Death came with the dawn. We’d shot down all the birds for miles, so it was silent when the two janissaries stormed into my yurt. They bound me with a leather strap, pulled a sack over my head, and marched me through the bog. The stench of breakfast and blood wafted in the morning breeze — my final sniff of life. Before long, I was kneeling in mud, weeping, and stuttering my final prayers.
I’d imagined this moment hundreds of times since our bloody, catastrophic loss yesterday. I’d not slept, choosing instead to feel everything in my yurt, from my horse-hide blanket to the tips of my arrows, just to appreciate how solid life was. And yet, life was slipping from my grasp, carried away by a sudden, ghostly gust. I’d died this death in my mind, as if I were practicing for it, but that’d made staring into the abyss no less painful.
When they pulled off the sack, I looked around, eager to taste life with my eyes a final time. I wanted to appreciate how smooth the mud looked and how dewy the grass smelled. But…was that Pervaiz, far to the right, also kneeling and swaying his head like a dervish? And behind him…Tanya, breathing like she was birthing, her eyes these terror-filled grapes.
I wanted to call out to them. But perhaps that could wait till after we’d died. Perhaps, as we ascended to Barzakh — where all souls go — I could reach out to them, and we wouldn’t be alone on the journey.
Ten paces afield, janissaries in plumed helmets and maroon robes stood in a row. They each clutched an ornate, executioner’s matchlock, upon which was chiseled To Lat and we belong and to her we return in Paramic calligraphy. Their prayer for us.
A pace behind them stood the Shadow of God, Shah Jalal. A black cape with golden calligraphy covered his shoulders. The overcast morning darkened his already sullen face. He seemed more sad than angry, not how I’d imagined him in this moment. Not how I’d feared. I knew my turn would come if we continued to fail. And we did. We couldn’t smash through the city wall, nor climb over it, nor undermine it from below. And now Heraclius the Hated was marching at the head of twenty thousand paladins to end our siege.
To win wars, you must punish your failures as much as the enemy’s. And so, I resigned to die with understanding, free of hatred for the man I served. Choking on remorse for how I’d disappointed him, our cause, and god herself.
Shah Jalal walked to the front of his executioners. He looked at us, swallowed bitterly, and said, “You know why you’re here.” I’d never heard sorer, more pained words. Each syllable seemed to burn. “You’ve all made oaths of victory to me and to god. You’ve broken those oaths. The punishment is death.”
When he spoke, even the clouds grew ears to listen. Such iron words — the tenor of a true king — from a man who glowed strength. And yet, I could taste the regret in his dark, worn eyes. He was as resigned to killing as we were to dying — a slave to the cycle — and as he clutched his caftan as if heart-wrenched, remorse seemed to bite him.
The moment he gestured to his executioners, I wanted to cry out, wait! I wasn’t so much scared of death as dishonor. Give me another chance to lead us to victory in the Shah’s exalted name. But then the janissaries raised their matchlocks. With flints, they lit the slow matches above their barrels and aimed. No one around me cried out, so I wouldn’t, despite yearning to.
I just shut my eyes and tried to pray, though my tongue was too stuck to even mutter god’s name.
I didn’t think I’d hear the shot that killed me. But for a moment, the world was a sulfur-charred boom. Naught but yelps and screaming smoke.
I opened my eyes, ready to greet the saint who’d carry my soul to heaven. Or perhaps the fiery jinn who’d bury it in hell. But I was still kneeling in the grass, and so darted my head in every direction. To my left and right: bodies with smoking head holes. Tanya and Pervaiz, my sister-in-law and the man who’d taught my sons and daughter how to ride, were sprawled and dead. They’d gone, so why was I still here?
The janissary in front of me palmed the muzzle of his gun, to no avail. He ejected the barrel, then plunged a ramrod into it.
A charred, smoking metal ball fell from the muzzle. The devourer of my death.
The janissary bent his neck before the Shah. “Apologies, Your Glory. I’ll reload it at once.”
Shah Jalal put his hand on the young, brown-bearded man’s shoulder. Then he gazed at me. There was not so much pity in his stare but weariness. “No, don’t. Lat has given her another chance, and I’ll not risk her wrath by defying it.”
