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Sovereign of the Sun

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“1330 was a fateful year in which manifold signs in the heavens and on the earth heralded misfortune and unusual events. In spring locusts swarmed from the steppe, destroying the grain and the grass. This was a harbinger of things to come. In summer, there came a new terror: not the usual bands of raiders, outlaws, and deserters, but a power which united all these towards a single purpose, driving them forth from the steppe across the settled lands like a living plague.

The source of this great catastrophe was a demon in man’s form known to the world as Bhalla Khan. This Bhalla Khan, whose true name was Bhallaladeva, was from a great kingdom beyond the Indus. He had been cast out of that kingdom, driven forth like Cain to wander the nations of the earth. In the wild steppe he found a land well-suited to his tastes, and he bent its savage hordes to his terrible purpose.

Second only in infamy to the khan was his second-in-command, a wild Zaporozhian named Yurko Bohun. For the wrongs he felt done to him and his people, this Bohun exacted dreadful revenge on all mankind, and he served Bhalla Khan even as Beelzebub served Lucifer as his lieutenant.

Together they united the raiders of the Western Steppe into one people, calling them “Kozaks”. These enemies of the human race became the very scourge and living nightmare of the civilised world, shrieking out from the wilderness with the fury and rapacity of wolves. All who opposed the Kozaks were destroyed by terrible, swift campaigns and by engines of war the likes of which the world had never yet seen. Yet even more than the Mongols, these Kozaks swiftly established themselves in all lands they claimed, carving out their new empire.

Thus it was said that, from the shores of the Baltic to Samarkand, from the Muscovite lands to Persia, an entire generation of mankind was lost in blood and flame.”

—Chronica Polonorum

 

It is not sufficient that I succeed: all others must fail.—Genghis Khan

 


 

Early spring, 1330 C.E. Along the Atil River, Khazarian Khaganate of the Golden Horde, Central Western Steppe | Modern-day Kazakhstan


The open steppe stretched before him, barren and infinite. The exiled prince of Mahishmati had never seen such a wasteland. From horizon to horizon, the world in which he travelled was an endless sea of rippling grass relieved only by the grey river. No sign of human habitation marked the land. In all the wide rim of the world there was nothing but endless hills, patchy snow, mud, and stunted trees.

Even his horse seemed stunted and ugly, though stronger than any he’d ever known. It trod over snow, mud, and steeps alike with tireless strength, and Bhallaladeva could well imagine how such horses had made the men of the steppe feared in war. The savages amongst whom he found himself were excellent judges of horses, though Bhallaladeva thought it likely that the horses had broken the men rather than the other way around.

He did allow that there was a kind of piratical flair to these savage peoples. There were the folk of the Eastern Steppe in folded deel robes embroidered with silken thread from China, their curve-toed boots designed to part the deep grass. There were Khazars, Turks, and Tartars in layered vests and jackets of many colours, necklaces of gold coins clanking on their women’s necks, and broad sashes around their waists. There were the peoples of the Western Steppe with flaring, long-skirted woolen coats, and billowing trousers. Yet even the wealthiest people he’d met reeked like animals under their layers of felt and fur. They stank, as he himself stank.

As a trained warrior and veteran of many battles, Bhallaladeva had thought himself accustomed to heavy, stinking gear. Even when one had servants to wash and anoint armour with fragrant oils, everything except the metal itself inevitably stank of old sweat. Yet he had never imagined the oppressive, stinking weight of all the fabric required to keep one from freezing to death, especially when the wearers were crammed tight in one small shelter.

Most of all, he could not have imagined the cold. It did not seem to be mere weather but a living, malignant force. The wind drove it deep into his bones, searching through every seam of his clothes, stealing sensation from hands, feet, and face. It crept into his core until only long, long hours by a fire could begin to drive it back. In the coldest months his breath had frozen to ice in his beard and eyebrows, and the air had stabbed like knives at every indrawn breath.

Even now, when he and his companions had set out again as winter turned to spring, it seemed to Bhallaladeva that the cold would never release its hold on the steppe. Freak blizzards often struck, turning the whole landscape into a howling white blur—a sign, they told him cheerfully, that spring was well underway.

Everything was bleak and colourless, even the food. The food was the price of existence, but sometimes starvation seemed the lesser torment. There was none of the complexity and nuance of the food he’d known, none of the vibrancy that seemed a celebration of the life-giving nourishment itself. The food of these lands, Bhallaladeva thought, was for peoples whose highest ambition was merely to survive.

The Persian traders he’d travelled with had warned him of this. Sheik Aslam Khan had also provided him with clothing, tack, and horses suitable for a banished prince; Maharaja Baahubali had enjoined him to do no less. Baahu had compensated the trader handsomely for his troubles, and that had been but a fraction of the wealth the new ruler of Mahishmati had sent to support his exiled brother in his new life.

His new life.



“I, Amarendra Baahubali, Maharaja of Mahishmati, the guardian of its borders and domains, the people’s saviour and their strong shield, do hereby find the royal Prince Bhallaladeva, son of Prince Bijjaladeva and Queen Mother Sivagami Devi, guilty of treason. We find him guilty of knowingly scheming to deceive the Queen Mother, using the matter of the Yuvarani Devasena of Kuntala to attempt to force the her to either break her word or to commit heinous injustice.”

The Kuntalan yuvarani, now Maharani of Mahishmati, stared down at Bhallaladeva with lofty contempt. Their gazes met and his hands twitched with the desire to seize that lovely throat and squeeze until the eyes glazed in death. She had seen through him, even before they met.

The message had come back to Mahishmati from Kuntala, borne in secret to Sivagami. It was read in court when Bhallaladeva’s mother had been satisfied of its truth: “Prince Baahubali has been in love with the Princess Devasena for many months. Kattappa and the Kuntalans have discovered that spies carried this information back to Mahishmati, and that Prince Bhallaladeva schemed to use this knowledge to force Queen Mother Sivagami into grave error, with the ultimate aim of securing the crown for himself.”

Blazing with the fury that Bhallaladeva himself had inherited from her, Sivagami had commanded that the only child of her body be dragged away in chains. Now Bhallaladeva stood before the court in chains once more, but this time his foster-brother sat upon the throne.

Bhallaladeva turned from Devasena to Sivagami. The two women sat close beside one another, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law united by the scheme they had uncovered. Sivagami stiffened as her son glared up at her. Devasena put a hand on her shoulder as both they both regarded the condemned man before them.

“You would have turned against him, mother”, Bhallaladeva told her silently. “Had I succeeded, you would have turned against him without a second thought. You may love Baahu best, but we are of one kindred: it takes a viper to spawn a viper.”

Mother and son stared at each other with hatred as Maharaja Baahubali spoke on:

“...He schemed to seize the sacred throne of Mahishmati by means of infamous deceits and deeds whose villainy encompassed even the death of myself, his own brother. Yet because a brother’s death is abhorrent to all peoples, it is clear that executing this prince would make us no better than he.”

There were tears in his brother’s eyes.

Why, Bhalla? those eyes seemed to say. Why? How could you have done this?

The fact that Baahubali did not know made Bhallaladeva hate him even more.

“Thus, let it be known that on this, the fifth day of the month of Pushyamu, in the year of Sukla, the first year of our reign, we do hereby banish him from our lands, declaring him exile and stripping him of all the privileges of birth he has so wantonly abused.”

Baahubali had nodded then to the Persian trader, Sheik Aslam Khan, who stood in place of honour wearing the splendid costume of the Ilkhanate court.

“Yet for the love we still bear him, we will not see our own brother made penniless and destitute. We commend him to the hospitality of the illustrious Mahmud Ghazan Khan, of the House of Hulagu, Imperial Khan of Persia, defender of Muslims, descendent of Genghis Khan. And to this end we grant our brother all the wealth and riches necessary to ensure that he shall live in a manner that befits a prince of Mahishmati.”



Briefly, Bhallaladeva had thought of using the gold to bribe Sheik Aslam to help him sneak back in across the border. He’d dismissed the idea just as quickly: the sheik was Kattappa’s friend and no ally of Bhalladeva’s. It was a fantasy, no more. He could never go home.

Bhallaldeva had followed the sheikh on his diplomatic trade embassy for six months: travelling up the Ganga to Mathura, through the Khyber Pass to the sheikh’s own native city of Kabul, on to Merv, and thence to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

In each place, Bhallaladeva searched for some sense of purpose, or for some home-like feature which might strike a familiar chord in his heart. He found nothing. Yet so long as he travelled he might still outrun the demons that tormented him. So on he went, sampling all the riches of the fabled Silk Road and tasting none of them.

That autumn, they went north to the last stop on the sheikh’s great journey: the Khazar Khaganate’s capital of Atil, set at the delta where the Atil River met the north end of the Caspian Sea.

There they spent the long, winter months as guests in the court of the Khazar Khagn Menakhem ben Isaac, ruler of Khazaria’s Golden Horde. The experience had shattered any illusions Bhallaladeva might have entertained about his future life in the Ilkhanate court. Here he was an outlander, and a disgraced one. Everywhere he went, whispered rumours of his failures followed.

Desperate not to be left alone with his thoughts, he had thrown himself into every acceptable form of violence. He trained with the khagn’s retainers, learning to handle the recurve bow that was the hallmark weapon of the steppe. The tactics initially struck him as cowardly, but he soon appreciated the brutal logic that underpinned it all. His horsemanship improved markedly and, strong as he was, he could at least draw a bow-weight that impressed the Khazars. He would never match the smooth, lethal, elegance of these born steppe fighters but the challenge was a welcome distraction.

Once, Bhallaladeva had watched as Khatun Esther and her warrior women wheeled in a great right-handed circle, feathering their targets with arrows. In their armour and veils, nothing but their fierce eyes could be seen, and he thought of other fierce eyes he had known. Bhallaladeva had not even noticed his grip tightening on his bow until the wood snapped beneath his hand.

When the cold became too much to bear, he found refuge with Bek Avraham.

They were not friends: the gods had not fashioned either man for friendship. The khagn’s bek, or military commander, had been deeply interested in the wars of Mahishmati and the strategies they used. Bhallaladeva, for his part, had been grateful to chance to dwell on his own past successes. He almost liked the bek, in a way, or at least respected him. The grizzled old soldier had reminded Bhallaladeva of Kattappa if all Kattappa’s foolish moralities had been removed. He possessed a workman’s simple pleasure in his craft for the artistry and skill itself. Bek Avraham’s delight was not the defence of his land, nor fame, nor even plunder: Bek Avraham loved war.

The wars of the steppe were different from those fought by sedentary civilisations, as the bek soon taught him. More than that, Bhallaladeva came to understand war as the Mongols had waged it: not only with weapons, but with words. Reputations and rumour, carried by fleeing enemies and exaggerated in the telling, took on a power all their own. Threats were believed. The simple choice Genghis Khan offered to the peoples he wished to conquer—surrender or be put to the sword—had opened many a city gate.

Bek Avraham’s eyes gleamed as he spoke of such fear. He spoke of striking swiftly and then vanishing back into the steppe, leaving only smoking ruins. He told of doing so over and over until entire kingdoms lived in dread, forever glancing towards the steppe in terror of the death that might swoop down on them.

“Fear is a khagn’s weapon. Fear can conquer cities as easy as ten thousand riders,” Avraham said with satisfaction. “Poison your enemies with it until they cannot even make love to their women without fearing that you’ll kick down the door and stab them while they have their cocks out.”

In turn Bhallaladeva had spoken much of war as it was waged in Mahishmati, but he kept much back. Already, he was beginning to formulate a plan.

 

As winter came to an end, Sheikh Aslam renewed his “offer” of hospitality, inviting Bhallaladeva to accompany him home to the Mongol-Persian Ilkhanate’s capital of Soltaniyeh. Bhallaladeva had declined. He had no desire to live in idle shame in a foreign court. Perhaps one day he would visit the Ilkhanate, but for now the thought of living there on his brother’s magnanimous stipend was beyond bearing.

From Atil, Bhallaladeva had looked out over the brutal, ugly lands of the western steppe. He had thought of the beauty of the empires he had seen, of the wealth and colour and refinement of all the civilised world. Its delights had mocked him. Instead, Bhallaladeva had chose to travel on across the wastes with the mercenary guards, Iskender and Baghatur, as his guides.

Sheik Aslam had not seemed much grieved at the parting, despite the year they had known each other. Nor did he seem overly sorry to see the two mercenaries go.

For themselves, Iskender and Baghatur had been as indifferent to Aslam’s dislike for them as they had been to Bhalladeva’s statement that he would follow them north and west when the Sheik went south. That had changed when they parted from the main caravan and it became clear that the majority of Bhalla’s wealth would, in fact, be going with Aslam to Soltaniyeh.

“Did you intend to rob me?” Bhallaladeva had asked in Altaic, the Turkish-Mongol hybrid that was the language of trade from the Khanate of China to the Sultanate of Granada.

Iskender had looked wistfully at the disappearing caravan as it rode south in a long line, heading towards the Caspian Sea.

“My mother didn’t name me for a man who hesitated when opportunity presented itself,” Iskender said simply, shrugging. Bhallaladeva admitted the justice of it—he would have done the same, after all.

“Not like your mother was one for hesitating, either,” Baghatur commented, turning his horse’s head to the west. “After all, she could hardly have named you after your father, eh? You’d be named after half the steppe!”

Iskender sneered, showing a mouthful of crooked teeth in his sunburnt face. He said something in his own language that was incomprehensible, though the gestures that accompanied it could not have been more explicit. Baghatur roared with laughter, slapping his thighs so hard that his horse rolled its eyes.

Bhallaladeva marvelled, as he often had, at the differences between the two men, both as different from each other as he was from them.

Iskender had the tilted eyes of the Eastern Steppe, but the colour was a cold, unsettling blue that was all the more startling in his skull-like, sunburnt face. He wore his head shaved but for one round patch of long, black hair, for he said his mother was a Tartar. Yet he had come of age among the Slavs who lived even further west, and thought of himself as one.

Iskender was the very image of a bandit: skeletal, whipcord strong, and full of tricks the likes of which Bhallaladeva had never encountered. Those tricks had probably saved the steppe man’s life in their first fight. Bhallaladeva could’ve shattered his thigh with his mace—would have, too, had not the man struck out left-handed with his short, weight-tipped whip and caught Bhallaladeva’s arm.

From that day on, Bhallaladeva and Iskender had sparred at every chance they could. Iskender relished the chance to practise against a new fighting style. Bhallaladeva, for his part, had unlearned even the faintest traces of the scruples Kattappa’s training had tried to instill in him.

If Iskender was pale and deadly, his companion was the opposite. Baghatur was a brutal, jolly soul: a Khazar whose stocky frame belied the grace with which he rode. He had a broad, high-cheekboned face and his bright, crow-black eyes all but disappeared when he laughed. He had an even murkier past than Iskender, one which seemed to change depending on the day.

His personal faith was nearly as eclectic: he apparently believed in the khanates’ Tengri, but cheerfully damned his companions as filthy eaters of swinesflesh and always wore a brimless hat of no visible practical use. He bathed often, too, though not without cursing the inconvenience of it.

On a long journey such as this, Baghatur was invaluable. The Khazar possessed an inexhaustible knowledge of all the goings-on, songs, and stories of the people who lived in this vast, shifting world. He was a one-man inn, with all the news, gossip, and entertainment contained in one burly body.

And so they travelled, every day further away from the pile of gold meant to fund Bhallaladeva’s life in exile. Mile by mile his companion’s deference melted away, until at last their respect had been simply and conclusively earned.

