|The Grand Design|
|excerpt courtesy of Bantam Spectra Science Fiction and Fantasy|
|and Victor Gollancz|
The night burned a pulsing orange.
General Vorto, supreme commander of the legions of Nar, stood on a hillside beneath the red flash of rockets, safely distant from the bombardment hammering the walls of Goth. It was a cold night with frost in the air. He could see the crystaline snow in the sky and on his eyelashes. The northern gusts blew the battle rockets up and over the city and bent the fiery plumes of flame cannons. Goths tall walls glowed a molten amber at its weakest parts, and in the citys center small fires smouldered, the result of lucky rocket shots. Gothan archers rimmed the catwalks and battlements, raining down arrows on the thousand legionnaires encircling the city. High in the hills, rocket launchers sent off their missiles, while on the ground war wagons lumbered on their metal tracks, grinding the earth to pulp. Inside the iron tanks, teams of gunners pumped kerosene fuel into the needle-noses of flame cannons and blasted away at the unyielding stone of Goth.
The war machines of Nar were at work.
General Vorto pulled off a gauntlet and tested the wind with a finger. South easterly and strong, he determined. Too damn strong. A curse sprang to his lips as he pulled his metal glove back on. So far, the Walled City didnt seem to be softening from his attack, nor had the winds abated to cooperate. It had only been a few hours since hed begun his attack but he was already growing impatientnot a good trait for a General. He ground his teeth together in frustration, and watched as the city of Goth withstood all he could throw against it.
"Resist, then," he grumbled. "Soon we will have the ram in place."
Nearby on the hillside, the gunners of a modified acid launcher awaited their Generals orders. They had loaded the first cannister of Formula B hours ago, when theyd first arrived around the city. Vorto had hoped the wind might cooperate, but the breeze had picked up and so the order to fire had never come. There were five more such launchers in the hills around Goth, all primed like this one, all awaiting Vortos order to fire. Vorto blew into his hands to warm them.
"They are strong ones," said the general to his aide, the slim and dour-faced Colonel Kye. "Ive underestimated them. They have a stomach for siege, it seems. I would have thought Lokken weaker than this."
"Duke Lokken is weak," corrected Kye. He had a rasping voice that Vorto had to strain to understand, the result of a Triin arrow through his windpipe. "When the dawn comes he will see whats out here waiting for him, and he will surrender." The colonel smiled one of his sour smiles. "I am optimistic."
"Yes, you can afford to be," said Vorto. "I cannot." He pointed toward the citys towering walls, thick with archers ignoring the bombardment. "Look. See how many men he has? He could hold out for weeks in there. And these damned winds . . ." Vorto halted, mouthing a silent prayer. God made the winds, and he had no right to curse them. He confessed his sin, then turned his attention to the giant launcher sitting nearby. Ten cannisters of Formula B waited beside the magazine, ready for loading. The bellows that would propel the cannisters was swelled with air. It groaned with the sound of stretched leather. Vorto reached down and picked up one of the cannisters. His gunners gasped and inched away. The general held the cannister up to inspect it, turning it in the pulsing rocket light. The cylindrical container was no bigger than his head. Inside it, he could feel liquid sloshing around. There were two chambers in the cannister, one full of water, the other loaded with Formula B, the dried pellets the war labs had synthesized. Upon impact, the cannister would shatter and the components would mix. Any small breeze would do the rest.
Theoretically. Formula B had never been tested in the field. Bovadin had fled Nar before its perfection, leaving a handful of tinkerers behind to finish his work. Formula A had proved too caustic to transport, even in its dry state. But Formula B, the war labs had assured Vorto, was perfect. They had tried it on prisoners with remarkable results, and they were sure fifty cannisters of the stuff would be enough to wipe out Goth.
But the winds would have to cooperate.
Brooding, Vorto put down the cannister. Much as he wanted to, he couldnt risk detonating the formula in such stiff winds. The walls of Goth were high, certainly, but were they high enough to contain the gas? And what if one of the cannisters landed outside the walls? If there was a safe distance from the caustic fumes, no one knew its measure. Maybe Bovadin did, but the midget was in Crote now, hiding with the sodomite Biagio.
