An Introduction to “The Battle of the Round”
and the Vault of Heaven series by Jim Frenkel
In his novel The Unremembered, Peter Orullian writes about Aeshau Vaal, a world with a long history marked by a series of protracted wars of aggression pursued by the benighted creatures of the Bourne, an isolated region in which they were confined by the gods who made the world. For as long as anyone now alive can recall, these creatures have waged war against the forces of many nations across the land inhabited by mankind.
Over a period of many centuries these conflicts took a great toll on the nations. But in the course of Aeshau Vaal’s history there also were times when dire circumstances produced defining moments that changed the fate of the world.
“The Battle of the Round” is the story of one such moment.
As our own history has proven time and again, people are capable of great things—great evil, or great good—and we don’t necessarily know when something of great moment occurs, until afterward. Similarly, war sometimes produces famous heroes, but often the people we call heroes are only a small part of the story that produced an heroic outcome. And other times, the real heroes of history are not really known, because those whose actions produce heroic results don’t think of themselves as heroes. They may, in fact, be not terribly heroic, and tragically flawed, fallible…and human. And by doing what humans do under the most trying circumstances, they may become part of something greater than themselves. Besides that, they are most likely too busy trying to survive the next moment to consider the importance of what they’re doing.
This tale takes place in the desperate hours of a battle in which magic—or a power that might seem like magic—is a weapon wielded with literally withering effect by a foe so ruthless that it feels no remorse whatsoever when it unleashes its devastating power at the expense of its enemies…and of the land itself.
In penning this piece, the author has written less about the clash of force against force as much as about the moral dilemma faced by those who must contend against this ruthless foe. War, by its nature, presents combatants with many bad choices, and seldom with easy answers. When the fight is for survival, there will always be a temptation to attempt to win at any cost. The Sheason named Maral Praig is faced with such a temptation, and with other difficult choices, at a critical moment in a long, debilitating battle.
How he responds, and how it all turns out is something you’ll have to discover as you read this last of the three stories before publication of The Unremembered that are set in the past of Aeshau Vaal, the setting of Orullian’s Vault of Heaven series. Like the previous stories, “The Battle of the Round” is but a brief moment in the world’s long, complex saga, but also like those others, it contains the seeds of things to come in the novel, legendary events that will echo down the centuries to shape the world for generations to come.
This battle is but one of many landmark events in the history of the world. There are others that can be found, along with much more of interest to readers, at www.orullian.com.
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The Battle of the Round
Maral Praig knelt beside the bleeding soldier and examined his wounds. A sword or spear had punctured the man’s gut several times. He would die if Maral did not heal him. But to make the lad whole—if it could be done at all—would cost him greatly; he’d have to use much of his own spirit to do it, leaving him with less of that spirit to use in tending to others, men whose wounds were less severe, who might be able to return to the battle right away. He looked down, helpless, into the face of the young man, feeling damned no matter what he chose to do.
Sounds of war filled the air. Metal rang against metal, and the unearthly cries of the inhuman Quietgiven foe unnerved him. The soldier locked eyes with Maral, pain and fear drawing his features tight. But the lad managed to nod perceptibly, lending Maral the strength to push through the clamorous din. Gently, he placed his hand on the soldier’s chest, invoked the Will, and caused him to sleep. It took little energy to do it, leaving him still able to tend to many others today.
The lad would die. But at least he would feel nothing as he bled his last.
Maral bowed his head, wondering if the young soldier had a wife, maybe children, and silently hoped he did not.
How many? he thought. How many have I let die . . .
Maral raised his eyes and looked around. Several of the Sheason he led were tending the wounds of other injured soldiers. Not for the first time, he questioned his decision to send some of his fellow Sheason in the order to render the Will in battle, leaving others, like himself, to heal those who were wounded. He also felt some small bit of shame that he had chosen to lead from here, instead of from the battlefront.
But he was Randeur of the Order of Sheason, with certain knowledge and authority that he was duty bound to hold safe. He mustn’t fall. Still, it did not diminish his feeling that he should be standing with those who, like this soldier lying before him, put their lives at risk.
With his hand still resting on the lad’s forehead, a sudden stream of images flashed through his mind, the soldier's dying memories, familiar memories, comforting ones, images of a young boy, maybe five years old, and a little girl just learning to walk. Then a young woman, his wife, smiling at him as he wrestled on the floor of their home with their little ones. She joined the playful fray, which ended in a tender kiss as the children continued to tug at them. He thought he could smell minty beef stew and mild plum wine and hear a chorus of laughter, when abruptly it stopped.
Maral realized he’d shut his eyes as the images filled him. He now slowly opened them to see that the lad’s face had relaxed, his struggle over. He looked up again, this time finding the face of his beloved, Laollen, several strides away, a question in her eyes. He shook his head: No, this one . . . this young father . . . was gone. She hung her head in a compassionate moment, mourning with him, her exhaustion and despair mirroring his own; her own Sheason hands were bloody where they rested upon the chest of another soldier felled by war.
Suddenly Maral was overwhelmed by the ache of death, the mounting loss of life, the images in his mind of now-fatherless children, and of parents whose children had perished here.
So much death. For so long. Centuries of war.