He’d expected the attack, but the event had caught him unawares: half-awake, legs tangled in his blankets, striking out blindly with his mace and a log snatched from the fire as his companions crept up on him in the night. Iskender’s shoulder had been dislocated when Bhallaladeva seized the man’s arm to throw him, and Baghatur’s hair had burned down to the scalp, and all three of them had bruises and injuries enough for a battle.

That had been the beginning of their accord.

They rode west along the Silk Road, sheltering in the caravanserai waystations that made the route famous. They hunted as they went, sometimes taking refuge in the odd village or steading. Everywhere there was rumour of war, and they followed like crows, yet without real purpose until one fateful day.

“It’s time we made our plans,” Iskender had said as they packed up their camp. It had snowed during the night, and the men were shaking it from their gear so it would not melt and soak in during the comparative heat of the day. “The descendants of the Great Khan are always looking for brave men.”

“Huh!” Baghatur grunted, bundling the last of their cooking gear into his pannier. “This again? And what’re you thinking of offering your services as? A lady-in-waiting?”

“They’ll take any man who’s a good fighter. That’s what you told me: ‘the khans don’t care who you are, so long as you don’t betray them and do your duty’.”

Bhallaladeva’s lip curled. “And you think they’ll just accept any wanderer who shows up at their gates?”  He had not said “vagabond”, knowing he himself now counted among that number.

Iskender turned to Baghatur. Baghatur scratched himself and shrugged. “Well, they won’t make you grand marshal just for asking, but the Blue Sky rewards those who dare.”

You said there were opportunities,” Iskender snapped. “You said so.”

Baghatur smirked, spreading his arms wide to include the barren landscape. “Ah, but the steppe is rich with opportunity, blessed be the Holy Name and his Consort. May we not aspire to more, if we but dare to try?”

Iskender sighed.

“You refer to the other plan: the madder one.”

Baghatur’s smirk became a grin.

“Fine, then.”

Iskender squatted on his heels on the crusted snow, hand sweeping aside the long skirts of his coat and the curved sabre at his hip.

“It’s like this.” He squinted up at the sun. Speaking slowly and not exactly addressing anyone in particular, he said: “Baghatur and I always spoke of making our fortunes. But we live from raid to raid with long, lean days between, and never any real wealth but what we can carry. We’re no horde, nor yet a company. But now we have a new asset.”

“Now,” Baghatur added, beaming, “we have you.”

Bhallaladeva had expected something like this. These were hard men from a hard land, and they had not taken him with them from the goodness of their hearts. Now he would see how much their plans might help or hinder his own.

“And why should a foreign prince change things in your favour? Do you think I would let myself be used?” He glowered. “I will warn you: I have done forever with following orders from any man but myself.”

“Ha! That’s the princeling riled, sure enough.” Baghatur snorted.

Bhallaladeva showed his own teeth, leaning forward to stand light on his feet, body loose, ready to reach for his mace. “You wish to try my temper?” He held out his hands, beckoning to them. “Then come, see if you can survive it.”

Baghatur slapped his knee, crowing with delight. “And that’s it! Look at him: our ‘Bhalla Khan’.” He shook his head, admiring the breadth of Bhallaladeva’s shoulders. “And damn me if he still isn’t the biggest man I’ve ever seen.”

Bhalla Khan. His mind whirled. It was a joke. But still, to hear his wild desire named aloud, even in jest...

“That’s God’s own truth. He didn’t grow up on forage and rats.” Iskender said. He plucked at the fabric of his trousers so the lean leg bones showed through the cloth. “Bet you’ve never been hungry in your life, have you princeling? Had naked servants to spoon the food right into your mouth if you didn’t feel like moving from your harem, eh?”

“You would do well to watch your tongue, Iskender,” Bhallaladeva said. “You go too far.”

The Slav’s hand twitched towards the sabre at his hip, corpse-pale eyes glinting. “But we speak of your regality, m’lord!” Iskender mocked. “We speak of your fine breeding, and of the fine, princely skills of rulership you no doubt possess.” His yellow teeth showed as he smiled. “We speak of the very qualities for which we would make you a king, oh shah of shahs and khan of khans.”

A mad plan indeed, Bhallaladeva thought, incredulous. Yet looking between the two of them, he believed they meant it.

He could hardly speak, so violent and glorious were the possibilities he saw then in his mind’s eye.

“Go on, Iskender, see if you can provoke him to attacking you again,” Baghatur said, leaning against his saddle and waving his hand with imperial insouciance. “Go on, you two! I’ve always wanted to see someone bash sense into Iskender’s horsey skull. Bhalla’s fists versus Iskender’s hard head: the unstoppable spear meets the unpierceable shield.”

Baghatur’s words broke the tension. All three men laughed, grinning at each other like amiable wolves. More than the joke, they shared the same thrill at even this teasing promise of a fight. There was nothing personal in it. The violence called to them, and their hearts answered. Whatever differences lay between them, they shared the same brutal simplicity of soul, pure in purpose as a sword: they were men made for war.

Bhallaladeva dropped out of fighting stance,

“Do you fools truly speak in earnest?” Even the thought of it mollified his temper.

“Believe it or not, we do,” Baghatur said. “We overheard some of your little chats on military theory with the bek, and we know you’re crazy enough and vicious enough for it. The great Genghis Khan started with less. Why not you?”

“Or,” Iskender added, “more to our point: why not us, with you?”

Very well.

Bhallaladeva sat on his heels on the snow, joining their circle.

“Know this, then: I may need your knowledge of the steppe for now, but without my training and education you will never be more than horse thieves. I, and I alone, will be maharaja, or khan, or sultan of whatever we build. There will be no exceptions. This is not a triumvirate.”

It amused him to watch these violent, independent men bristle at his words, but they were not fools.

Iskender and Baghatur met each other’s eyes, sharing in a wordless exchange.

“Fair enough,” the Khazar said at last, letting out a long breath. “It takes a khagn to make a khaganate, anyhow.”

His companion nodded slowly, turning his pale eyes on Bhallaladeva. “You will need people you can trust, though, or as near to trust as makes no matter.”

Baghatur’s jovial expression turned serious: “Bhallaladeva, you strike me as the kind to get suspicious—paranoid, even. Liable to start executing right and left.” He mimed the slitting of throats with perfect accuracy. “That might do for tyrants of established dynasties, or at least for a bit. But eventually, those that see enemies in every shadow start to make real ones, sure enough. You will have to trust us.”

Bhallaladeva did not like to hear that.

He shied away from the picture Baghatur painted, taking refuge in resentment of this constant, underbred insolence of theirs. Yet it was also part of what attracted him to the men of this wild place. Each man felt himself the equal of any other. The only difference between an emperor and a starveling was the will to power. It was as Baghatur had said: Genghis Khan had begun his life as a slave.

“So now we all know where we stand,” Iskender concluded. “You will stand by us and we by you, so long as you deal fairly with us.”

They respected strength and power, though, these savages. Bhallaladeva would see to it that they respected him.

Iskender’s lip twitched, as though guessing something of Bhallaladeva’s thoughts. “We’re not slaves or serfs to be blackguarded or driven. And we’re not fools. Make us an oath now that we can plausibly believe and, if we see you keep it, we will keep ours.”

There was no other choice, after all.

“Very well. I swear in the name of God that, as you shall help me to a crown, so I shall help you to all the rewards due to faithful counsellors: wealth, safety, and power. And if you betray me, you will beg for death ten thousand times before I give it to you.”

Who knew? Perhaps he might even keep the first part of the oath. Only time would tell.

“Then we swear to help you to your crown,” said Baghatur, “and as our interests ride with yours, we will do everything in our power to help you to a crown and to help you keep it. And we will give honest counsel, which I warn you now you ignore at your peril. This I swear by the Holy Name, His Shekinah, and by Blue Heaven.”

“I swear the same, in the name of God and the Virgin,” said Iskender. Then he put his hand to his heart, like a Tartar, meeting Bhallaladeva’s eyes. “So, khan-to-be, here we are. In the sight of our gods, we choose now to follow you all the days of our lives, provided you don’t get us killed first.”

Ameyn,” said Baghatur. Then the Khazar hooked his thumbs into his broad sash, winking at Bhallaladeva. “And what fancy words from our long-snouted Slav, eh? If I didn’t know better, I’d say Iskender was proposing marriage.”

Bhallaladeva snorted. He might have been affronted at the suggestion before, but he’d been travelling with Iskender and Baghatur to know that the two shared an attachment. It had none of the decadent, episcene qualities he’d always assumed came with such relationships, nor the unequal balance of rank and power he’d thought inherent in such things.

If he was honest with himself, he had to admit he was even intrigued. Bhallaladeva had enjoyed both men and women, but he’d never seen them as possible companions, far less anything like equals. Yet from all he could see, Baghatur and Iskender were equal partners.

However, as neither of his companions had spoken in anything more than oblique jokes on the subject, Bhallaladeva had not inquired further. After all, they had not asked Bhallaladeva for more details of his exile and disgrace than he was willing to share.The terms of their travelling together were as plain as any treaty between nations: some questions would not be asked.

A treaty indeed, Bhallaladeva thought. He, a prince of Mahishmati, had just sworn a solemn oath to these two villains. He did not trust them, nor they he, but supposed it was as they said: they needed each other. He could live with that necessity. (And, though he did not want to admit it, Baghatur’s comment about paranoia and enemies disturbed him.)

“So where do we propose shall I be king of?” Bhallaladeva said, half-joking. “The Mongols and Khazars are too strong. Is this why we go west?”

Baghatur nodded, stroking his sparse moustache. He drew out a dagger and tried to sketch a series of lines in the coarse, granular snow, then gave up.

My first council of war, Bhallaladeva thought with bitter amusement.

“Simply put,” the Khazar said, “we need to be in amongst the rivers where there’s a good flow of people, particularly of people who’ve had a glimpse or two of the riches of the world and want more.”

“Agreed,” Bhallaladeva said, history lessons and maps of military conquests flashing through his mind. “We must be at a crossroads, or near to one.”

“Home,” Iskender grunted.

Baghatur glanced at him sharply. He asked something in Iskender’s own tongue to which Iskender nodded.

Iskender seemed serious, but it was so ludicrous an answer to such a momentous question that Bhallaladeva could hardly believe it

“What exactly does your homeland have to offer?” he asked dubiously.

“Nothing.” Iskender leaned forward, face flushing even redder under the peeling sunburn. “Glimpses of riches are not enough to make a people hungry. They must see riches everywhere, all about them, but have none of their own. Such is my homeland: we have nothing but hunger.”

“And you think your people will follow me?” Bhallaladeva had to ask.

Iskender nodded. “I think so. To be honest, I’ve only repeated the words of a man whose opinion both Baghatur and I trust, mad bastard though he is. More than that, I’ve seen the truth of Bohun’s words played out a hundred times in the Sietch where we elect our leaders. No ataman we have elected as Hetman has been able to keep us together for more than a few raiding seasons. There are too many old feuds, as Bohun says. We need new blood: a strong leader with no ties to any factions.”

“And would they accept new blood?” Child of ancient monarchies as he was, Bhallaladeva could hardly bring himself to believe that even these rootless steppe people who voted for their leaders would accept a foreigner.

“We are… of many bloods.” Iskender indicated his own pale, single-lidded eyes. “We’re a crossroads, not a tribe. We live on the fringes and we band together because we wish to be free. New men come, others leave. But our weakness is our strength, same as the Mongols’: a strong man has only to seize the reins and hold them to prove himself.”

Baghatur nodded, face shining.

“And how shall I do that?” Bhallaladeva asked.

The Khazar chuckled. “We’re flattered by your faith in us, oh khagn, but we don’t exactly have all the details worked out! We will simply have to take one very long fucking ride, find out just how things are back at the Sietch, and hope for the best.”

“And pray that God and the Virgin favour us,” Iskender added

That was fair enough, Bhallaladeva thought. It was a beginning.

“Then we should be on our way.”

They saddled up and rode west. Baghatur and Iskender were laughing together, inventing ever-more outrageous and indecent court titles for one another.

As they rode the rising sun sent their shadows out before them, blue against the white snow.

It seemed too easy, this decision. It was impossible that something as monumental as a kingdom could start from so insane a plan. But hadn’t kingdoms been built from less before now? What was a founder of a dynasty but a man who dared to take more from his fellow men than others did?

Bhallaladeva looked west and felt his spirits lift. He smiled, not with any sense of hope or purpose restored, but—for the first time in months—with anticipation.

Chapter Text

Early spring, 1330 C.E., West of the River Don, Khazarian Khaganate of the Golden Horde, Western Steppe | Modern-day Russia


Baghatur and Iskender bickered as they journeyed west. Every day they quarrelled, arguing for and against various details of their plan a hundred times and frequently switching sides. Iskender returned like a dog to gnaw over the same, tired old points, while Baghatur’s fertile imagination produced more startling freaks of fancy. Nor was it long before Bhallaladeva joined in as well, too torn between desires and doubts to resist speaking of them to the only other human souls for miles.

Between the three of them, their plan began to take on a definite shape. Baghatur, master of stories, was already outlining just how Bhallaladeva would build his legend and use it to bring fighters to his cause. Iskender knew all the local atamans of his land by name or reputation. Moreover, he had a surprisingly memory for border villages could provide forage for hungry raiders. Bhallaladeva learned of the lords and ladies who guarded the borderlands, and began to strategise how best to obliterate them and their defences.

There was much they simply could not plan for. Yet their journey was long and they had little else to occupy their time. Some days they argued in circles, saying much but deciding nothing. Some days their conversations uncovered strange new things. One day in particular lingered long in the memories of all three.

The new topic began, as their new topics often did, as they were saddling up.

“You really sure you even want to go home, Iskender?” Baghatur had said, then paused to belch before finishing off the last bite of his lunch. “Sure they won’t stake you as a vovkulaka again?”

“Stake him as a what?” Bhallaladeva asked. He repeated the foreign word in his head, adding it to the many other strange terms he’d committed to memory. If Iskender’s people were to be his, he must know their customs. He had never seen a man staked; it sounded diverting.

“You never noticed the big wound in the bastard’s chest?” Baghatur jerked a thumb at his partner.

Bhallaladeva had noticed it. There had been indoor baths in Khazar towns that all three had used. Apart from where Iskender’s face and hands were exposed by his coat, he was so pale and scrawny that Bhallaladeva had been reminded irresistibly of a plucked fowl, with the shoulder blades like bare, bony wings. The scars had been something else again. Most striking of all was the great gash in the center of his chest.

“Not merely testament to his incompetence in battle, then?”

“They tried to pierce my heart,” Iskender explained. “Fucking fools cracked two ribs trying to hammer a blunt tent stake in. Hurt like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Better than impalement, though,” Baghatur said equitably.

“Better than impalement,” the Slav agreed.

“Indubitably,” Bhallaladeva said. He had originally assumed impalement involved sharpened poles and a swift, if grisly, death. The true details of the practise, when his companions explained them, had made even him rather thoughtful. “But what’s a… vovkulaka?”

“A werewolf; a man-wolf,” Baghatur intoned slowly, nodding like a sage. “Don’t you have werewolves in your land? Skin-changers?”

Bhallaladeva shrugged. “Rakshasas, perhaps, but to me it seems Iskender would be a particularly pitiful specimen.”

“Well, he’d certainly make a damn scrawny wolf, no doubt. But by the Holy Name, just look at this sly-looking bastard: his mother was a Tartar, but he’s got wolf in him, sure as the Atil floods in spring. Whether old mother Çulpan fucked the wolf herself is up to dispute.”

“Don’t you ever shut up?” Iskender snapped, rubbing his chest. But those pale, unsettling  eyes were smiling.

“No,” Baghatur said, and did so.



Once they were saddled and headed west, however, the Khazar continued the story.

