“Ha! That’s a different kind architecture,” Mercury said. "This place is a mess.”
Miro turned in his saddle and looked back to the boy who’d just spoken. “It was just under siege by an army of Thrones, Mercury,” he said, giving the secundi half of Duet Fox a rueful grin. “You do remember what Thrones are like, no?” and the laugh he gave did nothing to mask the teasing barb he’d thrown at Mercury.
“We know a lot more about Thrones than Duet Lizard does,” Marainus, the primi half of Fox, quickly interjected. "I know your memory’s bad, Miro, so let me help you,” he said, and the growing smile on his face let Miro know that he was in for a stir of his own. “Mercury and I were under House Vestra, and House Vestra prided itself on winning. For every contest you and David fought, Duet Fox fought four. We were at Rood sweating our asses off while you and your little brother were at the Imperial Court attending parties, dancing the Satada, and generally lying about. We dealt with more Thrones than you’ll ever see in a hundred years.”
"But all that dancing of the Satada kept us light on our feet. That’s why Lizard’s percentage of wins was higher than Fox’s,” Miro countered, giving Marainus a mischievous wink. “We weren’t lumbering around the arena as if there were lead weights tied to our feet.”
“Pff,” Mercury sputtered.
“But Mercury’s right,” Alexei said. "Look at how it’s built – all dark and heavy. It’s nothing like Küronas. It’s nothing like any of the imperial cities."
“Welcome to the new world,” Miro said. “I told you, things are different. If riding through Günter Platz didn’t convince you, maybe now you’ll believe me."
After riding from Konassas, the army of gladiators traveled one of the northern routes through the Ardentin and making their way through Sheppard’s Pass, then northwest following the route Miro had taken to Sonnen Taggen, only this time when they came to the juncture of the Rivers Schriff and Borsen in the valley of Günter Platz, they continued up the Borsen to Wrenstatten. Miro and Evan Mahon - who’d once more received permission to accompany Miro - were shocked at the sight that greeted them in Günter Platz. The last time they’d passed thorough the Green Valley, it had indeed been green. The destruction of Günter Platz was still fresh enough for the gladiators to get a good feel for the horror of the raid.
“They were mostly defenseless farmers,” Miro said, telling his companions about the beauty of the valley when he and Evan had first passed through. “It’s like the Kalorian massacre at Ducat - they deserve justice.”
When they’d made the turn to the Northwest, Miro looked to his right in the direction of the River Schriff, whose headwaters source lay in the valley of Sonnen Tagen. “I could use some of Vesterling’s wine right now,” he sighed as his thoughts went to the grand Château of Domain Carolus. After Akam Vesterling heard the story of Miro and Evan’s fight for the freedom of the children of Augam, Johann Sobains told the master of Domain Carolus that Miro’s only request had been some of the fine wine of Sonnen Tagen and since Vesterling’s was the best of the best, he'd offered them barrels of it. But because it was imperative that he and the gladiators get to Konassas in all haste, he’d reluctantly turned the master of the Chateau down, with a promise to return when the troubles were passed.
They'd continued northwest for six days until finally turning directly north, toward Wrenstatten. After another five day's hard ride, they were standing on a high plateau looking at the distant city and the columns of smoke that filled sky, forming a dark cloud that hung ominously over the city.
There were more than a few murmurs among the gladiators when confronted by the sight, but it was Rinaldo, secundi of Duet Hawk, who spoke up. “We’re here. What’s the plan?” he said, true to his reputation of direct and simple brevity.
“I’m glad to see at least someone’s serious about why we’re here,” Xanor, primi of Duet Snake said, scowling. “I guess all that sleeping made all of you soft. It seems Marainus and Mercury want to talk about architecture, and wasn’t it you, Cassius, who was discussing Allairus’s frescoes in the baths at Rood on our journey here? Next we’ll be putting on an opera for the citizens of yonder city, or maybe performing a ballet.”
“If you think we’ve gotten soft, Xanor, why don’t you and I go at it right now?” Fredrick, secundi of Duet Tiger said, sliding his short sword from it’s scabbard and brandishing it under Xanor’s nose. “Just you and me, and we’ll see who’s gotten soft.”
“Enough,” Miro said, and the serious look that he gave the others quickly told them the joking and teasing was over. In a meeting with Miro the day before they’d left Konassas, Nic had told Miro that while he wasn’t officially making him a general, he was giving Miro the authority of one.
“You’re in charge, Miro. I want that to be clear with all of them,” Nic had told his best friend. “You’re no longer a band of gladiators made up of duets, you’re an army. Every army needs a leader to make plans, give orders, look after everyone, and accept responsibility.”
Miro had agreed, but was slightly troubled about the accepting responsibility part of Nic’s commission, for while he was a skilled fighter, he’d never been called on to command.
“You know Duet Bear’s always had a rivalry with Fox," Miro’d told Nic, as he was beginning to think how he was going to lead such a fierce and independent group of boys. “And more than once Xanor and Fredrick have disagreed over who scored first blood during a contest; if you remember, one of those times lead to an unscheduled match between Snake and Tiger on the spot, right in front of the crowd,” Miro said.
“You don’t have to remind me,” Nic said, “I came close to getting my ear sliced off when I helped break it up. But this is different, Miro – really different. They have to fight as an army. That’s the only way you’ll succeed. I’ll say a few words to them tonight when I stop by their barracks after we’re finished with the evening meal.” And true to his word he had, first telling and then warning them that there’d be some explaining to do if they didn’t accept Miro’s command and everything that went along with it.
