set themselves to Orhan’s command.

“Heave!  Heave!  Heave!” they chanted.  One after another the wagons teetered, tottered, then fell over.  One burst open, and immediately men came spilling out.   Without further instructions they scattered into the surrounding buildings of the caravanserai, then emerged with torches, tools and weapons and set to work opening the other cages.

Togrul himself thrust aside the Murjens prying at Orhan’s cage door.  He had found himself a smith’s mallet, and began swinging it at the lock.  Sparks flew — once, twice — and then the lock snapped, and the frantic giant nearly ripped the cage door off its hinges.

“Uuhhrn uuhh uuurrrh!” the huge Murjen warrior without a tongue roared, pointing at the stables.  The horses were in wild panic, thrashing frenziedly within their stalls.

“I know — let’s get those horses!” Orhan snarled.  “And give me that weapon,” he said to another of his men, snatching from him a heavy scimitar. “You’ll need to find your self another.”

More Murjens began getting horses out while others hurriedly tried to find them tack.  A huge bay came plunging out of the stable, right toward Orhan; avoiding death from its lashing hoofs, he caught it by the mane and swung onto it, knotting his hands tight in the hair and administering a smart rap with the flat of his blade to master the terrified beast.  And none too soon.

The caravanserai’s gates flew open, and a bleating family of townsfolk rushed in — followed by a trio of brass soldiers.

A child tripped, fell, and was pinned to the ground by a halberd driven through her back.  The brass man who’d struck her pulled out his halberd and hammered it again into the whimpering little form.

And something in Orhan snapped.

“Murjens — to me!” Orhan roared.  He struck heels savagely into the bay’s flanks, and the horse leaped forward, whinnying in terror but helpless to resist his commands.  Full at the brass soldiers he rode, cutting between them and the fleeing Qujin.  At the last moment he ramped his steed into a falcon-like caracole.  Heavy hooves smashed against the brass soldier’s head, chest and limbs — and the automaton burst apart, gears and body parts flying wide.

The next second Orhan was fighting for his life.  The other two brass soldiers turned their demonic attentions to him, stabbing with their halberds and quickly wounding his horse.  Orhan slipped off before he could be thrown, and as the horse fled he faced the brass men on foot, his sword useless against their metal hides.  Steel clanged against bronze as Orhan barely parried stroke after stroke.

Then a thunder of hoofbeats to either side — Togrul’s maddened yet exultant “Uuaaarrh!” — and Orhan saw lariat loops settle over the brass soldiers’ heads and arms.  Each had been lassoed by two or three Murjens, and then more ropes landed.  Togrul howled again, and the Murjens whipped their horses to surge in opposite directions, tearing the brass men apart at the seams.   “Urraarrrh!”  Togrul roared, shaking the lariat in his fist at the sky.

“Well done, my friends!” Orhan cheered.  “That’s at least one way we know to put these brass demons down!”  One of his men brought him a horse, this one saddled.  Orhan swung onto it and shouted, “Let’s ride!”

“Where to, my khan?” called one of the bandits, quivering with battle lust.  “Tell us to ride against these demons from beyond the grave and we’ll pull them apart for you!”

“Head for the city gates and try for our hideout in the mountains,” Orhan said.  “I’ll rejoin you as soon as I can — but first I have a score to settle with a certain prince of the blood.  No one stays behind!” The Murjens protested; we will not leave our khan!  “Go!” he barked.

The Murjens burst out of the serai and into chaos.  Knots of Red Banner soldiers struggled with their mechanical opponents, more brass men hunted down screaming townsfolk, and the loutish soldiers of the city guard were breaking into homes and shops, emerging with their arms full of booty.  The sky was starting to redden with many scattered fires.

Orhan charged down a narrow lane, riding down a man who’d just stabbed his neighbor and was rifling his purse, past a brass soldier they lassoed and left without a head, past streaming crowds of terrified Qujin and out the into Tali’s main square — right into a band of Red Banner troopers.

Orhan barely caught the surprised look on the man he found riding beside him, a Red Bannerman.  As one they remembered their mutual enmity.  The bannerman tried to swing his lance around and buffet Orhan out of the saddle with the shaft, but the Murjen chieftain was faster.  Slipping under the lance, Orhan thrust his scimitar upward, catching the Qujin rider in the throat.

Then he was away and charging for the sight that had galvanized him — the crimson-and-gold armor and pheasant-plumed helm of Sun Jian, marshalling his troops down Tali’s main avenue that led from the governor’s palace to the  main square.

“Sun Jian!  You dog — you didn’t have the guts to get rid of me yourself.  Perhaps you’d like to try again now?” Orhan challenged.

“Snow Leopard!  What sorcery have you brought down on me?” Sun Jian roared, wheeling his horse about.  “I’ll take your head and break your magic!”

They met in a ringing clash of blades, the two master swordsmen, each moving as one with their horses in the tempestuous dance of mounted combat.  Murjen and Red Bannerman fell back, mesmerized by the incredible play of swords and instinctively waiting for their leaders to settle the matter between themselves. Again and again either combatant would throw a maneuver that would have unhorsed or slain a lesser fighter outright, but every time the other had the perfect response.