“It happened like this: Iskender’s family had just settled into a new village after their old one… well, after their old village starved to death. The new one wasn’t overly friendly to new folks, but not a bad place.”

He voice took on a hushed, sinister tone: “Thing is, though, about that time a lot of sheep start to go missing, or wind up dead and mauled. Could’ve been raiders for one, could’ve been wolves for the other. That’s just how things are.”

“But?”

“But then this shepherd lad out in the next village over says he saw a wolf stalking round the sheepfold one day, and says he saw a man doing the same the next. Shepherd said the man looked like Iskender here, who was never popular anywhere, having all the charm and likeability of a fresh dog turd.”

“Where is this happening?” Bhalladeva asked, wanting clear details of the peoples and places he would rule. “With the Tartars? His mother’s people?”

“No, no: his mother had settled down with a man from your horde-to-be, a Zaporozhian farrier named Chavdar. He even married Çulphan and made an honest woman of her (may they both rest in Hashem’s peace). She got baptised and their Jesus forgave all her hard-earned sins in a job lot.”

“And it is because of this that Iskender counts himself as a Zaporozhian? Just because he was raised among them? Was his real father even a Slav?” Bhallaladeva thought that the rapidity with which new nations sprang up from the steppe seemed to have its roots in these unfixed identities.

“Who knows? Might have been. Might have been a blue-eyed demon. But since Iskender walks, talks, and stinks like a Slav, so might as well call him a Slav.” He poked a finger at Bhallaladeva. “It might be harder to pass you off as one, but mostly the only real difference between people out here is religion. Everything else ends up so mixed that you can’t hardly tell one tribe from another except by who they tell you they are.”

“Is there anything but anarchy in the western lands? How can you even tell who the leaders are? Or who the warriors are? Or priests?”

“Oh, it’s simple enough on the steppe. Most holy men dress to set themselves apart. And as for the leaders and warriors—” he shot Bhallaladeva a wicked little smile “—they’re usually the ones with swords.”

Bhallaladeva laughed. This land did have its charms.

“And so these villagers, they were Zaporozhian too?”

“Nah,” Baghatur said, scratching himself. “Slavs, to be sure, but they were all far further west than we’ll ever be headed—unless we’re looking for targets rather than comrades. Those are the settled lands. But they all have the same monsters.”

Bhallaladeva nodded, understanding.

“Anyway, this village of village idiots put two and two together and decide it must be a werewolf that’s taking their sheep. More than that, they decide it must be that Chavdar the farrier’s no-good foster-son. So they call over the priest to say some chants or spells about it, and he sends the mob off to catch Iskender when he was out hunting in the woods alone.”

Iskender rode up at that point, unable to resist telling his own story.

“They pinned me down, the piss-ant cowards. A whole village of ‘em, just all to take down one skinny fifteen-year-old. ‘Werewolf!', they were shouting.”

He spat.

“I gave them ‘werewolf’, all right: I was snarling and howling and snapping at them like I meant it. The one trying to stake me was so afraid that his hands shook and he missed his stroke.”

Iskender smiled like the wolf he wasn't.

“And that’s why I have such a pretty scar.”

Bhallaldeva found himself smiling too. He could well imagine the panicked, superstitious villagers and their terror.

“They probably thought you were about to transform, right before their eyes,” Baghatur cackled.

“And then?” Bhallaladeva prompted, inspired by something almost like fellow-feeling for the outcast, supposed “monster”.

“All that blood made me too slick to hold, so I twisted free. I snatched up the mallet and stake they’d used and killed the priest. Did the job properly, too: stove his ribs in. When I came home, mother and Chavdar knew there’d be trouble, so we lit out back east towards the Dneiper, to the lands around the Sietch.”

“So there are villages around your people’s meeting place?” Bhallaladeva asked.

“A few. More by the rivers.” Iskender was silent for a moment. “And, you know, Chavdar did right by me. He found me a place guarding the traders going up and down those rivers: the Dneiper, the Don, and the Volga. All good money, especially since it doesn’t hurt the guarding business if you attack traders you aren’t being paid to protect, now and again.”

“And that’s how we met,” said Baghatur. “Him and me, raiding and trading up the Atil River.”

“You said you met on the Volga,” Bhallaladeva said to Iskender, displeased. “Explain.”

He was the son of a royal house, and he had a military commander’s passion for keeping the maps straight in his head.

Baghatur snorted, “That’s what the Slavs call it amongst themselves, though the civilised world knows her as Holy Atil. No one else calls it ‘Volga’. Why would they? It’s as unlovely a name for a holy river as might be imagined, as ugly as the Slavs’ horse-faced, sunburnt sons.”

“Bah!” Iskender spat. “The Volga’s not holy.”

“But the Atil is,” Baghatur said primly.

“We have a holy river, too: the Ganga.”

“And fish don’t piss in that one either?” Iskender taunted.

Before Bhallaladeva could react, Baghatur struck his comrade with the handle of his whip—rather hard, by the sound of it.

“Swine! As if I haven’t seen you kowtowing to saint’s wells that were one part frog spawn and the other part scum. And you douse yourself in it, too (on top of all your other many uncleanlinesses), to keep yourself safe from vampires!”

Iskender swore and lunged forward to snatch the brimless cap from Baghatur’s head. Bhallaladeva took the opportunity to slam his fist into Iskender’s gut.

The man collapsed off his horse, clutching his stomach. One foot stuck in a stirrup and he hung upside down from the saddle with his head in the snow. His horse stamped in alarm, eyes rolling and ears cocked back. Iskender wheezed and snarled out curses as Baghatur and Bhallaladeva laughed.

“But are there indeed vampires, as well as werewolves?” Bhallaladeva asked, still smiling.

Iskender was busy writhing on the snow, so Baghatur answered. He had been wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, but his expression as he turned to Bhallaladeva became serious.

The Khazar considered for a moment, staring west towards the land they sought. At last he spoke:

“It’s a strange country, Zaporozhia. Like all those Slavic lands, in truth: too full of old wars and dead gods for the corpses to rest quietly in the blood-soaked soil. Ghosts, there are, and revenants, werewolves, and vampires. Demons, even.”

“Demons, too?” Bhallaladeva scoffed. “You cannot expect me to believe that the whole land throngs with monsters.” Then he laughed, albeit uneasily, at the look in Baghatur’s usually merry eyes. “What, have you seen them?”

Baghatur shook his head, but he lowered his voice and pointed to Iskender with his whip. “His own mother was carried off to the Christian Hell by one, may Hashem bless her kindly, lusty soul.”

“She was what?” Bhallaladeva asked, suspicious now that his companions might be making game of him to ease the monotony of the ride.

Iskender, recovered at last from Bhallaladeva’s blow, had gotten to his feet. He was scowling, stroking his horse’s neck to soothe it.

“It was long after the werewolf incident,” he said. “After we headed east to live with our own people, or rather my foster-father’s people. Mother and father settled in a village a little north of the Sietch, and were very happy there. I’d go back to visit, now and again. Sometimes I even brought this fool along.”

Baghatur nodded, smiling at some memory he did not share.

“I wasn’t there when my father… when Chavdar died. He burned to death in an alehouse at midsummer, or so they told me. Mother took it hard. Her heart broke, and she couldn’t leave it alone to mend.”

“It’s dangerous to grieve or rage over the past overmuch,” Baghatur said quietly, touching the little hand-shaped amulet he wore about his neck. “All that pain and anger—it calls to dark things.”

Bhallaladeva shifted uncomfortably in the saddle.

“And so it did,” Iskender agreed, his face grim. “It called up a demon lover. The neighbours saw it coming to her door, looking just like Chavdar, who’d been a burnt corpse in the ground those six months and more. Every night it came to her, wearing my father’s face like a mask.”

Iskender swung up into the saddle, but did not move. Baghatur trotted to his side. Reaching into his pannier, he offered Iskender a piece of horse jerky. Iskender took it, looking comforted.

“They were both good parents to me. Chavdar was a good man,” Iskender said thickly, “and he was a better father than many are to their own blood-sons.” He crossed himself, then kissed his fingers. “God grant his soul absolution.”

“And your mother, the kindly Çulpan,” Baghatur murmured, “who was such a woman as the Mongol queens are, and with Genghis’ red blood in her veins, too. A better mother than a cur like you deserved.”

Iskender wiped his nose with his filthy sleeve, nodding.

Bhallaladeva’s thoughts had turned to his own father and mother: the weakling drunkard and the heartless harridan. He thought of Baahubali: his cousin, his foster-brother, and his torment. The royal line of Mahishmati had needed no demons to tear their family apart. They were a curse sufficient unto themselves.

Iskender gnawed at the jerky for a time. He sounded more himself when he spoke again: “You know, mother would’ve been glad to know she was the scandal of the neighbourhood, even after her death. It’s what she would’ve wanted, may the Holy Virgin and the saints pray for her.”

“Ameyn,” Baghatur said.

Bhallaladeva wondered what prayers the Christian’s virgin goddess-who-was-not-a-goddess might offer for an old whore, but did not bother to ask.

“But what of the demon?” He insisted.

“Well, one night they hear her screaming Chavdar’s name, loud as anything, so loud they could hear it over the wind. And on the wind there’s this sound of thundering hooves galloping high, high up in the sky.”

Considering, Bhallaladeva supposed it even made sense: how else would a steppe demon travel but on horseback?

“When dawn came they found her in her bed. She was so contorted from the soul being ripped out of her that they had to wait for the body to rot a bit and loosen up before they could bury her. And then they had to chop the head off, of course, or she’d likely come back a revenant. That would’ve been the last thing the village needed, the past harvest having been so bad.”

Bhallaladeva could not have cared less about Iskender’s parents, but the story had a fine, ghoulish relish to it. More than that, it gave him a little thrill to imagine the twisted corpse of the old whore—with Sivagami’s face.

They lapsed into silence for a time. The only sounds were the wind in the grass, the steady thud of their horse’s hooves on the turf, jangling harnesses, and the buzzing of insects.

“It’s a hard life,” Baghatur said eventually. He did not sound sad or even resentful. Bhallaladeva even thought he saw some something like approval in the Khazar’s crow-black eyes.

“It seems life in Iskender’s homeland is even harder,” Bhallaladeva noted dryly.

“Nah,” the Zaparozhian shrugged. “Even being killed by demons was a cleaner death than most get. Fortune's just one one fickle bitch.”

That was true, yet Bhallaladeva thought that the precarious steppe life made the bitch's vagaries all the more dramatic. Kingdoms rose and fell, fortunes waxed and waned, summer bounty turned to frozen wilderness and back again, all with violent intensity.

Baghatur began to sing as they rode. It was a mournful song from the Eastern Steppe that Bhallaladeva had heard many times now. He even knew something of the words:

“Of my horse herd, sixty strong,
Where now have my dappled ones gone, Konggurey?
Of my people, six banners strong,
Where now have our villages gone, Konggurey?

The Khazar had matched his song to the mood, as he was wont to do. The lament went on, the singer mourning the homeland that fate had taken from him. The unspoken answer to each plaintive question rang through the song’s silences: “They are dead. They are gone. There is nothing left”.

Bhallaladeva did not join in the song, but he felt the music as a bittersweet pain in his breast. He looked out over the steppe. Against the backdrop of its vast and terrible extremes, the triumphs and calamities of his own life seemed to find an apt setting. It did not diminish his losses, but they seemed less wantonly cruel. Where there was no malice, there could be no true cruelty. His life was simple and brutal, as was the steppe itself. Brutality was so much a part of the land and the lives lived by it that even the depredations of demons were spoken of as casually as wolf attacks or plague.

What was this land of monsters to which he rode? he wondered. Was it a mistake to think he could rule such a place?

An answer came, speaking to him with what seemed Baghatur’s voice: It is a land ravaged by war, fought over by cruel men, and haunted by demons. It is land of blood, old in violence and in greed.

Yes, Bhallaladeva thought, and smiled. Of course he would rule it—it was a land suited to his soul.

Chapter Text

Spring, 1330 C.E., Zaporozhian Sietch, near the Dnieper River, Zaporozhia, Far Western Steppe | Modern-day Ukraine



“Bhalla Khan!” The Zaporozhian held his tankard high in salute.

“Bhalla Khan!” cried a woman, laughing and swaying as she staggered.

The ridiculous title was taken up as a chant, the whole crowd roaring it out like maniacs.

“You know your business, it seems,” Bhallaladeva murmured to Baghatur.

The Khazar smiled.

The man he’d gulled into attacking Bhallaladeva had been bigger even than Bhallaladeva himself: a hulking brute named Oleg the Bull. With his short, squat neck and heavy build, Bhallaldeva thought it an apt name. Bhallaladeva liked bulls. He had always enjoyed testing himself against them. They shared a certain kinship. Mutual desire for the other’s death had always been part of that kinship, of course. Oleg the Bull had been just such an opponent, right down to the bovine fury in his eyes.

Bhallaladeva had given the folk of the Sietch a show the likes of which they’d never seen. Something primal had seized him in the midst of that fight. In the wild flurry of violence he had forgotten Mahishmati and Baahubali, had forgotten Sivagami, Devasena, and everything he had ever lost. He forgot who he was and why he was here. His universe was this: the taste of blood in his mouth, the sting of sweat in his eyes, breath fogging the air, and the icy mud under his feet.

At last—at long last—there had been no constraints of duty or morals left to hold him back. He did purely as he pleased, fighting not to kill, but to torment. Bhallaladeva used every dirty trick he knew and invented a dozen more. Everything else faded away in the thrill of toying with an opponent who could kill Bhallaladeva as easily as Bhallaladeva himself could kill, but lacked the wit to do so.

It was only at the end, when Oleg toppled face-forward into the mud, that he remembered the crowd. For a moment he stared in total incomprehension at their roaring, inhuman faces. Then it came to him that the sound which had so filled his chest as he fought had been the sound of their voices cheering.

As Oleg fell, Baghatur had stepped out from the ring of onlookers. He seized Bhallaladeva’s bloodied right fist and raised it high in victory.

In a joking, inebriated slur he cried, “Bhalla Khan!” Only the smell of the man’s breath convinced Bhallaladeva that he was stone-cold sober.

The mob took up the cry, roaring and smashing their tankards together, shouting in demoniac howls. The din grew so enormous that Baghatur had needed to shout his private comment in Bhallaladeva’s ear: “What a show! What a fucking lunatic show! That was perfection!”

The exiled prince gazed about at the squalor of the Sietch: a jumble of squat, weathered wooden buildings surrounded by a wooden palisade. The crowd brawled and drank all around him, men and women staggering through mud and the scent of shit.

What was this barbarous place, and what power did it possess that it could draw out his own violent truths so easily?

Who were these people who cheered his name? No one had ever cheered for him like that. People cheered for Baahubali, not Bhallaladeva. Never him. And certainly no one had ever cheered him for nearly beating a man to death out of the sheer joy of it.

“They’re cheering,” Bhallaladeva said, dazed.

Baghatur glanced sharply up. He snapped his fingers in front of the prince’s eyes, watching for a reaction.

Bhallaladeva scowled, striking his hand away.

Reassured (and cherishing his hand), Baghatur studied this man whom he would make a khagn.

“Of course they’re cheering,” he told Bhallaladeva. “The way you tripped Oleg up so he fell right into your fist?” He swore admiringly in Khazar. “You're one vicious bastard.”

The crowd was still yelling, “Bhalla Khan!” They began clapping, turning it into a sort of song. Some began leaping about in time to the rhythm, though to Bhallaladeva it seemed more of an athletic display than a dance.

“The seed is planted, just as you said,” the prince said, genuine wonder in his voice.

Baghatur smiled—a private expression, secret and self-contained.