“Time to be a general,” Miro thought as he watched the black plumes of smoke from Wrenstatten rise to the heavens. “First, we’ll make camp,” he called out. “Second, I’ll send out one duet – maybe two – for a little reconnaissance. Third, we’ll take what we’ve learned and formulate a plan. I thought we’d have a fight on our hands entering the city, but even from this distance it’s easy to see that there’s been so much damage to the walls that we won’t have to worry. You heard Niklas tell us what our objectives are - we just have to think of the best way to carry them out.”
“I say we get down there and start cutting a few of them up,” Edward, the secundi half of Duet Scorpio, said.
“That’s exactly what we don’t want to do,” Miro said raising his voice slightly so all of his brothers – now his soldiers – could hear him. Then he added, “We’re not fighting in the arena this time. We’ve never fought this way before… well, only one time before,” he quickly added, remembering the flight to Piropolis. “Remember what Master Sakki taught us: ‘true victories are anchored in a solid plan; the more you know and understand your opponent, the better that plan will be.’”
Looking around he was pleased to see heads nodding in agreement. Miro wasn’t above evoking the memory of their revered master; if it would keep their minds on what was expected of them, all the better.
“We’re not performing for any crowd,” Miro, who’d by now dismounted Lightning, stated. “No one will be cheering, or booing. There won’t be any bouquets thrown to us in the days ahead, so we’re not here to impress, or entertain, or amuse. This is the real thing, not the theater of the arena. We’re Gahdar, and this is our chance to show them what Gahdar can really do. We’re not here to dance for the crowd; we’re not here to catch some worthless signet thrown down to us from those bastards in the noble boxes as we stand in the blood drenched soil of Rood, looking up at them and bowing with artificial smiles on our faces. They made us tigers, and then tied us to the ends of their strings. Now we’ll show them how tigers really dance when the strings are cut.”
Again there were nods among the boys, mixed with murmurs of “Well said.”
“Cassius and Commodus,” Miro called out, “organize the horses. Januium and Fredrick, you help them and take a few more with you if you think you need them. Nicoli and Evonn, get another group together to begin pitching the tents, and make sure the wagons and draft horses are taken care of, and the same goes for the two of you – gather whoever you need. After all, there over a hundred of us, counting the support staff King Niklas gave us.”
Without pause an army of boys sprang into action.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Miro called out, and as his voice rose everyone froze in position, quickly becoming silent. “I expect this all to be done in two hours – three, at the most. When we’re settled in we’ll take council, and I’ll tell you my plans.”
Motioning to Evan to accompany him, Miro strode away as pandemonium broke out behind him.
“No, it should be here,” Cassius was shouting to Januium as he pointed a finger at the ground beneath his feet.
“You’re an idiot, Cassius! It should be there,” Januium yelled back just as forcefully, while pointing to a spot twenty feet away.
“This is not a blood match between Duet Bear and Duet Tiger,” Miro said, whipping around and glaring at the two boys. “Cooperate! If King Niklas were here, you’d both be singing a different song, and you know it. I may not be Le’ir Barh a’Ronei, but I bloody well don’t have to be to spank your asses, so stop it now and make a plan – together!” he growled. Turning back he looked to his right, “Julius,” he called out when he saw the primi of Duet Storm walking by, “To me.”
Although Nic was Miro’s best friend, Julius came in a close second. The two boys had trained together since their first meeting in the primary camp at Compari. Quiet and thoughtful, Julius was as different from Miro as the day is from the night.
While reticent and shy – unusual qualities for a Gahdar – both he and Miro blended together well as friends. The saying that opposites attract was never more true than when applied to Miro and Julius. But Julius' reserved nature seemed the perfect foil for the often passionate and quick-striking Miro. It also didn’t hurt that Julius was, after Nic and Miro, the finest Gahdar ever trained to fight in Rood. The calm – almost passive – boy always surprised his foes, who mistakenly took his quiet nature to be a sign that he’d give them an easy victory in the arena.
“I need to discuss my plans with you and Evan,” Miro said, as Julius fell into step with Miro. “I have an idea of what we should do, but Duet Storm commanded more mock battles in the arena than anyone else. You and Jannus have valuable experience in that area, and I need your advice.”
Julius nodded, and for a while remained silent. “I still can’t believe it,” he finally said. “King Niklas. Our own Le’ir Barh a’Ronei - what an honor to have a Gahdar as king.”
“Well, I think we might have a long way to go before you see Nic wearing a crown and sitting on a throne,” Miro responded. “I know I’ve told you a few things on the journey here, but you don’t know the half of it, Julius, and I need to inform you. Nic isn’t here to pull our irons out the fire this time. He put me in charge to help him, and I’m putting you in charge to help me," he said.
“I’ll do what I can,” Julius said quietly.
“I know, Jul,” Miro said. “I know. But I also know that your worst is better than most people's best. Half a performance from you was always better than all of theirs balled up into one pile,” he said, jerking his head back toward the commotion behind him. “I shouldn’t have said that,” he said, suddenly stopping cold and turning to look at his friend. “That was wrong. We’re all brothers, and we’re all standing together, it’s just… bloody hell…what a bloody mess,” he repeated again.
“I'm here with you, Miro,” Julius said, putting his hand on his friend's shoulder. “We’re all here together, and they’ll obey you. Nic knew who to put in charge. If anyone can get the job done, it's you.”