Another chance. Another chance to fail. To disappoint. To lose. A part of me would rather have died, and yet a sip of this bloody air tasted sweeter than plums.
Shah Jalal, who’d once said I was a daughter to him, came to my front. I knelt in his faint shadow as a ghostly sunshine reflected on dawn’s dismal clouds.
“Darya.” Red lines zagged into his hard pupils, which seemed to be graying along with his hair. Like me, perhaps the Shah hadn’t slept, dreading killing as much as I did dying.
I met his gaze. I could tell he was already mourning me with that frown, as if I hadn’t just survived. “Yes, My Shah?”
“Darya. I don’t want you to live past this day. You’re going to go where the fighting is thickest, you’re going to charge, and you’re not going to stop until you’re filled with bloody holes. That’s all you’ve earned from this. A better death.”
Good enough. I couldn’t hope for more than a few hours of life and a warrior’s death.
“As you command, Your Glory.”
“My father died in bed, Darya. It was awful to watch him shit blood.” He gestured to the nine bodies. Janissaries were standing near each, waving the crows away. “They went better than him. You’ll go better than them.”
Something changed in me when the sun broke through the clouds. Time hurried like a Kashanese mare as the janissaries began planting the shrines of the dead. I remained paralyzed on my knees, the weight of life crushing me, while shovels cut through grass and mud and nine graves were dug, occupied, and covered, all amid what seemed a single exhale.
And then everything stilled. One janissary’s glimmering bead of sweat hung in the air as if frozen. Another was poised mid-motion shoveling dirt onto a grave, his soundless grunt stuck on his face. I fingered a leaf suspended above my head.
I stared up.
An eye opened in the sky. Three golden rings swirled around the eye, interlocked at perfectly distanced angles. The rings, too, had eyes, all blinking and watching me.
I blinked too, and they disappeared. I touched my face: red and mushy. Whilst I was hallucinating, the sun had stared at me, burned me. I got up, wiped mud off my trembling forearms, and looked to the western tree line that blocked the city we were sieging from view. Put one foot in front of the other, I told myself. That was the only way I’d get back to camp where loved ones waited. Certainly, they’d already despaired of my death. Take a step.
I did. One step led to another, and as I walked through the stinking bog and into the forest with its harder mud and moss-ridden oaks, I began to breathe. Big breaths. Relieved breaths. I gripped myself again; I’d need to wield myself like a sharpened shamshir for the battle to come.
Perhaps the final battle of this campaign, one that would see us sack the richest city in the west, or flee in defeat. And I was to be fodder.
My son was penning a letter with a thin quill when I stumbled into his yurt.
He looked up, eyes bulging with the twin images of a ghost. “Amma?”
“Yasar.” I could only mouth his name with how empty I was. He put his arms around me, covered me in a sheepskin blanket, and sat me by the yurt’s fire stove. The warmth was a balm on my nerves.
“I heard them take you and the others,” he said. “I…wanted to stop them, but…” Gazing at his pain, I couldn’t see beyond the fretful, unconfident boy. Certainly, things change, but the seeds of what he’d become were planted in that boyhood — some by me, some by his father and elder siblings and others in the tribe, but most by experience, and it hadn’t been kind to him. He was a man with a boy’s shadow, one that loomed large.
“They took me, aye, but Lat didn’t. Only she decides life and death — never forget that.” I sipped from the waterskin he handed me. Cool, soothing kumis caressed my throat, perfectly sour. “What were you writing? A love letter, I hope?”
“A love letter to whom, my horse?” Sadness tinged his chuckle. “Rather, I was telling auntie…”
Such a dutiful son. My sister and I were close, so he wanted her to know I’d departed this world. But judging from her bleak eyes the day we left for the war, perhaps she already knew.
“Tell her. I won’t even get to see the moon and stars.”
Was this the final time I’d be with Yasar? I recalled how I didn’t want him. I wanted no more children, but he was a parting gift from his father, who’d died of sweating sickness the week before I learned I was with child. I begged Lat to return my husband, that I’d trade this new son for him. And I remained cold, for years, believing that his birth and my husband’s death were an unwilling trade.
My cruelty ached as I stared into my son’s fearful eyes. He’d grown taller and fuller than his older brother and sister, somehow, and resembled his father most.
