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Chapter 2

The journey to Bayathu had seemed never ending, with three weeks in the Western Sea after leaving the Island of Ibuzu through the first storms of winter on bloody flat-bottomed horse transports with their monotonous and gut loosening bucking and tossing ensuring no one slept or ate much. Madruk spent most of the trip smelling horse shit and piss mixed with the ever-heady aroma of human vomit caused by too many people crowded in a small space, often those from the middle could not reach the rails in time when seasickness hit.

This followed by six gruelling weeks marching across the Ayerate Mountain passes with uniformly knee-high snow-covered roads, with occasional drifts or avalanches that blocked the road well over a man’s height. These took hours to clear each time and with only five hundred sullen soldiers, 600 horses and of course the obligatory contingent of Priests and Royal Wizards for company. Insufferable bastards, the wizards were always complaining and whining about every delay whilst sitting snugly in their magically warmed carriages and never once offering any aid.

“Magic can only be deployed in defence of the Empire, the Empress or on her orders, not for making the common soldier warm and comfortable or making their jobs easier,” was the insufferable response he received from Aziel, the Master Wizard the one time he dared hint that the delays would be less if they got off their fat arses and helped. Not controlling his temper, he retorted angrily, “Getting back to the Capital this year WAS what the Empress ordered!” He glared at the wizards, who uniformly ignored him, continuing their breakfast while the soldiers toiled and manoeuvred around them. By the Founder Gods, he hated magic; hatred based only on the users of magic he had met, but that was enough.

Knowing he should keep his mouth shut and move on, he could not help but sneer. “Old bastard like you probably doesn’t have the power left to move a snowflake, let alone a whole road,” as he stalked off.

He knew he could never prove that the sudden and agonising rash of boils and lesions across his groin and arse were the wizard’s curse, which made the next several days in the saddle excruciating. There was nothing he could do now, but in his heart, he knew and swore that one day even wizards would treat him with respect. He just needed the opportunity to move beyond his family shadow and become his own man.

When they finally cleared the snowfields, there were the Plains of Ozur to cross, a thousand leagues of flat relentless farmlands with plentiful food and supplies making for an easy march. Being secure in the heart of the Empire, this allowed for light sentry duties at night, albeit with nothing but ploughed fields of dirt to look at for fifteen days until you suddenly reached the outer areas of the Capital.

Entering the Capital was always a mix of wonder and disbelief. They approached on the western highway, a grand avenue cutting a straight line through an enormous slum, the perfectly paved road wide enough for six wagons lined with gold and marble statues and monuments to the heroes and legends of the past. Guards in full armour and weapons stood every thirty paces to keep the riff raff off the royal highways, their breastplates and helmets shining brightly in the baking sun.

This surrounded by a sea of wicked and windy streets; many thousands of semi-solid structures only held upright by the proximity of their neighbours, were within his view. He saw the chaotic mess stretching for miles across the whole city face and knew it was like this all the way around, except for a huge cardinal crossing where the four highways dissected the city.

The outer city was teeming with people from all the empires; the different races intermingled with animals running free, both domestic, feral or children. The pungent combination of odours from the various food and drinks mingled unpleasantly with sewerage, garbage and filth strewn openly about was awful enough. Adding to the general sense of mayhem was the bustling noise from the sheer volume of people and the hawkers calling desperately from the highway’s edge offering everything from food to flowers. His senses were almost overwhelmed after weeks of relatively quiet travel.

The city walls loomed before them, forty feet high and made of two equal walls ten feet apart, the centre filled with rubble and dirt from the construction, topped with low pointed battlements and a paved allure for the sentries to tramp around, though none could be seen right now. The entire outside edifice was covered with filthy grey grime from years of smoke from the winter fires warming the shacks and buildings along its base, jutting out like giant warts stretching around the entire city.

The gates themselves were open but barred by a boom gate manned with armed guards like those manning the highway in the outer city. The boom opened before him; the gate Sergeant saluting lazily at Madruk as his command rode through like a dust covered parade, smiling and laughing, glad to be home.

The Capital had not faced an enemy for over a thousand years, even in the great wars no army ever stood within ten days ride of the gates, and as a consequence the sentries were complacent and lazy, despite the perfect uniforms and sharpened weapons all the guards carried. They all appeared overfed and over-rested to Madruk’s eyes.