He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, bear it any longer. Inside him, a new feeling began to build: wrath. Without thinking, he stood, turned toward the battle line, and strode purposefully and without hesitation. Calls followed him: his fellow Sheason seeking guidance; his beloved, imploring him to stop. He ignored them all.
Into the fray he went, drawing the Will, releasing the power of his own spirit, and crushing as many as he could of the beastly Bar’dyn that had swarmed south out of the Bourne. He swept his hands in violent gestures at these Quietgiven creatures, forcing them back, casting them high into the air, driving them into the hard soil until their bones cracked.
In some he caused blood to boil, in others to freeze, and at a wall of the unearthly creatures he shot a maelstrom of fire and wind and shards of broken swords and stones.
He cut a path of blood and broken bodies through the battle, seeking King Seachen Baellor, meaning to stand beside the man and draw upon his own life’s energy until he could spare no more. He meant for all those who followed him to see that to win, to preserve the lives of those who counted on them, they must let go all restraint and give themselves up to the fury of war.
He pushed through another dense line of men who were trading blows with Bar’dyn and other vile beasts he could not name, and climbed a low hill where the king and his most trusted guard stood looking north and west. Exhausted, he yet summoned strength from a reserve he hadn’t known he possessed, and pushed through the waves of soldiers and Quiet locked in mortal contest, and finally broke free.
At the top of the bluff he paused and followed his king’s gaze. His heart fell.
The land, as far as the eye could see, had been stripped of color and life. Shades of charcoal and desert brown mixed in a miasma of heat and smoke. In the distance he saw dark lines of more Bar’dyn marching toward them. The monsters were inexorable killers, each one stronger than any man.
But the brutish creatures were not responsible for the scorching of the land.
Maral again followed the king’s gaze, to a line of dark-robed figures so emaciated that it appeared the wind might blow right through them. They came slowly, creeping over the plain toward the last remnant of Baellor’s army.
So many. Where did they come from?
They were velle.
As Maral and his Sheason rendered the Will, so did these Quietgiven wraiths. But the cost of it they drew not from themselves, but from anything living around them.
He looked again at the stripped and barren land. This Bourne army had come much later than anticipated, but for weeks now King Baellor’s army had been pushed south and east by the Quiet, constantly retreating, constantly regrouping. Mostly, they fled the unhallowed hands of the velle, who came on slowly, virtually unchallenged, drawing darkly upon the Will to burn and batter Baellor’s men and the Sheason who were helping them.
But this . . . their number had more than tripled. There must have been three hundred dark renderers skulking toward them. Had reinforcements recently joined their ranks?
Maral’s arms felt suddenly very heavy, and he could see the defeat in Baellor’s eyes. They simply could not stand for long against an onslaught of this magnitude.
Several hundred strides from the fray, the velle stopped. Standing in a great staggered line, they faced the vast field of conflict where thousands yet fought as battle calls and iron implements resounded distantly.
As one, the velle got to their knees, like a mass of pilgrims at a temple gate, each raising one bony hand and resting the other on the soil beside it. A sudden tempest leapt from the sky, and the earth heaved. Shards of lightning shot from the heavens, striking down everything they touched. Countless gnashing pits of root and rock opened in the earth, indiscriminately swallowing men and Quietgiven. Bodies flamed or were swallowed by the ground beneath them; others were whirled away like chaff in a high wind.
Will and Sky! He’d never seen the velle coordinate their renderings like this, a blistering display of destruction.
Thousands perished over the next several moments, human and Quiet alike, as the combined renderings of the velle, with their accumulated strength, scoured acre after acre. Half of the king’s army was lost. And as Maral watched, the land beneath the velle blackened, the desolation spreading hundreds of strides, as the life inside the soil and all it touched was drained from it.
King Baellor turned a worried look on Maral, who finally dropped to his knees, the effects of his own rendering finally overcoming him. Weak and panting, he pitched forward onto his hands. Baellor motioned for one of his men to help Maral, before leading the rest of his captains in the other direction. They must fall back again. As they retreated, Maral knew it would be for the last time.
In the pale light of the moon, King Seachen Baellor knelt to one knee and grabbed a handful of parched, crumbled earth. It had been stripped of color and looked like nothing so much as funeral ash. He lifted it to his nose and inhaled. The soil held none of the familiar loamy smell that he savored in his own garden. It was sterile earth, in which not even the most skillful farmer could coax a seed to grow.
How will I lead an army against this? Their power surpasses that of even the Sheason.
“I thought we had ridden far enough to be past this ruined soil.” He let the dirt fall between his fingers, charcoal dust slowly wafting up into the moonlight.
“It spreads,” Maral Praig replied, the Sheason offering his king counsel as dark hour approached. “The taint of their rendering goes deep and wide. The effects of this day aren’t through.”
“I have ordered the lands behind us burned,” he told the Sheason. “Since they won’t draw their own spirit to render the Will, perhaps we can take away their source. There will be little left that they might use. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
His friend said nothing to that.
“It’s quiet,” Baellor noted softly. “We’ve not had a night of peace for longer than I can remember. I fear it bodes only ill.”
His friend looked away to the north and west, where a few leagues distant the Quiet had uncharacteristically paused in their advance. “They observe their own dark, unholy day.”
Baellor stood and looked toward the enemy, finding the faintest hint of fireglow on the horizon. “For what?” he asked.