“You shouldn’t have made those promises,” Yasar said, fire in his glare. “Always too confident for your own good, Amma. Always trying to be the tip of the spear.”
“Someone has to. Else we’ll be fighting without an edge.”
“There’re a hundred thousand in this army. So why you?”
I sighed and shook my head. Yasar was too timid to understand. No, that wasn’t fair — he was even-headed, wise beyond his years; timid was an unfair stab.
Now he gazed through me, fixed on my shadow dancing against the firelight. For him, I was a ghost. And for me, he and everyone alive were ghosts because we’d soon be inhabiting different worlds. Here was a field of ghosts fighting a city of ghosts. Death was the host and life an unwelcome guest.
“What’re you thinking?” I asked as he vacantly stared. Yasar resembled me in some ways. Soft hearted, quick tempered, stubborn. He had my curly brown locks, not his father’s straighter black, though like Alep, he could grow a mustache between sunset and the noon prayer.
“When I was writing to auntie,” he swallowed, “I remembered that dog she had. The black one. It looked like a shadow.”
We’d bought that dog together. She excelled at keeping the yaks from wandering off our pastures. But one day, a yak panicked and stomped on her leg. I brought the knife to put her down, but for some reason, my sister took pity on the animal and now, four years later, still cares for it.
“It hobbles well enough on three legs,” I said, nostalgia breezing through me.
“You remind me of that dog,” my son said. “It too lived beyond its death, in a way.”
He was right. But what remained of my life would be worse. “Yasar, why didn’t I see you on the field yesterday?”
He sighed, heavy and dispirited. “Because the Shah has forbidden me from fighting.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with you. I wish you’d not promised him so much, Amma.”
He might as well have had holes for eyes, the way he stared at me. Not seeing what remained, but rather what was leaving.
“I really thought I could outflank the Crucians.” I punched my hands together. “They’d overextended on the assault, again. I was certain a cavalry charge at their backs would end it. End the war. Open the city. But…”
I was the spear-tip of that charge. Early morning, we hid in the forest, ready to hit the enemy. Once they’d poured out of the walls, and once Shah Jalal had feigned retreat, we’d strike from behind.
But, somehow, the enemy knew. I’d committed four thousand riders to this plan, and barely a third made it out of the mire of blood and guts and bombs and fire. The Crucians understood the land better, even though we’d been here eight months now, and had exploited that knowledge by luring us onto muddy ground, unfit for a cavalry charge with our agile, small mares.
“Nothing can change what happened.” I shook off yesterday’s memories. “I disgraced us. There’s no balm for my failure. I’ll die for it. You’re talking to a corpse right now.”
Tears glistened in my son’s eyes, not yet heavy enough to fall. “He put you with the death riders?”
I nodded and took his hand. “It’ll be a good death.” But was there such a thing? “I’ll see your father in Barzakh. I’ll give him your love.” But what if Alep wasn’t there? What if there were more than one castle in the sky, and I’d never find his? “It’ll be all right.”
Yasar hugged me. If I could give him my remaining breaths, I’d die this moment, but I didn’t have many left anyway.
“Yasar…can I ask a final thing of you?”
My son nodded. “Ask for a thousand things, Amma.”
“Let me hold you, for a while.”
He chuckled. “I won’t fit in your lap.”
“That’s all right. Just…stay like this.”
He smelled like the mountains of Tagkalay. Like the caves where bright-budded pileas grew. And he was cold like the breaths that descended from the peaks. He was not meant to die here, a thousand miles away. Good that it would be me.
Silence festered among the crowd outside the Shah’s palatial yurt as he squinted and read the scroll he’d pushed up to his face. “‘Whosoever brings me the head of Shah Jalal shall have my virgin daughter Niovi in marriage as a reward.’”
The commanders standing next to the Shah in their peacock-plumed turbans didn’t know whether to laugh or remain stern, some sporting fearful smiles and others astonished glowers. Finally, the Shah’s belly shook with laughter, and so everyone in the crowd enjoyed a relieving chuckle. He folded the paper twice then put it in the pocket of his black, fur-lined robe.