Once through the gates Madruk led the men to the inner barracks and released them to complete their release or transfer documents and receive their service completion bonuses. Only then could they be freed into the city proper to give most of the bonus directly back to the metropolis, through the many bars and brothels both in the Inner and Outer city.

The Inner city was a complete mismatch with the outside; pretty town houses and villas lined the street, growing successively larger until they saw massive gardened mansions approaching the Palace walls.

There were no guards visible on the avenues and the entire city was spotless, with no litter or animals, and the children he did see were well dressed and behaved for this time of day, in their school or academy uniforms and rushing to class or training.

After this arduous journey, he was given just five paltry days in the Capital, very little time to see his family or friends; just work to do. He did manage a short formal meeting with his parents on arrival in the city. Mariam El Adruk was almost Madruk’s height, a strikingly handsome matron with pale unblemished skin and long jet-black hair like Madruk’s own, belying her sixty odd years of life and birthing of seven children. This was quite a contrast to his father, broad and solid, a full head shorter than Madruk, with swarthy skin like most natives of the Empire.

His mother hugged him warmly with tears in her eyes and sat next to him holding his hand in hers.  His father, as always, was the aloof and imperious Duke toward Madruk. Unlike Madruk’s two older brothers, his father had never shown any love for Madruk, who was tall and lean like his mother with black hair and eyes, light skin and a grace of movement his father could never match.

His father’s only advice was a growled, “Do not embarrass yourself or your rank.” His heavily- browed eyes barely bothering to look at Madruk. “You received special favour to avoid priesthood, due to your mother’s family connection with the Empress, breaking twenty generations of tradition for third sons of the Empire.” His father’s anger and embarrassment at this was obvious, having no fourth son he could not even offer as a replacement.

For a great family to have no direct representation in each generation of the clergy was a great weakness amongst the other families, leaving his father reliant on cousins and nephews to protect his interests in church matters ... and thus the family profits from the Church businesses.

Madruk believed in the Old Gods, of course, and worshipped on holy days like everyone else.  However, the thought of six years of study cloistered in the remote Bayluoka Monastery learning the mysteries and the magic of the High Church, then upon graduation receiving his golden chain of priesthood he would be sent at once to the Capital as third son of a great Lord allowing him the privilege of spending the rest of his life in a sludge of hierarchical, nepotistic and corruption-driven church politics, more about gaining the favour of the Empress and making great wealth from trade than concern for anyone’s soul.

His father had always been and would always be disappointed in Madruk, no matter what he did, what his achievements or efforts, his father would ignore them. So Madruk did not argue or defend himself against his father’s words. He sat with his face impassive and his body rigid waiting for his father to finish, then thanked him for the counsel and promising he would do his best to find favour is his father eyes, said to the back of his father’s balding head. He knew he was now dismissed.

As usual he was leaving the family home depressed and angry, his mother wrapped him in another warm embrace and whispered in his ear. “Do not be angry with your father, he is tied to the Empire ways and will not wish to risk his position further than marrying me already has. The other Lords still regard him with suspicion for marrying outside his race and class.” She slipped a purse of gold coins into his coat pocket. “He does love you, he just does not know how to show it.”

“He shows my brothers affection just fine,” Madruk sulked, regretting the words instantly as pain showed briefly in his mother’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, “he just makes me feel like a failure and an embarrassment each time we speak, I do not mean to take my anger out on you.” He kissed her cheek and cleared her tears with his fingers.

She smiled and told him to go. “Try not to waste the money on wine and women,” she remanded. “Save it for a time when you really need it, you will be a long way from home and without access to any aid I can give.”

Madruk laughed wryly, “I do not have my posting yet and anyway the Empire is at peace mother and my salary is good enough for all my needs, there is no trouble for me to get in even if I wanted to.”

She smiled sadly into Madruk’s face and replied, “Adventurous and angry young men always find a way to invite or invent their own troubles and I can see clearly that your mind is set on searching it out,” she then said goodbye.

His mother’s family were wealthy merchants from the Ni’Hoosdzaan world or Ni’Ho to the denizens, a small moon orbiting the Empire’s home world, only won by the Empire forty years before at the end the last great war. Her father, a teacher originally, of low birth but high intellect, had reacted quickly to the new order. With money he did not have he bought rights to several gem deposits common on Ni’Ho, but rare and valued on the world they orbited, relying on the booming trade through the now regularly opened gate connecting the worlds.

