His hand was empty. There was no sword, no face, no battle in the desert: just the quiet gloom of his bed chamber, the warmth of his mattress, and the cool air that blew over his skin as the blanket that he had punched away settled back into place. The open balcony door at the foot of his bed framed a haloed moon; the thin white curtains on either side fluttered slightly on the breeze.
He waited for his heart and lungs to calm, for the echoes in his ears to fade and the taste of blood that was not there to leave his mouth, then shuffled back so he could sit against the wall. He brought his hand to his head, silently begged the stabbing pain to stop.
Alodia shifted beside him. "What is it?" she muttered.
"Sorry," Syrus said. The word scraped up his throat, reverberated through his screaming skull. Somehow he managed to lean across and kiss his wife's forehead. "Go back to sleep."
She moaned quietly, then rolled over and nestled herself closer to him; her body was soft and warm against his. He put his arm around her, listened to the rhythm of her breathing and wondered that something so delicate could exist in the same hard world as his nightmares. A gleam of moonlight hung on her hair.
When he was sure she was asleep Syrus slipped quietly out of bed and crossed the room to the balcony. His gut was churning and his skin was drenched with sweat. He needed some air. Earlier in the night he had promised Alodia that he would at least try to sleep; now he realised the foolishness of that promise.
He stepped outside and instantly the night breeze massaged the sweat away from his limbs. Below and to his right, the Endal River flowed like a giant black ribbon between the Winter Palace and the sleeping city on the far bank; to his left, the massive waters of Lake Endare shimmered beneath the moon. And to the north, straight over the balustrade, the line of low, rocky hills which divided the Kingdom of Iavara from the malevolent expanse of the Arazel Desert. It was towards that frontier that Syrus's gaze turned, his eyes instinctively falling upon the narrow pass, almost imperceptible at this distance, which clove through the rocks and eventually joined the desert beneath Meshda.
"By the gods," Syrus breathed. Then he closed his eyes and fought the urge to vomit.
Meshda. A crumbling, isolated fortress that for centuries had looked out over the desert and dominated that part of frontier, but when Syrus arrived as its new commander the garrison was only four hundred Northern Forts Warriors and a score of mercenary horsemen. He was greeted by Dimas, whom he had dispatched a few days before to assess the outpost's condition.
"It's bad Syrus," was his report. "Too much to do, not enough hands to do it. The south wall needs repairing, the barracks is in a state and the men are patrolling themselves into the sand. They're tired, their drill's lousy and I don't know how they've lived as long as they have."
Syrus grimaced and looked around. It was true: the place was a shambles. The ancient stone walls were crumbling on all sides, not just the south, and the main building looked as if it was about to collapse. The courtyard was littered with dung and discarded kit, the armoury was empty and the men's quarters resembled a sacked village. The men themselves had no discipline, no routine and no respect for orders, though they fought like demons whenever a Pelishtim warband got too close. Morale didn't exist.
"Best get to work," Syrus told Dimas once the brief tour was finished, and they did just that. They drilled the men mercilessly until they were as tight and immovable in the shield wall as they were silent and murderous in ambush. They instilled in them the dogma that one's weapon should never be out of reach, and they introduced a rota so that patrols were sent out regularly and men got the rest they needed. The worst decayed stones were pulled from the walls and fresh ones put in their place, the whole fort was straightened out and soon Meshda truly resembled a garrisoned stronghold.
And not a moment too soon.
Syrus turned and sat on the balcony's balustrade, hoping that by facing away from the desert he would not have to remember. The bed, with Alodia's embrace waiting for him, seemed to glow with offered protection; but his memories would not be stopped.
The first they saw of the invasion was the massive cloud of sand that the Pelishtim kicked up in their wake. There was confusion at first as the men lined the walls and tried to guess what it meant. A sandstorm, maybe? No, it was too small, too concentrated, too slow. An attack, then? Surely not; the desert tribes, nomads to a man, were masters of the dunes. It was inconceivable that they would so blatantly announce their coming.
Syrus was on the parapet when Dimas joined him. A patrol had just come in, running hard as though the very Hounds of Tuera were at their heels, and Dimas had been to hear their news; but as the two men stood together, watching the cloud as it drew ever nearer, they both knew. No matter their lore or skill, no army of size can travel in the desert and expect to remain unseen.
And this army was clearly massive.
Syrus leaned forward so that his backside hung over the balustrade, rested his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. His temples were throbbing, his eyes were screaming to be allowed to close, but every time they did the sight of that cloud flashed across his mind and the noise of men readying for war rang in his ears.
There was no choice: to remain in the fort would mean a slow death by siege while the rest of the army passed unimpeded through the gorge, so Syrus marched his men out of Meshda's gate, down the narrow track that hugged the cliff and lined his men across the enemy's path. The rock walls would protect their flanks and so, with swords and shields in hand, the Warriors of Meshda waited to do battle.