“Thanks for your confidence, Jul, but for the moment it’s best we sit for a while and talk. I told them two to three hours, knowing it would really be more like four,” he said, grinning at Julius. “That’ll give us plenty of time to talk – and plan.”
Four hours later when the camp was in order, everyone sat together in a circle with Miro, Julius and Evan sitting in the center. Miro was alone since David was in the Ardentin with Jamie, but Julius had his secundi Jannus near him. About an hour into Miro’s strategy session with Evan and Julius discussing sieges and pitched battles, Julius suggested his secundi Jannus join them, feeling Miro could also benefit from both members of Duet Storm and their joint experiences.
“Camp’s been set up,” Miro began, looking over the group of boys. “Everything looks to be in order. No blood was shed, no one got into a sword fight, and you all cooperated. Thank you.” The gladiators surrounding Miro remained silent, but more than a few rolled their eyes.
Catching their mood, Miro was quick to squelch it. “Look, I told you before, we’re not in the arena,” he said trying to sound as serious as he could. “We’re not fighting for points. We’re not trying to see who’s got the best percentages, who’s drawn first blood for the day, or made the most kills. It isn’t a matter of how many signets and bouquets we’ve collected for the day. We’re not fighting solo or in duets, we’re fighting together. If anyone wants to be a prima donna, best you leave now. This is a war, and while I wasn’t all that keen for the command, I’m your general – Evan, Julius and Jannus are my seconds in command, and you’ll obey them as you must obey me. Do you all understand? Am I being clear on this?”
Gone were the amused looks as everyone nodded solemnly their assent.
“Good. If I tell you to do something, it’s because you need to do it, not because it’s just a whim of mine. Get that into your heads: no prima donnas. King Niklas needs us, and we’re going to help him. Can you do that for him?”
Again there were nods of agreement. Miro almost broke out into a grin. He knew that more than anything, the Gahdar of Rood were proud to have one of their own as a king, and not just anyone but Niklas Agramon, Barron of Rood, and Le’ir Barh a’Ronei; if Miro had to use that fact as his trump card, then he’d bloody well use it. He was starting to get the hang of this general thing – he might even like it!
“I still can’t believe he’s our king,” Commodus said. "It all happened so quickly."
There were more nods and a few words of assent.
“Well, he’ll be a good king,” Edward spoke up.
“The best,” Julius added. “The emperor would appear as a turd next to him.”
“And what about his pa’amore?” Mercury said with a suggestively wolfish growl. “He’s beautiful.”
“Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe him,” Gallant, secundi of Duet Snake said, giving a low whistle. “Do you remember when we all went to the Mondele, and the little prince did that… I don’t know… what the hell was it?"
“A Redalta,” Gray, Duet Viper’s primi interjected. “It’s one of the folk dances of the Kalorians of the Inlet of Isewier. It’s where he comes from, you know.”
“The Redalta – the dance of seduction,” Commodus called out. “It surely seduced me!”
“It would be like Niklas to find such a prize,” Evonn said. “I can see his luck in love is as good as it was in the arena.”
“You’re talking about your King and Le’ir Barh a’Ronei," Miro said, trying to sound serious but still grinning. He’d been with all of them for a long time, and knew their ways.
“And that boy’s eyes…” Renaldo said continuing the conversation and ignoring Miro’s mock disapproval. “I never saw eyes that were… that were so… so…”
“Big? Piercing? Intense? Blue?” Commodus said, grinning.
“Yes!” Evonn shouted in agreement. “That boy’s...
well…” and then he made a gesture with his right hand as if he’d grabbed a too hot potato from the roasting fire.
“Well, keep in mind that Niklas pa’amore just happens to be sa’Crêsmané,” Miro said raising his eyebrows and giving them a knowing look.
“But he’s just a boy,” Nicoli said. “Not like the other one – King Alexander’s pa’amore, Loran. He was older.”
“But also very attractive,” Mercury said, continuing to show them all where he mind still lay.
“But not like Niklas’ pa’amore," Renaldo said. “He’s a real beauty. Snuggling with him would be lots of fun.”
“Well, that blue eyed little boy you're all so keen on is as fierce as a tiger,” Miro said. “Cross him, and you’ll see. When his temper lets go, he’s wilder than a pack of charging plains bulls. I’ve seen it for myself. David told me about what happened when they were ambushed in Konassas, and how he fought. It must have been quite the sight, him being guarded by a full battle cohort and throwing balls of lightening as the ground shook and walls collapsed. When it was all done, Captain Tark told me they had to clear away a pile of rubble just to get to the bodies. His powers have grown since I was away; I could see it first thing when I returned – and they still grow stronger every day. I think by now he could reduce a whole 'toon of thrones to ashes, under the right circumstances. And don’t forget that his pa’amore is Niklas. If Jamie thinks one hair of his pa’amore is in danger… well, let me just say I wouldn’t want to be in the same room, or building… maybe not even the same town!”
“Of course, remember our last day at Rood?” Xanor said.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Miro said solemnly. “Put a sword to Niklas' throat in Jamie’s presence, and your stones will be sliced off before you know you’re missing them,” Miro said, grinning. “Not to mention your head. And besides," Miro continued, giving them a knowing look, “all of your chances are nil. He’s head over heels in love with Nic. I’ve never seen anyone so enamored.”