“They observe the anniversary of the day of Quietus’s Whiting. Their god was not always as he is now.” His counselor raised his gaze higher still to the night sky above. “In honor of the day he was marked, turned utterly white, they remember him.” The Sheason shut his eyes and breathed deep. “When they come again, they will come, I fear, with renewed purpose.”
Baellor laughed softly into the solemn quietude. He couldn’t help himself. “Because they’ve only been flirting with us thus far.”
The Sheason offered a slight grin, and the two men shared the briefest respite from their failing war.
The smile slowly faded from Baellor’s lips. “This is our last stand, my friend. There is little more we can do. We lost half our men today. The convocation committed everything, every available man from every realm that answered the call. When we are gone, no one will remain to resist them. All that will be left of us is this . . . scar.” He swept a hand out over the stripped and barren landscape.
Baellor thought about the Convocation of Seats—rulers from almost every realm and nation, summoned to form a mighty alliance. If they failed here in what he felt were the last days of this war, the people it had been called to serve would be left with nothing but this wasteland.
“What of General Stallworth?” the Sheason asked. “Any word?”
Baellor shook his head. “He would have joined us by now. No. He fell beneath the heels of this army long before they entered our lands. May the Sky have received him.”
“Send word to Y’Tilat Mor,” Maral suggested. “Perhaps they will now be convinced to come to our aid. We will need the power of their song to win here. The Mor Nation Refrains may be our last hope.”
Baellor’s heart was empty. . . . But a king is not allowed to lose hope. “They will not come. We must think of another way.”
“And you’ve no word from across the Soren Seas?” His counselor turned and looked south.
“The ships have not returned. Perhaps the old stories are only that. Perhaps there are no nations beyond the shore. No sympathetic races as the stories claim.” He drew another deep breath. “Regardless, they would not arrive in time. I sent those ships not to return with help, Maral. I sent them to preserve something of us, should we fall . . .”
It was the Sheason’s turn to offer a mild laugh. “You might have given me a chance to go with them.”
“Almost went with them myself,” he said, his own smile returning.
They then fell into a troubled silence, alternately looking off at the horizon where the plague out of the Bourne rested, keeping their unholy celebrations, and then up into the firmament, where stars offered some small comfort.
Baellor broke the silence with a question and request he wished he did not have to voice. “I’ve thought of a way,” he said.
“To defeat them?” the Sheason asked, without turning.
“Yes. But it requires you to break a vow.”
“You want us to draw our strength to render from the land, as the velle do,” his friend and counselor said, voicing his sovereign’s thought.
Baellor did not immediately speak. He needed Maral to consider this, but he knew he must tread lightly. Even in the extremity of war to which they’d been pushed, it was heresy to ask this.
“Only until we have either sent them to their earth or pushed them back where they came from.” He paused, considering. “I know what I am asking.”
“Do you?” Maral replied. “Some might tell you that the only thing that separates Sheason from velle is the unwillingness to render by using the world around him—”
“Not forever,” Baellor interrupted gently. “Our swords are outnumbered more than ten to one, and would not be enough, in any case, to stand against these velle. We need you and those who follow you to do more.” He raised a hand to forestall argument. “We are grateful for your presence: the healings, and those who do fight among us. But you saw what happened today. Things have changed. We can’t afford to have your Sheason resting to regain strength before returning to battle as they do now. If they can restore themselves by calling up the strength of the land, as our enemies do . . .”
“If we do as you ask, then we will have betrayed the principles that we came first to defend.”
“If we are defeated, no one will be left to debate those principles!” Baellor countered, more angrily then he’d intended.
His friend stared back at him for a long time before saying more. When he did, there was real fear in his voice. “It is not wise to tempt us so. Use of the Will without consequence, even once, makes him indistinguishable from those we stand against.” His friend heaved a sigh. “Some of those velle who walk with them even now . . . were once Sheason. It is a thin line we walk. Do not ask this of us.”
Unbelieving, Baellor stared back at Maral, who now looked weaker than he ever remembered seeing him. And yet, what alternatives did they have?
Finally, he gave his old friend another smile. “Then we will have to find another way. But I will say this now, since there may not be time later. I have been glad to count you a friend.”
He clapped Maral on the back, and left him staring off toward the far horizon, his face a study of weariness and worry.
Maral waited an hour, recalling every memory and story he could about the Quietgiven and their solemn observance of Quietus’s Whiting. He couldn’t help but feel that perhaps hidden somewhere in their ceremonial observance of this day lay key information that might help his king. But nothing came to mind, save the one thing his friend might have asked, but had not: a father’s vengeance for his son—almost two years ago now, Baellor had lost his firstborn to this war.
But the king had not spoken of his own loss. Not tonight, and not once since he had taken the field himself. Still, Maral had felt it, as he had the passing of the lad earlier that day. As much as Baellor mourned the passing of his kingdom, he mourned what defeat here would mean for his own family, what it had already claimed.
Before Maral knew what he was doing, he was moving beneath the lesser light which had passed into the western night sky, stealing toward the encampments of the enemy.
He cautiously stole over the dark terrain. As he progressed, he caught the scent of fire on the wind. He couldn’t tell whether it belonged to the camps ahead or the lands his king was having burned far behind. Or whether, perhaps, it belonged to the hardened soil that lay unnaturally scorched and barren beneath his feet. As he made his way north and west, he felt as though he passed through a new hillock, one littered with bodies that had been left where they had fallen.
