Authors: Jon Kiln
Blood and Sand: Book One
by Jon Kiln
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in book reviews.
Vekal Morson dodged the first sweep of the axe with ease, but he hadn’t been counting on the hammer blow.
The pain was excruciating. In fact, to a man like Vekal whose body was a cartography of scars, the sensation went beyond mere pain and entered the territory of an almost religious experience. He was certain that his head had been split apart and that at any moment he would open his eyes to see Annwn, the crow-headed record keeper of the underworld, preparing to receive his soul. Oddly, he found that almost an encouraging prospect.
At least it will take me away from all this,
Vekal thought, as the pain subsided from the total blinding to a mere crippling.
“Get him on his feet!” snarled the thick voice of one of the soldiers. It was the guttural tones of the Menaali plains, just like all of the other invading soldiers that were pillaging his city. “The boss will want that one,” the snarling hammer-man said.
Vekal groaned, opening his eyes to see the high cerulean blue of the skies, the harsh glare of the light off the sandstone buildings all around, and the dark forms of the Menaali soldiers. There were two of them, larger than he was and both dressed in the dark studded leathers and veils of the plains. Vekal thought that he was going to be sick, and not just from the blow that had now become a throbbing sensation of heat on the side of his head.
Menaali in the sacred city. What a thought.
Tir’an’fal—shortened to Tir by most of the travelers and the rest of the world—had sat on the edge of the golden Sand Seas for a long time. Older than mortal history, or so it was said. The original city was just called that—the city—as the inhabitants had no other name for such places of carved stone and petrified wood. The oldest of the seers had claimed that it was built by the gods themselves. Despite his piety, Vekal disbelieved them. The city might have been built
the gods, but not
A man with Vekal’s talents knew just what that difference meant.
The city, after all, wasn’t really a city at all, but more of a walled fortification, rising up out of the edge of the scrubby dunes with high walls that still didn’t stop the constant drift of the sands. In the center sat the Tower of Records, supposedly the earthly place where crow-headed Annwn would hold judgement, but in fact just an empty tower with a mouldering supply of books, manuscripts, and scrolls in languages that few could read anymore.
On one side of Tir’an’fal sat the Sun Seas, the scrubland giving way to the golden dunes proper, and then onto the Bone Plains of the deep desert, the Oases, the Hidden Gardens, the Falling Rocks and more. On the other side of all of that, desert and acres of nothing but sand, grit, and sun-blasted rock: the Menaali Plains.
Those brutes have wanted the Tir for over a hundred years,
Vekal thought, gritting his teeth against the pain as he felt rough hands seize the tops of his arms. The axe-soldier was lifting Vekal up with ease. Although he was a grown man, Vekal wasn’t big by any stretch of the imagination. The Menaali soldiers here were all much larger and broader than he was, and they had been trained for battle as Vekal never had.
Instead, Vekal was slight of frame and with a wiry, taut quality to his body that earned him the nickname of ‘bean’ for a long time when he was a child. Vekal found himself sucking down the blood that was threatening to wallow in his mouth. The blow from the hammer had dislodged something in his jaw, and he prodded at his row of teeth gingerly until another wave of nausea overtook him.
Great, another tooth lost, and another scar
. Although he wore the traditional dark robes and body wrappings of his trade, Vekal’s skin was still a history lesson in either how to lose a battle, or how to survive them. Scars as thin and as fine as cat whiskers crisscrossed his exposed forearms and calves, just as the larger, more pronounced white lines crossed his tanned face. He wore his hair shaven close to the skull, as tradition for one of his kind demanded.
“Here, you sure the boss wants this one?” the axe-soldier said with a grunt, giving Vekal’s arms a squeeze once more to feel for what little muscle had been allowed to grow there. “There’s nothing to him but—”
The sound that the soldier made as Vekal’s iron-capped heel connected with the fork in his trousers was unlike any normal sound of pain that Vekal had heard before. It was a mixture of surprise and agony, and almost of mystified contemplation as he crumpled backwards.
The hammer-man was surprised as Vekal flung a hand forward, throwing dust into his eyes. It wouldn’t be enough to blind him, Vekal Morson knew. He had used just the dust and grit from the cobbled streets of Tir after all, not the sharp sands of the Bone Plain which could sometimes be as sharp as glass in the right places.
“Ugh! You little—” the Menaali hammer-man was shouting, flailing with his war hammer to try and catch the smaller citizen. It was an easy dodge. Vekal dropped to his feet and rolled along the painful cobbles of the street, one hand picking up the battle axe of the crumpled guard as he jumped towards the nearest alleyway.
“One’s getting away! Get him!”
Vekal heard the hammer-soldier yelling behind him, but he thought that he had a good chance. He was already turning into the narrow alley, and already running. He knew the city of Tir like no Menaali Plains soldier ever would.
Or at least he hoped he did.