His father’s family bore a great name though reduced to bare threads and family pride by generations of indolence and indulgence. The two families struck a common enough bargain, sealed with a wedding, but fortunately for both parties in this case the contract resulted in love or at least mutual respect and affection.


After the joys of his family meeting, Madruk found his way to the Military Palace first thing the next morning to receive his new Command. The Palace was a sprawling complex of buildings, home to the Empire’s military leadership; generals, admirals and assorted Lords strutting throughout looking and sounding important.

He was to receive his Command Orders from the Empress, not in person of course, just the cantankerous and eternal General Bompherous, grumbling to himself about respect for history and the proper order as he shoved the orders into Madruk’s hand, after making him wait two hours and then just tottering away. He barely had time to read the words Bayathu and Northern Province, dredging up vague memories of a desert kingdom with pagans and sand, before the general’s stressed looking aide, whom Madruk did not know and who did not introduce himself, stomped towards him.

He stopped directly in front of Madruk, his pasty face pinched and frowning at some vague spot over Madruk’s left shoulder. A servant in brown livery, dragging a barrow full of documents piled in many bundles tied with ribbons, trundled up beside the aide, who without ceremony, shoved a file into his hands.

“You will need to sign these documents to show you have received, understood and accepted those documents,” pointing to the barrow; “I will tick them off as Matthias hands them to you,” signalling the servant.

“First file,” he started in a lifeless voice. “Name and Rank of the seven hundred soldiers to accompany you to Bayathu.” The servant, Matthias, dutifully shoved a file of around ten pages towards Madruk, who accepted without a word, staring at the aide.

“File two,” he continued, still not looking at Madruk. “Copies of company reports including commendations, remands and other reports for all soldiers.” This time the pile of documents was quite a bit larger, but the servant slapped them on top of the first pile in Madruk’s arms and reached slowly for the next.

“File three,” the aide’s voice already a painful drone. “List of all officers, including records of posting and latest assessments from past commanders.” A new pile of ribbon-bound paper in his arms.

“File four,” but before he could continue Madruk interrupted.

“Can the servant not just leave the file in the barrow? I cannot carry them all as you can see,” indicating his already full arms and the vast majority of files still weighing down the rickety cart.

“You cannot take Matthias’s cart,” muttered the aide indignantly. “He requires the cart for his work and we have many more orders to deliver today.” He nodded to the servant to continue and repeated.

“File four, list of all weapons distributed.”

Madruk cut him off again, “Can I borrow another cart then?” getting frustrated. “It is pointless to give me the documents as I can do nothing with them.”

The now thoroughly irritating aide just snorted in dry amusement and replied, “We are not a hardware store nor are we a training service for new officers.” He looked briefly as Madruk, scorn and annoyance in his dull brown eyes. “All officers are required to manage their own orders – you should have bought men to carry them or your own barrow.”

Madruk was barely holding his anger now, desperately wanting to slap this little weasel into next week. Taking a deep breath and talking quietly to disguise his irritation, he was staring hard at the aide and cautioned him. “Do you know who I am, who my father is?” His fury and being forced to use his rank drove his voice to a higher pitch than he liked.

“And according to these orders I am now a Colonel. An ambassador and acting Governor of the Northern Province,” now close to a shout and causing many to turn and stare at this undisciplined idiot throwing a tantrum in the Military Palace.

“In here, you are nothing, this building is full of Generals, Lords, Princelings, Priests and pampered royal children,” a pointed insult at Madruk’s age. “From this and other Empires, all believe that their rank or name earns them special treatment.”

“It does not,” he said with finality.

“Now, where was I?” he continued rhetorically “Ah, yes. File four, list of weapons assigned to you for the duration of your appointment.”

The delivery of files lasted a further forty minutes while Madruk stared daggers sullenly at the uncaring aide, Madruk’s imagination running through dismemberment techniques that he could use to wipe the smugness from the little man’s face.

Madruk was left standing surrounded by files and documents, with no means to get them outside, let alone all the way to the barracks. He left the files standing in the marble halls and went outside into the sun to find labourers he could pay to help him move them.