“You madman!” Iskender’s voice came to them, hoarse from shouting and utterly delighted. “Oh, you beautiful, mad man!” He struggled through the jostling crowd, kicking and punching to reach them. No one seemed to take much notice.

“How did you do that?” Iskender cried, taking Bhallaladeva’s face in his hands and kissing him on both cheeks.

Bhallaladeva bristled at the uncouth familiarity (and the smell), but the man’s elation at Bhallaladeva’s triumph was so genuine that he did no more than shove Iskender away.

“He was strong," Bhallaladeva commented, "but he was an imbecile. It was a pleasure to destroy him.”

“It was a goddam pleasure to watch! They’ll remember this fight for years!”

“No,” Baghatur said, a glint in his dark eyes. “They will remember it for generations.”

Iskender carried on, utterly oblivious: “That last blow! Chryste, and I thought we’d seen you at your worst when you clobbered us. What a murderous right hook, by God!”

But Bhallaladeva had marked the Khazar’s words.

Baghatur once told him that the Tengri worshippers had shamans: lore-masters whose souls wandered far and whose spirit-ridden bodies spoke with the voice of prophecy.

He eyed his companion warily. Prophets were storytellers, too, were they not? Perhaps the same could be true in reverse.

A shiver ran through him.

Iskender noticed none of this, drunk as he was with excitement, violence, and enough vodka to fell a giant.

“Oh Bhallaladeva, my king! Oh Baghatur, my heart, moy drogi!” the Slav shouted, stamping his foot deep into the spring mud in time with each word. “We shall do this! We shall!”

At that, Baghatur seemed to snap out of his fey mood. Smiling, he put his arm around Iskender’s shoulders and—reaching rather higher—around Bhallaladeva’s.

“Yes, we shall, if it be the will of Blue Heaven. But come, Iskender Javshigar, make your report! What of your mission? Is our Little Father here?”

“Our batko?” Iskender nodded eagerly. “He’s here all right, and as good for it as ever. More, even.”

Exerting himself, he made his eyes focus on Bhallaladeva.

“Baghatur will find the details out better than I, but something… something happened to him.”

“What do you mean? What has happened to Yurko Bohun? You said his support would gain me the Sietch!”

“Oh, yes, he will!” the Slav exclaimed. “I did my part of the mission, all right. I found him, bought some drinks, and we reminisced a bit about the old days and the old raids. Things are much worse now: there was a rebellion against those damned Polish nobles that went to hell.” He crossed himself. “Bohun was in the midst of it and took it hard.”

“And did you tell him of me?” Bhallaladeva asked, giving his drunken companion a shake.

“Of course! I told him that Baghatur and I had found the very man we need. Now we just need Baghatur here to sweet talk him some, and then—”

“But what has happened? Is he wounded? Can he fight?” Bhallaladeva hated how his hopes seemed to live or die by the fate of this man he had never even seen.

“Oh, he can fight, sure,” Iskender said with a strange look. “The problem will be stopping him once he starts. Mark my words: he’ll be a general to strike fear in the hearts of your enemies.”

My general. Bhallaladeva thought of Baahubali, who would have been his general when he was maharaja. The thought did not seize him with all the old rage and resentment it once had. Mahishmati seemed so distant: a far-off island of civilisation, dwarfed by the vast, savage wilderness through which he had sojourned. With a strange, desolate pang, he realised that it hardly seemed real to him anymore. Belonging had become a dream.

Baghatur squeezed his shoulder, interrupting his thoughts: “Bohun will be your bek, my khagn, if you can win him to our cause.”

The Khazar stopped to snatch a skin of liquor from a man passed out in the mud. He took a swig, spat out a mouthful, paused, shrugged, then took a long pull from the skin. He offered it to Bhallaladeva, who tasted pain and fire, and found it good.

“It will take some doing, however,” Baghatur warned, wiping his mouth. “He has a temper as bad as yours, or worse.”

“Angry men are discontented men. We all share that in common, do we not? It is our strength.”

“True, but it’s no good if you murder each other before we begin.”

“Don’t kill him, even if he’s asking for it,” added Iskender.

“Remember,” Baghatur said, staring intently up into Bhallaladeva’s face. “You need him.”

The exiled prince nodded, eyes scanning over the muddy, backwater chaos of the Zaporozhian Sietch. Slavs and Tartars were gathered here, and Turks and Khazars. Other peoples he could not place—some with hair as pale as straw, some with skin darker than his own. But all were to be the cornerstone of his kingdom.

Another fight had started. Men and women stood in a cheering circle as two brutes swung fists at each other, both blindfold with their left wrists bound together.

“I shall try to keep that in mind,” he said.

Chapter Text

Spring, 1330 C.E., Common room of the Golden Stallion Inn, Zaporozhian Sietch, near the Dnieper River, Zaporozhia, Far Western Steppe | Modern-day Ukraine

 


“Yurko Bohun,” Iskender said, leaning in to whisper in Bhallaladeva’s ear.

The exiled prince of Mahishmati stared at this man whose words had, in a roundabout way, brought him to this savage land.

Bohun sat at a stained table, singing as he strummed a lute. It was a peasant’s tune, almost clumsy in its simplicity:

“Oy chiy to kin’ stoyit,
Shcho syva hryvonyka...

The room was full of carousing drunks from every corner of the steppe. People laughed, diced, and drank as they’d done before the music began. There was none of the civilised reverence for music that there would have been at court. Yet the clamour was muted, as if the song itself was more potent than the chaos around it. It cast an enchantment on the room. The nearer people were to the singer, the more powerfully it was felt.

Bhallaladeva himself watched with an almost painful desire to know just who and what this man was.

The prince doubted he was handsome. Bohun had that thin, pinched face that so many of these people had, with dark hair and a dark moustache. The only remarkable thing was the eyes. Those were the shifting blue-green of a wolf’s eyes seen in the dark.

Bhallaladeva watched the long fingers as they moved over the strings of the lute. Both hands bore the faint lines of duelling scars—a sign of ambidexterity which any warrior would note and recognise.

He also recognised danger. It lurked in his eyes, in the restrained strength of his hands, and in the intensity of his song. This was a man whose every heartbeat was lived as if at swordspoint. If he hated, he would hate with all the fury of a demon. If he fought, he would fight like an animal: not free of the fear of death, but freed from comprehension of void and dread of eternity.

Bohun’s eyes were sharply present. Yet his song soared away as though his very soul strained to take wing, a strange contrast with the earthy resonance of his voice. Common louts stared in slack-jawed fascination while others leaned forward as if mesmerised.

No, he thought, the man was not handsome, but his was a face full of character, and of defiance. Bhallaldeva had not needed to see him to know that: it was already there in his music. Watching from across the room, Bhallaladeva knew that the music’s spell was cast by the singer, not the song.

“And he will be my key to gaining the support of the Sietch?” Bhallaladeva could believe it. Bohun was magnetic in the way of madmen.

Baghatur gave him a shrewd look. “You wonder why he sings like that, don’t you?”

“I must know all I can about the man, if I am to win him to my cause.”

The Khazar took a deep draught from his tankard. He smacked his lips with what seemed an improbable degree of enjoyment. Then he leaned in close, jet-chip eyes shining with the delight of sharing a story, hand held by his mouth in token of secrecy.

Iskender bent forward, eager to hear what his partner had discovered.

“The word is that he lost his betrothed to a Polish nobleman—some golden-boy husaria commander in the service of Prince Yeremi Vishnyevetski.”

Iskender spat.

Bhallaladeva committed the details and titles to memory.

“There was this noble girl he was to marry. The whole thing had been long settled between Bohun and the girl’s guardian. But one day, by pure mischance, this Pole shows up at their door. That girl took one look and fell for him, though rumour says she’d hated Bohun since long before that.”

“Why?” Bhallaladeva asked. Baghatur’s words summoned up uneasy ghosts from his own past: compared to Baahubali, no one had ever looked at him twice.

“She hated him because he’d killed a man in front of her, or that’s what they say.”

“Why should she hate him for that?” Iskender demanded.

Bhallaladeva said nothing, thinking of Devasena’s knowing, judging eyes.

“Bah! Only the Holy Name could say. Maybe she thought killing was unchristian (irony of ironies). Who knows?”

“Such women are poison,” Bhallaladeva said. “They speak of righteousness to weaken a man and deny him his true strength.”

“Imagine our Little Father being bound to such a stupid wife!” Iskender agreed.

“A woman should be made of iron,” said Baghatur, nodding, “like the peerless daughters of Genghis Khan; or Khutulun; or Iskender’s mother, Çulpan, may she be blessed.”

Iskender crossed himself and the Khazar continued.

“The Pole fell for the girl just as hard, and the way I heard it, he blackmailed the girl’s guardian into promising her to him. Not that her guardian wasn’t a faithless, deceitful old bitch to begin with, but she and the Pole deceived Bohun without a thought. Bohun went mad over it. Not like a lover in songs, but truly insane. All this happened while the Zaparozhians were rebelling to get the nobles to respect their ancient rights. Bohun threw himself into the war. He should have died a hundred times over in a hundred different fights, but he was too far gone to have any fear of death left in him.”

Had he not seen Bohun, Bhallaladeva thought, he would have thought Baghatur’s words mere hyperbole. Even these drunken peasants seemed to sense the danger: for all the people here called him “Little Father”, Yurko Bohun sat at his table alone.

“He shows up too late to the last battle of the rebellion. He’d ridden all through the night to get there, and he hears that the Polish nobles had beaten them. Well, his heart had been broken, sure, but the thought of surrender drove him even beyond madness.”

“And then?” Bhallaladeva asked.

“What does our Bohun do? Draws his sword and cries out, ‘Follow me, brethren! For our honour as free men!’ And he spurs himself right for the enemy line with three-hundred men thundering after him, all shrieking war cries and willing to die. They did die, most of them: anyone could see the whole company of soldiers aiming right at them as they charged. It was a slaughter.”

Baghatur gazed at Bohun with a storyteller’s detached admiration for those mad, magnificent beings whose lives were the raw stuff of his trade.

“He saw death before him,” he said, “but Bohun carried right on into the enemy line. Only Bohun would have dared something as crazy as that.”

“He has the devil’s own luck. He always has,” Iskender said, his eyes distant with the memory of other battles. “It can only be that God willed that he should live. For us.”

The fervour in his voice surprised Bhallaladeva. He wondered if he’d have a mystic on his hands. Yet being a god’s chosen instrument in a divine crusade might be just the thing to make these stubborn, superstitious people accept something more like proper rulership. And as for his enemies... What was it Attila had said? I am the scourge of God: if you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.

“Then what?" Bhallaladeva asked. "Surely he did not escape capture?”

“Oh, no: they brought him down in the end. Prince Jeremi was already getting a pole shaved down to impale him and make a proper example of him. But then he up and gave Bohun to that Polish officer—as a wedding present.”

Iskender shook his head in disgust.

“There they are in their wedding finery: the Pole and the blushing bride-to-be. There’s Bohun, wounded and bound. And what happens? To add insult to injury, the damned Pole frees Bohun in the Christian spirit of the day. Could’ve had him impaled, but no: he let Bohun go, all magnanimous and saintly.”

Rage and remembered humiliation coursed through Bhallaladeva like acid. Baahubali’s words echoed in his mind:“Yet because a brother’s death is abhorrent to all peoples, it is clear that executing this prince would make us no better than he.”

“It would be enough to drive any man mad,” Bhallaladeva said.

“It would be, and it was,” Baghatur agreed. “I’m not sure that he believed in the rebellion until after it ended, but now he believes, and hates, too. Bohun was a fighter before, a true spirit of the steppe. Now the wolf’s run rabid. He’s not a fighter: he’s a demon.”

The last sentence fell into one of those strange silences that happen in large gatherings, and just as Bohun’s final chord died.

The dark head shot up, glancing towards the sound of Baghatur’s voice. He blinked as he saw Bhallaladeva watching him. The blue-green eyes widened further when he took in the breadth of Bhallaladeva’s shoulders and the size of the mace leaning against the wall behind him. Then Bohun nodded, clearly guessing who Bhallaladeva was. His look grew guarded, but the hostility radiated from him like heat from a forge.

Bhallaladeva inclined his head ever so slightly: a gracious king acknowledging a salute rather than a bow between equals.

That made Bohun’s lips twitch under his moustache in something like a smile. Whether it was delight at the danger itself or at the promise of violence implicit in Bhallaladeva’s person, Bhallaladeva could not guess, but he returned the look with perfect sincerity.

“That‘s our man,” Baghatur said, voice low and urgent. “If you get his support, you’ll have half this rabble behind you. The other half who’d never follow Bohun on his own will come too, rather than look like cowards. Remember what I said: we need him. You need him!”

“Yes, yes,” Bhallaladeva muttered, pushing back his chair. He had heard nothing of what Baghatur had said. Crossing the common room, he noticed neither the excited murmur of voices nor the ill-bred stares. He was conscious of nothing but his purpose. He did not even know he was smiling.

 




Bohun watched as Bhallaladeva approached. Baghatur had told him Bhallaladeva was a very god of war, but even his grandiloquent words had failed to capture the dreadful, deadly beauty of the man. The stranger was dark—darker than the Turks or Persians, with thick, black hair and a close-cut beard covering his a strong jaw. Giant though he was, he moved lightly on his feet with the agile, cat’s-grace of a trained warrior.

No, Bohun thought, not a warrior: Bhallaladeva moved like a killer.

Bohun had never seen such a man. He had never believed that such a one could exist before the End of Days. Yet here he was, striding out from nightmare to walk the waking world. Of all the monsters and demons that haunted the steppe, of all the horrors he had seen, this man was most terrible. Kings and princes he had known, warlords and generals, too, but never a man like this: never a conqueror.

Something in Bhallaladeva called to Bohun. It whispered to some deep part of his soul that remembered the gods to whom his ancestors had slaughtered their children, back in the dark centuries before they’d learned to slaughter the children of other lands in holy war.

Bohun hated him. It was reflexive: an animal’s snarling, instinctual reaction to something in this man that threatened everything he knew. In Bhallaladeva, Bohun saw the death of what scant surety he had left in his life. This man would destroy him. He knew it, as surely as he knew himself damned.

His whole world rocked on its axis, the floor plunging away from beneath him so he seemed to topple forward towards Bhallaladeva with a dizzying sense of vertigo.

Yet here was his salvation, unlooked for, unhoped for. Once, he had been free, not knowing why he lived in this world, what he wanted, where he was going, or whom he served. He had served the steppes, the whirlwinds, war, love, and his own fancy. After the failure of the rebellion and the loss of Helena, all that had been taken from him.

Bohun had seen a glimpse of the end, not just of his own life and freedom, but of the Zaparozhians’. The trap was laid: year by year, generation by generation, the snare would draw tighter, until there were no more free men left and their way of life was no more than a faded memory.

The knowledge had tormented him; it had obsessed him. It was a foe too great for him to conquer, and the power of dread it held over him filled him with savage, helpless fury. There was nothing he could do. There had been no way out—until now.

Yurko Bohun watched as the Prince Bhallaladeva strode across the common room, whispers and stares following him. Bohun stared as well. The fire of war burned in Bhallaladeva’s dark eyes, and Bohun saw the promise of a whole world in flame.

Promises. Even the unspoken shape of the word tasted bitter in his mouth. So many promises had been broken, so many hopes shattered. Could he trust this? Did he dare wager all he had left of himself on this one, reckless throw?

An abyss lay before his feet and Bohun knew both that he must fall and that he would glory in it.

A sense of elation bordering on ecstasy seized him: Of course he dared! What would stop him? What fear could hold him back? There was no power in Heaven or Hell that could restrain him. His Mother War had sent Bohun a new god and he would prove the truth of the promised evangelion.