A maze of alleyways met him as if this part of the city had been designed by a demented, drunken spider. Vekal knew that in fact it was actually just the necessities of living in such a confined place. The fortified city was not large, and so each street had gradually abutted closer and closer, with more and more buildings being wedged into the gaps between their brethren with each passing century. Now there were places where one could hardly see the sky from the haphazard buildings, and those were the places that even Vekal feared to tread.
The city of Tir had a reputation, after all—one that instilled terror and nightmares in those who were not resident here. Strange things were said to happen. People were said to disappear in the thick tangle of cobbled alleyways, or else ghosts were said to be met, and talked with, as living and breathing as any person under the sun.
Vekal knew that both of these things were true, but it wasn’t the ever-hungry spirits of the underworld that snatched the unsuspecting tourists from the sacred streets. It was people like him. The
those-who-walk-one-step-in-shadow, the Accursed, or simply the Sin Eaters.
Vekal pushed himself up from the side of a stone wall and ran down another alley that crisscrossed this one, headed towards the Tower. This newer alley had steps, and the walls of the house beside were high. He was climbing, and that must mean he was nearing the center of the city where the Tower of Records resided. Yellow, orange, and glistening stone walls were all around him, and the smell of the rock and the dirt. And blood.
He felt it spatter on the floor below. The wound on his head had re-opened once again, and it looked to be running fairly freely. He felt giddy, a little light headed.
This is bad news
thought, as above him a desert crow screeched. The crow was as white as the glare of the salt deposits in the desert overhead.
“Not now, my lord. Not now,” Vekal grumbled, pushing himself further. He turned again where a knot of three alleyways intersected and cut off further northward into the city center.
“Hey! You there!” someone
shouted, and Vekal turned his weary head to see. Pointing at him were a trio of the Menaali invaders, one with spear, one with sword, and the last with bow. They wore the elaborate horns on their helmets, and looked as lost as Vekal felt.
But lost soldiers were scared soldiers, and scared soldiers usually didn’t stop for debate. Vekal ran, as he saw their faces crease in anger.
“After him! Another one!”
They were shouting, and suddenly the alleyway was resounding with the noise of their boots clattering against the stone.
Vekal had been hoping that the invaders hadn’t got this far into the city yet, that perhaps the defenders were still here and that he could cross back behind their own lines.
The sound of the Menaali whistles echoed behind and around him, which meant that they had more troops nearby. The whistles were carved out of the finger bones of their foes, or so legend told, and they used them to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Well, I’m afraid. Who wouldn’t be?
Vekal wondered as he ran, hearing the soldiers give chase to him. Despite who and what he was, and despite what he had seen in his short life, Vekal was no idiot. The Menaali had come here for conquest, and with fanaticism in their hearts. One such as him, one of the Accursed Sin Eaters, would meet the same fate as every other heathen priest and shaman that the Menaali had encountered up until now: an agonizing and slow public death.
But despite the fact that Vekal knew the streets of the city better than they did, the soldiers of Menaali didn’t have the lifetime of scars that Vekal had—nor did they have the bleeding hammer blow to their heads. The Sin Eater felt nauseous and sluggish as he tried to run, aware that his legs were beginning to turn to rubber.
The alleyway widened out as a street crossed it, a street filled with the sounds and shouts of the citizens. Vekal burst out into their midst, seeing that they were being herded by a phalanx of these Menaali warriors, this time with spears and hand shields, prodding and pushing them together.
The screams of the people were rising all around him, as were the squawks of the upset birds, and the smell from the spice stalls and the tang of orange in the air. This street had been a bustling small avenue of market stalls and traders, and now it looked to be a blood bath.
The Menaali Plainsmen had appeared on the horizon just yesterday, and they had surrounded the city by nightfall. It was now nearing midday—which could be the hottest part of the day out here in the Sea Sands—and the Plainsmen invaders were showing no signs of stopping on their push to take Tir.
All of the other alleyways out of this market street were blocked by the press of the citizens of Tir trying to flee. That left the doors to the houses, but they were packed as well.
The roof tops,
Vekal thought, pushing through the press of people to try and get closer to the nearest still-standing market stall, with a vague plan to try and climb it and escape over the roofs.
The Sin Eater knew this street; after all, it was one of only a few markets in the entire city, and it meant that the Tower of Records was just beyond.
“There he is! There!”
The soldiers had found him, pushing out from the alleyway.
A scream sounded as they started to push their weapons through the press of the crowd.
The shouts all around Vekal were almost deafening. His world became one of clawing hands and fingers and elbows as everyone tried to get out of the way of the soldiers.
“Sin Eater!” o
ne of the old men next to him said, a look of revulsion crossing his face.
“Please, no, old man, not today of all days,” Vekal breathed, but it was too late. Like the ripples extending from a rock thrown into a pool, the crowd convulsed around him, leaving Vekal exposed, obvious, and in the open.
“Sin Eater! Accursed!”