Before coming into sight of the Quietgiven army, he summoned a small measure of the Will to cloak himself, blurring his form so that it would seem like no more than a shadow. As he drew nearer, the familiar smells of fire were joined by those of roasting meat and unwashed skin. And now he heard the occasional sound of a deep voice. But not argument or grumbling or the rise and fall of a braggart’s tale. These sounded like the fireside conversations he might have with members of his own order; like the exchange he’d had a few hours ago with King Baellor on the long plain.
For all the ferocity and malice he’d seen and heard from these hordes, these were not the tones of the mindless.
As Maral drew nearer still, he bent close to the earth and crept along, moving behind stands of bare-limbed trees or rock formations to keep himself hidden. With care, he edged closer. It occurred to him that if he pulled forward the hood of his robe, he looked, himself, like nothing so much as a velle.
It would be a grave risk to go in alone, but before he could reconsider, Maral let go the energy he’d been using to obscure himself, pulled up his cowl, and stepped out from behind a stand of dead oaks. He strode slowly, but with a measure of self-assurance, to the outer encampment. He kept his head down and his face averted from those who might take note of him.
He hadn’t gone far before he caught sight of several velle moving in a slow line to the left, where they disappeared over the lip of what appeared to be a broad gulley. He followed, passing close to several Bar’dyn, who nodded deferentially to him as he walked by. Maral returned the acknowledgment just enough to show he’d seen them.
Shortly, he came to the edge of what stretched out to become a large, shallow basin. When he raised his eyes to survey those settled in here for the night, his heart fell as it had earlier that day at the sight of the many dark renderers.
Sitting in small groups across the dry basin, huddled forward around small fires, were hundreds of men, and women . . . and children. From where he stood it appeared that their hands and feet were bound. Many wore makeshift bandages, as if having nothing save their own clothes to bind their wounds.
Occasionally, a weak cry rose up into the night from among the multitude of prisoners here—some agony getting the better of one or another of them. The cries came mostly in the high-pitched voices of the young.
If the prisoner camp had held only men, he might have understood how they came to be here, likely being captured in battle.
But women? Children?
He spent several moments surveying the host of captives. As he did, he thought he might later remember nothing as much as their slumped shoulders. These people looked defeated, bereft of hope, as though they could only mark the hours until their death.
Maral knew he could not possibly reclaim so many.
Forgetting the care he’d taken to keep his face hidden, he straightenend up, raised his head to stare and wonder if he’d found the key he’d come looking for. If these prisoners would be some kind of sacrifice on this unholy Quiet day.
His heart ached when he saw the small ones held close by mothers and fathers who had no balm for their fear. He grieved as much for those parents who, to allay these children’s worries, would choose between a lie and the brutal truth.
He despaired. Until . . .
The wrath he’d felt earlier in the day, when he’d let another brave man die, returned, filling his heart and mind. For a moment, prudence kept him standing there, sure that any attempt to redeem these captives would result in a great many deaths.
His limbs began to tremble with anger as he recalled the faces of hundreds he had healed and sent back into battle. Finally, his last bit of reason was swept aside and with only a vague purpose he descended into the shallow basin.
Before he reached the bottom, a clear deep voice called to him. “You there.”
Maral paused, keeping his focus ahead and away from the speaker.
“Where are you going?” the creature asked, using a Bourne tongue that Maral hoped he knew well enough.
“To check the prisoners,” he managed, keeping his voice low and slurred.
He heard footsteps approach. He tensed, readying the Will to strike, but knowing it would be futile, as he would fast be overcome by their sheer numbers.
But the velle glided past him, moving toward the closest fire, toward the nearest . . . captives. As the demon neared, the men and women shrank away, their gaunt, tired faces tightening with panic. A pallid hand extended from the robe, reached down, and took hold of the wrist of a girl of maybe six years old. The child looked back over her shoulder at a couple Maral assumed were her parents. When the father tried to rise, the velle raised its other hand.
“Dal nolle soche shil farran yeae.” The cryptic words fell from its rank lips in a husky voice, dropping the man back to the ground, his eyes closed.
The girl began to weep weakly.
Then the child’s mother rose and threw herself at the dark renderer’s arm, trying to break its hold on her daughter. Screams and cries rose up from around the camp. The velle shoved its free hand into the woman’s hair and yanked her head back hard. Then it drew her face up close to its own and inhaled slow and long. Maral couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw something like steam pass from the woman’s mouth into its nostrils. The woman cried out, her voice steadily weakening. Soon, she slumped and fell back into her daughter before dropping to the ground beside the man. The velle held a bitter grin on its pale emaciated face and raised its chin, shrieking at the multitude of captives, its shrill cry more than a warning. The sound echoed horribly, at once silencing and stilling the countless mass of helpless victims. They were able only to watch and listen.
Then the velle turned back toward Maral, whose own anger had risen again as he observed the child, who stood looking down at her mother at her feet and weeping openly.
He forgot himself entirely and raised his right hand, turning it palm up, receiving the Sky in token, then balled his other hand into a fist and held it out toward the malefactor.
“To the dust!” he said, his voice filled with rage.
He could feel other velle behind him. He would die, even if he could put down this one. But he no longer cared. If for nothing but this single awful act, he would see the demon destroyed.