For a time, the whole world had seemed a cage. Now Bohun would have his revenge: he would shatter that cage and raze it to the ground.

He set aside his lute as the stranger approached. For so long he had forgotten what it was to live—to fight! Now the the old trickster madness kindled in his heart.  It was all he could do not to leap across the table with his sword drawn, just to see what the other man would do and damn the consequences.

Instead, he waited. Fingers tapping on the hilt of his sabre, he sat back and watched his destiny stride to meet him.

 




“You are the ataman Bohun?”

“And you are this Bhalla ‘Khan’ I hear so much of.”

“I was surprised to hear you performing like a paid minstrel.”

“You came to discuss music?” Bohun replied, raising an eyebrow. “I confess I find myself disappointed.”

“It seems you possess more skill with music than either manners or wits.”

The hands of every man and woman within earshot flashed to the hilts of swords and knives, but not Bohun’s. His had already been there.

“You have more balls than brains, yourself,” Bohun said, leaning back in his chair, balancing on its back legs. “But—” he scanned the watching crowd around them “—that could be said for most here.”

That got a chorus of laughs and a few cries of “batko!”. Bohun let his chair hit the floor with a bang. He smiled up at Bhallaladeva, a feral expression full of flashing white teeth.

“I think you know that I am not like most men here,” Bhallaladeva said.

“Not just that you’re an outlander?” Bohun asked. He was playing, Bhallalaeva thought, playing this stupid game of posturing and prestige, and playing as only a man who despised the game could. Bhallaladeva would not be toyed with.

The prince put his hands wide on the table, leaning in close.

“What do you think? Have you nothing more to offer me than petulant words?” he asked. “Would you change your fortunes, or would you rather live like a beaten dog and accept whatever scraps fate tosses you?”

Something sparked in those blue-green eyes: something real. Bhallaladeva had seen that look earlier as the man sang, and he felt a rush of satisfaction at having forced it out again.

Yurko Bohun said nothing. He kicked under the table, pushing the chair opposite him out so Bhallaladeva could sit.

Insolence! Bhallaladeva thought. Once, he might have been king of a great kingdom richer beyond the imagination of any of man here. He had possessed gold jewellery with which to adorn himself. He had worn silks with golden threads. He had commissioned weapons of his own design made by master smiths, every edge chased in gold. The very ingredients of his simplest meal would have paid the wages of any labourer here for months. All that had been denied him. All his birthright has been taken from him, all but one last, unassailable truth: that he had been born to wear a crown.

For that, he told himself, he could endure even this. But he would not forget this disrespect.

Bhallaladeva pulled out the chair and sat.

“Baghatur and Iskender have told me a great deal about you,” Bohun said, still smiling his wolf’s smile.

“I wonder what exactly they told you, and how it compares to what I have heard of you.”

“The truth, probably, or even truer rumours.”

“Who trusts rumour?”

“Oh, I find that rumour can be a fair measure of a man’s worth,” Bohun said, reaching out for an empty glass that stood beside his own. “What did rumour say of you at home?”

Bhallaladeva remembered ten thousand voices shouting his brother’s name. Black hatred filled his heart, so violent and strong that for a moment it stole his breath away.

Bohun poured the wine, watching Bhallaladeva's reaction from beneath his lashes. He pushed the drink across the table to Bhallaladeva, who took it without a word. Bohun refilled his own glass.

“You would be Hetman of the free Zaparozhians, and all who follow the Sietch.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I will be a king.”

“A king, is it? Oh, very fine.” He raised his drink in salute. “I wish you all success.”

“Your people need a king.”

“No,” Bohun put his goblet down. “We need a kingdom.”

He paused, and when he spoke again Bhallaladeva understood how this man’s words had burned themselves into Iskender’s mind: “We have our freedom, but the nobility hate us for it. To them, we're nothing but jumped-up serfs. When they're not using us for war, we’re a thorn in their sides, especially the border lords. In other lands, the common folk cannot dream of a better life. But the those on the borders know what lives free men may live without lords, and so they resist and rebel, or flee to us.”

He took a long sip from his drink, glaring at Bhallaladeva as a symbol of all he hated.

“The lords try to bring us to heel by taking away our rights. When we fight back to defend what’s ours, they exact reparations by taking more of our ancestral privileges. They will not stop until they’ve killed us all or turned us into serfs. It cannot continue.”

Bohun’s sword hand closed in a fist.

“More than that: the wealthy, settled world borders us on all sides. We have had the scent of their bounty in our noses for many years, but tasted little for ourselves. It is time we stopped them taking whatever they want from us and took.”

“And could you not endure a king,” Bhallaladeva asked, “if he could give you that? You have been hungry for too long.” A falcon, Iskender had called him. Bhallaladeva had known falcons, had hunted with them: this man had the same pride and fury. If he had this man, Bhallaladeva could hunt like a king indeed.

“Far too long,” Bohun agreed, and Bhallaladeva heard the weight of hidden things in those words. “The steppe folk of the east have claimed their kingdoms. Now we must claim ours, or perish.”

“I am your answer.”

Bohun leaned back in his chair, all easy insolence again. The vivid, burning immediacy of the previous moment had gone and Bhallaladeva felt a mad urge to lunge for the man, as if seizing him could bring it back.

“Are you going to save us? You are no khan. You are a beggar. If your own people found no use for you, why should we?”

Red fury drove Bhallaladeva to his feet. He reached out, meaning to break this man with his bare hands.

He never got the chance. In the space of a heartbeat Bohun had kicked the table over, forcing Bhallaladeva to spring over it as it toppled towards him.

Bhallaladeva leapt, landing neatly on his feet, and had the satisfaction of watching Bohun’s eyes widen at the feat.

The table crashed to the floor behind him. A complete hush fell over the room, no man or woman there daring to move or to speak.

The Slav was back in a fighter’s stance, hand on the hilt of his sabre, but he had not drawn it. All the idle amusement was gone from his expression—the mockery was gone, but the smile had stayed.

“Outside,” Bohun said, voice soft in the silence. “Let us see if you’re all you say you are.”

Bhallaladeva stepped close, looming over the slighter man. He had no weapon, but knew the ataman would not draw on an unarmed opponent like a coward. Bohun was no coward: he was too mad for fear. Yet Bhallaladeva’s size and strength alone were more than sufficient threat.

“You know I am,” he said, pitched low so only Bohun could hear.

Bohun looked him slowly up and down. He raised his eyebrows. Do I?

“So be it. Outside.”

The prince turned, kicking aside the fallen table and storming towards the exit. Iskender held out his mace, his pale face grown even paler. Baghatur was making frantic attempts to tell him something. Bhallaladeva ignored him. Hefting his mace, he threw open the inn door. Bhallaladeva strode out into the chill spring air, knowing Bohun would follow.

Chapter Text

Spring, 1330 C.E., Zaporozhian Sietch, near the Dnieper River, Zaporozhia, Far Western Steppe  | Modern-day Ukraine



Fast, Bhallaladeva thought. How was the man so fast? Not even Baahubali had been so fast.

Winding up, Bhallaladeva struck out again with his mace. Bohun’s long, single-edged sword flashed up to deflect.

Even had Bohun been mad enough to try to make the contest one of opposed strength rather than leverage, the all-but guardless cavalry weapon was not designed for such fights. Instead Bohun redirected the blow, transferring most of its force into momentum that kept his sword moving even as the Zaparozhian pivoted out of the way of Bhallaladeva’s next attack. Sweat flew in droplets as he spun around Bhallaladeva’s extended arm to come in for a strike, then darted away as Bhallaladeva parried.

Bhallaladeva’s greater weight slowed him, sinking him deep in foul-smelling mud that sucked at his heels.

He had not landed a full hit yet. The temptation to swing and release his mace’s head on its long chain was almost unbearable. He could picture the way it would fly out to strike, crumpling the agile body into a broken mass. But he know that if he missed or—more likely—if Bohun dodged, the swordsman would be inside his guard in a moment with that long, quick sabre. Bhallaladeva was a seasoned warrior: he would wait for more worthy temptations.

Bohun had speed, but Bhallaladeva had strength: if he could keep the man dancing out of the way of his mace, he would wear him down. When that quicksilver speed was gone, Bohun would have no escape. When that moment came, Bhallaladeva would be ready.

The two men circled each other, ringed in by onlookers whose presence neither even saw.

Bhallaladeva rolled his shoulders, feeling the weight of his full winter coat. For once, the heavy fabric did not seem a restriction. It reminded him comfortingly of the armour he’d long trained in. For the first time in months, he felt warm.

By contrast Bohun seemed almost naked. The Slav had stripped down to a shirt and the loose-fitting, voluminous trousers favoured by his equestrian folk. It was not merely for mobility that he wore so little. Bohun had been dodging Bhallaladeva’s relentless attacks for what felt like hours. A fight was hard work, and one this long was a gruelling test of endurance that few could manage, even without armour. Steam rose from his body in the cold air, sweat sticking the dark hair to his brow and plastering the shirt to his back.

Bhallaladeva would wear the man down, and then, then…

What? He would not kill him.

No, he would bend Bohun to his will. He needed to make this smirking, upstart peasant understand that he, Bhallaladeva, would be ruler here.

The sabre slashed out towards his throat. Bhallaladeva grunted as he brought the mace sighing down to knock it aside.

Against any other opponent, Bohun might have been able to disengage and strike again, but the strength and ferocity with which Bhallaladeva swung his giant mace meant that the weapon had all the speed of a sword coupled with the crushing force of a warhammer. To linger within Bhallaladeva's reach would be fatal.

Bohun’s hope was that of all steppe warriors: to attack with speed and withdraw again beyond the enemy’s reach. Yet he could not escape a duel. His only chance was to land a hit, and the longer they fought the more perilous each attack became.

The Zaparozhian dashed sweat from his eyes. There was a slight stagger, and a wavering of the sword’s point as he held it at guard.

Blood thirst blazed in Bhallaladeva’s heart.

The prince of Mahishmati brought his mace up again. He rolled his neck in a lazy stretch, revelling in the exertion of his own strong body. His opponent was tiring, and it was only a matter of time before Bohun’s maddening speed gave out. Bhallaladeva could do this all day.

Were this a different fight, he suspected Bohun might have thrown caution to the wind and charged, letting his rage turn to berserk fury. But there was more than a battle of arms being fought here, and both men knew it.

Bohun came in cutting high, but Bhallaladeva blocked it with his mace, driving him back. The prince twisted to follow through with the power of chest and arms, driving the butt-end of the weapon towards the other man’s elbow with shattering force.

He dodged—barely—and they were close enough that Bhallaladeva could see the desperate fury on his face, full of the knowledge of just how close he’d come to being crippled to the end of his days.

Bhallaladeva grinned at him, and this time there was no answering sneer, only ragged, raw breaths and burning eyes.

Who was smiling now?

The prince feinted and Bohun flinched. Realising his mistake, he tried to correct it. The Zaparozhian sprang back, but he didn’t have his feet under his weight and he stumbled.

Bhallaladeva saw his opening. He closed the distance between them in two strides, winding up for a swing that would smash the other man’s collarbone.

Bohun danced. He dodged sideways, left foot flashing out as he changed his stance. The sabre hung in the air for second as he tossed it high with his right hand, then reached to catch it with his left.

Ambidextrous, Bhallaladeva thought. He had not forgotten.

Changing his balance at the last minute, Bhallaladeva drove the mace down on the crossguard of the sword. Bohun released the hilt with a cry, more willing to lose the weapon than have the bones of his hand reduced to a bloody pulp. The sabre spun away in a shining arc, landing with a thunk standing upright in the mud.

Bhallaladeva saw the thought in Bohun’s eyes before the man even moved: there was a curved, golden dagger tucked into the broad sash of the Slav’s belt. Bohun’s hand shot out to grasp it.

The prince dropped his mace and hurled himself against his opponent with all his strength, carrying him back until they slammed against the rough, weather-bleached wood of a nearby building.

Bohun gasped for air, head lolling against Bhallaladeva’s shoulder, strings cut and utterly winded—the body’s involuntary reaction to a hammer-hard blow to the solar plexus. Yet even then his hand still struggled weakly towards the hilt of his knife.

Panting for breath himself, Bhalla reached it first. He drew the blade and pressed it hard against the flushed skin of the man’s throat.

Bohun struggled, heedless of the cold steel at his flesh. Bhallaladeva threw all his weight against the slighter man’s unarmoured body, pinning him so Bohun’s feet barely touched the ground. For good measure, the prince drove his head against Bohun’s nose, not breaking it, but striking hard enough that blood gouted out in a torrent, spattering them both.

He could feel the man’s chest rising and falling against his own, and could see the sweat steaming from the open collar of his neck. How was the man not freezing in this unbearable cold? Instead he was warm. Warm and flushed, and staring into Bhallaladeva’s eyes with something insane and hungry in them.

What was it Bhallaladeva saw in those eyes? It was almost as if...

Then he realised: what he saw was trickery.

Bohun’s left arm had twisted free of the pinning weight of Bhallaladeva’s body. With a snarl he jabbed it elbow-first towards the prince's face. It almost worked, but Bhallaladeva reared back, caught the man’s wrist, and twisted it until Bohun hissed. Bhallaladeva leaned in harder this time, crushing the man between the wall and the force of his muscle.

“Do you want to die?” Bhalladeva demanded, driving the point of the dagger into skin. Sweat and blood ran together in red lines down Bohun’s throat and collarbone, staining the white linen of his shirt.

“Do you want to die?” He shouted again, and perhaps it was the familiar rage and despair he saw in Bohun’s face that made Bhallaladeva need his answer so. “Answer me!”

“I—don’t know.” The wild eyes seemed blue in this light: a clear, perfect blue, pure as the sky itself, even brighter next to the bright blood streaming down his face. Bohun was breathing in shallow, anguished gasps. From the hitch of his breath on each intake Bhallaladeva knew he’d cracked at least one rib. “Do you want to kill me?”

Bhallaladeva could feel his heart pounding in his chest.

“I do not know.” He did not know what he wanted from this man anymore.

“It would be a fine death,” Bohun rasped. He smiled then, lips and teeth smeared with his own blood, defiant and utterly mad.

“Join me instead,” Bhallaladeva said, answering that madness with his own. “Help me build my army and I will guarantee a better death than bleeding out in the frozen mud in this miserable place.”

“Will you be a conqueror, then?”

“I was born to conquer.” Bhallaladeva felt the truth of his own words, and in his mind’s eye he saw with perfect clarity the sacred symbols of his private faith: the spinning wheels of a chariot, the smoke of war, and a jagged crown.

“Do you swear it?” There was no mockery at all in those eyes, blue as the steppe sky and pupils blown wide. The body pressed against his gone taut as a bowstring.

“I will water the earth with the blood of a hundred kingdoms.” Bhallaladeva filled his next words with all his will, commanding the man to obey: “Join me.”

Close. They were so close that he could watch the pulse flickering on the man’s throat. Bohun’s blood was smeared between them, copper-scented and steaming, soaking into the wool of Bhallaladeva’s coat.

“Perhaps,” Bohun said, more congealing blood stringing across his lips as he spoke. “Perhaps. We shall see.”

Bhallaladeva marvelled at the suicidal effrontery of it: he had the man’s own knife to his neck, had beaten him battered and bloody. And still Bohun defied him, even now.

He could feel the crowd watching them: hundreds ringed them round, pressed close to watch, the fog of their breath rising in a great cloud into the still air.

“Bring me men for a raid, target to be agreed between ourselves. But bring me my warriors. Do you agree?”

Bohun’s look could have meant anything but Bhallaladeva stepped back, releasing him.