“Well, who wouldn’t be enamored over the Baron?” Edward called out, laughing. “I mean, really. We’ve all seen that body in the baths… so thin and sleek. Who’d ever guess there was enough hidden muscle there to snap a tusk boar’s neck with his bare hands? You can just imagine their gymnastics in a lover's bed!”
And that led to another round of whistles, howls, catcalls and laughter.
“All right, boys,” Miro said, trying to cool down the conversation and steer it toward a more productive topics. “If we’re done discussing Jamie de Valèn and Niklas von Agramon and their physical attributes, maybe we can get down to the reason we’re here.”
There were a final round of catcalls, wolf whistles, and grins, and they pretended to be disappointed, but within seconds the boys settled down, ready to hear Miro’s plans.
“Our first task is to gather more information,” Miro began. “We’ve made it here, but standing on these bluffs and watching Wrenstatten burn doesn’t tell us much. We’re still too far away to learn anything helpful. I was going to send out a duet or two to do some reconnaissance, but Julius has convinced me to send out three Duets. That should be enough to get a better look at the situation from a few different angles without drawing any early and unwanted attention to ourselves.”
No sooner had he spoken than over half of the duets immediately rose to their feet, clamoring to be chosen, while the still-seated remainder glared up at them when they realized they’d been too slow to jump up and volunteer.
“Sit down, the lot of you,” Miro said, scowling. “I made my choices long ago. As I told you, there are reasons for what we do. If you’re picked, it doesn’t mean you’ve received some great honor. If you're not – and most of you haven’t been – it’s no slap in the face. I need all of you – every one! No matter what we do, we follow the code of the Gahdar… is that clear?”
The slow, solemn, and serious nods that were returned to Miro told him it was indeed clear to all of them.
“Very good,” Miro said, nodding his approval. “That’s what I need from you."
While he’d been talking to the gladiators, Evan had taken three folded parchments out of a black leather bag and begun opening them.
"These are some of the maps I was given before we left. One shows the area surrounding the city. Another is of Wrenstatten itself.”
“And the third?” Edward asked.
“The third is a detailed plan of the royal palace. I’ll be going over it with you two.” Miro turned his head to look over his shoulder at Yann and Yvan.
The two little boys, dressed in what looked like white cotton pajamas tied with a sash, were sitting bare-foot and cross-legged on the ground. When they noticed his attention, they looked at Miro and smiled angelically.
"The three duets I’ve chosen will go out on reconnaissance. I’ll brief each duet on where to go and what to look for,” Miro said, turning to Julius who nodded in agreement. “After you come back with your reports, we’re going to start our war of shadows; at the same time, we'll continue our reconnaissance to see how effective our campaign is. We’re here to harry and annoy them, like a cloud of gnats in a sleeping man’s room. Our goal is to make them uneasy, wary, and most of all angry – so angry that they’ll want to come after us. After we’ve gotten them thoroughly stirred, we’re going to really take a piss in the whisky barrel, as General Zakaria would say, and if that doesn’t make them ready to chase us, nothing will. Once they take off after us, we head toward Fire Block Canyon. If Nic and Jamie are right, once Loran knows the sa’Crêsmané has absorbed the last orb and is waiting in Fire Block, his urge to follow will be too strong to ignore. As he chases us toward Fire Block, more and more of us will drop out of the race and make our way to the back of his column. When they reach Fire Block, those of you left in the front will hide in the Canyon and begin an ambush as they enter. Those of us behind will bottle up the Canyon and herd them like cattle to Nic and his forces. Remember, we’re talking about thrones – dangerous as hell and able to cause great mayhem, but not very intelligent.
"Jules and Jannus will work with those of you who’ll be hiding in the canyon; we’re going to use some of their ‘dirty tricks’ to seriously damage Loran’s army. It’s going to be just like a siege in the arena, except this time it will be the real thing – to the death. Evan is going to work with those of you who’ll be bringing up the rear – the cork in the bottle, so to speak. I’ll deal with the war of shadows – I’m really looking forward to tugging on the leashes of those rabid dogs and making them so crazy that they’ll be foaming at the mouth, dying to get their hands on us.
“And you two,” he said, once more looking to Yann and Yvan, “will remain here after this council breaks up; I have a very special mission for the both of you. But first, you little boys have some special studies I need you to engage in.”
The words ‘little boys’ made both of them frown, for although they looked to be about fourteen, both of them were twenty four and had spent their share of time in the arena – more than a few of those years being teased by the others, especially as time went by and they didn’t seem to age.
“Oh, don’t take it personally,” Miro said. “I can’t help it if you look like two cute little boys,” he added, laughing. ‘Cute little boys with nasty fangs and very sharp claws,’ he thought to himself.
“Now, one final thing,” Miro added. “We’re not going out in the open to battle anyone. We’re trying to bait them, and make them snap. This is guerilla warfare. I don’t want to see anyone striding out into the sunlight to bask in any glory. We don’t even want them to know who we are. Remember, as far as they know, the Gahdar of Rood are as dead as the empire. We want our existence to remain quiet until the trap is sprung. Then we’ll take our deserved bows.”
And so it began. Miro picked his first three Duets: Fox, Raven, and Asp, and gave them their instructions. While they spied, Julius and Jannus worked with some of the duets on what they would do in Fire Block Canyon, and Evan went over tactics for the rear guard who would block any retreat by Loran’s army.
The first few reconnaissance missions gave Miro a general picture of what the city was like. Unlike Günter Platz, Wrenstatten’s population hadn’t all been slaughtered – a fact that at first surprised Miro.