He let loose the Will, the raw emotion shooting forth with its own terrible force at the creature. He focused it, pushing it at the beast’s head. It was all the power left in him after the events of the day, but it was still considerable.
But in that moment, the velle tightened its hold on the child’s wrist, and her body began to slacken. Her eyes, though . . . he would never forget her eyes. They widened, seeming to look far away, to see something awful and frightening. Perhaps it was only the agony of losing her own soul, of having it rendered into something new and destructive. He would never forget the fear and helplessness in the girl’s face.
The Quietgiven renderer seemed briefly to stand straighter, its body more robust. With a dark smile, it simply lowered its other hand, and all the energy of Maral’s attack diffused to nothing more than a slight breeze. Then it yanked the child’s arm hard, and in an instant she dropped to the dry earth, desiccated, dead. The velle then raised a hand and brought a sudden pressure on Maral’s head. Wind whipped around him, as though he were caught in a tight, choking vortex.
His body was being pressed in from all sides. He felt as if bones were ready to snap in his arms as he held them up to shield his face.
To the earth I return.
But before the pressure became too great, he heard a resounding cry—“No!”—and the pressure stopped.
Maral lowered his hands to see a young man, perhaps sixteen, toppling the velle. The boy had run at the renderer and driven it to the ground.
With unlikely gracefulness, the demon rolled and came up with its talon-like hand around the lad’s neck. It hissed at him, then immediately turned again to face Maral. As they came around, all the fear he had known before seemed as nothing, when he saw that the boy was his son, Talan.
“Dear Sky, no,” he said, his voice failing.
How had they gotten Talan? Why was he here?
“I couldn’t let him, Father. I couldn’t—”
Before he could consider it more, the velle squeezed the boy’s throat, choking off his words. Then it focused its gaze on Maral, a hint of dark amusement on its lips. In that moment, Talan’s eyes began to shut, his body slump. The velle raised two fingers toward Maral and the vortex resumed, pressing in on him more savagely than before.
He tried to push it back, but his strength seemed all but gone. He managed to watch as his son’s life ebbed slowly beneath the touch of the velle. Talan tried to show Maral a brave face, but he knew his son. The boy was terrified. He also knew that the lad, himself on the path of study to become a Sheason. understood what was happening to him.
He was helpless. He would die. Unless Maral did something to save him.
Unlike the young man today that I let go. . . .
Maral saw in his own beleaguered mind the quiet bravery of the man earlier that day who had been willing to die so that others could return to fight these Quietgiven. He recalled his king who would not speak of his own lost son. And then he looked back at his own dying child. He knew he could not let the valor of all these be in vain.
With all the strength he could find, he pushed back the onslaught of the velle’s rendering and jumped aside, falling hard to the earth. The force he’d thrown off struck the ground and tore a gaping hole where he’d been standing, the impact sending great rocks and sprays of dirt and ash into the air. Maral couldn’t be sure, but he thought he also sensed something of his son in the dissipating attack, as though the boy’s rendered spirit lingered like a fading residue of the velle’s assault.
The velle stepped over the small family that lay heaped at its feet, dragging Maral’s son along as it started toward him. Maral had little left to give. He had to choose between one last rendering of the Will and the strength he’d need to try and make it back to his own army. Escape was a foolish notion, he knew—there were so many Quiet around. But he had a simple choice: fight or run.
He had rolled onto his back, readying the Will a final time, when a swarm of bodies descended on the velle, and more yet upon those dark renderers standing on the low embankment to his right. The captives, hobbled as they were, had stood, shuffled toward their captors, and thrown themselves physically upon the velle, stacking atop them like cordwood laid up for winter.
“Run!” his son shouted.
Maral stood, feeling weak and confused as he looked out over the hundreds who stood watching, their vacant eyes now lit, he thought, with the vaguest spark of hope.
It was only then that his mind allowed him to see, that it showed him the lie that, until this moment, he’d managed to tell himself about this camp of prisoners: they were his own, almost all of them. Some were the families of Sheason, others residents of their city, Estem Salo, that he and the others had left behind when they came east to answer the convocation’s call.
By my last Sky.
His mind called forth images of his home, the city of Sheason, nestled high in the mountains of the Divide, consumed by flames; of dissenters executed with the wave of a rendering hand; of the generations of knowledge and wisdom, stored in the Archives of Estem Salo by his people, likely now seized or destroyed by the Quiet.
May our safeguards have held our secrets. . . .
Maral looked at his son, whose eyes drooped even as he struggled against the grip of the velle. He had been blind. They all had. These races out of the Bourne—Bar’dyn, velle, all of them—had come to war with more than bloodlust. He saw clearly now the true strategy of the Quiet, allowing peoples to mobilize, while leaving precious things unguarded as they built armies.
The dark irony was that even in their collective strength, the nations of the known world were utterly overmatched.
He thought he now also understood why it seemed the Quiet army had come later than they’d expected: Among, perhaps, other stops, they’d gone to Estem Salo.
And this current assault was the last insult to be heaped upon the resistance of the nations, but more ironically, on the Sheason themselves: that the renderings of the Quiet when they met Baellor’s last stand would be made by stealing the life from their enemies’ own dear ones. It was more than an insult; it was a terror tactic intended to weaken the resolve of those who followed.