The slighter man staggered, gasping at the pain in his broken ribs. Bohun swayed, but did not fall. Instead he forced himself to walk, hunched over, boots slipping in the mud, driving himself on until his groping hand found the hilt of his dropped sabre. Only when he had his sword in one hand did he raise the other to the metal cross hanging about his neck. Lifting it to his blood-smeared lips, he kissed it, then let it fall. All the while, he had never taken his eyes off Bhallaladeva.

Bhallaladeva turned his back on him. He retrieved his mace and stepped to the waiting Iskender and Baghatur. The two stood mutely together like a pair of house servants, holding a clean cloth and a flagon of some liquid that most likely was not water.

Suddenly he heard Bohun’s croaking voice behind him: “I hope we need not kill all the people in every kingdom, great khan,” he said. “Not unless you’re willing to take a turn at the plough yourself.”

The crowd roared with laughter. So did Bhallaladeva: it was a joke to his taste, and he found he enjoyed sharing it with these brutal, savage men, knowing he possessed their respect. It was their respect that was so intoxicating.

He turned and graced his defeated opponent with a regal nod.

Many people laughed, the drunker individuals sketching flowery bows with cries of “Bhalla Khan!”. They laughed, but they laughed with him. Impossible as it seemed, these violent barbarians liked Bhallaladeva.

“Big man like Bhalla?” Baghatur shouted back, hands cupped to his mouth to be heard over the din. “He wouldn’t even need an ox. He could push a plough himself all day and still fuck your sister all night!”

The crowd was utterly undone. Men and women collapsed into the mud, clapping and howling with delight.

For a wild half-heartbeat Bohun looked as though he would lunge forward to fight again. But then he took in the mirth of the mob around him and Baghatur’s jolly face. Instead Bohun stood in silence, leaning hard on his sword, a hand clasped to his bleeding neck.

Not entirely a mad dog, then, Bhallaladeva thought. But Baghatur should offer thanks to his Hashem and Blue Heaven: if Bohun did not trust him, I think their beloved “batko” might have tried to kill him, as well as me.

A group of Sietch folk came to Bohun’s aid, offering clean cloths to stem his nose, swearing that he was a devil for speed, and assuring him that there was no shame in losing to a giant like that Bhalla “Khan”. Someone was calling for a healer, and Bhallaladeva hoped that whatever witch doctors they had here might not kill the man.

Bohun limped away without a backward glance, leaning on the arm of a Tartar woman, still clutching his sabre.

Bhallaladeva watched him go. The moment they had shared had passed, but he could still feel the tug of that violent instant of connection from their fight. An sense of unease stole over him, a premonition of some ineluctable force against which he could not struggle, yet did struggle.

As he, Baghatur, and Iskender walked away Bhallaladeva wiped at his face and found it spattered with Bohun’s blood. He licked his lips. It was the first true victory of his conquest, and it tasted sweet.

Looking down, he saw another thick, ruddy smear of the man’s blood across his right hand. It seemed an omen: here, he thought, the tides of time turned.

The wind came sighing up out of the steppe with a sound like the sea. He could not find it beautiful: it was an ugly, barren land, but it would make him maharaja.

No, not a maharaja, Bhallaladeva corrected himself: a khan.

Chapter Text

Spring, 1330 C.E., The Golden Stallion Inn: landlord’s private quarters, Zaporozhian Sietch, near the River Dnieper, Zaporozhia, Far Western Steppe | Modern-day Ukraine

 

“Then we are agreed: the border fortress.”

“Yes, the border fortress at Ltava,” Bhallaladeva said.

“It will take time to gather our people. There are some atamans we must have, and I must convince them.” Bohun emptied his glass. “I would like Baghatur to come with me: he could sell water to a fish.”

He considered Bhallaladeva, head cocked to one side.

“And if you can call upon some princely manners, you and Iskender might go out on the same mission to those other atamans who love me less.”

“I, Baghatur, and Iskender had already discussed the exact same thing. Iskender knows the local politics, and I am told that his parents are still remembered fondly in these parts.”

Bohun nodded.

“Baghatur had recommended that I, at least, wait until after summer had made the roads more passable. He wants the tale of my fights to spread throughout the countryside to prepare my way. But he has a weakness for stories. I should prefer to see these lands I would rule as soon as possible.”

“And, as I shall have to travel through all the muck and misery of springtime (for which I hope your soul rots in Hell) it seems only fitting that you must endure it as well. Baghatur loves his legends, but...”

“I prefer to give people something more substantive to talk about than a few private scuffles in the mud—” he smiled at the flicker of resentment on Bohun’s face “—and to do so sooner rather than later. How long do you expect this to take?”

“Perhaps the whole of the spring, until summer comes. It is well-timed: to raid in the midst of spring mud is a foolish risk of horses, and so much standing snowmelt breeds snakes and other vermin that poison the water so men sicken.” He stretched, shutting his eyes for a moment. “Summer is better.”

“Is it warmer?” Bhallaladeva could not help himself from asking.

“Of course it is warmer: it’s summer,” Bohun said dismissively. Then he opened one eye, studying Bhallaladeva. “Is it so much colder here than in your homeland?”

“We have snow in the high mountains, but even then only in winter.” He touched the heavy, felted wool of his coat. “Usually one need only wear light silks to be comfortable.”

“Silks?” Bohun asked.

“Or cotton,” Bhallaladeva said, taking refuge from sudden homesickness in meanness, “if one is a peasant like yourself.”

“And your peasants wear cotton!” Bohun swore, doubtful yet believing. “Well, we will have to find you a harem to keep you warm at night, soft southlander as you are, won’t we? Or have you sworn some kind of oath?”

“An oath?” Bhallaladeva asked, watching Bohun curiously.

“I met a man once who’d sworn an oath of chastity until he’d beheaded three men in a single stroke of his sword.” Bohun gave him a comradely leer. “Though, perhaps, he had fewer occasions for his oath to be tested than you might.”

“What do you mean?”

“What?” the Zaparozhian asked, startled.

“What do you mean by that?”

Bohun leaned back as though suddenly wishing to retreat from the conversation: “What are you asking?”

“What do you mean, ‘fewer occasions for his oath to be tested’?”

“I mean…” Bohun said slowly, “that he looked like the offspring of a beanpole and a corpse.”

“And I compare favourably to him?”

Bohun snorted, “Not in manners.”

They glared at one another in silence.

“And Iskender can truly be trusted to coordinate provisions?” Bhallaladeva asked after a moment. Both men felt obscurely relieved to return to practical matters.

“That one?” Bohun raised an eyebrow. “Surely you've noticed that food is a mania for him. Iskender starved enough in his youth that he can barely sleep without a crust of bread tucked under his pillow.”

Bhallaladeva had noticed, but had not quite put the facts together. He nodded to himself: it made sense.

“It seems we have our battle plan," the prince said. “First the politics, then logistics, and lastly we shall see to tactics.”

“That last is easier said than done, but we know where we may begin.”

“Speaking of tactics, I have a proposal,” Bhallaladeva said, watching carefully for Bohun’s reaction. “In travelling here I realised how much of the steppe I alone have unofficially surveyed. People come to the Sietch having travelled through every corner of the steppe and lands around it. If we were to compile all that first-hand knowledge, we would be able to make far better decisions. We might create a detailed map, or series of maps, perhaps, or some other record.”

“That is… a very good idea,” Bohun said, visibly impressed despite himself. “It would be an undertaking, but I believe it could be done.”

“And you know of no extant document of the same kind or purpose?”

“No, not that I’ve ever heard of,” he replied. The Zaparozhian gave Bhallaladeva a shrewd look. “I think it a good plan. And, as we’ve settled on our first target, let us ask about and see who knows most about the fort. I’ve been there, of course, but there may be men who served as serfs in those lands who would know more.”

“The more knowledge we have the better. Let it be so.”

Bohun put out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Bhallaladeva took it.

“Done,” the prince said, bearing down with all his strength.

“Done,” Bohun said lightly, but with a gratifying wince. He covered the aching twitch in his hand by reaching for the bottle again.

“You know they’re already comparing you to Attila?” Bohun asked conversationally, refilling his glass. “I blame Baghatur, but there are certain parallels, especially when it comes to slaying your brother to seize rulership—or trying to, in your case.”

“I do, and I find it agreeable. I had not expected that the attempted murder of my brother would, if not exactly be approved of, then at least be thought reasonable. The systems of succession in the steppe seem predisposed to fratricide.”

“That is why we Zaparozhians vote for our leaders,” Bohun said proudly. He held his goblet up, gazing at Bhallaladeva’s distorted image through the curved glass. “Do you know the meaning of that name, ‘Attila’?” he asked.

“I do not.”

They had not drunk overmuch, but there had been enough wine that Bhallaladeva found he did not mind Bohun was pouring him another glass of the vile stuff, nor that the other man had become so talkative. He could rest his mind from speaking Altaic and simply listen.

“He ruled over many peoples,” Bohun said. He had drunk rather more, and his native accent came through in his Altiac: a hint of rolled ‘r’s, vowels blurring together, and dental sounds drifting back in his mouth. There was a rich, dark-sounding lilt to it that Bhallaladeva did not find disagreeable. “Not just Huns, or so I’ve heard tell. ‘Attila’ was not his real name. It was a nickname—not even a Hunnic nickname, but a Gothic one: ‘little father’, roughly translated. It seems he was a good leader to them, so the name stuck. There must have been enough Goths and other peoples among the Huns that the nickname grew popular.”

“Is that not what Baghatur and Iskender call you? ‘Little Father’?”

Bohun shrugged, “So we call our own leaders, too, when we love them.”

“I would not have thought that there had been so many people under his one banner. Nor, in fact, that there would be so many different peoples here in the Sietch.”

“Ah,” Bohun said with a lover’s sigh, “the steppe picks men up and carries them away like a river to wherever chance or destiny may bring them. There were many peoples from many lands in Attila’s horde, and in Genghis’. Men and women did not care where their leaders came from.”

He looked at Bhallaladeva as he continued: “It mattered only that their leaders fought well, won, and remembered whose swords had carved out their empires.”

“I know what it is you tell me, ataman.” Bhallaladeva could not love this dogged obsession with freedom in the people he would rule, but at least he could respect it—and their violence.

“Good, I wish there to be an understanding between us. I will use my influence to bring men to your raid as I have sworn to do, because I believe you will be successful. A Zaparozhian’s word is not mere smoke.” Bohun’s eyes were shadowed in the dim room, pupils eclipsing all but the darker rim of his iris so they seemed a deep pool. “But that is all: one raid. I will not risk my honour and squander men’s lives to gratify a fool’s vanity. You must convince me and my people that we should accept you.”

Bhallaladeva thought of Baahubali and the battle with the Kalakeya savages: the spared sacrificial bull and the pitiful human shield of peasants his foster-brother had rescued. All that virtuous posturing that had so enraptured his mother and the plebeian idiots. Bhallaladeva tasted bile in his mouth.

“You speak much of honour and ideals,” Bhallaladeva said bitterly. “Would you be wooed with pretty words and noble deeds?”

Dark thoughts assailed him. He grew so lost in the strangling ties of the past that he started when Bohun slapped his hand on the table.

“What manner of people do you take us for?” Bohun asked, voice low. “Do you understand us at all?”

“Tell me, then: what must I do?”

Bhallaladeva had the sudden sense of another presence in the room: of unseen eyes watching as two men decided the fates of nations.

Slowly, the Zaporozhian drew his long, curved cavalry sabre. The polished steel shone in the candlelight. Bohun lay it on the table between them.

“Woo us with this.”

The air seemed thick, like the heaviness that comes before a storm. Bhallaladeva’s heart beat faster. He could taste that storm, could hear the thunder of hooves and see the lightning flash of drawn blades. A wind seemed to roar through him, blowing from somewhere outside time itself, carrying the smell of smoke and of blood—the storm of war.

Bohun was staring at him, hand still on the hilt of his sword. The knuckles showed white as his grip tightened. The Zaporozhian’s nostrils flared as though he had scented the same wild wind. The man leaned forward, probably without knowing he did so. Madness and fury howled in those blue-green eyes, and Bhallaladeva recognised it as the wolf’s song of his own soul.

That recognition was what connected them. His whole life, Bhallaladeva’s world had been peopled with dumb animals who were either tools to be used or hindrances to be destroyed. Looking at Bohun, he realised that what he felt when he looked at Bohun was a sense that he was no longer merely himself, alone, as the only sensate creature in the world. Now he saw a new kind of being: a predator, like himself.

The thought was intoxicating, and all the more so for the mirrored flash of understanding he saw on Bohun’s face.

“I am known as a man of my word,” Bohun said. “The Zaparozhians will follow me when I follow you. They would follow me from this raid to the next, and the next thereafter, for all your conquests. And we would follow you, if we can believe that you will fight not just for yourself, but for us.”

They seemed to circle each other, teeth bared, snarling, but neither intending to strike. This was a dance, not a fight.

“I will be a conqueror,” Bhallaladeva told him, “and your people will be conquerors.”

“And I?” Bohun asked.

The moment stretched between them, exquisite and infinite.

Bhallaladeva’s pulse sounded loud in his temples. He found himself riveted by the feral lines of the other man’s face: the narrow jaw, the sharp nose, the cruel mouth. They were lines drawn by rage and by hunger. Such hunger. He licked his lips, and saw Bohun follow the movement. The Zaporozhian felt the weight of Bhallaladeva’s gaze and glanced up.

Bhallaladeva’s hand flashed out, seizing the other man’s wrist—a swordsman’s wrist, corded with muscle and tendon that felt like steel under his fingers. Bohun did not flinch, but his eyes blazed from under the dark brows.

“You will be my sword,” Bhallaladeva said. “And we shall conquer the world.”

“Prove it!” Bohun hissed. Bhallaladeva felt a tremor run through the wrist he held. “Prove you can do it!”

“I will. When summer comes.”

Bohun’s wrist twisted, shedding Bhallaladeva’s hold. The sabre point flashed, fast as a striking serpent. Bhallaladeva did not move: to move was to gamble that Bohun’s mind could override years of muscle memory and instinct honed by survival.

“You will have one chance,” Bohun said, levelling the point at Bhallaladeva’s neck. “Only one. If you show any tyrant’s tricks I will turn every man in the Sietch against you.”

He pressed the cold steel to the skin of Bhallaladeva’s throat, arm crooked, the blade never wavering. Only a slight extension of his arm and Bhallaladeva’s lifesblood would pour out over the stained Persian carpet covering the rough floorboards.

“You may be strong, Bhallaladeva, but a thousand swords will bring down even the strongest.”

Bhallaladeva grinned and leant into the point. The blade was so sharp that he only knew the skin had broken when he felt the blood trickle down his neck.

“Then I shall make those thousand swords my own.”

The sense of connection between them seemed to hum with a power of its own, living and electric.

Both men were warriors entirely, now: focused on their opponent’s eyes yet following every shift of the other’s body as they faced each other.

“You have shed my blood,” Bohun said, touching the healed cut on his neck that Bhallaladeva had made. “Now my sword has tasted yours. I count that as a blood pact, with vengeance due to whoever breaks their oath.”

He withdrew his sword. Bhallaladeva felt a withdrawal, too, of more than the blood and steel which had connected them. The other man’s face seemed closed against him, now, betraying nothing.

Bohun wiped the blood from his sabre on the carpet, then sheathed it.

“Honour is not cheaply bought,” he said, “and I do not risk mine lightly. Prove yours by showing that you will guard our freedoms as your own.”

“I will.” Bhallaladeva had never understood the people of Mahishmati, but the violent desires of these steppe savages made sense to him. He could rule them, because he understood why they would let themselves be ruled: for power and plunder.

“If you betray us,” Bohun said, “there will be no corner of the earth safe enough for you to hide in.” The steppe itself seemed to speak through him: “No matter where you run, I will find you. And when I do, I will make you curse your mother for not strangling you at birth.”