“Something’s afoot,” he said to Julius the morning after the first reconnaissance teams returned. “In Günter Platz, they couldn’t wait to kill everyone. Except for that little boy that Nic and Jamie brought back to Konassas, there wasn’t one survivor. Why would they do such a thing there, and not at Wrenstatten?”
“Maybe they realized they needed hostages, or a labor force to carry out their wishes.”
“Slaves?” Miro asked, but the tone of his voice told Julius that he was thinking aloud and not asking for a response. “I don’t know. Maybe... I just have a feeling something’s different. I wish I knew what it is.”
“I know what you mean,” Julius said. “In Günter Platz the destruction was thorough, but what the reconnaissance teams are bringing back is a picture of a city breached – its defenses destroyed, but otherwise intact. Generals usually don’t change their patterns of battle if they feel their tactics are working. Loran was certainly successful in the green valley, yet he seems to have changed his pattern. It’s as if his anger and rage have been put in check.”
Two days later, the news was even more surprising. After sending Duets Bear, Dragon and Firestorm on a second, more thorough reconnaissance mission lasting two days, the six Gahdar came back in the early hours of the morning and woke Miro. As they began to tell him the news, he halted their tale and immediately called for Evan, Julius and Jannus. The three came to his tent still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, but as soon as the reconnaissance units resumed their tale, they quickly became alert.
The first thing that was shocking was the fact that there was an amazing amount of activity among the Thrones. It looked as if they were preparing to leave the city. Hundreds of them were readying horses and wagons, and securing the looted supplies from Günter Platz and now Wrenstatten.
“If they’re leaving, where to?” Miro said, pondering his own – as yet – unanswerable question. “If they head off to the south, we’ll have to do something to divert them to Fire Block – not an easy task. If they’re heading somewhere else, then our job is even more difficult. If I thought there was something strange about Loran’s earlier actions, now I’m totally convinced something new is afoot.”
After further discussion, Miro sent out another team of Duets. What they returned with this time was the most surprising information of all.
“Hippolito!” Miro shouted when the Gahdar returned, telling him of seeing a slighter, younger Icarian with Loran. After hearing a complete description of the angel, Miro knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had to be the former Prince of Hypernia.
“I wondered where that snake would turn up,” he cursed. “Now it all becomes clear: Hippolito is pulling the strings here. Loran is mad, and that… that… pu’pis is running the show!”
“So what do we do?” Evan asked.
“Regrettably, nothing,” Miro fumed. “We can’t risk discovery until we know what they’re up to. We can’t show our hand until they show theirs. That they’re preparing something is clear. We'll keep sending out teams and learning what we can. Master Sakki would have done the same thing. We need to gather as much information as possible – build up a picture of what’s happening. If we can see the big picture, we can come up with a plan – a plan that will work."
Three more days passed and the news that the teams returned with began to give Miro the picture he was looking for. Huddled together outside his tent with Evan, Julius, Jannus, and the members of the reconnaissance team, he listened intently to what they’d discovered.
“They’re splitting up,” Edward said, “But it’s not an equal split. We can’t figure out why, but we can tell you that Hippolito is moving the bulk of the Thrones out of Wrenstatten, and it looks like he’s heading north.”
“North? What could be north that Hippolito would be interested in?” Miro murmured, lost in thought. “How many?” he suddenly asked, rousing himself from his inner reflections.
“Hard to say,” Gray said. “A lot - Fifty to sixty thousand, would be a fair guess, since it looks like about twenty thousand are remaining behind in Wrenstatten under Loran’s command.”
“You’re sure Hippolito is taking the larger of the two groups and Loran has the smaller one… and that Loran is remaining in the city?”
“Well, maybe not one hundred percent sure… but sure enough,” Gray added.
“What is that little snake up to?” Miro asked again, shaking his head.
“He’s figured a way to convince Loran to give him the bulk of his forces,” Julius said. “We have no idea how, but it doesn’t matter. I’m convinced he has no intention of working with Loran or supporting him. He has his own agenda, and is making his own plans.”
“Now what?” Evan asked turning to Miro for an answer.
“Bloody hell,” Miro cursed, “I don’t know.” This generalling thing was a lot harder than it first seemed. He got up from the circle and strode across the encampment, contemplating his next move. For over an hour he paced and pondered, weighing his options – trying to guess what Loran and Hippolito would do. Were they working in concert? No, Miro didn’t think it possible. Hippolito didn’t know the meaning of cooperation. Was Loran totally mad? Possibly, but not likely, since if he were completely mad beyond reason Hippolito might have tried to kill him and take over all of the troops. What about the orbs? Jamie’d told him that they had a strong pull on both he and Loran. Surely Loran would want the six – if Jamie had indeed gotten the sixth orb.
Returning to the group, Miro resumed his seat and addressed those surrounding him. “We let Hippolito go,” he began. “At the moment we have no idea what he’s up to, but from the beginning our mission has been to focus on Loran. Now that I’ve thought about it, it makes sense that it was Hippolito who most likely encouraged Loran to attack Wrenstatten, but the Prince of Hypernia held the leash tightly. Somehow, he reigned in Loran’s madness and convinced him not to kill the entire population of the city. Now he takes at least fifty thousand thrones and heads north. Does anyone know what’s there?”
“Only Wheems,” Evan Mahon said, tossing out his answer off-handedly. “It’s where the headquarters of the church – the Diet, the Sacred Father and the ecclesiastical bureaucracy - reside.”
