In hindsight, perhaps provoking the village of the strongest magicians in the land into war was not a very good idea. But I was Admah, ruler of the desert kingdom, and in all my nine years of reign I had never once been known to back down from a challenge.
The day of our attack, I woke up before dawn. Rising early was my custom, but today I knew there were the usual tedious chores to settle in the kingdom before the army could be sent over the mountains, and I preferred to get them done as quickly as possible. The Shenmi - the people of the forest - were unpredictable. If time was wasted and word of our plans somehow got out to them, they would be nearly impossible to defeat.
I dressed silently, refusing the help of the servants. I could tell they were tired and stifling yawns from being roused from sleep so abruptly. Their ineptness at hiding their emotions annoyed me, but today was too important a day to discipline them for it. Outside, the sun had not yet risen. The desert air was cool; once the sun touched the sands the temperature would become hot, almost unbearable, but that was merely one more thing that as a king I had to ignore.
I exited my quarters. My room was resplendent with silver and gold designs, fitting of the ruler of the Shágan kingdom, but the rest of the palace was no less ornate. The halls, lined in red silk, stretched out before me while the ceiling soared overhead. Unusually, there was very little activity - none of the bustle of the usual guards and servants. It was still too early for them to rise.
I hurried down the halls and towards the throne room. Very rarely now did I stop to examine the paintings on the walls or the intricate designs carved into the baked clay (for clay it was, made out of essentially the same substance that the peasant cottages were created from - a fact that irritated me, and usually led me to blaming the lack of variety in building resources on the Shenmi, the usual scapegoat). The vastness of the palace had fascinated me as a child, but now I had lived and ruled here far too long to be impressed.
It was with some surprise that I finally saw another resident of the palace - waiting for me, it seemed, where this hallway intersected with the next. I recognized him as my nephew Pei. He was dressed in the golden robes traditional of Shagánne royalty, though his did not have the crossed red lines that mine had, signifying me of an especially high rank.
He bowed in greeting upon seeing me, though it was more of a quick hunching of his shoulders. I could tell he was nervous. Pei was usually nervous. I did not approve of his demeanor - so lacking in confidence, the boy had to learn to stand up for himself someday! - but he was my sister’s only son, and I made an effort to show him some respect.
“How was your morning, Uncle?” Pei asked. I was immediately on guard; nobody in the palace had much use for small talk. “A bit earlier than usual, isn’t it?”
“What is it, Pei?”
“Oh -” He squared his shoulders. “Is today the day?”
“You know it is. You were at the council meeting.” There he had volunteered, with noticeable reluctance, to be part of the strike force, but I knew that he had only gone to the meeting in the first place because it was his obligation as a prince to oversee important decisions in the event that he had to make them someday.
“Right. Of course.” I started to walk, and Pei followed, striding to keep up with me.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Speak up,” I said impatiently. I was not in a pleasant mood, already dreading the hours of sitting on the throne listening to commoners’ problems. And I wanted to go back to sleep. Not that I would let anyone tell.
“Uncle, I - have some problems with the way we’re going about this attack -”
“This again?” I resisted the urge to knead my forehead, wishing Pei would focus on his own problems instead of my army’s. “Pei, we already discussed this at the war council -”
“War council?” Pei blurted, but he quickly softened his voice. “Uncle, with all due respect, that wasn’t a discussion - you only told us what you had decided!”
“Why shouldn’t I have?” I said harshly. “I’m the king. It was a courtesy of me in the first place to give you even a chance to interrupt.”
Pei stopped. I kept walking for a few steps, but when he didn’t move I was forced to turn on my heel and face him. “I’m not joining the war.”
“I refuse to be a part of this needless violence,” he said clearly. “We do not need to attack the Shenmi. They have done nothing to us.”
“They are a threat!” I snapped. “Do you think any of our own people can use magic? We are at a disadvantage and we must eliminate them as soon as possible.”
“We have been at peace for a hundred years!” Pei said, his voice rising. “I see no reason why you want to break this truce!”
“There has never been a truce!” I thundered. “And you cannot simply abandon your duties! You are a prince!”
“I can if I think I am serving my kingdom,” he said. “And killing the magicians because you are scared of them is not going to help us in any way. Admah, I’m leaving the palace. I’m going to tell the soldiers. Maybe some of them will stand down too.”
“You will do no such thing! Pei!”
It was too late. The boy had already turned and half-run down the corridor, breathless with the exhilaration of the act of rebellion he had committed. “He picked now to grow a spine,” I murmured sourly. Traitorous nephew.
Everybody in the throne room went on high alert the second I swept into the throne room with a murderous look gracing my features. There were commoners in the room, ones who did not look happy to have this occasion be the first that they would meet their king in person.
Only the head guard was unaffected. When I settled into my throne, he cleared his throat imperiously and announced the first case, a debate over stolen myrrh seeds taken back only after they had grown.
One role of a king was to play the impartial judge between the peasants and their silly everyday squabbles, and frankly, I had no patience for it. Ever since I had been crowned I knew that the purpose of a king, especially of the most powerful kingdom from as far as our explorers could walk and ever hope to return, was to do something significant and powerful. I often felt that my father, and his father, and his mother before that, had all squandered their rule picking over the small details of the kingdom. Give more money to the palace workers here and teach the poor people over there how to grow crops. It was infuriatingly fine-tuned, and completely useless, as the palace endured no matter what the delicate situation in the far reaches was.
As one commoner after another stepped forward, scraping and bowing and stuttering their questions, all I could think of was the potential for a battle in but a few hours. Not just a battle - bloodshed. To make a difference in the world by cutting holes in our enemies. I was sick of the uneasy peace between the people of the desert and the people of the forest that the rulers of Shágan before me had created, and I was ready to tear it to shreds with the first strike of my sword.