“Run!” his son shouted again, then fell to his knees.
Maral stole one last look at his boy, then at the hundreds standing across the shallow valley, and turned and ran. As he did, it felt as if something inside him broke.
Just to fight one more day.
He clawed his way up and out of the basin, and raced blindly out across the scorched, barren plain, heading, he hoped, in the direction of his king and those Sheason who yet remained.
His lungs burned. Exhaustion threatened to tumble him to the ground. But he kept his legs beneath him, as he tried to think of what to do next. How could they hope to stand against them? Would he have to renounce his oath?
Perhaps oaths, too, have a breaking point.
The very thought intimated a path he was not sure, even now, that he could follow.
Every last man of Baellor’s army, now perhaps only twenty thousand strong, stood silent and still in the light of predawn, waiting. Scouts had brought word that the Quiet were on the move early. Baellor stood in front of the line, the point of his sword in the hard dirt, his hands resting on its pommel. He scanned the horizon for the enemy, knowing they would come rested and—as Maral had counseled—with a renewed sense of purpose. His own men were tired and fearful, particularly after yesterday’s demonstration of the velle’s power.
His strategy to rob the velle of their source to render the Will had failed; they had brought their own. There was nothing more to do but see this out to the bitter last. Messages had already been dispatched to Recityv to evacuate that city. Additional messengers had been sent to the other realms and nations, carrying notes for those peoples to take care for their own safety. As he watched for signs of the enemy, Baellor imagined the years ahead: Quietgiven hunting down mankind, since no military force remained to stand against them; a lawless world, one that accepted the sacrifice of innocent life to enable their dark arts. He would almost be glad to be dead when the world he envisioned came into being.
But more than anything, he would like to have had one more day with Elonas and Olara, his wife and lone surviving child. Too seldom does a king take care to mark the important moments with his own family. It was an error he welcomed the chance to correct. But in his heart, he held no hope of it.
To his left stood Maral Praig, Randeur of the Order of Sheason, a ceaselessly critical and faithful counselor . . . a good friend. In the night, Maral had been to the camps of the enemy, and escaped. Maral’s face looked haunted, and a bit uncertain, in the light of predawn. This morning, not a man or woman from his order remained behind the front line—no one would be healed of wounds today; all stood with Baellor’s men, their eyes trained ahead. And though these Sheason appeared more weary than the men of sheath and steel, they gave not a single step, standing as far forward as the rest.
The blue hues of morning blurred the scars of the landscape around them, but could not hide the stark contrast of earth and sky, nor banish the smell of blood, or the blighted earth, stripped of color and life. A clear sky slowly surrendered its stars to the coming of day, and the distant sounds of heavy feet rose on the air. The calm of the moment was almost painful in its suggestion of the violence soon to follow.
Baellor kept a firm forward gaze. Let this be my last testament: that I would not run or yield, even when no hope remained. . . .
In the hour that followed, the Quiet drew ever closer, slowly coming into clear view. The enormity of the Quietgiven army disheartened many of his men, who unwittingly uttered sounds of despair. The columns of Bar’dyn . . . the brigades of the half-breeds . . . and the other races out of the Bourne . . . all of them came on. And leading the wave of creatures were the velle, who brought in tow several hundred of the captives Maral had told him about. Men and women and children heavily bound in lines behind them—the families of these Sheason standing with them.
This disturbed Baellor most of all. He looked over at Maral, who caught his eye and shook his head. The Sheason knew Baellor’s mind, and even now silently counseled . . . pleaded with him.
Don’t do it, Maral was telling him. Perhaps there is another way.
We will see, he thought.
He did not consider it lightly—killing the helpless captives had occurred to him sometime in the small hours of the night. A war tactic: remove their ability to render. But the thought caused him to think of Layosah, the woman who had forced him to remember his own oath and office, who had nearly killed her own child to make him see. There was a kind of betrayal in killing one group of people to save another.
And these are the families of men and women who have died alongside us.
But war had its own rules. When the time came, he would know what to do.
He focused on the advancing Quiet. They did not scream or taunt or wail. These breeds from so distant a place came marching into the vague light of morn making only the sound of their feet upon the soil. Their faces remained placid, their expressions studied, if grotesque. They did not halt or slow. They walked toward them, closing the gap.
Then, a hundred strides away, the velle stopped, their captives still too distant to be recognized. At the far edges of the Quietgiven line, the Bar’dyn continued, coming nearer to Baellor’s men. The faces of these creatures hardly changed as they hefted their great weapons and set upon the convocation army.
Steel and leather and wood clashed, grunts and cries rising up in the far east and west of the great plain.
It had begun.
For every Bar’dyn his men took down, Baellor lost two. The line was failing already. He looked ahead at the velle and realized that several had taken captives by the arm and were rendering quietly some protection over the Quiet already engaged. Several of the men and women lay slumped at velle feet, entirely spent.
Seeing it, Baellor decided. I am sorry, my friend.
Baellor raised his sword high against the cerulean blue sky and dropped it with a shout, “Let fly!”
Two hundred archers raised their bows, having received their instruction hours ago, and took aim at these human vessels being used for their life’s energy. From a chorus of bowstrings, arrows took flight, darkening the sky in a wave as they sped toward their targets.