“You mean those crazy monks?” Miro asked. “The one’s who tried to capture Jamie? The one’s who killed Luc?”
“Yes,” Evan said.
“Of course!” Miro shouted, so excited by his discovery that he burst out in Icarian: “Dat a’renn mat s’reena c’lee a’reena,” he said in the lilting tongue. There was a strong nodding of heads among the Icarians, but a frown from Evan Mahon. Realizing what he’d done, Miro looked at Evan and repeated his words in the human tongue, “The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.”
“But that’s all wrong,” Evan said, sounding puzzled. “Don’t you mean the enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
“That’s not how the game was played in the Empire,” Miro said to the young lieutenant. “In the Empire, alliances were formed between the most unlikely players. Two enemies, whose families had fought blood feuds for centuries, would form an alliance to dispatch a mutual enemy, but they still remained enemies and once their goal was achieved it wasn’t above either side to slide a knife in the back of the other if the opportunity arose. That’s exactly what Hippolito is doing. I’m sure of it. He spared the citizens of Wrenstatten, a city in the shadow of the church’s headquarters – this Wheems. And now he heads there to make some kind of alliance.”
“So now what?” Jannus asked.
“We stick to the plan and let them go. Our mission has always been Loran, and for the moment he’s still in the city. We can’t go off chasing Hippolito. Its our job to get Loran and his troops into Fire Block. And if he’s only got a part of his forces this may even be to our advantage. I was never very good at advanced numbers, but even I know that although twenty to thirty thousand against two thousand isn’t very good odds, they’re bloody well better than eighty thousand against the forces Nic has gathered.”
Again, there were strong nods from the Icarians.
“And anyway, Hippolito and his forces will be out in the open. If we fight them, it will be standard battle tactics – something we don’t want to engage in at the moment. Our war is a war of shadows, and with Hippolito out of the city with the bulk of the troops, we’ll needle the bloody hell out of Loran and his forces. If he’s insane now, we’ll make him rabid as a mad dog by the time we're finished.”
And so, after Hippolito left Wrenstatten with his army, the war of shadows began. Raids and sabotage were conducted – always in the dark, and always out of sight. Aimed against the troops, arsenals and supplies, they worked at their plan of methodical destruction. Not one Gahdar was injured, but quite a few thrones were killed – less for them to battle in Fire Block. Arsenals of arms were destroyed, and supplies burned or rendered useless. On the fourth day of the campaign, a thousand Thrones left the city heading south. When Miro heard the words, he nodded grimly.
“They’re the advance party that Jamie predicted. They’re heading to the Poniçessian Mountains and the Pass of Tears,” he said. “Fortune favor Kopper and his men. They’re a brave lot – every one of them, but we can only wish them luck. Now our work really begins, and we'll kick the wasp’s nest. We’ll make sure they know who we are and where we are. We’ll do something that will so anger Loran, he'll put aside all logic and come after us.” Pausing, he looked around at his circle of councilors and spies. “Bring Duet Spider to me. Its time our two little boys have their big night.”
Within minutes, the two pajama-clad, barefoot boys arrived at Miro’s tent with their curved swords belted at their waists. Looking every bit like initiates from one of the primary training camps who’d just been outfitted in their garb, Miro looked at them and smiled.
“I hope you’ve been following your studies,” he said. Receiving two dutiful nods, his smile grew even more. If they’d stop acting like two little boys maybe they’d be taken more seriously, he chuckled to himself. “Good," he said. "Tonight’s the night. You’ll go into the Royal Palace and do your work.”
Again there were nods of agreement from Yann and Yvan.
“You’ve studied the plans?” Miro asked.
“Of course,” Yann replied. “It’s the only way to be sure we’ll know the proper routes. While all of you were spending all your time sparring, Master Sakki had us spend at least two hours every day studying such things. He told us that every time we studied the plans he’d given us we had to know them perfectly – one hundred percent. He accepted nothing less. You should have seen the drills he put us through; we…”
“How many do you think you can kill in one night?” Miro asked, cutting off Yann’s explanation.
“How many do you think are in the castle?” Yann asked, looking annoyed at being interrupted.
“About four hundred.” Gray replied, “Give or take a hundred.”
“Then we can kill them all,” Yvan answered matter-of-factly. “If we begin at nightfall, we’ll be done by morning.”
“You’ll kill all four hundred?” Cassius said – the tone of his voice indicating his disbelief.
“We took out over five hundred at Castle Durran for the emperor,” Yann said. “It was kept secret and we were told never to reveal it or we’d be severely punished, but the Empire’s gone now, so what does it matter?”
“You were responsible for the five hundred at Durran?” Commodus said, “Are we talking about the same place – Castle Durran, Duke Ovid’s estates – the ancestral home of the House of Geiss?"
Without hesitation both Yvan and Yann nodded, looking every bit the innocent and sweet boys they truly weren’t.
Edward gave long, low whistle of amazement. “Rumor had it that it was the Vipers who’d done the deed. I always guessed there were maybe twenty or thirty of them who carried out the orders.”
“No, it was just us,” Yvan said, smiling. “We do more than just stand around and look like your cute little mascots,” he added, with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
“Apparently,” Mercury said, his eyebrows shooting up to his forehead.
“I always knew it was the two of you,” Miro said. “That’s why I chose you for this mission. At the Imperial Court the walls had ears, and less than a day after it happened I heard the true story. Like the both of you, I knew better than to open my mouth, but as you can see it’s information I filed away. Lucky for me it wasn’t one of the memories I lost.