“Sorcerer!” Sun Jian spat, aiming a whistling blow at Orhan’s head.

“I’m many things, but never a sorcerer!” retorted the Snow Leopard, parrying and launching a furious counterattack.

There was only the clangor of steel on steel, then Sun Jian snarled, “Liar!  If the brass men’s assault is not your doing, then explain why it happened right after I betrayed you — as well as how you escaped a cage of iron?”

“Because your guards fled in the confusion like a flock of hens!” Orhan growled, beating like a blacksmith on the Qujin’s blade.  “I should’ve taken your head back in the Wisteria — it would’ve saved me much trouble! And since I’ve lost most of my men to your brass demons, how in hell’s name could you think they’re under my command?”

Sun Jian reined back, so hard his horse reared and almost went over.  He looked stunned, and his sword arm hung limp at his side.  “I assumed — ” he whispered, the madness beginning to leave his eyes.  “If you’re not making the Brass Host attack my men, then who is?”

Orhan lowered his sword.  “Zhao Lung,” he said, his suspicions finally crystallizing.  He found himself almost as surprised by his conclusion as the prince.  “Zhao Lung, the Lost Emperor.  Who was poisoned by his own people and buried in a forgotten, forsaken place, deprived of the worship you people give your ancestors.  His anger is what drives the brass men.”

“Revenge,” Sun Jian said. “It makes sense.  O merciful gods, it makes terrible sense.  How do we fight an angry ghost?”

Whatever Orhan was to say, however, was lost in an earsplitting crash greater than any other this mad night.  His horse whickered in panic as it was struck by falling bits of masonry and metal, and Orhan whipped about to stare down the street.  Tali’s main gate had exploded inward, showering men and horses with rubble and, beyond it, a huge form loomed in the shadow, man-like but at least twenty feet tall, wearing the plumes and pennons of a Qujin war god.  By the firelight licking off its fanged, bestial leer, however, there could be no doubt that it was no god, but something far darker.

“Zhao Lung!” Orhan whispered in awe.

And from the bystanders arose an outcry of despair:  “A demon!  A giant!  Aieee, the black god of the underworld has come for us! Flee!”

The soldiers, even the Red Bannermen, broke.  Sun Jian fought frenziedly to calm his white charger, but it threw him and fled.  The giant form strode through the gate, with a sidearm motion knocking any obstructions from its path.  In its left hand it carried a huge bow, with an arrow nocked.  Orhan’s mount, equally panicked but under a surer hand, remained all but ungovernable — then the huge brass bow thrummed, and the brave horse was spitted like a fowl.

Orhan rolled free, clinging to his sword.  Across the square from him, Sun Jian crawled to his feet, his sword also in his hand, his thick features set in determination.  Without need for words they closed, shoulder to shoulder against the advancing brass giant.  Now the giant nocked another shaft, and again without need for words the two fighters stood their ground ‘til the last second, then dived in opposite directions as the bolt thundered into the pavement where they had just been.

“Ha! What’re you still doing here, you thick-headed barbarian?” roared Sun Jian, manically jovial now in the face of death.  “This isn’t your fight anymore!”

“It shouldn’t be, but it is!” the Snow Leopard said as he backed warily away, the giant now seemingly unable to decide between its two targets.  “That demon crawled out of the Pit because I opened its tomb, and I’m going to put it back.”

“You mean, it’s out there because I hired you to open its tomb, so now you’ll help me put it back,” Sun Jian argued.  “You have to know your proper place, barbarian!”

Orhan thought to continue their mad raillery, but never got the chance.  “It changes weapons,” he shouted, “watch out!”

Putting away its bow, the brass giant had drawn an equally huge bronze sword and was advancing again.  Worse yet, ominous clanking sounds from behind him warned of the approach of the brass men.  The two princes found themselves back to back, phalanxes of brass warriors inexorably marching down upon them from all sides and their gigantic brass general sealing the last exit.  Suddenly the clanking stopped, and as one the brass warriors dropped to their knees.  The brass giant roared something unintelligible and pointed its sword at the two.

“He marks us for his own,” said Sun Jian.

“One last play before we die, eh?” Orhan grinned, adjusting his grip on his scimitar.  “Let’s give him hell!”  But as the words left his mouth, his eyes fell on something glittering on the prince’s chest.  “Sun Jian, the key! You still have the key!”

“It’s useless — the brass men no longer obey me!”

“That’s not the point; the only reason they obeyed the one who had the key was because only the key can stop their master!  I just realized it now!”

“Eh?”

“The key!  It’s too large to fit inside the brass men’s keyholes, which means it’s not for them — and if it’s not for them, what else could it be for?” Orhan exulted.  “We can stop Zhao Lung’s golem with that key!”

“You mean, I will stop Zhao Lung with the key,” Sun Jian, said, grinning, “and you will assist me.  Agreed?”

“Agreed!”