“I’m saving this. Going to show it to Aysi — she thinks I’ve been callous with our children.” The Shah laughed some more. “What kind of man tosses his daughter around like a trophy?” Shah Jalal’s grin was the brightest thing around — perhaps because his teeth were so golden. “A desperate man. A despairing man. Let’s break whatever tatters are left to hold his heart together. Let’s show him the might of Sirm, the fury of Lat, that we’ll never give up until his city is beneath our boots!”
I joined in the roaring. That was when I began to feel like an empty, lifeless thing: a blade floating in an angry breeze, cutting all in its path. Death cuts shallower when you don’t think about it, when it wasn’t so certain, one chance of many, a single face of a thousand-sided dice flung in the air by a tavern drunk.
Shah Jalal licked his finger and stuck it in the air. “A westerly wind. They’ll be fighting against it today. Have you seen how skinny their legs are? Brittle little sticks of cinnamon. We turn this wind into a storm and we’ll break them!” Another roar as the Shah stroked his lavish beard. “Know what? I’m going to do like Gregory. I’m offering each of you the same reward he just offered his men.”
A horrified, throat-aching silence. What did that mean? We treasured our daughters more than the Crucians did, so I doubted the Shah was being true.
Hormuz, the Shah’s chief general and a man with a most august mustache, cleared his throat. “But you’ve no daughters to give, my Shah. They’re already married.”
Shah Jalal chuckled as if he’d heard his favorite joke. “I don’t mean my daughters. Lat forbid such a thing. I’ll give Gregory’s daughter, Niovi or whatever the fuck her name is, to the one who brings me his head.” His smile permitted us to laugh now, too. So everyone did; even I found it funny, in a morbid way.
“What do they say about her?” Hormuz asked. “That she’s the most beautiful lady in Crucis?”
“I heard flowers grow wherever her feet kiss,” a young janissary replied.
“They say the angels themselves cannot turn their gazes from her,” said another.
“Even the trees grow eyes just to behold her.”
“Sensational drivel!” Jalal’s shout stirred the ravens perched on the palatial yurt to flight. All chatter ceased. “No woman is that good, and I’ve enjoyed my share. Remember one thing — death brings greater rewards than life!” Spittle flew from his mouth. “The dirt of the grave is a warmer sheath than some cunt. Forget Niovi. Have you earned that dirt? Earn your deaths by sending every Crucian you meet to hell!”
The usual roaring followed.
The Shah turned in my direction. The janissaries, khazis, and zabadar made way as he walked toward me.
“Darya, you know I hate seeing you cursed with life. You’ll be first among the death riders today. I’ll give you a Kashanese mare so you’ll glide faster than the wind. Show them we yearn for death as much as they cling to life!”
I neither yearned for death nor clung to life, and I couldn’t outpace the wind. It would carry me, disdainful of my wishes — this I was certain.
“Of course, my Shah!” I straightened my back, bent my neck, and lowered my voice. “May I talk to you later, in private?”
He swallowed as if something harsh had caught in his throat. “Yeah.”
Once the Shah finished pontificating, rallying the men and women, and giving orders, he inspected the merchants. I followed in the back. Our camp was a city in itself, and like any good city, a bazaar adorned the center, the stalls bustling. Most of the merchants spoke Crucian and hailed from Dycondi, an island in the Yunan Sea where children played with weighing scales rather than dolls. That made them difficult to haggle with, but in doing so these past months, I’d sharpened my Crucian, which I’d initially picked up from the slaves who worked our tribe’s pastures outside Tagkalay.
After, the Shah inspected the sea of yurts that made up our camp. White was the color of choice, but a few odd ones were yellow or red, and lions or dragons patterned some, too. Everywhere, soldiers dug graves for fallen comrades — how could the land eat so much dead? Sheikhs sang from the Recitals of Chisti, high-pitched and melodious, to send the departed on their ways to Barzakh.
Just past the hospital, which was a grouping of yurts with the eight-pointed star of Lat above the entrance flaps, soldiers sitting on tree trunks fletched arrows and shaved bullet-balls. Prayer lines stretched into the mud, the lamentations heavy. A group of seven khazis tossed cards at a crude, bone-built low table. Each wore a necklace of red beads, which told how many Crucians they’d killed. Three seemed the average, though one man, by far the most pained given the burns down his face and neck, sported at least twenty.