And the Pelishtim came out of the sands.
All the tribes were there: Hadad, Bakhr, Ashdod and a host of others, gathered into separate battalions beneath the long, tapering flags that showed their tribal colours. Their spears glinted in the desert sun as they advanced—oversized blades on long shafts that could hack like an axe, stab like a sword and punch great holes in shields. His men feared those weapons, just as they feared the ritual, some said magical, dances the tribesmen performed before battle. But Syrus kept them steady, shouted at them to keep their shields tight, and the Pelishtim's charge crashed into them with a sound like thunder.
So it began. And from that point his memory was a violent haze of noise and blood and hate.
His most vivid memory was of the spear that nearly killed him. It came out of nowhere, materialising above his head as though thrown down by the gods themselves. Dimas saved him, shoving Syrus aside so that the heavy blade glanced off his helmet instead of gouging into his skull. The blow was still enough to send sparks through his vision, and he had carried a tender lump for weeks afterwards, but Dimas's swift action deprived the gods of his soul. The Tribesman died, skewered on Dimas's sword; but Syrus never forgot that falling spearhead, and even after twelve years the memory still made him shudder.
Syrus pushed himself away from the balustrade and stepped off the balcony. Suddenly the night breeze was too chill. For a few moments he watched Alodia sleep, wondered what it must be like to know such peace. She shifted slightly, seemingly aware of his gaze, and Syrus superstitiously looked away.
It seemed incredible then, and that incredulity had not diminished with time, but after an eternity of hacking and stabbing, spitting and cursing, the Pelishtim's line broke. They'd failed to batter their way through the valley, and their morale was cracked by the tiny Iavaran garrison's rock-hard defence.
That was when the real killing began, because nothing is so easy to kill as an army in flight. The Northern Forts Warriors hacked the tribesmen down from behind as they ran, then fell upon their baggage train and delivered the slaughter that would have been delivered upon Iavara.
Syrus hurried across to his desk, took the stopper out of the decanter and poured himself a drink. He accidentally chinked the neck against the glass as he poured, and the sound of clashing weapons pounded his skull. He almost dropped the decanter in his haste to raise the glass to his lips. His hand shook as he drank.
It was a victory, and a decisive one: the might of the tribal army was crushed, and never since that day had the Pelishtim dared strike at Iavara with anything more than an occasional light raid that was easily repulsed.
But, for all its scale and import, the battle went largely unnoticed. The people of the south cared little for the wars along the frontier, just so long as they did not spill over into their own lives; it was ironic, but by stunting the Pelishtim's invasion and throwing them back into the desert, Syrus and his comrades had ensured that those people remained ignorant of the doom that had so nearly befallen them.
Syrus put his glass down, sat, then scrunched his eyes shut and wiped a clammy hand over his face.
That was the bitter aftertaste: not that his men died, nor even that they died without the gratitude of those they had rescued; but they died without anyone knowing they had ever lived.
The unnoticed heroes of an ignored war.
But worst of all, he survived. Not just survived, but thrived. Twelve years later and here he was, Captain of the King's Loyal Guard, and a Peer to boot—Syrus, First Lord of Meshda. He hated the title, but the King had insisted. And he had everything he wanted: a wife, a daughter, a purpose.
It seemed so unfair. It would have been a good death, an honourable death, a death for Iavara and his comrades: some things were worth dying for. Yet he failed to do so. And every year, after he relived the battle and remembered the fallen, Syrus prayed to Nenzio and asked why he was spared while so many others fell.
The God of Justice never answered.
Dimas lived too, but only inasmuch as he did not die; in truth, his spirit was broken by the ordeal, and soon after he retired to a monastery, there to do penance for the blood on his hands.
The sun was rising. Syrus looked around him, as if waking from another dream.
Twelve years. To the bloody day.
Syrus waited for her to realise he wasn't beside her, then moved from the chair to the bed and held her hand. She knew of the anniversary, of course; knew too that he would spend the night battling with his memories, which was why she had made him promise to try to sleep. He had failed her in that, but as he looked down at her the last vestiges of his nightmare lifted.
Because if some things were worth dying for, others were worth living for. He had her, he had Elyse, and now he had the unborn child that only yesterday Alodia had told him she was carrying. And with that warming thought, Syrus allowed the past to rest; for here was a new beginning.
Alodia stretched. "Morning," she said. It was true: mothers-to-be do glow.
Syrus smiled at her but didn't speak.
"How are you?"
And Syrus leaned over his wife, kissed first her forehead, then her lips. "Better now," he said.
© January, 2014 Daniel Hand
Daniel Hand's short story, "Departure", is in the On the Map anthology, produced by the Thames Valley Writers Circle; he has also had several articles published, most notably in The Reading Evening Post and Dekho!, the magazine of the Burma Star Association.