As he watched it begin to unfold, Baellor felt sick at heart. But before the arrows struck, a gust of wind rose up from the ground and sent the volley over the heads of the captives and into the Bar’dyn several rows behind them. Seachen turned sharply to see the Sheason all with hands outstretched. He caught Maral’s eye.
“Fool!” he yelled at the Randeur of the Sheason.
“Not this way!” his friend shouted back.
Before Baellor could say more, the line began to collapse. Bar’dyn had flowed in around the velle and were engaging in battle all up and down the line. Baellor’s men fell back or were crushed under great hammers and six-foot blades.
They could not hold. They were being flanked already. In a few moments, there would be no options left. He looked around, desperately seeking a strategy for this last stand, a way to defend their flanks.
Then his eyes lit on the symbol of the Sheason Order sewn to the cloak of one of the renderers close to him: the three rings, one inside the next, all joined at one side.
“Pull back!” he commanded. “Form a great round. No flank. Three men deep. Archers behind the rest!”
His order was repeated by his captains all along the line, and quickly the last several thousand men retreated and pulled themselves into a circle a few hundred strides wide. They managed to keep the Quietgiven in front of them, leaving no flank. Archers worked their bows, firing arrows over the heads of their comrades. War machines fired and reloaded, sending boulders into the densely packed ranks of the enemy.
The physicians who’d come to aid the Sheason had abandoned their needles and gut and taken up spare blades.
In this round, we will battle to the last, Baellor thought, and worked at each Bar’dyn who stepped in front of him.
He didn’t know how long they fought, but with each moment, the circle grew smaller, his men falling, others stepping into the breach. Slowly, the number of men dwindled, his soldiers hewn down by an army like none any man had ever seen. He caught glimpses of the velle, who seemed now to bide their time. It did not appear their craft would be needed. Beyond them, the dark columns of Quietgiven stretched without end. By nightfall, nothing would be left of Baellor’s army.
He fought on, but hope had gone out of him.
The circle continued to tighten. Maral had already lost a number of Sheason. Some had fallen to the sword. Others had rendered their own soul and strength until there was nothing left and they dropped, utterly spent, empty.
Baellor’s army gave all they had to the battle, but it would not be enough. He imagined the world that would remain when these valiant men had all been put down. A dark age would ensue, where the only use of the Will would be to corrupt and use and enslave. They would harvest the land until it all looked like this barren waste around them. And then they would have to turn to mankind to fuel their renderings, as they had started now to do.
His mind raced, seeking answers, trying to recall something from the annals of history and the Estem Salo Archives, where he’d studied most of his life. But try as he might, he could recall nothing that might help them. They were simply outnumbered. They hadn’t the collective energy or strength to defeat the Quiet this time.
He cast a quick glance at the line of velle standing patiently beyond the battle round, remembering yesterday’s awful demonstration of their power, when they all drew upon the Will at once. Then he looked past them at the human captives—their friends and families—who waited to be used. He hadn’t told anyone other than Baellor who these captives were. He feared it would too dishearten these men and women, or perhaps make them tentative when they must, instead, be bold.
But as he weighed that decision again, he pondered the moment yesterday when many velle had simultaneously rendered, and thought, too, of the velle the night before who had used the life of another to draw on the Will.
The dark images coalesced in his mind, and the seed of an idea took root.
Collective strength. Amplified Will. . . .
“Sheason, fall back!” he called. “Pass the word!” He needed to get the attention of all those belonging to the Order.
Within a few minutes, he managed to bring them together at the center of the great round. All gasped for breath, many bleeding from wounds, others collapsed to their knees. Frightened eyes shone back at him, waiting for him to speak, hoping for wisdom, perhaps salvation. The war raged all around them as the sun climbed high into the morning sky.
Maral turned slowly in a circle and began to speak.
“Individually we are not enough to defeat them,” he said. “We must join our efforts.”
“Join?” one Sheason woman asked through labored breaths.
He looked her in the eye. “Yesterday I watched as the velle drew upon the Will all at once. They slayed several thousand people in a matter of moments.” He stopped, considering that what he meant to ask might not work at all, that it might, in fact, have an ill effect. But they had to try something.
“If each of us renders at the same time, and . . . if we stand together in our own circle, taking hold of one another’s hands”—he took two fellows by the hand to demonstrate—“we can produce an act of Will a thousand times greater than any one of us alone.”
“How do you know this?” another Sheason asked.
Maral tried to think of how to help them see, his own mind struggling to make sense of it. As he fought through the urgency and confusion, he fastened on the image of the velle, from the night before, who had clutched the child and Maral’s own son, and used their souls to power its rendering of the Will.
“The velle have begun to take the lives of others in order to render. I believe we can use the principle of borrowing the spirit of another to expand our own capacity. If we all join together . . .”
He saw wary stares in the eyes of his fellow Sheason.
“When we do this, I believe we will create more than just the sum of our individual abilities; I believe each of us will multiply the sum of the two linked beside him. And in our own circle our strength will expand, allowing us to bring to bear an enormity of Will.”
He looked past them to the shrinking outer ring of defense. The plain and the rising hill beyond the round still were black with Quiet moving toward them.
If we do this, are we no different from the velle? Maral answered his own bitter question: The difference was that he asked his fellows to willingly surrender themselves to this action; when the velle sought life to power their use of the Will, they seized it by force.