How long had we been living like this? Forever, I could’ve sworn. As if the water in the clock that determined time had turned to molasses and gotten stuck. A disturbing thought, but I was tired. Tired of being so far from home.
Once he completed his rounds, I met the Shah in his palatial yurt, alone. His divan was not of gold, like in the Seat of Kostany, but rather mahogany and silk. A red, velvety canopy covered his bed, adorned with golden dragons and the eight-pointed star of Lat. The Shah burned the sweetest incense: a lulling, cool tulip-flavor combined with cinnamon.
I kept my neck bent as the Shah came to my front.
“It’s tiring, pretending to be strong, all so the tribes and factions and khazis fear me more than the enemy,” he said. “I don’t know how you rule your tribe. Perhaps you have that illusive thing the scholars call inner strength. I say it’s a myth. What do you say, Khatun? Any parting advice for someone so unworthy of his seat?”
I raised my head but kept my eyes on his bulging beard. What advice could I give the Shadow of God? Was this a trick? “You’re not unworthy, my Shah. How can you say that about yourself?”
“Enough with the camel shit. You know if I don’t win this battle, it’ll be the end of Sirmian expansion into Crucis for a generation. The end of hundreds of years of conquest and triumph, all because I wasn’t as strong as my forebears. Might be the end of my rule considering the promises I made to anyone with a warrior to command.”
Why was the Shah telling me this? To someone he’d sentenced to die? Why show weakness to me?
“My Shah, my tribe numbers a few thousand. Your kingdom numbers in the millions. Any advice I give you would be like a child advising his father.”
“There is wisdom in the clarity of children.” He sighed, obviously disappointed. “Just as well, Khatun Darya. I’ll not trouble you anymore with my miseries. So, tell me — this meeting was at your request — what do you want?”
I gulped and turned to my meager concerns. “My son Yasar said you’d forbidden him from fighting. Why?”
Shah Jalal put his finger on my chin and raised my head. Our eyes met. For a moment, I saw only whites, as if he were a jinn from the stories our tribe elders told. My sister used to enjoy them — me, not so much. I suppressed my shudder, lest the Shah notice.
“Unlike you,” Jalal said, “and unlike your eldest son and daughter, your youngest hasn’t earned his chance at death.”
A veiny, blue discoloration covered the Shah’s forefinger. A putrid pus smell wafted from it.
“What chance?” I said, ignoring his sickly finger. “Everyone is fighting. Even the eunuchs are picking up spears. Last week, we tossed plague rats over their walls with the catapult — if the rats can fight, what about my son? And Yasar, he’s good with the bow and spear. He has his father’s strength and my swiftness. He’s like a scythe in the wind.” You’d think a mother would want her son as far from the fighting as possible. But being disallowed to raise your sword was a dishonor worse than death among us zabadar tribes. Only the strong could lead, and as my son was descended from khagans and khatuns, he was expected to show strength or die trying.
Shah Jalal grunted in obvious annoyance. He poured wine into a crystal-encrusted goblet and handed it to me. “If Imperator Heraclius overcomes the force we sent to slow him down, then your daughter and eldest son could die. And you’re going to die today. So who’ll inherit your tribe? Have you given it a thought, Khatun Darya?”
I took a gracious sip of the fruity, white drink. Not as heartwarming as kumis, but my tongue appreciated anything with flavor. “Why do you care if my bloodline leads the tribe? Someone else always could — a cousin, my sister, my brother-in-law.”
“I liked your father,” Jalal said, pouring himself a cup. “I like you. And I’d like one of your brood to accompany me in this awful fucking job of carving and ruling an empire. I’d rather not be jealous of all of you, lying peacefully in your graves or ditches or perhaps as heads on spikes somewhere. Yasar will stay with me, safe. I have plans for him, so don’t worry about his fight, only yours.”
In private, the Shah always seemed…oddly reasonable. Remorseful of what he had to do for the sake of Sirm. Mournful of the lost. But in front of everyone, he hid that side the way the sun hides the stars. It had never been plainer than today: how a need to be feared kept him from being loved.
I bent my neck. “As you say, Your Glory.”
A relief that the Shah considered my son so essential. My tribe had won its importance during the kurultais with other zabadar tribes on the slopes of mountainous Tagkalay. We’d been noticed for our strength, temperance, and wisdom, but it was always good to transcend that, and the Shah’s favor was key.
