Today, I thought I’d share a chapter from the upcoming Eruption (Book 2 of Conquerors of K’Tara). The scene is at Horn’s Pass, Prince Toras’s fortress in the northwest of the kingdom, the place where our heroes first encountered and fought the Serpent. The scene begins in the Officers’ Lounge, where we meet Toras’s new first officer, a Lux Baiula named Laiella, banter with Secundus Sheffar. and we see the prince take his soldiers through some very intense exercises of his own invention, to prepare them for their next encounter with the Serpent. We see Toras still taking much risk, and his new first officer questioning his decisions. I hope you enjoy it.
Sitting across from Toras and Sheffar, her elbow on the table in the fortress’s Officers’ Lounge, Laiella said, “You do have an interesting way about you, Lord Commander, and I can see how—if you lived in the city rather than in a fortress such as this—you might have a dozen dreamy-eyed girls all hanging on your sleeves for attention.”
Sheffar said, “I’m sure he would have a hundred girls hanging off him. A hundred girls in his chambers too.”
Toras, trying to contain himself in front of the Lux Baiula, said, “First of all, Sheffar, I am not a fish to take a hundred females, even if I had a chance to. One is all I ever wanted and had. But when I accepted this command, I made an oath to be celibate—as we all have.”
“Yes, yes, but it doesn’t hurt to fantasize.”
Laiella ignored Sheffar’s response and said to Toras, “So it is true. How do you remain true to something you are forced to do?”
Toras said, “Aren’t Lux Baiulae celibate too?”
“Most are, but not because of an oath. More because we choose to be, and because, well, by convention.”
Sheffar yelled, “Convention!?”
Laiella glared down the officer, “Conventions keep order as much as laws and oaths.” She watched for any reply then continued, “Anyway, what is truly frowned upon is developing emotional ties to a man, but not the occasional scuffle.”
Toras asked, “Scuffle?”
“Yes, scuffle. At least, that is what we Breminese call it. The sudden flare of emotions, rushing blood, hypersensitivity—it’s all quite pleasant, and without the risk of embarrassment as there is no copulation.”
The secundus yelled. “No–!”
The prima said, “Are you going to continue interjecting like a child, Sheffar?”
Toras decided to intervene, to avoid his secundus being irreparably humiliated, said “The secundus is just very expressive, Prima. Anyway, we should move on to more serious things.”
Laiella grunted her thanks to the prince, but only after shooting another scornful glare at the secundus.
Toras asked, “How are the preparations for our next attack on the Gnarlers? And has anyone in the Sisterhood located the Serpent yet?”
Secundus Sheffar cleared his throat and said, “Everything’s ready, Commander, except for the lincots. The new litter should have been here already, but they apparently got sick. Marena Lux Baiula said she should be able to come with them next First Day.”
“All right, and what about the Serpent, Prima?”
“No one has sensed it for the past two months. Some think it simply left, returned to wherever it is it came from.”
“You believe that?”
Laiella said with obvious scorn at the idea, “No, I don’t. When an enemy simply disappears, it often means they are gathering forces for a surprise assault.”
Toras said, “My thoughts exactly. But how do we prepare if we have no idea what the Serpent may be coming back with?”
“I do not know about preparing against things we haven’t faced yet, except for mental exercises to steel nerves and physical training to keep fit and limber. But we can certainly continue to practice defending against the Gnarlers, and against the Serpent, if we see him again.”
“Exactly! And that is what I have been working on secretly the past few fourths.”
Sheffar and Laiella both gave the same questioning look.
“Yes, secretly. As you know, one of the issues we had the two times we faced the Serpent was soldiers freezing when it came down on them and letting themselves be snatched by it. So, I had our carpenter create a mock Serpent, same size, same weight—as close as we could estimate it to be, anyway.”
The secundus and prima both blinked. Laiella said, “I was wondering why the men were so jittery this morning, all of them looking toward the woodshop as if they thought a belwohr was going to come out of it. Was Master Neros testing his replica?”
Toras grinned mischievously, “Yes, he was. I think you will like watching the exercises today. In fact, the first guardians will be put through them in…seventeen minutes.”
“Yes. Secundus, please get confirmation about the lincots. We need them for our next attack on the new horde of Gnarlers.”
“Prima, you’re coming with me.”
Laiella frowned suspiciously. She did not say anything but wondered what crazy thing Toras had planned.
