The great king stands atop a plaza in early winter, the year 1091 AW.
“People of Rauha, sanctuary to the people of western Ki!” he announced with the glory and splendor of a cedar-cracking voice. “I am King Lenirath!”
They longed for someone like him.
Those who had been kneeling, their foreheads on the ground, beheld him now with glazed eyes of a deer in summer. Those to whom he delivered peace brimmed with smiles, their lips dripping roses. His heart, steadfast and awake with the song of the lyre and the harp, pounded with an ancient thunder.
Breaching the hilltop compound’s western wall, the sun rose over the golden dome; in the distance, ecstatic men, men made great in glory, cheered and sang songs of celebration as the ceremony continued.
Women in apartment windows, weeping at the sight of the king, held their faces against their hands. Bug-eyed husbands blinked back their tears. Soon they would lift their voices in gratitude and recount his wondrous deeds. “May he live as long as the sun and the moon endure!” they would sing. “May he descend like rain upon the fields.”
The king, in his white glory and silver splendor, continued: “I welcome you into the open hands of the Citadel.” A hand on his belly, one at the back, Lenirath took his bow, straightened, and marveled at the city robed in scarlet and adorned with gold, a city swelling, overflowing.
Clad in a cloak of light, Lenirath, like a bridegroom from his chamber, descended the stone steps to a broad landing where, with a long slow inhale and an exhale of equal measure, he, the satisfaction carved into his rectangular face, greeted his lifelong friend. “What a glorious day, Irutosena. Absolutely glorious.”
Irutosena lowered his head. “Thank you my lord.”
Lenirath flipped his hand. “Cut it out Sena. Take pride, but enjoy yourself for once. Loosen up. If there is ever a time, this is it. Listen to them celebrate. You should too.”
“You’re right, I know.” He nodded his heavy round head. “It was good, wasn’t it?”
The two continued down the steps. “Of course it was good! Finally we are making some progress. Now we can return the city to its former greatness,” he said, his smile stretching, as he stepped over a dead child, “like my forefathers wanted to do.”
Strolling northbound along an apartment-lined street, the two stopped to watch a young man, his face stuck in the grimace of a bad dream, gasp for air, blood bubbling from a shallow wound in his throat. Lenirath continued forward and, stabbing the young man in the heart without a break in stride, asked Irutosena of the Citadel’s casualties.
Irutosena waved away opportunistic flies fleeing from his weighty boot steps. “I saw some men fall, but can’t say for certain.”
Pools of blood from warped faces and bodies mangled stained the ground; wet with patterns of some ancient insanity, streaks and splatters smeared the city’s ashen-white walls. Not one to avoid an obstacle, he stepped over those staring at him with flaring eyes inside skulls cracked with vague unevenness, their bodies stiff in bestial positions.
The two turned left onto Fetter Street, they city’s main east-west thoroughfare. A small courtyard at the first intersection opened to where only a few short hours ago fruit and vegetable vendors prepared their carts and stalls unbeknownst to the coming storm. Irutosena shoved a woman, still breathing, from a stone bench alongside a fountain in order to make room for the two armored men. Both set their shields down, took drinks, sat, and basked in the sun among the overturned carts, scattered and flattened produce, and the scores of the dead bent under the terrible weight of the White Army’s speed of perfection.
“What is it?” asked Irutosena through hard lips. “We only lost a few…a dozen at most. You gave the men, all the men, what they’ve been waiting for. Madiligam said the time was right.”
“I know, I know,” he replied, swatting a fly. “That’s not it.”
He exhaled his frustration with the incessant insect. “I don’t like the blood.”
“Not as much as I used to anyway.”
“What do you mean? War is about the blood.”
“Believe me, I know that as much as you. But as essential as the city is for our plan, it’s a far stretch to call this war.” He rubbed his stubbled, large square chin and sighed. “I don’t know…maybe I’m getting tired of war too.”
“But my lord, you said it yourself—this was a sacrifice we had to make…Madiligam—”
“I know, I know. What do I care for streams of blood?”
“Mere emblements my lord.”
“If we didn’t do it, who would? Damn this rotten fly.”
“As you said my lord, justice. I understand my lord. But again, this is a sacrifice and all things will be put right. Sometimes justice can be hard. I know that, you know that. Knowing always the right thing to do is what makes you our greatest king, my lord.”
Lenirath, distracted by the fly, nodded. A frail cloud coasted past the sun and reduced the city to a pale grey. Amid the distant retching of those full of the misfortunate desire to cling to life, the sorrowful city, a city struck dumb, stretched and groaned. The cloud slipped by and the sun protracted its pent-up light; the city quieted itself and in its silence gathered the wholeness of the word. And therein Lenirath could see how the blood brought with it the hidden ever-present order of things. The ancient word—blood for life, life for blood—the order of things.
His gaze fell to his hands, hands seized by dreams imagined by none other than he. Hands that held the dream of the word—of the world. He breathed deep, held the air long in his chest. Hands that never committed a wrong, hands that quivered men to silence. Hands as impetuous as the eagle’s talons, as strong as the obedience he commanded with iron swords and iron words. The very same hands that shuddered under the wish to crush as those upon which the multitudes placed their lips. Hands radiant in love. Noble hands. Hands that would bring the word to the world to change the world.
In silence the two took more water; his thirst satisfied, Lenirath rose and, adjusting his silver chest-plate, circled the fountain. The fat fly landed atop his hand. Again he slapped at it; again, it eluded him. Eyes following its wayward path, movement straight ahead garnered his unwavering attention.
“Pss.” He beckoned Irutosena to his side, pointed, and whispered. “There, under that food cart. See?”
Large brown eyes asquint, Irutosena nodded.
“Look, there it goes again.” Lenirath grinned, his teeth as white and straight as the buildings neither washed in blood nor razed to the ground.
“Let’s circle around.”
“Good. You go left, I’ll go right.”
Selecting the best route to take advantage of the secrecy the overturned carts and tables offered, Irutosena held to the courtyard’s perimeter as Lenirath took a direct course. The king stopped behind a table turned on its side and gestured Irutosena forward before he motioned him to a stop. Fingers raised, Lenirath counted down from three and they, shields pulled close to their sides, pounced; the prey ran screaming toward a row of shops.
Irutosena thrust forward. “It’s a girl!”
“She’s running toward that crack in the foundation,” Lenirath warned. “Get her.”
The girl dove toward the open crevice. Struggling to squeeze through, she screamed. Her arms and head through the fissure, Irutosena, tossing his shield to the side, grabbed her ankles. She screamed again, and, Lenirath presumed, begged for help.
“Hold her. There. Now give her to me. She’s mine.”
Lenirath struck his shield in the ground. He and Irutosena each took an ankle with both hands and pulled, hitting the girl’s head on the broken rock. With a thud she landed flat on the ground; Lenirath groaned his frustration and cursed when the blood pooled. Irutosena turned her over.
“What a fair girl,” Lenirath lamented. He took to a knee, swept her hair from her face, and drew his index finger along her cheek. “Smooth as a tender almond. What would you say—ten, eleven?”
“Give or take.”
“Too bad. She’d be perfect.” The king stood, hands on the hips, elbows bent, and, his eyes bleared, looked upon the courtyard.
Irutosena lowered his ear to the girl’s chest. “My lord, she’s still breathing.”