I wouldn’t live to see the heights my son would climb, surely.
Death riders fought with whatever could be spared. Wooden sticks hardly sharp enough to pierce an infant’s belly, broken metal shields with an edge like a bashed-in jaw, charred matchlocks that exploded in their faces. But their real weapon was the certainty of death.
Worse was their armor: patches of leather sown on their clothes over their hearts, bellies, and other soft spots. Stolen boots, still stinking of some dead Crucian’s fungal disease. Oh, and I once saw a death rider wearing gloves flecked with human skin.
Some poor khazis and zabadar, usually the hopeless ones, had drawn the short bone and been assigned to the death riders; but most here were being punished. For a few, especially those who could no longer sleep, who dreamed the horrors of war even while awake, joining the death riders was a reward: an end to pain and a good death.
We death riders would mount fast horses — usually geldings, not mares — and carry hand bombs. We’d throw them at an arm span, showing the enemy that we didn’t fear fire. And if you didn’t fear your skin melting like wax, what was left to fear?
Death rider men and women could bathe in the river together. No need to hide our nakedness, for no one ascends to Barzakh with a raiment, save for what our deeds bought. But some here, certainly, clung to life and its pleasures. Others had moved on in mind and soul before their bodies would follow. And those bodies…not a measure of fat. We were all bone and muscle and bruised skin. Gashes and sewn gapes and blood blisters. Even the dark-skinned suffered sunburns around the eyes and across the forehead, a mark that spared no one, Shah Jalal included.
But what perplexed me were the veiny, black-blue rashes that snaked down the spines, arms, and legs of too many men and women in the river. Perhaps every third person had such marks. The woman next to me was scrubbing such a rash on her knee. I sniffed a deep, suffocating rot from her, as if it bore to the bone.
“Rotbone,” I whispered, as if I knew the name of the disease. I couldn’t recall seeing it until today. How could it have escaped my notice? “Rotbone.”
After bathing, we death riders smelled like the river, which smelled like these perfumed stones I’d bought with my sister from the grand bazaar in Tagkalay. I used to scent myself with them before my husband and I would make love. All of us, upon leaving the river, smelled like love.
After clothing ourselves, we prayed in one row, the westward wind soothing our faces. We prayed that our homes in Barzakh, where all souls await the Great Terror, would be spacious, sweet-aired, and filled with our loved ones who’d fallen.
Then, as we sat in the forest, a stoop-backed apothecary came. He handed us mushrooms for the pain we hadn’t yet started feeling. Or rather, for the death fear a rider ought not to feel when charging the enemy. As I bit down on the supple flesh of the mushroom, I realized what it was: an invitation for the mind and soul to go first, before the body followed.
I didn’t remember anything between swallowing the mushroom and the blaring of our Sirmian war horns. The drumbeat matched the cadence of the marching janissaries, zabadar, and khazis. Stretching vast, perhaps across the earth itself, was the army of Sirm, come to take this fucking city.
To start, Exarch Gregory catapulted bodies at us. Worms slithered from their hollow bellies. Our alchemists tossed firebombs at the bodies to keep the wormrot from spreading. The worms screamed as they sizzled.
Meanwhile, armored defenders of Crucis stood upon the broad, bleak walls of Caecara, bows and matchlocks arrayed as if they meant to shoot down the sun itself.
The city gates opened and out poured mounted lancers, a sea of steel surging to drown us.
I was sitting on my mare, waiting for the command that would give me rest. After so many months, battles, and goodbyes, there was naught left to feel. I said a hundred prayers in a single exhale: a dozen for each of my children, even more for my husband’s soul, and one for mine. Then I stared blankly at a sight that now seemed trite: the thundering of the enemy, clad in iron and desperation.
My fellow death riders arrayed around me. We were to gallop close to the lancers, toss our hand bombs, then smash them with our horses and bodies, providing time for the other corps to get into advantageous positions.
Our splintered wood would crash against the enemy’s ravenous steel. They didn’t call us death riders because it sounded fearsome — we rode to our deaths for the cause. But the warrior in me wondered if I could find gaps in their plate and mail to impale with the spiked wood I was clutching.