As they descended the fortress’s main steps, the prince took a moment to soak in the keep’s new aspect. Several towers and long sections of the parapet had been destroyed by the Serpent, when it attacked four months earlier. That had truly frightened and troubled many because those structures had been built and reinforced with the Bind—they were supposed to be eternal. But the Sisterhood sent a few Yellow Sashes to help rebuild, and they not only did that, they also spent much energy to strengthen the structure, though they were uncertain if that alone would resist the furious reptile. What they did know for certain was that Bound Shields had repelled the Serpent. So, Urbs Lucis’s masons had laced the outer surface of the walls with a special mineral. The Lux Baiulae had then activated it to create a permanent shield, saying that it should—though it sounded more like a might—repel the Serpent when it attacked next, because there would be a next time.
Still, it felt good to see the fortress repaired, including his own quarters on the second floor of the imposing structure. It had withstood the test of time for nearly five hundred years now, surely it must stand strong another five. Can it stand another thousand or ten thousand years? Maybe, though if the Order’s geologists are right, the continued rising of the peaks will destroy it well before that, Bind-strengthened or not.
That thought saddened the prince, but he found another smile when Master Neros’s apprentices opened the large doors to the woodshop—an enormous barn really—and the master carpenter came out walking backward, giving directions to four guardians and four furans who were respectively pushing and pulling the Serpent’s replica out into the courtyard.
The thing was equally awesome and frightening. The replica was held in the air between the arms of the gigantic swing via a ten-meter pin that crossed its wooden body from side to side. That contraption, in and of itself, was nothing surprising for a master carpenter. What was truly incredible was the remarkable likeness of the replica: Master Neros had built the frame of fairly heavy wood and covered the surface entirely with leather. He had even sculpted the head and face with such exquisite precision that the apparatus—except for its lifelessness—could have passed for the Serpent itself.
Oohs and aahs rose from across the compound, but a few soldiers stood rigidly, watching with tight jaws and clenched hands, despite recognizing the silliness of their reactions, as the replica was taken outside the fortress’s gates and positioned thirty meters from a large pond between the fortress and the village of Horn’s Pass.
Laiella said, “That is truly impressive Commander. Did you instruct Master Neros to do it this way?”
“I did. I wanted the training to be as real as possible. I had him not only replicate the likeness, with claws and everything, but also the estimated weight of the creature so that it will swing down swiftly when it’s released from its starting position. He also added some gears to cause it to move sideways as it descends; I want the soldiers to fear for their lives when they see it come down.”
Laiella opened her eyes wide. They would be afraid. She, herself, felt her skin crawl away, looking at the thing. She asked what the exercise would involve.
“You will hear. As soon as the men are assembled. Once we are done with this exercise, we will train them in the air against Lina Lux Baiula’s projection.”
This time Laiella pulled her head back. What could Lina have prepared that she did not know of?
Toras said, “Lina told me a few fourths ago that she is skilled in creating projections of objects of almost any size. That gave me an idea, and when I asked her if she could do it, she said ‘Yes, I can,’ and she’s been preparing herself for it since then.”
“I still would like to know what you got one of our Sisters to do without my knowing, Commander.”
Toras gave a mischievous smile, “She will recreate the Serpent to simulate aerial combat. The danger to our guardians will be less real than the danger this replica represents, but she said she could make it singe them if they touch it. I’ve seen some demonstrations, and it is quite amazing.”
“Commander, you should have informed me of this.”
“I am sorry, Prima, but you have been very busy these past fourths. Anyway, I am sure you would have approved.”
Laiella was not appeased and she did not keep a stony face this time and instead let her irritation show plainly.
Just then, tabellarii sounded in and around the compound and beat the muster call. The men gathered a few meters back from the Serpent’s replica, between it and the pond. Toras walked toward them and positioned himself right underneath the colossal construction. Men whispered with incredulity or challenges; if the thing were to get unlatched just now, the Commander would be killed before he could turn and realize it was coming down. In the distance, villagers could be seen coming out, pointing, chattering with visible agitation.
When Toras explained the goal of the training and how it would proceed, a number of men stood silent, shifting their feet and looking at their neighbors nervously. Indeed, even after four months, many still suffered from the sequelae of the first and/or the second attack and felt their stomachs tie-up as they watched the replica hanging there above them. Fortunately, the majority did grin and stomp their feet to demonstrate their bravery and readiness; they were, after all, the most fearsome force on K’Tara.
After the first troop took position at the point of intersection with the replica’s trajectory, Lord Commander Toras said, “Shielders, protect! Remember that your shields’ handholds have been modified to break-off the moment the Serpent latches onto them, so I expect you to keep holding them to protect the archers until the very last moment.”
“Archers! Your duty is to pierce that thing with as many arrows as you can, and the closer it gets, the deeper the penetration should be. So, like the shielders in front of you, I expect you to continue to do your duty until you can see the thing’s pupils. And remember to stoop, when it is time to dos, because if you don’t, you will be injured—if not worse.”