The crowd looked aghast that he could have done such a thing—walked out in plain daylight amongst them, even share the same street and the same air as them. The old man with the head wrap and the stringy white beard started scrubbing at his arms as if to get some terrible affliction off of himself, and Vekal could see the madness spreading.
Vekal snapped. “Is this all that I am to you people?” he yelled at them. “When you are facing an invading army, you still have time to think
your biggest threat?” Vekal pointed at the advancing line of Menaali soldiers, who seemed to be pausing, unsure of what was going on. Vekal could almost see in their faces the idea: was this some new diversion of the city? Was it a trick? Was Vekal some sort of champion, a captain, or hero?
Vekal scowled at his own remarks. He was no hero, and he knew it as he jumped to the top of the nearest stall and started climbing, hand over foot, getting to the wood and reed roof, his head still spinning and the sky threatening to swallow him entirely.
He grunted, reaching up. The stone roof was just a foot or so out of reach, so he’d have to jump.
There was a sudden sound of something sparking against the stone of the wall beside Vekal’s body, and the splinter of sparks. An arrow. Turning, he saw that the archer amongst the Menaali soldiers had already knocked another to his bow.
“Leave me be!” he shouted, to them, to the other citizens of Tir, to the whole universe in general. Far up above, the only one to answer him was the mocking cry of one of the desert crows, white as death against the blue of the sky.
“It’s the Eater they want. Give them the Eater,” t
he old man was saying, reaching up to snag onto Vekal’s dark, flapping robe. He looked almost like a dark version of the desert carrion above.
“Don’t touch him,” a
woman shouted in alarm, as the old man yanked at Vekal, almost bringing the Sin Eater down off the stall.
Vekal remembered that he was still holding the Menaali battle axe in one hand, so he turned and with a snarl, reversed its grip so that the flat of its blade thudded against the old man’s arms. There was a scream and the sudden blossoming of red as Vekal dropped the battle axe and, suddenly free from the man’s clutches, jumped for the roof.
His fingers clutched onto the narrow ledge of stone that marked the boundary of the roof, and painfully, with his head ringing, he hauled himself over the edge to the jeers and hisses of the crowd below.
With a groan, Vekal lay on his back for a moment, panting as he stared up at the blue desert skies. “With friends and countrymen like these, who needs an invading army?” he said to himself, before scrabbling to his feet to continue his journey. He had little fear that the other trapped citizens would follow him. Who would ever want to follow one of the Accursed? Usually they wouldn’t even share the same street or sleep under the same roof as one, let alone follow them. Vekal limped towards the only sight that could give him sustenance.
The Tower of Records was just a street or two away, and he could see clearly the wide central plaza, with its ring of statues forbidding entry. Its ancient wrought-iron gates were still standing, and its gravel and sand rock gardens on the other side were still, tranquil and undisturbed. The invaders hadn’t gotten to the heart of the city after all. They hadn’t managed to get to the Tower of Records, yet.
For a moment, Vekal thought about his fellow Accursed Sin Eaters in the Tower, and the masters with which they all studied. Those who wore the golden crow-masks of Annwn or the silvered crying masks of Iliya, the gull-headed. Iliya was the goddess of mourning, of the moon, and of the waters, and she held back the river of time for a while to allow the spirits of the dead to travel between the worlds, as Annwn the recorder of the dead and of history was her consort. Or so all of the old books told.
How many of us are there left? A handful? Can we really survive? Save the city?
Vekal’s mind raced as he took a step forward.
He felt a sensation like being hit in the back by a charging water buffalo, but somehow not strong enough to make him fall over. It wasn’t pain. Pain was sharp-edged and red. This feeling was numb and sudden, and although centered around his back, it traced its fingertips throughout his body.
Looking down, the Sin Eater expected to see something in front of him; the point of a spear poking out, or the impossible head of a gull as it birthed its way from his body. But no, all that he saw was his chest, wrapped in the grey and cream grave bandages, and swaddled in the gauzy-black material of his robes. For a second, he touched his own chest with healthy, living fingers wrapped in the same manner. He tapped at his ribcage to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming it.
But then the whole sky seemed to change color, from blue to white, to orange, to black.
“What is happening?” Vekal turned on his feet, looking backwards to see that others had followed him onto the roof, but it wasn’t the citizens of Tir. The hated citizens of Tir, who despised him even though he had served them loyally ever since he had been taken into the Tower. It was the soldiers of Menaali, the young one with the bow. Vekal could see him clearer now, a young man on the edge of true manhood standing crouched, pale, and terrified at what he had just done.
“Shoot him again!” said the man beside him, the much burlier swordsman of the Menaali invaders, but the young man was too entranced by the macabre sight ahead of him to obey.
Oh. I’ve been shot.
Vekal suddenly realized that the weight and the numb feeling in the center of his back was due to the fact that he had a Menaali arrow sticking out of it.
I’m going to die,
were the last thoughts that Vekal had as the world turned different colors, finally fading to black, as a white crow flew across his vision, laughing…