“Then tonight’s the night,” he continued, “You will accompany Fox and Raven into the city. They’ll wait for you, and bring you back before dawn. And then we’ll show our hand. Now I suggest you prepare, and we’ll come get you when it’s time.”
"If we come across Loran, should we kill him?” Yvan asked. “I mean…”
“No!” Miro quickly countered. “If you kill Loran, it causes problems with the orbs. I’m not sure what, but it could spell death for sa’Crêsmané. Best to let Loran be. Jamie was adamant in his insistence that Loran gets through the Pass of Tears and makes his way from Taldor Valoren to the Circle of Ondra so he can meet his older brother. If Loran is dead, I don’t know exactly what will happen to the orbs, but I know Jamie won’t be able to absorb them properly. That can only happen if one is present when the other dies. So please, be sure you know whom you’re killing. Killing Loran would have the same effect as killing Jamie, once the germinus takes over.”
After voicing their understanding of Miro orders, Yvan and Yann left the circle and headed back to their tent across camp.
Commodus shook his head, “I knew how deadly they were in the arena, but I would have never guessed…”
“Well, now you know,” Miro said, “but now’s not the time for stories. We have work to do. After Yann and Yvan are done, we want to make it quite clear to Loran who’s been at the bottom of all this. If we do it right, he’ll loose all perspective. We’ve been here almost a month since we left Konassas. I’m hoping that by now Nic is well entrenched in Fire Block, and Jamie is with him – or at least heading there. If the sa’Crêsmané is right, the pull of the six orbs inside of him will be too strong for Loran to ignore. He has to head south – to Gold Glass and the Circle of Ondra, anyway – and it’s just as easy to pass through Fire Block as not. If we do our job we can lead him right there, using his anger towards us and Jamie as a beacon – then we really get to have some fun,” he added, smiling wickedly.
The others joined him – their answering and equally wicked grins reminding Miro of a pack of hungry jackals.
That night Yann and Yvan journeyed to the city and slipped through one of the breaches in the formerly great and massive curtain walls surrounding Wrenstatten. Just before dawn they returned, to meet up with Duets Fox and Raven.
“Mission accomplished,” Yann said, smiling.
“Bloody hell!” Marainus said, half in awe and half in shock when he saw the boys. The crisp, clean white pajamas both of them had been wearing were caked in blood. Blood was smeared on their hands, arms, faces, and feet. “Are you hurt? I mean, the blood...”
“None of it’s ours,” Yvan said, giving Marainus one of his cute, boyish smiles – the very one that he and Yann used to flash their opponents in the ring just before one their matches: the one that told their opponents that here were two cute, green, and inexperienced little boys fresh for the carving – and the killing. It was the same look they flashed at the end of each contest when their opponents, shocked and surprised, took their last breaths.
“Well, let's get out of here and back to Miro,” Mercury said. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
Dawn was rapidly approaching as the three duets made their way to the place where Miro told them to meet the rest of the gladiators. As the first rays of the sun lit the morning sky and they advanced to the spot, they could see all the Gahdar and their support troops standing on the open plain that lay three miles from the city. Every Gahdar was in full gladiatorial regalia, armed to the teeth and standing in a formation created by Niklas – one they’d often used when fighting recreations of historic battles. Nic had called it ‘The Apocalypse’ and it was brilliant – a formation designed to lure in the greatest number of attackers, in order to slaughter them quickly and efficiently. The crowds at Rood, though, had their own special name for it, and cheered wildly whenever the gladiators began to form it. Called 'the slaughterhouse' by the fans, they knew when it was employed that anyone who entered the massive, three-dimensional formation from land or air – like cattle lead into a slaughterhouse – never came out alive. Now, standing on the open plain, they were poised to assume it and eagerly awaited their final orders.
In the early afternoon, before the three duets left for Wrenstatten to prosecute Yann and Yvan’s mission, Miro had ordered everyone to strike camp so they’d be ready to begin their flight from Wrenstatten to Fire Block – hopefully with Loran and his forces in pursuit. While the three duets were on their mission, the Gahdar made the journey from the plateau to the plain, and waited. As soon as Miro saw the six boys from the three Duets approach, he shouted an order and a few torches were thrown onto two large piles of wood made up of branches and logs the gladiators had foraged while they’d waited for the three Duets to return from their mission. As the flames leapt to the sky Miro called out another order and green wood and leaves were thrown on the open fires creating large plumes of black smoke that drifted skyward.
“We want to make sure we’re seen,” Miro said smiling, “we want to get full credit for this, and it's always better to give those bone-headed thrones something to target.”
As he was checking out the fires, the three Duets returning from the city approached.
“You boys are a mess,” Miro said as he gave Yann and Yvan a close examination. “Since you’re walking upright and have smiles on your faces, apparently none of that blood’s yours."
“No, none of it’s ours,” Yann said. “There were three hundred and eighty four – all thrones.”
“You kept count?” Miro asked.
“Of course,” Yann answered. “We always do.”
“And your information regarding Loran was correct,” Yvan added. “He wasn’t there. He stays in another part of town with his principle general – a Royal Dominion named Matthew.”
“I’ve heard about him from Nic,” Miro said. “He was resurrected at the same time as Lancelot. Lance joined Nic and Jamie, but Matthew went with Loran.”
“Do we have time to change our clothes?” Yvan asked.
“I don’t think so,” Miro said. “They’ll be coming soon, but you’ll have time to clean up during the journey to Fire Block."