Months of cannon shots and fire arrows had already charred the grass between us. Somewhere, perhaps in another world, a horn sounded: unmistakable in its low pitch and solemn hum. The sound we’d been waiting for.
My mare rushed toward the enemy. I’d given it a kick when the horn sang, without even realizing. Darya wasn’t here, only the edge of a swinging ax, one not sharp enough to cut, only bludgeon. Nothing in front but snarling armored horses carrying men come to kill.
It became real again when the hand bombs exploded. I’d thrown mine, without thinking, as if dealing death was now like breathing. They burned the air and the legs of horses and men and even incinerated steel as the front line of the charging lancers roasted and melted in a symphony of crackling and screams. But then it all went silent. All went white. I was deaf and blind, as if my soul were halfway to the next life. And yet I still breathed, taking in the charred, blood-spiced air.
My senses returned. I was on my horse, surrounded by a melee of friends and foes. The Crucian lancer opposite me stood on his horse, as if he were balancing on a wave, raised his lance above his head, and dove.
I dipped off my mare as he impaled it. I smashed into the black grass, then tumbled onto my side, ribs first. No pain, though. My soul was almost out of my body, it seemed. Some other soul, a savage one, naught more than an instinct, controlled me.
I jumped to my feet and pulled out my daggers. My fangs. All around, bombs exploded, steel sundered wood, and blood cascaded. Cannon shots boomed over our heads from Caecara’s walls and from Shah Jalal’s back line, an exchange of steel and fire that would, inevitably, find us.
I licked my lips and sipped my sweat. It tasted like the sea. Like the day when my husband Alep and I went fishing because we both craved the succulent flesh of sea bass. We went to the water while the stars still shown and returned when—
I sidestepped the dismounted lancer’s thrust. Dove at his knee and pictured his soft, inner thigh. My dagger met the gap in his leg plates, slicing sweetly through flesh, and he fell forward with a scream that never ended.
I sheathed my fangs and grabbed his lance. A chilly, killing spike was better than two small edges. Still, I wished I had my bow, some distance, and a quiver of steel-tipped arrows.
A mounted rider surged to joust me, so I threw the lance at his horse. It struck a leg, and the horse cried and flung the rider off. He crashed on the dirt at my feet. I got on top and plunged my dagger in his neck four times, his spraying blood hot in my eyes.
As fire arrows rained, the death riders were dying or dead around me. Jalal and Gregory’s archers would heat up this melee and burn what little life remained. I picked up a bloody lance and rushed toward the thickest part, where Crucian riders minced and skewered the men and women I’d bathed with earlier.
I blinked, and I was in the air, flung away by a burning scream. Landed on my back, some bruised bone sizzling even my forgone soul. Still, lightning surged through my veins and forced me to my feet. I saw everything four times: blurry and without outline. Fire charred my soles — my shoes had burned away — and so I stumbled forward.
Into a shadowed mouth. I fell, then crashed in a pile of metal and flesh. Roasted horses were my bed and scalded armor my blanket.
“To Lat we belong and to her we return.” I don’t think I made a sound because I was choking on the blood drenching my gums.
The ground shifted as if balanced on a jelly sweet. A crater spread in all directions, one I was at the center of, with lancers and horses and death riders falling inside as if soup ingredients. It was hot enough to boil in here, so a soup of blood and guts we would be.
I jumped and dove forward as an ax came down where I lay. Who the fuck was trying to kill me in this fire? The ax missed and sliced off the leg of the death rider who’d broken my fall; his screams heightened into soul-shivering shrieks. The ax wielder was short and kept low, so I couldn’t easily swipe at the plate gap behind his knees. He trudged forward and swung at the air as I tumbled away, my skin burning on the scalding armor and torched flesh that had replaced the ground.
This nightmare was awakening my mind. The mushroom’s peace wore off and my soul tasted reality. The deathly objects around solidified, the pillow softening my senses burned away, and I realized: I was fighting an ax man in a crater of screams filled with the dead and dying. Char and blood dripped out my nose and mouth. Fire shot from the ground and more flaming arrows landed around me every hairy second. I wanted to shove more mushrooms in me, as many as it took to roast painlessly, but I decided to do what a death rider wasn’t to do. I decided to flee.