Have faith, the general reminded himself.
"If I fly with dragons, and dwell in the darkest parts of the earth," he said, "even there will Thy right hand guide me, and Thy light shine a path for me." Vorto smiled dispassionately at his Colonel, who was not a religious man. "The Book of Gallion," he declared. "Chapter eleven, verse nineteen. Do you know what it means, Kye?"
Kye was unmoved. Unlike Vorto, he followed the edicts of Bishop Herrith out of duty alone, and not of any sense of the mystic. Vorto had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the colonel of the reality of Heaven, but Kye had remained skeptical. He was a loyal man, though, and a fine soldier, so Vorto overlooked the older mans heresy. For now.
"They fly the flag," said Colonel Kye simply. "Thats all I know."
Behind Kye, Vorto could see the city of Goth aglow in rocket fire, its stone towers tall and defiant. And at the citys heart, billowing in the winds atop Lokkens fortress, waved the Black Flag, that hated symbol of old Nar. It was a crime to fly that banner now, but Lokken and others like him flaunted Herriths commandments. Vorto would not be satisfied until he pulled down that flag and stuffed it down Duke Lokkens lying throat himself.
Since the death of Arkus and Herriths ascension, there was only one flag that the nations of Nar were allowed to fly. It was the same banner Vortos men milled under now, a radiant field of gold harboring a rising sun. Herrith himself had designed the standard. And the bishop had named it wisely, and blessed it with the power to rebuke the Black Renaissance.
It was called the Light of God.
And whenever Vorto saw it, the general felt a catch in his throat. Now, as they circled the enormous Walled City, his standard bearers held the Light of God high so that the glare of the rockets alighted on it like the touch of heaven and all the misguided in Goth could see it. Tonight they flew their Black Flagtonight they displayed their loyalty to a dead Emperor and his equally dead idealsbut on the morrow if the winds were fair, the Light of God would wave above Goth forever.
"Check your azimuth," Vorto commanded the gunners. "I want no mistakes when we launch."
The gunnery chief looked at his leader questioningly. "Are we launching, Sir?"
"We will be," replied Vorto. He strode over to the weapon and checked the gauges himself. It was unfamiliar work, but the crude dials and sliders were simple to understand. A small pointer along the barrel displayed the estimated distance in forty-yard increments. His gunners had set the range on maximum and pointed the barrel, high enough to scale Goths wall and lob the cannisters into the city. Curious, Vorto regarded his gunners.
"Best guess, Chief. These winds . . . Too much?"
The soldier wrinkled his nose and looked up into the night. The snow flurries were coming down in a slant. "Hard to say, Sir. The canisters are heavy, so they should fly straight. But thats a damn high wall. Wed have to call back the wagons before Id be comfortable."
Vorto nodded. "Agreed. Be ready."
The general turned and walked to his war horse. The powerful dapple-gray, outfitted with hammered armor, snorted unhappily as its master mounted. Vorto was an enormous man, and so required an equally enormous horse to support him. This one was from Aramoor and big in the shanks. Upon Vortos back was strapped his axe, the only weapon he favored since the loss of two fingers. Though less precise than a sword, he had found the axe at least as devastating in battle, and its twin blades gave him a desirably frightening presence. He wore no helmet, for he liked the sounds of battle and feared no arrow. He armored himself traditionally in black, but he knew his greatest protection came from Heaven. He wore his head shaved and his cheeks smooth, and he adorned his hands with silver gauntlets polished to a mirror shine. Big in the extreme, he was not fat at all, but rather muscled the way a bull is muscled, and when he was shirtless his deltoids gave him the appearance of a wing-spanned hawk or the hood of a cobra. Save for Herrith himself, no man in the new Nar held more power than he, and no man was more feared.
