Excerpt: Dance of Shadows

There were no Shadows upon the desert, at least none that they had seen, and the cohorts were growing restless, their desire for blood growing stronger even as a lingering unease began to edge into their thoughts the farther into the desert they went. Would they lose themselves in this place, as so many had said before whenever an invasion of the desert had been proposed, whether at court or in a drinkery, chasing Shadows? The kehels and seconds merely repeated what their Gvers, who themselves were beginning to feel anxious about the entire enterprise, had told them: they were marching to the ruined city Esyln there to face the Shadow Men and their alkemysts. And what if they should find only ruins there, the men asked, and to that there was no answer.

The answer, Donier thought as he relieved himself in the latrine dug the night before, was that the Council Adepts would decide the matter, letting the Gvers and the Qraul think the decision was theirs. That was how they had ended up here in the first place, after all. The Adepts would take them everyone to their doom all over a couple of engines.

Donier spat when he was finished and clapped his hands together, a ritual begun sometime in his youth and now done unconsciously, though he could not have told anyone of its providence. He picked his way among the still-slumbering cohorts, going mostly by memory, dawn still a little way off, though there was a hint of light on the horizon. A false light, he knew; the sun would not arise for at least another hour.

He had become used to the desert in the last week, now knew its rituals. There was the false light before morning, the endless sunsets that seemed to color the whole sky, the wind that would pick up late in the morning and die as evening settled in, to say nothing of the unrelenting heat of the day and surprising cool of the night. The vastness of it all, these endless landscapes, red rocked or dull green, fading to brown with scrub, and the scent of sage everywhere.

It was the place of his dreams, he realized. It all had the same feel, the same absence of any other living things, and the silence but for the wind. The valley where he had walked endlessly he felt certain was here somewhere, though he had no urge to discover it and the destination he had been seeking. The Gods, though, would decide the matter, he knew. He could only thank them that the dreams had absented themselves since the march into the desert had begun.

His thoughts were still upon the dreams as he slipped into his tent, hoping to get another hour’s sleep before duty called him forth, so he did not notice the other man’s presence until the hand was at his throat and the point of the dagger was pressed into his back.

“We have much to discuss, you and I,” Becir whispered.

“Do we now?” Donier said, his mouth gone very dry.

“You failed us in Craitol.”

The Veil, Donier realized. “I did as you asked,” he said, keeping himself still. He needed to piss again, but he tried not to think about that, forcing himself to breath.

“You most certainly did not. What did the man at the Council tell you?”

The dagger shifted slightly, its point digging at his skin. Donier closed his eyes, offering an invocation to Melinon that these terrible moments would not be his last. He thought briefly about trying to overpower Becir, but the grip on his throat was firm—it was very difficult to breathe—and the dagger needed only a little force to find its mark, which the man would be able to achieve before Donier had managed to free himself. He would have to wait and hope the Gods presented himself with a chance.

“He told me to make myself absent for a moment. And I did.”

“You returned before the deed was done and stopped the man from the killing the Gver.”

Donier swallowed. “It is not my fault he was so slow at his task. I did all that was asked of me. Gave him a moment’s absence. The Adept Tehh ordered me to return. I could not disobey him.”

“There was still no need to kill the man when you did,” Becir said, more loudly than he had intended. He continued in a hushed whisper, “You could have let him finish the job before landing your blow.”

It was a good thing they were arguing over deeds past, Donier told himself—it meant they did not intend just to kill outright. He was still useful to them, they just wanted to make sure he understood that his debt to them had not been met. But he had known that already, for it never would.

“The Disciple had him. He was not killing anyone that day.”

“So you say,” Becir said, though he did not sound as though he believed him or particularly cared. “Your failure cost us dearly that day. But no matter; the coin shall be repaid. We shall do at last what needs to be done and begin a cleansing of this realm.”

“You intend to try to kill the Gver again?” Donier said. Even as he spoke, he knew in his heart what the response would be, and felt sick and cold.

“Yes, and you shall do it for us.”

“I will not,” Donier said, raising his voice above a whisper, though not so loudly it could be heard beyond the tent. A cough from somewhere nearby, a man shifting in his sleep, stilled them both.

The knife left his back and was pressed into his throat, the point lifting his chin up. “You will,” Becir said, “or you will die.”

“You cannot make me,” Donier said, affecting a bravado he did not feel. “I am the second of this cohort. I can have you flogged or worse at a word.”

Something like a laugh came from Becir. “Do you think these men follow you and Ludenn? For now you do, but if you start whipping men without cause, how long do you think you will last when the battle starts?”

“A cause can be found. We have stood together in battle before, do not forget. I know their hearts better than you,” Donier said, though he wondered if that were in fact true.

“You are a fool,” Becir said. “But it is no matter whether or not you have me killed. Do you think I am the only one here amongst the cohorts? There are others who will see that you do your duty.”

“What is your plan, then? What would you have me do?”

Becir laughed again. “I am no fool, Nes Donier. When the time comes, we will speak again.”

The knife and hand were withdrawn from his throat, and Becir vanished outside without stirring the tent. Donier forced a ragged breath into his lungs and sat down on his bed, pressing his hands between his knees to stop them from shaking. He remained where he was as the sun crept into the sky, watching the light fill the tent, until the horns called the cohorts to rise for the day.

From Dance of Shadows, the third and final volume of The Shadow Men.

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