A poor decision. Soon as the ax man glimpsed the fear in my melting eyes, he flung his edge at me. I stood paralyzed, perhaps because any movement got me closer to flames. My soul shoved itself into my body, and it brought along a foolish, unneeded panic. The ax whirled toward my forehead.
And then it froze. In midair. Something had…caught it. Something I could only see the faint outline of amid the choking smoke. It threw the ax back at the man who’d hurled it. He let it strike his neck, tongue lolling in shock and horror as he fell without a scream. Blood spurted like a wondrous fountain.
“Alep,” I mouthed. The memory of the last time my husband saved me played in my head: he’d dove forward and blocked an arrow from piercing me with his shield, somersaulted to his feet, then bashed the zabadar archer’s head in one, smooth motion. I fucked him harder that night than I’d fucked him the night we married. Nine moons later, Yasar pushed out my womb.
Whoever or whatever had saved me, I couldn’t see it anymore. Perhaps it was another death rider: those nearest to the afterlife could reach out and pluck miracles from beyond the veil. Or maybe it was the last gasp of mushroom juice in my veins, and I dreamed the whole thing. Whatever: I was still alive. I’d not done my duty to die and was thankful for even these burning breaths.
I took deeper and harsher inhales to stay alive as the smoke thickened. A new, contrary thought hit me: was this…hell? But the sheikhs said that a death rider would live a second life in Barzakh, free of pain and fire. That Lat would forgive all our sins, that naught could weigh against our sacrifice.
A flaming, armored horse thrashed about the crater, snarling fire. Considering how distant the daylight loomed and how we were deep enough to make climbing out impossible, it was more a sinkhole than a crater. Shah Jalal’s sappers had been tunneling around the city for months, so no surprise at the hollowness of the earth we fought and died on.
The flaming horse galloped by me and charged into a stunned death rider, tossing and setting her alight. She had my daughter’s wavy, black locks, but I couldn’t appreciate them through the blue flames. After her face melted and her screeching died down, I tried to think. Think about where I was and how to survive it. I yearned to climb out, sipping hope in the distant sky’s tepid glow. But there was naught to return to — if I lived past this day, the Shah would surely execute me. Here, in this cavern of fire and screams, I could choose one of several awful deaths, but at least I could choose.
Life or the afterlife, I was surrounded by enemies and would fight my way to my next stop. I pulled out my twin fangs and stabbed every Crucian I saw. Whether they were on the ground wailing or upright in a daze or crawling through flesh and fire, I just plunged. Scythed my way, spicing the smoke with blood and bile. Fiery arrows landed everywhere, but somehow, none pierced me.
I looked up: a shield floated above my head. It was crystal and imbued with heavenly rainbows. “Alep?” Arrows hit it and turned to ash. Was I dreaming? Was the mushroom still painting on my mind?
Within the smoke wall ahead, a pile of death riders and Crucian lancers wrestled and smacked each other with whatever they could. One Crucian clutched a broken helmet and deflected the desperate swings of a death rider’s chipped, blood-drenched short sword. Instead of helping, I trudged until I found the sinkhole’s wall, a mass of dirt and stone. Too steep to climb, so I leaned against it to steady my breaths and sip my tears.
They tasted like that day, in the Yunan Sea, the tide bobbing our little raft. That day with Alep, if only it had lasted forever. If only there were a god who could freeze time, I’d just watch him holding his net, leaning over the side of the boat, patient and smiling and joking about something too stupid to remember. An eternity of that, please.
A screeching wind launched flesh and bones and metal in my direction. It cracked the earth behind me, sending boulders tumbling into what now resembled a cave mouth. The gleaming rainbow shield, which seemed to float wherever I needed it, blocked the inferno and debris. But even the rocks were on fire. A white fire, so scalding that I wondered why I wasn’t steam. The steel around melted and my eyes yearned to become water. To live, I darted into the cave mouth.
I slid off something. Tumbled onto my knees, then rolled and banged and bruised my bones, as if I were sliding down a mountain. My clothes and skin tore against a jagged rock, and I yelped and coughed the blood surging up my throat.
No mushrooms to soak the pain. No light for the dark. I thought I would finally die, but instead I plunged into sleep.