When he was done, Toras did not order them to get ready—he wanted them to be surprised for maximum effect. The soldiers watched him with frowns on their nervous faces as he closed his eyes, counted and listened for the latch which was now being unfastened.
The sound of the air suddenly displaced by the gigantic facsimile, and the screech of arms against frame startled everyone, even the bravest. A few stepped back despite themselves; others simply froze. But responding to the desperate injunctions of the archers, shields were raised, and arrows started flying. When the replica detached from the frame and kept flying over the soldiers’ heads, a roar of screams rose. The entire thing lasted only sixteen seconds, at the end of which the replica had landed in the pond where it waited to be pulled back into its starting position.
Two guardians lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground. The Guard’s medic apprentice ran over to them at once.
The rest looked at each other, cursing and cussing, and doing their best to calm their hearts. The watchers shook heads, dreading their turn in front of the thing.
Laiella looked at Toras with horrified eyes, still under the shock of what she had just witnessed. She kept her voice low, but it was tight. She said, “Commander, for what purpose did you just possibly lose two men? Is this foolish exercise absolutely necessary?”
“It is not foolish, and it is more than necessary. Men were lost both here and in Furan City when the beast snatched them from the parapets to hurl them onto the ground or swallow them whole. That happened because they froze, or because they didn’t let go of their shields when they the Serpent’s claws grabbed them. They need to learn to face the creature in full control of their minds and of their bodies, and this,” Toras motioned toward the contraption, “is the best way—the only good way I know to do it.”
Laiella did not object anymore, not in front of the men. And the prince was right about the need to steel the men’s nerves. But she would have taken some time to prepare the men for this exercise. Toras’s way had placed them at risk of serious injury if not death. She would speak with him about this later, but for now, she nodded and said, “Why aren’t we practicing with them?”
“Did I freeze when the Serpent came at me? Would you freeze?”
“No, but that is not the point. I would prefer no one get killed during training, and if we do the exercise with them, we can talk them through it, to be sure no one freezes and that they stoop, as you said, only at the last moment.”
Toras looked back, annoyed, but Laiella insisted and he relented. Just then, a cry came from Master Neros to get out of the way so that the replica might be pulled back into position, and Toras called the men to himself.
“Soldiers, that fear that still grips many of you in the face of…the real thing is even affecting you when confronted by its lifeless likeness. We’ll continue with these exercises, rotating troops until each and every single one of you has let go of that fear. And I hope that we won’t need to send too many of you to the infirmary in the meantime.” Toras eyed Laiella, then added, “To be sure, the prima and I will take turns practicing with you. Now, the next troop. Assemble!”
Commander and officer spent the remainder of the day—breaking only for a reparative lunch—encouraging the men to remain at their posts in front of the descending replica and showing them how and when to stoop to keep themselves, as well as each other, safe.
The day had been a grueling one, for everyone and especially for Toras and Laiella since, with a Guard of a thousand, and troops of fifty, that had meant ten turns each, and Toras’s sixth turn almost cost him his shoulder. After that, he was forced to call the stoops a few seconds earlier than he had before. But by the end of practice, Toras was confident his men were ready.
The suns were now starting to set. The Blue Sun was slightly ahead of its Red twin as the current In-Between Fourth was ending and the First Bolingar Fourth was approaching, a fourth during which the Blue Sun would precede the Red by almost an hour. The men were now waiting to be served a highly welcome meal, sitting in the field surrounding the pond. Indeed, the prince had requested that the cooks set the meal out here, thinking that it would finish desensitizing the soldiers to the Serpent if they were forced to eat underneath its replica, hanging high above them, looming, dark, and with the setting suns seeming even more alive than it had earlier in the day.
Most soldiers did start ignoring it after turning their heads to look at it a few times. But there were those who continued to repress shivers as they gave it furtive glances. The contraption reminded them too much of the real thing, which had taken their comrades’ lives and come very close to taking theirs during their first encounter. It was possible these few would never dispel the fear completely. But they would have another chance to face their fears in the next exercise, which was now about to begin, for Toras had agreed with Lina Lux Baiula to conduct the training with the projection at dusk, since that is when the Serpent preferred to attack.
Just now, the bugler sounded the horn and everyone, except for the two injured soldiers who were at the infirmary, stood with anxious anticipation of the next crazy exercise their commander had conceived of.
Toras walked to the front of them and said, “Guardians, today’s exercises with the replica have succeeded in steeling the nerves of most of you, and that’s good. Now, we need you and your furans to practice fighting the creature.”