Everything about Vorto was inhumanparticularly his eyes. They were a faded blue, like two lusterless gems, dim and without life. As a boy they had been brown, but the potions of the war labs had changed that. The same potions that had once made him very near immortal had done strange things to Vortos body. Like Arkus and the rest of the dead Emperors Iron Circle, they had all become addicts, dependent on Bovadins amazing narcotic. But since the little scientists departure there had been no more of the drug. It was just one more secret Bovadin had taken with him to Crote, and so Vorto and the others loyal to Herrith had learned to live without it, despite the bone-crushing withdrawal. Sometimes, when it was quiet and he was alone, Vorto still had cravings, but with Gods help he had tamed his demons. Others had not been so lucky. Some of the foppish Naren lords had been unable to withstand the pain and had perished. A few had even flung themselves out of Nars towers rather than endure another moment of agony.
But Vorto was more stout-hearted than those weaklings. He had overcome the drug and Biagios schemes for the throne, and he considered that his proudest struggle. Now he and Herrith were rid of this tribulation, mostly, and ready to destroy the rest of Biagios designs. There was wise work to be done in Nar these days. Men like Lokken still held on to the ideals of the Black Renaissance, Arkus godless disease. The Black Flag still flew in at least four other nations, and those who didnt fly the symbol of the past often refused to fly the flag of the future. Very few had come willingly to the Light of God. Bishop Herrith could count only a handful of the Naren nations as true allies. But he had Vorto behind him, and Vorto had all the legions of Nar. In time, Lokken and everyone like him would heel.
Gods will, thought Vorto as he spied the city. Gods will that they should die this way. Like cows on the killing floor.
In the days of Arkus and the Black Renaissance, Vorto had tread the world like a prince. He had maimed and slaughtered for the emperors false ideals, and had bargained away his soul for soft beds and lewd company. But he was not that man anymore. He had heard the call of the Lord and had been cleansed. Herrith and God had saved him.
Vorto had no remorse. The Black Renaissance was a cancer, and the only way to deal with it was to eradicate it utterly. Ideas were powerful, hard to kill. To leave a trace of them was to invite death. Those who were called to do Heavens work needed to be iron-willed and, sometimes, iron-stomached. There would be a stench from Goth for months and the buzzards would feast, but Duke Lokken would be dead. Biagio would have one less ally on Naren soil to threaten the throne, and the Light of God would fly above the city, a symbol of God and his mercy.
Vorto spurred on his horse and guided it down the slope. When this was over, he would sleep well. Colonel Kye mounted his own horse and followed his superior down the hillside, sidling up to Vorto and shooting him a suspect stare.
"Were going to launch?" he asked. "When?"
"When I say so, Kye."
"But the winds . . ."
"Ive come a long way to bring justice to Duke Lokken and his rebels," snapped Vorto. "I wont leave defeated."
Kye grimaced. "Begging the generals pardon, but I think you just want to try the formula."
Vorto shrugged. Kye was almost a friend, and sometimes overly familiar. "Its Gods will," he said simply. "When the other nations see whats happened here, they will think twice about siding with Biagio. They all have armies, Kye. Vosk, Dragons Beak, Doria. We cant be everywhere. Biagio knows this. And the memory of Arkus is strong." He gave his second a mordant glare. "We must be at least as strong."
"General," said Kye evenly. "We have enough men to take the city."
"I intend to take the city and more, Kye. Now get that damned ram into position. Its time we knocked on Lokkens door."
Inside his castle of stone and cedar, Duke Lokken of Goth kept the lights out. The rockets were imprecise and hardly a threat to his fortress at all, but his family was in this room and Lokken was a superstitious man. One stray battle rocket, one lucky shot, and a fire might start that would consume them all. Around his private chambers high in the western tower, there were guards aplenty to hold back Vortos legions, but they could do nothing against the onslaught of flame cannons and rockets. Lokken stood by a window, brooding over his falling city, his face awash in the glare. In his chambers were his wife and two daughters. His eldest and only son was outside somewhere, probably on the wall.
A rocket slammed into the courtyard below, rattling the tower. In the hills around the city, the duke could see the distant flares of launchers as they sent their missiles screaming skyward. His daughters were crying. The bombardment had hardly dented his wall, but it had already turned the brains of his people to mush. Even Lokken was starting to fracture.
The room was dark. Lokken felt a shiver of cold and the unmistakable shoulder-tapping of remorse. Overhead, the Black Flag of Nar still flew above his castle, along with Lions Blood, Goths own standard. In a fit of outrage, Lokken had ordered that detestable banner of Herriths shredded. He had sent the flags remains to the bishop in Nar City. But now, looking down at the legions, he wondered if his valor had merely been bravado, and he regretted the ugly death he had invited for his family.