How could one concentrate on politics when there was such a war at stake?
“Enough.” The peasant before me jumped. She had been describing a scenario in which a neighbor of hers had been killing an illegal amount of fish in the Lady’s River, but at my hand she felt silent. “You said that he has been tampering with the River?”
“Then that is treason. Execute him.”
The woman’s hands flew to her mouth. “My lord, he is still my brother-in-law, and I only wished to -”
“I don’t care. I will not waste any more time with meaningless arguments.” I raised my voice and addressed the rest of the room: “All of you, assume that death will be a fitting punishment for the crimes you have witnessed or committed, and inflict it as you see fit upon the ones who have committed wrongdoings. If a case is unclear, decide the miscreant with a duel. I see no reason to involve the palace in this.”
Even my own guards looked shocked at this decree. I stood up and left the room without delay. If the subjects couldn’t work this task out, they weren’t fit for this kingdom anyways.
The soldiers were scheduled to leave three hours before the sun was directly overhead in the hopes that we would arrive at our target shortly before the sun set. For reasons unknown, many magicians’ powers were strongest earlier in the daytime. If we utilized careful tactics and brutal force, we could defeat them without losing too many of our own men.
The army’s quarters were located south of the palace, and of course I was required to take a palanquin. The four bearers felt as though they were traveling impossibly slowly, but I was grateful for the curtain that kept the palanquin in the relatively cool shade and that shielded me from the solicitors that frequently gathered outside the palace. They attacked us, briefly swarming and shouting like a cloud of horseflies, but the guards pushed them away and we moved on.
I held a fondness for the soldiers - men who breathed fighting and weapons like they did air and who were disciplined enough to snap to attention the moment I stepped into the barracks. Much of the money received from my domain, such as taxes and fines, had gone into building this place. It was nearly as large and elaborate as the palace itself.
“Men!” I shouted. “We are leaving early. Gather the horses.”
They responded with a cheer.
The next hour was spent mobilizing the troops. To desert dwellers, magic was a mysterious and unnerving thing. Every soldier needed armor, a weapon of their choice, and a horse before they were prepared enough to face the magicians from across the river.
I took supplies too, of course. I would be the one to lead the charge. My armor was no different from the rest of the soldiers’ supplies, so high quality they were, but I brought along my best sword, a talwar with a bright red handle and a curved silver blade. I also had first pick of the horses. I chose a dark, spirited one that shied away and then eased into my touch.
I was fond of the horses too. As difficult a time as they had with navigating through the loose sand and dust storms that occasionally swept the region, I would have no part in retiring them.
At last, the Shagánne army was ready. I stood in front of the straight columns of soldiers and counted. The number surprised me - it had shrunk from the records we had seven days ago. I remembered my nephew Pei’s pledge to turn the soldiers away from fighting, and I gritted my teeth in anger.
We spurred on our horses and rode east towards the mountains. People ran out to watch us pass, shouting, but their voices, whether encouragement or hate, were whipped away in the wind and the rush of adrenaline. I was proud to be leading as the storm of men thundered through the capital city of Masel and then into the outskirts and the small villages that lay in the land between the palace and the edge of the desert. Masel was located somewhere in the northeast, with the bulk of the subjects living farther to the south. Villages were sparse further out to the west. Nobody wanted to live too far from the Lady’s River.
After scarcely half an hour of riding, we could see the mountains looming in the distance. They only got bigger as we approached. Huge, red-brown, they stretched up towards the sky and made it impossible to see to the other side. But beyond them, we knew, lay the Shenmi people in their territory: a decadent and humid forest growing on the eastern side. The scope of the mountains held back the clouds and moisture and kept all but the most determined rainclouds from watering our dry desert land. The philosophers said it was nature, but I said it was witchcraft. Another thing to blame the Shenmi for.
The sand hardened and turned to tightly packed earth the closer we arrived to the border. Then the earth turned to rocks jutting from the ground at random. When the uneven ground began to reach a sharp incline, the horses were almost heard to sigh in exasperation.
“Hush,” I told my own horse when I thought that none of the soldiers could hear me. “One more half parasang. Be patient.”
Sure enough, the rocky trail soon evened out. We arrived on a high stretch of rock between two of the tallest mountain peaks. A winding trail continued through the mountain range ahead and led straight to a clear path towards our objective, the largest and most populated Shemie village in the forest. But between us and the rest of the path lay the Lady’s River.
The River was one of the most important parts of our society, and an object of high tension between the Shágan and the Shenmi. Besides rain, it was the only source of water that either of our civilizations knew about. The river was clear, quick, and blue, cutting a stripe of life through the land. People said it was sacred, that it had been created straight from the hand of our goddess, known simply as the Lady...hence how it had received its name.
The Lady’s River was used for water, for growing crops, even for travel, but one thing that both the forest and desert people agreed on was that nobody was allowed to interfere with it. No one could alter the path of the river by digging ditches. Restrictions were put on catching fish. Even the water people were allowed to drink was limited lest we somehow drained it dry.
In a kingdom as parched as sand, the Lady’s River was more than essential. If the magicians decided to damage it, we could all easily shrivel to nothing like dust. And to prevent the forest people from taking advantage of this weakness, we needed to strike first.
The Lady’s River was also the official border between the two societies. Once we crossed it, we would officially be invading the Shenmie territory.
We followed the swift river north until we found a stretch narrow enough for our horses to jump over. Before I urged my horse on, I took one last glance at the lines of soldiers behind me. Those nearest nodded solemnly. The sun was low on the horizon; we would be upon the villages in just hours.
“Go!” I spurred my horse, and the army followed me over the shining river and into the forest of the Shenmi.