The two suddenly carried the battle now to the brass giant, rushing in and raining blows at every joint they could reach: behind the knees, the ankles, even once a slash at the wrist from Orhan that cost him his sword.  Zhao Lung roared in wordless fury and stamped so hard that both men lost their footing, then chopped mercilessly down.  Again Orhan evaded certain death by rolling rapidly away.  He recovered his footing and snatched up a fallen sword from a dead Qujin soldier as Sun Jian took up the attack.

As two wolves circling an angry wild ox, the two princes darted in and out, their slashing attacks ineffectual in all ways except for forcing Zhao Lung to divide his attention between the two of them.

Orhan nodded at Sun Jian.  They had the measure of Zhao Lung’s speed now, and how far he could see, if seeing was the right word.  The Qujin prince nodded back.  No need for words, now, united as they were by a common anger and steely determination not to die before their purpose was achieved.  Orhan darted forward, then zigzagged left, successfully drawing Zhao Lung’s attention yet again, and in that moment Sun Jian circled around, snatched a grip on Zhao Lung’s sash and hauled himself up.

“Ha! Here’s the keyhole, just as you expected!” the Qujin prince cried.  “Now demon, take this — aaaah!”

“Sun Jian!”

The Lost Emperor, or his golem, had been more cunning than the two princes had expected.  Though apparently reacting to Orhan’s attack, it had actually been laying a trap for Sun Jian. Now Zhao Lung sprung his trap, reaching around to tear the prince from his back to hold him high, struggling like a hare in an eagle’s grip.  A deliberate, inexorable squeeze, and then the brass giant flung the broken body of Sun Jian to the ground.  Then it turned to Orhan.  And as if there had not been horror enough this night, it spoke.

“Youuu . . . youuu freed meeee,” the golem of Zhao Lung boomed.  “Youuu, mortal, go free.  I give you your life.”

“I am Khagan of the Murjens, and I give no demon leave to walk in my way!” Orhan shouted in reply, then spat at the giant’s feet.

Zhao Lung roared and smote down, but desperation nerved the Snow Leopard’s muscles for a final effort.  Rolling under the stroke — though not enough to avoid a deep wound to his shoulder — he rolled between the giant’s legs, then shinnied up its sash to reach its lumbar region.

Where, as he had hoped, he found the key still in the slot in Zhao Lung’s back.  Sun Jian at least got that far.  Now it’s all up to me. With that thought and a savage finality Orhan grasped the key and twisted it.  It clicked.  Then his wounded shoulder and weakened grip gave way and he fell.

* * *

Togrul and the surviving Murjens found Orhan sitting there later, clumsily trying to bind his wounds with strips torn from Sun Jian’s cloak, surrounded by the now-still army of brass and their dread general.

“My Khan! You live!” one of the Murjens gasped.

“Somebody tie this off for me,” the Snow Leopard growled, indicating the bandages.   “I thought I sent you dogs out of the city?”

“We did,” said another of the nomad warriors.  “But then Argan convinced us to circle back.  Without you, we’re just bandits.  With you, we’re the sworn warriors of a Khan.”

“A Khan,” mused Orhan.  “Yes, I suppose I’m still that.  So you’ll do as I say.”  He paused and motioned toward the body of Sun Jian.   “Argan, Togrul, pick him up and put him on a horse.  We’re taking the prince with us.”

“Urh?  Urarrhh rarh arh!” protested the tongueless Murjen warrior.

“We are.  I command it.  If we leave him here he’ll be reviled for bringing this down on his people.  But only I saw Sun Jian redeem himself, and perhaps I live because of it.  That’s an honor-debt.  The Qujin would feed his bones to the dogs, but at least we can bury Sun Jian, once Heir to the Dragon Throne, as a Murjen chief.”

And the Snow Leopard grinned down at the corpse.  “I suspect you’ll have something to say about our ‘inelegant barbarian rites’ when we meet again in Hell, eh? Well, you’ll just have to be content with them!”

* * *

As the rising sun flamed over the ruins of Tali, two streams of humanity left it in opposite directions: toward the east a motley band of tired soldiers with haunted eyes shepherded a ragged gaggle of citizenry, while westward rode a much smaller band of nomad raiders.

The fleeing townsfolk marched with their faces devoid of all expression, the aftermath of the night’s horror and the loss of their homes having scoured their souls barren; but the sons of the steppe rode out singing.
___________________________________________________________

Dariel Quiogue is 43 years old, and after two dead decades as a stockbroker has returned to pursue his twin loves of writing and photography. He was senior lead writer for Digital Photographer Philippines from 2007 to 2009, and has contributed articles to a number of other magazines in his home country, the Philippines. He is currently an instructor at the College of Saint Benilde and takes freelance writing and photographic assignments. His first experience with heroic fantasy fiction was when his sister gifted him, when he was ten years old, with Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Fighting Man of Mars and Conan the Swordsman, edited by de Camp and Carter. It’s been his genre of choice ever since, considering Robert E. Howard and David Gemmell to be his greatest inspirations.


banner ad


Comments are closed.