The Battle of the Round

The Battle of the Round

Peter Orullian
illustration by kekai kotaki

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.

*  *  *

 

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. . . .

3 comments
Rich R
1. Rich R
Wow...just wow. I found the Unremembered on a bookshelf two days ago and then rapidly found 2 short stories on the kindle and then this one. These three short stories build a backdrop that is powerful beyond words, especially if you are a parent or have loved ones in the military. I'm impressed, and look forward to reading the Unremembered.
B T
2. amphibian
Excellent. In every which way possible. Best short Tor has posted in a long time.
Scott Moore
3. Delta-Slider
Good story and nice read by the author. Thank you!

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