He then grew as still as he could in heart and mind. He looked around at those Sheason who followed him, who had trusted him.
“Trust me now, as you have before,” he called with new confidence and vigor. “We will stand together and each focus on a single act, and send, from this circle, a wave of destruction aimed at the Quiet. And if I am right . . . it will roll like thunder, and drive them into the soil they have trodden and raped.”
“And if we kill our own sword bearers? Kill ourselves?” a single, dissenting voice replied.
Maral looked over at the man. Perhaps the time had come to tell them. He looked around at the men and women of the order, gathering them all in a long stare. Would they be undone by the truth? In the end, he decided they had a right to know.
Gently, he shared the identities of the captives who stood bound some few hundred strides away. As he spoke, in some he saw disbelief, in others shock. Many, who were not already kneeling, collapsed to the earth, staring down, grief contorting their faces.
He let them have a moment to fully understand and appreciate what was at stake, and what he proposed.
Then, one by one, those who had fallen to the ground stood. Silent resolve seemed to fill each Sheason, as they began to link hands and form a circle. Maral watched as the inner round took shape. More than a hundred Sheason stood hand in hand, facing inward, eyeing one another as though in farewell. But none spoke. And then, as if by silent agreement, they all lowered their heads in an attitude of prayer. And waited.
Silently, Maral gave instruction, sending it into the thoughts of these friends all joined. Clear your minds. Allow your spirit to flow without any specific desire or intention to the Sheason beside you. Let it become one with the rest of us. Begin now.
Almost immediately, a great surge of energy flowed into him. With it came the secrets of those linked to him, the indiscretions, the regrets, the personal triumphs. But these faded quickly, as the pulse of raw power seemed to burn away the individual stories and leave an abundance of spirit and strength like nothing he’d ever felt before.
The heart of a giant, he thought privately.
He waited for the fullness of each renderer’s spirit to be offered. Linked as they were now, by hand and mind, he could sense even the most skeptical among them as they felt the collective power and relinquished every reserve of their own soul’s strength to the whole.
In the moments that followed, with the sense of power and oneness he felt, there came simultaneously a sense of peace that surprised him.
When the moment seemed right, he spoke again with his mind.
Focus on the velle first. Think upon what you have seen them do, their unhallowed use of the Will. When you have fixed that in your heart, expand your thoughts to the rest of the Quiet, and envision their destruction.
But more than any of this, think of your husbands and wives . . . and children. Of our friends and dear ones who were besieged and taken captive to become the instruments of your destruction. Consider their fear and pain and loss, and let the sorrow of it quicken your indignation.
Then in his thoughts he heard: Maral. What of Talan? It was Laollen.
This last secret he let go. Yes, he is with them.
He allowed the revelation to be known to all, and felt a surging response of thought and emotion and strength as the reality of loss was made personal.
Then take all of me, she said.
A silent chorus of their fellow Sheason said the same.
He spared a last moment to recall the face of a man he had let die so that others could be healed and returned to war; a face that had braved death for that very purpose. The moment passed, but left him filled with indignation. When all was firm in his mind, he raised his face to the sky and screamed out a soul-rending cry that sent forth a flare of light with the radiance of a thousand suns. He felt his body begin to fall, and caught a glimpse of all the Sheason joined to him likewise collapsing, their hands still locked together.
A mighty scream rose up behind Baellor, and a great light blossomed. An enormous boom, deeper by far than any peal of thunder he’d ever heard, rode the wave of light, an inexorable force that moved outward fast. Baellor watched as the blinding flash left his army untouched and passed quickly to the Quiet army. The velle fell first, followed closely by the other Quiet breeds, their bodies sloughing away like sand in a high storm or falling like scarecrows.
It all happened in the space of moments.
He turned then, searching for his friend and counselor, and spotted him lying on the barren soil at the center of the round, his hands clasped to Sheason on both sides. It was the same with all the rest of his friend’s fellows, fallen in a circle of their own.
He rushed to Maral’s side. His friend was dead. They were all dead. Baellor realized instantly the epiphany his friend had had, the last act of Will to which he’d committed himself.
He put a hand on Maral’s forehead. “Thank you.”
The scarred lands around them remained silent for a long time, soldiers having sat where they stood, resting, offering gratitude in their own way.
Baellor surveyed the long, wide plain, strewn with countless bodies, the blood having flowed out upon the parched earth. These dead lands struck him as being like a great, open grave.
Then, distantly, hours later, into the stillness and silence came the sound of heavy marching feet. He rose and soon saw from the north more Quiet coming on toward them—rear troops, but without velle. Renewed anger and determination filled his heart.
“Up, lads!” he cried. “For the blood of those fallen here, we will make an end of this.”
Three days after Maral had raised his last rendering cry, the army of the convocation put down its last Quietgiven. Those from the Bourne that remained fled back into the north and west. It was only then, with the time to walk the vast fields of this war, that King Seachen Baellor realized the magnitude of the losses, despite the few thousands that had survived. The stench of death had begun to rise. And at the center of the carnage lay a hundred or more Sheason, whose end became, for him, the last, best benediction to the battle of the round.
“Good-bye, my friend,” Baellor whispered, his words lost in a dry wind that swept over the scarred lands.
“Battle of the Round” © 2011 Peter Orullian