And he was gone, striding from the room with his scabbard clanking and his long coat swirling behind him.

Bhallaladeva touched his hand to his throat, feeling the warm blood welling against his fingers.

He had expected much from this night, and even more had been given. The tides had been turning before, and now they ran in full flood.

Either Yurko Bohun would kill him or Bhallaladeva would have him. But if he had Bohun, what a world of possibilities opened up before him.

Bhallaladeva’s heart pounded. In his marrow he felt the beat of galloping hooves. He felt the weight of a war helm on his head—or of a crown. He thought of Bohun’s eyes, and the flickering pulse of blood in the swordsman’s wrist beneath his fingers.

A world of possibility indeed.

Chapter Text

Early summer, 1330 C.E., Common room of the Golden Stallion Inn, Zaporozhian Sietch, near the Dnieper River, Zaporozhia, Far Western Steppe | Modern-day Ukraine


“I can’t tell if things are going well or if we’re fucked to Hell!” Iskender exclaimed, slamming his tankard on the table for emphasis.

Baghatur emptied his mug and held it out for Iskender to refill.

They’d returned from their separate missions with Bhallaladeva and Bohun that day. Now they were celebrating their reunion with as much alcohol as their credit and fortitude could withstand.

The future seemed promising. Both men could see that the attack on the fortress would be a success. Rumour of Bhallaladeva’s name had gone through the Zaparozhian steppe like wildfire, and the weight of Bohun’s support had built rumour into reputation. Everything was going to plan. Everything, that is, except Bhallaladeva and Bohun themselves.

“I know they’re both as proud as Lucifer,” Iskender continued, pouring for Baghatur, “but surely to God they must see that this is the only way the thing will work?”

“I think they do see that,” Baghatur said mildly.

“Then what the fuck is wrong with them?” Iskender tugged at his long lock of hair. “It’s not like batko can’t follow orders when he wants to. He served in the rebellion, he followed orders then. They don’t even have to like each other, so long as they work together!”

Baghatur took a long, slow draught from his tankard, saying nothing.

Iskender caught the expression on his face. He squinted at Baghatur suspiciously.

“What?” he said crossly. “Why are you looking like that, you sly son of a bitch?”

The Khazar smiled like a sphinx.

“What have you heard?” Iskender demanded. “Did Bhalla say something to you?”

“Certainly not.”

“Bohun, then?”

Baghatur gave Iskender a pitying look.

“Then what ails them? If they just needed to fight it out again, that would be simple enough, but…”

“That would be simple, wouldn’t it? A little physical release is so often a good solution.”

“Well, yes, but... why are you sitting there grinning at me like—hold on.”

Baghatur raised a significant eyebrow.

Iskender gawped at his partner.

“You don’t think—you can’t—you must be joking!”

“Bhallaladeva picked up on us rather quickly, don’t you think? I thought so. Very quickly, in fact, for a man so wrapped up in his own ego. I think that says something, wouldn’t you?”

“But there was that princess, that Devasena!”

“You can't honestly be sitting there trying to tell me that a man can’t have many desires.”

“But Bohun? Bhalla I could believe, but I’ve been on campaign with Bohun. People would notice.”

“Oh, of course he’d stick to tumbling girls when everyone else is watching. But I’m not just talking about lust. That one… I’ve heard some things.”

Iskender leaned forward.

“What have you heard?”

The storyteller looked around before continuing in a hushed voice: “If you ask me, it sounds like it wasn’t just his beloved betrothed running off with the Pole that drove him out of his mind. There was the girl, sure as there’s a sun that rises in the east. But same as it sets in the west, I think there was the Pole, too.”

“Do you say so?” Iskender asked, eyes bright with interest. “And do you say Bhalla and Bohun together?”

“Reading between the lines, I will only say that I that obsession takes many forms.”

Iskender’s face was a vision of inebriated wonderment.

Baghatur nodded, well-pleased with his audience’s reaction.

Chryste, that’s it,” Iskender marvelled. “If those two don’t kill each other first they’ll be at it like… like I don’t know what, but I’d pay to watch.”

“If you weren’t so ugly I’d be worried about you straying.”

“Now, now: no need to be testy,” Iskender said, holding out a hand. “But here’s a question: which would you have, if you had to pick?”

“My choice of the madmen?” Baghatur scoffed. “Ah, you know me: I’ve a weakness for idolatrous, rangy Slavs with no common sense.”

“Funny, I was going to say that I apparently have a taste for swarthy easterners. Though, looking at Bhalla, frankly I’d be too nervous to try. Have you seen the size of him? I don’t think I could do it. Not used to that level of...” he drifted off.

Baghatur eyed Iskender narrowly: “I believe I’ve just been insulted.”

“Believe it, Khazar,” Iskender leered. He raised his mug, Baghatur raised his own, and they glugged away for a moment before slamming the empty tankards down on the table.

Baghatur swayed slightly in his seat. He beamed at his partner, his face now nearly as red as Iskender’s own.

The Slav stared at his mug, growing thoughtful. After a time, he reached out across the table to take Baghatur’s hand. He missed it and settled instead for patting his arm.

“Do you think…” Iskender faltered, then started again: “You don’t think—you can’t think they’d ever be… be like us, can you?”

Baghatur threw his head back and roared with laughter.

Iskender stared at him.

The Khazar pounded his fists on the table, hooting and panting like a bellows. After a heartbeat Iskender began to smile too, his low huffs of amusement rising to ringing howls. Incapable of speech, they were reduced to antic gestures that only set them to laughing even harder. The common room stared in amazement as the two men clutched at the table and each other.

“Oh, Christ Jesus,” Iskender said eventually, bent double and wiping at his eyes. “Oh, blessed Virgin, the stupid questions I ask sometimes.”

“It’s a heavy burden that I bear,” Baghatur managed at last, gasping, “being both the looks and the brains of this operation.”

“How much have we drunk?” Iskender asked, shutting one eye to help focus on the bottom of his mug. He thought it might be empty, but mostly it seemed to be blurry.

“Not enough to excuse your stupidity.” Baghatur snorted, refiling their mugs. “No, no. Those two? The, shall we say, ‘softer feelings’? Never. Impossible.”

He sat back, putting his feet up on Iskender’s knees beneath the table.

“Most men,” he continued “can love a fight, love a raid, come home, fuck their lovers, and love them, too.”

“That’s right,” Iskender nodded. “Even most mad murderers still love their mothers.”

“As you would know full well,” Baghatur replied, gazing fondly at his lover’s horse-like visage. “It is one of the great, mundane mysteries of the human soul.”

“Not them, though.”

“No,” Baghatur agreed, “not them.”

His eyes grew distant then, as if seeing something not bounded by the inn’s walls.

“What?” Iskender asked.

“I think… I think that those two have fires where the rest of us keep our hearts.”

Iskender lay his hand on Baghatur’s knee.

“Can we weather what we’ve unleashed, do you think?”

“I think so,” the Khazar said.

Then, looking up, he smiled at Iskender, and all the wild violence of the steppe was in his dark eyes.

“And if not, then we will at least have a fine view of the world as it burns.”

“Damn right we will.”

They clanked their mugs together and drank to the death of nations.

Chapter Text

Summer, 1330 C.E., Border Fortress at Ltava, Zaporozhian and Polish Borderlands, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Far Western Steppe | Modern-day Ukraine



The fortress was theirs. Outside the keep, their warriors had already begun the havoc and revelry of victory. Inside, Bhallaladeva and Bohun sought for the Polish border commander at their leisure, roaming from room to room, leaving bloodied footsteps behind them.

At last they found a richly-dressed man in what seemed to be the commander’s private bedchambers, hastily shoving jewellery and papers into a bundle.

The man glanced between Bhallaladeva and Bohun. He clearly recognised Bohun, but the nobleman could barely bring himself to look at Bhallaladeva directly. When he did, he blanched.

“Ask him if he’s the commander,” Bhallaladeva told Bohun.

Bohun asked the question, and there was a quick exchange in the local language.

“He is. He says he has papers from the council of nobles—military plans that he is willing to trade for his life.”

“Do you believe him?”

Bohun asked the commander another question.

The Pole spat at his feet, face flushed with rage.

Bohun repeated himself, voice gone too soft to be anything but dangerous.

The commander lifted his chin, hand on his sabre hilt, and replied with aristocratic vitriol.

Bhallaladeva had only the briefest glimpse of Bohun’s contorted face before he sprang forward. His arm flashed out. There was a swish of moving air, a heavy thwack! that echoed off the walls, and a scream. The Pole staggered back with the force of the blow. When he raised his head again, Bhallaladeva could see the livid, bleeding weal that Bohun's short whip had left across his face.

The Zaparozhian asked his question again but did not wait for a response. His lips had gone white, snarling back from the white teeth. The whip slashed through the air, struck, and rose again.

Bhallaladeva felt no wish to restrain his second-in-command. Bohun could certainly beat the man to death, but that would take time. For now he could simply enjoy the spectacle: the other man’s violence a pleasure to watch.

Bhallaladeva wondered what the Pole had said to him. Apparently whatever it was in the nobleman that angered Bohun could not be beaten out of him. The nobleman howled and cursed with a hatred to match Bohun’s own. Despite the demoniac fury of the assault, he eventually managed to draw his sabre to defend himself. As the border lord brandished it Bohun sprang back, breathing hard, an unhealthy light in his eyes.

“Well?” Bhallaladeva asked. “Do you believe him?”

“I do.”

“Do you believe they could be coded?”

“I should think not.”

“And are you finished?”

Bohun made a courtly bow. After you, oh king.

The two men smiled at each other, and the pitilessness of their expressions brought horror into the Polish commander’s heart.

Bhallaladeva stepped forward, mace in hand. The sounds of battle filled his ears: crashing stone, clashing steel, and screams.

The Polish nobleman stood bravely en garde with his sabre drawn. He shrieked as Bhallaladeva’s mace shattered his arm, the sound rising until it seemed to fill the whole room. It cut off when the next blow crushed his skull. The body fell to its knees, then toppled to the floorboards with a wet thud and a skittering of shattered teeth.

Bohun bent to inspect the documents in the corpse’s slack hands, delicately flicking gobbets of brain and bone from the paper with the tip of his sabre.

“These look rather promising,” he said, eyebrows raised.

“What do they say?” Bhallaladeva asked thickly. It was hard to focus when violence was running through his blood like wine. The room stank of death, and his soul sang with dark and exultant furies.

This was the first step. He would not have to playact at virtue for his crown: he would buy it fairly by the strength of his arm and the cunning of his mind. He would forge a crown for himself from the steel of beaten swords.

Bohun leafed through the papers with his long, clever fingers.

“A great deal: contingency plans, notes of which villages have the best stores and placement for quartering soldiers, estimations of the different strengths of various garrisons and of nobles’ holdings... Chryste!” he laughed, turning to Bhallaladeva, “I don't know how he came by these, but they would’ve been a fair trade for his measly life!”

Still smiling to himself, Bohun stooped and searched the dead man. He relieved him of a few other documents he’d concealed in the breast of his tunic. Then, moved by a whim, he tugged the gold rings from the dead fingers. As Bhallaladeva watched, the Zaporozhian stood and held them out to him as though sharing a joke.

Bhallaladeva looked at the golden rings, shining bright against the dirt and blood of Bohun’s palm.

The madness of battle was still coursing through him, but there were other madnesses in his soul, and one in particular that now made itself heard.

Staring at the rings, they seemed to fill his whole field of vision, growing to awful significance as symbols of all he’d lost. He should have been maharaja—he had been born to it! All the dreams he’d had, all the hopes… and even in his worst nightmares he’d never imagined that he might be brought to the point of picking the pockets of dead men for gewgaws that he would not have thrown to a slave at home. He would rather have starved than live on Baahu’s generosity, but the cruel injustice of his plight struck him now like a hammer-blow.

Bhallaladeva would have his kingdom, but how dare any man offer him pity or handouts, even in jest? Did a king accept such things from a filthy savage like Bohun?

The other man saw the rage on Bhallaladeva’s face. Bohun made as if to withdraw his hand, but it was too late.

Bhallaladeva slammed into him with all the force of his body, carrying him back and pinning him against the wall. A curious, intrusive little voice in his head noted that this was becoming almost a habit with them.

“What do you mean by offering me such trash? Do you forget that I am a prince?” Bhallaladeva roared. “How dare you? I may not have my crown, but I was born to a royal line that was ancient in glory when your ancestors were still squatting naked in mud huts!”

Anger swept over Bohun’s features like a scudding stormcloud as his own temper flared up, swift and hot as Bhallaladeva’s.

“What do I care for your fancy pedigree?” Bohun said. “God’s curse on your fucking royal ancestors, and on your crown!”

“You promised you would help me gain it!”

“I promised I would help with this raid, no more!”

It was true, yet dark forebodings flooded Bhallaladeva’s mind. The screams outside seemed to assume a sinister malignity.

“See?” Bohun said. “This is why you cannot be trusted! I gave you my word, but already you would take more before you’ve given anything back.”

“Your word!” Bhallaladeva sneered. “What worth have a peasant’s words?”

“I am an ataman! What is your word worth, outcast? How can I trust a man who does not trust his own comrades-in-arms?”

And there it was: the trust that Bhallaladeva could not give. It was as Baghatur had said—Bhallaladeva must trust someone.

But could he trust Bohun?

The man had ridden from village to village all that past spring, proving the truth of his word. That was all self-serving, though. There could be no loyalty in it. Or could there? Would Bhallaladeva even be able to recognise loyalty, if he saw it?

To survive, Bhallaladeva realised, he had no other choice but to trust this man. He had endured much for his dream of a crown. Now he knew with prophetic clarity that he must take this final risk, and that he must commit to it.

“I swear,” Bhallaladeva said, weighing each word carefully on the scales of his new certainties, “that I will deal honourably with you and your people.”

“How should I trust anything you say?” Bohun spat, too incensed to truly hear Bhallaladeva’s words. “You’re a liar, you all are!”

Who is “you”, in this moment? Bhallaladeva wondered. Bohun was slipping fast away from him, falling into some depth Bhallaladeva had always sensed within him, but never fully seen or understood. He understood rage, but this was something else: they seemed to have come to a fault line in Bohun’s mind.

“You can’t be trusted, none of you can!”

Bhallaladeva had known Bohun was mad, but what he saw now in the man’s eyes was terrible. He watched, fascinated, as the man raged.

Bohun stared through Bhallaladeva, speaking to ghosts who did not answer: “What else could you take from me? What else, that I would not have given?"

He was not weeping; had he been weeping, his voice might have seemed less dreadful.

“What did I lack, that you loved him more?" Bohun asked. “What did she have, that you could not love me?”

His whole body convulsed and he cried out in desolation: “Give me back my freedom!”

Bhallaladeva could not speak. The other man’s raving struck strangely near to his own heart. Losing the crown, losing Mahishmati, losing his home—losing those things had denied him his power. And power, the prince realised, was but another name for freedom.

Here was Bohun’s crisis, as the previous moment had been Bhallaladeva’s. He could use it to his advantage.

“You will be free,” Bhallaladeva told the madman, making his words sweet, “with me.”

“I can’t trust you,” Bohun shook his head, choking on his hatred.

“You must. I will be your khan. Give me the trust and allegiance due to your king and follow me to my crown and your victory.”

Khans and kings!” Bohun sneered. “What trust can you give to a damned lineage? Why must you always speak of crowns? Do I follow you for the title you would claim? I follow you! You!”

His face went slack as he realised what he’d said.

Bhallaladeva’s heart thundered in his chest like war drums.

“You follow me?” the prince asked, savouring each word.