Arkus had not been a perfect emperor. He had been a tyrant and Biagio was probably no better. But he had been Lokkens tyrant, and he had understood the importance of a nations pride. Never once had Arkus asked any country of the Empire to lower their own flag, nor did he ever insist that they fly the Black Flag. Lokken had complied with Arkus for years, and for years the old man had left Goth alone, content with the yearly taxes Lokken sent to Nar City. But this Herrith was a demon.
Lokken missed Arkus. He missed the old ideals of the Black Renaissance, of peace through strength and world domination. And when the old man had finally died, Lokken knew with whom to side.
"Kill me if you can," whispered the duke. "I will never fly your flag."
At the sound of the voice Lokken turned from the window. There in the darkness was little Lorla, her face full of dread. She had dressed for travel, as ordered. In her tiny hands she clutched a leather bag full of food, hopefully enough to get her to safety. Her brilliant green eyes looked up at Lokken with profound sadness.
"Im ready, Uncle," she said. Her eight year olds face tried to smile, but there was no joy in the expression. Lokken dropped down to a knee and took her hand. It was small and soft, belying the truth of her nature. Not surprisingly, Lorla hadnt shed a single tear throughout the entire bombardment. Lokken was proud of her.
"I wish I could take you to Duke Enli myself," he said. "But youll be safe with Daevn. He knows the way better than any of my men. Hell get you past the legions."
Lorla looked dubious. "Ive seen them through my window. There may be too many to pass. And they wont hesitate to kill me."
Lokken smiled. "Then you mustnt get caught, right?" He ran his hand through her splendid hair. She had been his ward for almost a year now, ever since Nar fell to Herrith. Biagio had asked Lokken to keep the child safe, and though Lokken had thought it a hardship at the time, he had adored every moment hed spent with Lorla. Blood might have separated them, but she still felt every bit his daughter.
"Lorla," began the duke solemnly. "I dont know whats going to happen to you, even if you do reach Dragons Beak. Biagio hasnt told me anything more about you, and Ive never met Duke Enli. But its important that you get there. Its important to Nar. You know that, dont you?"
"I know what I am, Uncle. Whatever the Master has planned for me, Im ready."
The Master. Lokken still hated that term. Since coming to Goth, Lorla never referred to Biagio as anything but the Master. He supposed it was Roshann programming. Very thorough. Lorla knew what she was, but that was all. In a sense she was a freak, a growing woman frozen in the body of an eight year old. She didnt know what Biagio had planned for her, and her incubation in the labs had made her trust the count implicitly. Lokken pitied the girl.
"Youve meant a lot to me," he said. "Im proud to have been part of this. I wish I could have known you better."
Lorlas gaze dropped. "I wish you could have told me more. Maybe someday."
Lokkens grin was crooked. They both knew there wouldnt be a someday. Not for Lokken, and not for the family that had cared for Lorla this past year. Like Biagios Roshann, Vortos legions were thorough. Given time, there would be very little left of Goth. But Goth wouldnt perish entirely. If Lorla made it to Dragons Beak, Herrith and Vorto would hear from the Walled City again. Perhaps Biagio was a madman, but he was brilliant. Whatever the Count of Crote had planned, Lokken had confidence. Just like Goth, the Black Renaissance would not go quietly.
Lorla walked past Duke Lokken toward the window. Standing on her tip-toes, she regarded the battle raging outside. Her eyes scanned the hills and circling war wagons, the legionnaires armed with flame cannons and maces. This was the gauntlet she had to cross, with only her diminutive size and the cloak of darkness to hide her.
"I should go now," she declared. "The snow will slow them."
Lokken nodded grimly. "Theres a pony waiting for you. Daevn is in the courtyard. Hell take you to the hidden gate. Remember, wait til the rockets die down, then head for the first hill with the apple trees. Its rugged there and. . ."
"I know the way," Lorla interrupted. She was getting agitated. Too much talk. So Lokken said no more.
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