“Too bad there’s no time now,” Yvan said. “We like to keep clean. We have extra clothing.”
“I wondered about that,” Miro said, and indeed he had, for it seemed that every time he saw the boys they were dressed in the same white, spotless outfits. “For now, take your positions; there’s still more work to be done.” Then, looking toward the city, he gave a whoop and shouted, “Here they come!”
And indeed, they were coming. Miro counted four full 'toons of Thrones streaking across the plains – their powerful wings stroking as they raced toward the Gahdar.
“Only four 'toons, boys,” Miro shouted. “I know you were hoping for more, but we’ll just have to make the best of it.”
Miro moved to take his position with the others. “How predictable,” Miro said under his breath as he smiled and drew his heavy battle sword in his right hand and a short sword in his left, ready to once again show his brothers why he’d earned the nickname ‘Talon-fighter.’”
“Ready,” Miro cried, suddenly realizing that without his best friend standing nearby, this time he had to bark the orders instead of Niklas.
“Ready and hold,” Miro said, thinking of how many times he’d heard Nic shout those same orders. And then, as the thrones raced toward them, a ritual that had been performed over a hundred times before began.
“First blood gets a point,” Gray shouted.
“First kill gets five,” Edward shouted back.
“Most kills wins,” Argus shouted the loudest of all.
“Who keeps count?” Nicoli shouted.
“Honor system,” Cassius yelled.
“Like I’d believe any of you,” Gray yelled, spitting on the ground as was always his fashion before he drew his sword.
It was always the same and never changed, but there was something Miro found reassuring in the familiar chant - including Gray spitting on the ground for luck before he drew his sword.
“Ready and guard,” he shouted as the four 'toons rapidly approached, and he could hear a shifting in the ranks behind him. Once more his mind went to Nic and his baby brother David, younger than him by one minute, but always teased about it by the others. When forming The Apocalypse, Miro was always used to having David to his right on the ground and Nic to his left in the air, but he was a veteran of this maneuver and as he watched the Thrones closing the distance between them, he began to count using a trick Master Sakki had taught him as he estimated the distance between the Gahdar and their enemies.
When his count reached the number he’d intended, he could see his estimation of their speed was accurate. Without looking back he shouted, “Primi, to the air!” and the primi half of each duet – including himself – quickly took to their standard positions in the air. “Secundi, formation now,” he barked, and the junior half of each duet took up their familiar positions on the ground.
Then from the mouth of every Gahdar there rose a blood-curdling cry – a yell the crowds of Rood recognized as their battle cry. It vibrated the air as the Thrones made first contact, and the Battle Royale was joined. Even as he hacked and slashed, Miro was amazed at how well The Apocalypse always worked. Nic never gave himself enough credit, Miro thought as he cut off the arm of a nearby throne. He always claimed he was a fighter, not a tactician, but every one of the formations Nic had created was just like him: effective and efficient. Never one to play to the crowds, if there was a clean and elegant way to do the job, Nic had a talent for finding it.
The Apocalypse was just such a formation. On the ground, the secundi spread out in a square formation, their spacing and positions looking completely random to the untrained eye. But when you took into account the primi in the air at various heights and positions above them, it was like entering a great, three-dimensional maze. There was enough space between every Gahdar – both in the air and on the ground - to allow a large number of the enemy to infiltrate the formation. Anyone witnessing it for the first time might think the Gahdar were set too far apart to be effective. But as soon as the box was full and they fought their way to the center, no matter where the enemy was at least one Gahdar was nearby - from above, or below, or the side - and ready to strike. The Apocalypse was also a extremely fluid formation that could assume many sizes and shapes, and easily adapted to whatever enemy or situation presented itself.
“Over twenty-five hundred years - you’d think by now they’d have learned,” he chuckled as he beheaded a particularly large Throne who’d flown by, intent on slicing up Gray. “Of course, they’ve been sleeping like us, but still...”
As the thrones flew into the formation, the primi immediately attacked. True to their training, some of the thrones landed and advanced on foot. But once they were within the box the secundi dealt with them, along with any wounded that fell from the sky.
When it was all over, Miro was facing Julius as he wiped his swords. “That ought to really piss them off,” he laughed, and then shouted to the others, “Let's get moving, boys; we’re the hares, and the hounds should be after us as soon as they realize what’s happened. Just remember to leave a visible trail – those bone-headed Thrones will get lost otherwise.”
“We could always put up signs with big arrows,” Nicoli said, laughing.
“Well, we want to be obvious,” Miro said, joining in the laughter, “but we don’t want them to think we’re leading them into a trap.”
“A trap? A trap? We’re leading them into a trap? You mean, that wasn't just for fun?” Edward said, looking shocked and putting a hand to his head while his voice carried as much sarcasm as he could muster. “Who said anything about a trap?” Finally unable to keep a straight face, he doubled over with laughter.
“Alright, enough,” Miro said, “let's get moving. We have to time this just right. Fast enough so we’re not caught, but slow enough so they don’t lose us.”
“Stupid Thrones,” Gray said.
“Stupid or not,” Miro said, “we have a job to do, so let's get to it.”
The wagons, loaded with the gladiators’ food and supplies, moved out. The Gahdar mounted their horses, and joined them – surrounding the wagons on all sides to protect their support troops.
Yes, Miro thought – stroking his wings and leaping from the ground onto Lightning's back – he was getting the hang of this generaling thing.