The Zaporozhian glared like a wild thing caught in a trap.

“I do not recall hearing your oath of homage,” Bhallaladeva said cruelly. “When exactly did you pledge your fealty? I think I should have remembered such a remarkable moment of submission.”

The other man let out wordless howl and threw himself forward against Bhallaladeva’s restraining arm. Bhallaladeva slammed him back, Bohun’s head striking the wall so hard that a line of blood could be seen trickling down the stone.

“Why would you follow me?” the prince demanded. If he was to trust him, he must know. The battle reek of smoke and blood were all about him, but now there was the scent of other man’s body, smelling of sweat and of horses.

Bohun fought him, seeking to get purchase on the wall or to break Bhallaladeva’s hold. The lithe muscles stood out like corded steel as he strained to escape, but the prince’s greater strength held.

“Answer,” Bhallaladeva commanded, “if you are not a coward!”

That cut through.

Bohun went quiet. He panted for breath, glaring at Bhallaladeva.

When his response came, it was as though every word was dragged up from within on iron hooks:

“I follow you,” he said, “because you will ride over these lands like Apocalypse. I follow you because you will make war like a demon.”

“And that earns your loyalty?”

“Yes.” The word was almost a whisper.

“And your service?”

“Never!” Bohun cried. The fury was back. He fought like a man possessed. Fingers clawed at the vanbrace of the arm that pinned him, nails breaking and leaving bloody streaks on the mirror-bright steel. “Service? Am I a serf or a slave? Damn you! Damn your soul to the eternal fire!”

“What then? Make your oath now, if you would follow me!” Bhallaladeva struck him, fist connecting with a crack! and Bohun’s mad eyes suddenly snapped into sharp focus. They stared at Bhallaladeva with inhuman intensity.

“I am a free man,” he said. “I am an ataman and a commander of the Zaparozhians. You will not make us into cringing serfs for any soft-land tyrant to use and betray. Swear this to me.”

“I swear it,” Bhallaladeva hissed. “I swear that you will have your freedoms, and I will fight for them as though they were my own. Now make your oath.”

The Zaparozhian trembled as he spoke, but his voice did not waver as he uttered each deliberate word: “I swear by God, the Virgin, and the saints that I will follow you as my king, damned demonspawn as you are.”

Bhallaladeva let out a slow, satisfied sigh.

At last, he thought. At last, I have him.

“And when I am king, will you speak to me thus in my court?” He stared into the other man’s eyes, watching the pupils swallow up the blue-green iris.

Bhallaladeva leaned in, pressing his forearm against the other man’s windpipe, forcing his head back as he struggled to draw breath.

“Yes,” Bohun croaked. “I do not lie. If you want someone to tell you sweet lies you can find a wife.”

Bhallaladeva’s life had once been a web of lies. He remembered the sycophants who’d followed him, telling him every comforting falsehood that he might have wished to hear until he himself could no longer tell truth from flattery. There had been his father, filling his head with whinging words: that Bhallaladeva had a “right” to the throne, that Bhallaladeva had been “wronged”.

They were lies. They were excuses. They had made him weak.

“And if I do not like what you say?” Bhallaladeva asked.

Somewhere outside an impaled man was screaming, on and on: a high, broken sound like a rabbit in a trap.

Bhallaladeva’s nostrils flared.

“If I threaten to kill you for what you say?”

His eyes were on the other man’s lips, and he saw the defiant, daredevil smile as Bohun replied, “Why threaten what I know you can do?”

Why indeed?

Bhallaladeva’s mace thudded to the floor. He seized Bohun, crushing their mouths together with a hungry sound he hardly recognised in himself.

The other man’s body went rigid against his, strained to the snapping point.

Then Bohun’s sabre clattered at their feet and Bhallaladeva felt long, cold fingers clawing at his hair, scrabbling at his neck, hauling at the collar of his cuirass to pull him closer.

Bohun swore as Bhallaladeva’s fully-armoured weight pressed hard against him, but Bhallaladeva could taste the smiling curve of his mouth against his own.

It was pure—pure as violence or death.

Teeth caught on lips, nails dug into skin, Bhallaladeva’s armour still between them. Bhallaladeva tore at the neck of the Zaparozhian’s surcoat to get at the skin beneath, encouraged by Bohun’s breathless, laughing curses.

Suddenly, Bohun got a leg up against the wall and used the leverage to push back against Bhallaladeva’s greater strength. The prince staggered back, nearly tripping over the body of the dead nobleman.

Bhallaladeva could not take his eyes from Bohun. The man had not seemed handsome before, though he’d been told Bohun was so. Yet now every detail seemed an intoxication to Bhallaladeva’s senses: Bohun, with his collar torn, smeared with the grime and gore of battle, hair dishevelled, chest heaving, and a promise of such heedless, single-minded desire in his whole countenance that Bhallaladeva shivered to feel how much he himself desired Bohun in this moment.

“I hope,” Bhallaladeva managed, glancing down at the corpse at his feet, “that you do not intend for there to be three of us?”

Bohun jerked his head over Bhalladeva’s shoulder, indicating the nobleman’s bed, a question in his glance.

The prince nodded.

Bohun let out a moan, started forward—then froze. There was a strange, breathless silence as he hesitated, hand groping towards the cross at his neck.

Bhallaladeva did not move or speak; he issued his challenge with his eyes. Bhallaladeva wanted Bohun, and he had come to this land to take all he wanted.

“Christ have mercy,” Bohun whispered, and made his final choice.

He lunged forward, slamming into Bhallaladeva so hard that the larger man stumbled. They fought in their embrace, grinding, breathless and frustrated, too hungry for the other’s body to let go but furious to be so unsatisfied.

It was only when Bohun lost one shattered fingernail to Bhallaladeva’s armour that the necessity of having less steel between came into sharper focus.

They made remarkably short work of it, snarling kisses against each other’s lips as they struggled with the straps. Finally, when the cuirass was discarded, Bohun shoved Bhallaladeva back onto the bed.

It smelled vile: musty and stale. But then Bohun’s mouth was on his bare skin, and the man was gasping Bhalla’s name, breath hot in his ear as they rutted against each other, and Bhallaladeva no longer cared.

Together they moved in tangle of half-shed clothes and writhing limbs, sweat pouring from their bodies, the heat between them like a living flame.

Bhallaladeva flipped them over, putting Bohun on his back. Pinning the other man’s hips in place for a moment, he enjoyed watching Bohun’s frustration spark into anger. He marvelled for a moment at the intensity in those deep-set eyes, every emotion shining fierce, wild, and clear.

That had been a mistake.

The eyes blazed.

Bohun reared up and butted Bhallaladeva’s head hard enough to make his vision flash white. Through the blinding pain, he felt Bohun’s hands on his waist dragging him down, pulling their bodies flush again. Seeing nothing, he could only hear the torrent of Bohun’s foreign curses and blasphemies, and Bhallaladeva smiled.

When his sight cleared, his head lay on Bohun’s shoulder. The other man’s skin was flushed, the red scar Bhallaladeva had made still sharp and clear on his neck. He bit down hard, drawing new blood. Bohun cursed even as his whole body responded, his ragged nails digging into Bhallaladeva’s flesh.

Bhallaladeva sought his savage pleasure in power. Bohun met him with a frenzied hunger that knew no distinction between either pain or pleasure. One had a pure and primal brutality, and the other the reckless violence of his need.

Taking had been a known ecstasy, but the strange delights of being taken from were new. There had been others before this for both of them, but never another whose ferocity matched their own.

Bohun was arching up to meet him, snarling and damning him in a voice that sounded like worship to Bhallaladeva’s ears.

The man was hateful. He was beautiful. He was his, and Bhallaladeva gave himself up to violence and to sensation and to burning, blue-green eyes. 

Half-mad with war and lust, neither was now inclined to self-control. Bhallaladeva finished first, mouth falling open, gasping at the intensity of his release. When at last conscious thought returned, he looked up to see Bohun staring at him through straggling, sweat-tousled hair, and Bhallaladeva watched as the man brought himself to shuddering climax against him.

There was no silence afterwards.

The shouts in the courtyard below had grown louder as the steppe warriors caroused. Drunken singing echoed and re-echoed off the stone walls.

The impaled soldiers were still screaming, and would be for days.

Bhallaladeva rolled off onto the bed, breathing hard, heart hammering against his ribs.

He could feel Bohun’s eyes on him, watching.

They struggled for breath, sweat cooling on their skin.

After a time, Bhallaladeva asked, “Is this what it will be, then?”

“I would wish it so.”

Something in that voice made Bhallaladeva turn to look at him, but Bohun’s expression was impossible to read.

“Would you?” Bhallaladeva studied the strange, striking face.

Bohun nodded.

“I would.”

A heartbeat passed in which Bhallaladeva could not move.

Bohun shrugged then, saying, “But if this was all blood, lust, and bloodlust then—eh!—let it pass.” He turned, listening to the sound of some fresh chaos drifting through the window.

“No,” Bhallaladeva said. He seized Bohun’s arm in an iron grip. Bohun’s head snapped round, and that wild look was back.

He and I do not truly burn with hatred, nor with greed, nor even with the lust for violence, Bhallaladeva thought with pleasure. We simply burn as fire does, and with the fire’s hunger to consume all in its path.

“I would have this,” Bhallaladeva said. “I would have this again, and in the beds of a hundred murdered kings.”

“A hundred? Would you not kill them all?”

“I would kill every noble, too, if the deaths of kings alone will not satisfy you.”

He was rewarded with a slow, wolfish smile.

“And would we do this in their beds as well?” Bohun asked.

For answer Bhallaladeva caught him by the neck and kissed him hard. He felt his lip split open again, and the mingled taste of Bohun’s mouth and blood was a rapture.

“We might—” Bohun pulled back, then swung a leg over Bhallaladeva’s hips “—for contrast, even deign to do so in less exalted places.”

“Who would dare stop us?” Bhallaladeva agreed, hands covering the marks they had left on Bohun’s skin.

“No, we must be discreet for a time,” Bohun said, suddenly serious. He put a finger to a fresh mark on Bhallaladeva’s chest where his cross had dug into the flesh. “It is not always thought well of. But once you have ten thousand riders at your back, why then…”

His eyes glittered, inviting Bhallaladeva to finish his thought.

“...Then how many more dead men’s beds there shall be for us to fuck in.”

“Exactly so, my king.”

Chapter Text

Summer 1330 C.E., Zaporozhian and Polish Borderlands, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Far Western Steppe | Modern-day Ukraine



They rode east from the fort into the rising sun. Smoke billowed up from the burning keep behind them, but the east wind blew soft with the warmth of summer. Insects leapt from under their horse’s hooves. The grass smelled sweet after the settled, rural scents of livestock and human waste. The Sietch was no better, but the steppe was clean.

Bhallaladeva breathed deeply, wondering how far this east wind had travelled. It might have sprung from the heights of his homeland, passing over the sunbaked stones of Mahishmati’s great city, over the land where the ashen bones of his ancestors had nourished the living earth for a thousand years.

The weight of those years seemed to press down on him then, bringing the old burden of doubts, fears, and inadequacies. Legacy had driven him, but it had also nearly destroyed him.

With an effort, Bhallaladeva shook them off. That had been another life.

Here he was unfettered, and his will would carve out a new kingdom. His name would be a thing of power and terror, a wail on the lips of orphans and widows, a byword for the kingdoms of the earth swallowed up in a tide of violence.

Midsummer was coming, a time of harvest for the settled lands. Now he was a man of the steppe, and he would reap a harvest of another kind.

At last, he was free to live his life as he wished, and as it was meant to be lived.

He turned to Bohun, riding by his side. The man’s shirt was open to the neck and Bhallaladeva could see him lift his face to feel the warm wind. Bhallaladeva knew that, much as the freshening breeze raised his own heart, Bohun felt more. For Bohun, it was a communion with the nameless, wild-wind steppe gods whose given grace was freedom. Bhallaladeva did not know those gods—not yet—but he had tasted their grace on Bohun’s lips.

“I was thinking of what you said earlier,” Bhallaladeva said.

Bohun turned, expression quizzical.

“Earlier, in the keep,” Bhallaladeva explained, and enjoyed the slow, sly, carnal smile that spread over Bohun’s lips.

“Not that,” the prince said, eyes straying to the bruises just visible below Bohun’s open collar, “though that has been much in my mind.”

“Oh? What then?”

“When you said that you are a ‘free man’,” he elaborated. “A ‘wanderer’, literally, I believe.”

A slight tilt of the chin, a proud flash of the eyes: “Yes, that’s so.”

“If I am to have a people following me, there must be a name. Your Sietch is mostly Zaporozhians, like you, but you’re hardly one tribe or one people. There are Zaporozhians and other Slavs, Tartars and Turks, Avars, Magyars, Varangians, Khazars, and Mongols. And I myself.”

“You are right,” Bohun said thoughtfully. “And you think ‘free people’ a good name?”

“It sounds very well in Altaic.” The prince said it slowly, savouring the shape of the word: “qazaklar”.

“Hmm, ‘the free peoples’.” Bohun sounded it out, though his rough, western accent made “qazak” sound more like “kozak”.

“What do you say?”

“I like it, as you no doubt intended. I am even tempted to think of it as something of a gift, knowing as I now do just how giving you can be, when you choose.”

Bhallaladeva had indeed been giving. He had never knelt before any man before, but even with Bohun’s hands holding him like iron claws, the broken, animal sounds Bhallaladeva had forced from him had seemed a new kind of domination.

“For which,” he said, “I hope you will continue to be appropriately grateful.”

And then there had been the usual forms of possession: Bohun gasping and cursing beneath him, impossibly not even trying to escape but clinging with desperate strength even as the sweat stood out on his brow.

“Oh, certainly,” Bohun said. “Perhaps at our next camp, should time allow. But as to the name: I am your general and military advisor, Bhalla Khan. I would suggest that perhaps you don’t keep Baghatur about just for his pretty face. We might confer with him.”

“We might, but I think not. I like it, too.”

More than that, he felt the rightness of the name in his heart. As Attila had ruled the Huns and then the steppe itself, so he would make himself ruler of these wild steppe folk and would make of them a new people—his people—the Free Peoples: the Kozaks.

The east wind strengthened and he spurred to meet it.

The steppe would be his kingdom: this strange, rootless land that was both empty and filled, beautiful and terrible, silent and full of war; wild in its vast, unpeopled expanses, and wild from the spirit of its people.

Beside him, he heard Bohun cry to his horse, following hard. In an instant he had drawn level with him—the benefit of his slighter weight and a lifetime in the saddle on the steppes where the first horses had been tamed.

Bhallaladeva watched him as he rode, his lean body responding to his horse’s stride with an effortless, feral grace. Strong legs held the horse’s sides, his hips rolling with each strike of its hooves.

Mine, Bhallaladeva thought with satisfaction.

Noting the direction of Bhallaladeva’s gaze, Bohun grinned and struck out with the butt of his whip, urging the horse on. It sprang forward and Bhallaladeva caught the look of wild joy on Bohun’s pale face as he flashed past.

Grinning himself, he put his heels to his own mount, giving chase. Their horses flew over the steppe as they rode into the dawn.

The Zaporozhian began to sing in his own tongue, the words sad and sweet with the knowledge of things that pass away like the wind through the grass.

It was good, Bhallaladeva thought. It was a true song. There was pain in that sadness, and in the pain a defiant hunger for all that the world could offer before death came.

Behind them, the last supporting timbers of the fortress keep collapsed, sending up a gout of flame that was lost in the brilliance of the morning light. As it strengthened, the wind drove the rising ashes before it in a long, westering shadow that carried the scents of blood and burning flesh.

In the east, the sun climbed higher, shining through the smoke—red, and rising.