|The Grand Design|
|excerpt courtesy of Bantam Spectra Science Fiction and Fantasy|
|and Victor Gollancz|
On a thousand armored feet and breathing flame, Vortos imperial legions rolled through the city of Goth. Above them rose the granite towers thick with archers, and the streets were barricaded with human flesh Lokkens wild, sword-wielding defenders. Naren cavalry pushed through the narrow avenues, slicing down Gothan infantry with their sabers while flame cannons cut them a blazing path. Overhead the dawn was breaking red and harsh. Men were barking like dogs, ordering advances and retreats, and the screams of the burning echoed down the stone corridors.
Fighting street to street, Vortos legions had nearly made their way to Lokkens castle. Now the fortress could be clearly seen, tall and impressive in the snowy dawn, its two flags wet with ice in the chilling wind. General Vorto rode his horse through the carnage, an expression of victory on his face. Not far away, Colonel Kye was leading the cavalry assault on the main thoroughfare, ignoring the flood of arrows from the granite towers. Vorto followed him, his massive axe cutting through Gothan infantry, buckling helmets and crushing heads. Gore splashed his armored legs and the flanks of his horse. Detonating flame cannons rocked the avenue. A horde of Gothan defenders rode toward them furiously, trying to trap them against the foot soldiers. Screaming, Vorto turned to charge them.
"Follow me!" he bellowed. Twenty heavy-horsemen heard the cry and galloped off after him. A quick-thinking cannoneer turned his weapon against the coming Gothans, burning down a third of them in a fireball. The heat from the blast stuck Vorto in the face, singeing his eye brows, but he rode on heedlessly. When the bloom of fire had dissipated he collided with the Gothan horsemen. At once he felt a sword glance off his armored shoulder. Vorto brought his axe up and then down, shearing off the offending arm. He whirled to catch another horsemen, too near to avoid the flashing hatchet. And then his men were with him, crashing against the horsemen of Goth. Lost in the blinding melee, Vorto crooned his terrible battle chant and swung his weapon, slamming through flesh and armor and dousing himself in blood.
When the melee was nearly over, Vorto pulled his horse out of the crowd and followed Colonel Kyes brigade down the street toward the fortress. Kye had cut a path wide enough for the greegans, and the war wagons were lumbering forward, heedless of the Gothan archers. Unstoppable, bristling with swords and bright with cannon fire, the column moved slowly toward the waiting fortress. Ahead of them, the Gothans were retreating for the castle, regrouping for one last battle. Vorto could see the structure plainly now. A three-tiered masterpiece of rock and wood, it reminded the general of a bull dog, its power born from a squat and determined stance. Vorto hurried his mount up to the center of his army, shouldering past the thickness of men and horseflesh. Colonel Kye gave him a sinister grin.
"The fortress, General?" he asked.
Vorto nodded. "Yes. Theyll make their stand there, no doubt. Take up positions to the east and west, four platoons each with cannons. The rest of us will ride up to Lokkens door."
Kye looked around suspiciously. "Quiet," he remarked.
Vorto surveyed their surroundings. It was quiet. They had met only pathetic resistance from the populace, and now the streets were fairly deserted. Soon the formula would do the rest. Unnerved by the silence, Vorto and his legionnaires fanned out toward the waiting fortress.
regulars scurried down the streets in retreat, taking up
positions near Lokkens hideout. The archers ceased
firing. Vortos column moved deliberately through the
deserted avenues. The generals eyes moved over the
streets and towers, waiting for an assassins arrow that
never came. In the distance around the fortress he heard the
shouts of men. An eerie pall blanketed Goth. People in their
houses peered nervously from windows,. Vortos brow
Then he saw the flash. It was more brilliant than the sun. Breathtaken, Vorto reined in his horse as the rockets climbed skyward over the fortress, hung high above, then burst into a cascade of fireworks. For one beautiful moment, the sky over Lokkens home was the only thing in the world, alive with light meant for one defiant purpose to illuminate the flags of Goth. Vortos face did an impossible contortion at the sight of it. There was the Black Flag, lit with all the grace of heaven, an impudent beacon in a darkness of snow. One last spit from the disloyal duke.
"Lokken," seethed Vorto, "you will burn in Hell for this." The general crossed himself and closed his eyes in prayer, begging God to be unmerciful. His simmering rage boiled over. "Fly your flag?" he hissed. "Your black and faithless flag?"
It was all he could manage not to scream.
"Hurry now," he roared at his men. "I want this bastard found!"
The Naren legion double-timed it through the streets. The war wagons rumbled forward as quickly as the mammoth greegans could pull, and the cavalry horses snorted. Vorto fought his way to the front of his column. The flame cannons had stopped now, but Vorto could see platoons of them taking up positions near the fortress, balancing their needle-nosed weapons unsteadily in makeshift cradles. Colonel Kye brought his horse up alongside his superiors. The soldier sniffed at the sight of the fortress.
"Its as if they have no defenses at all," he laughed. "Maybe you were right, Sir. Maybe we should just knock!"
They were in a large courtyard of stone. A garrison of Gothans stood before them, armed and sullen, flanked by the remains of their cavalry. The men of the Walled City made no pretense at defense. They simply waited. Vorto leaned over to whisper in Kyes ear.
"Kye," he said softly. "What is this?"
Colonel Kye shrugged, clearly puzzled by the mob. "I dont know. Surrender?"
Vorto put up a hand to halt his column. The order echoed down the line. Almost in unison the armored snake came to a stop. Vorto looked around uneasily. A trap was his first instinct, but he saw nothing to indicate aggression, not even the smallest movement. He eyed the Gothan soldiers standing guard around the fortress. They hadnt lowered their swords, yet the archers made no attempt to notch new shafts.
"Now Im curious," quipped Vorto.
"You there!" called Kye across the courtyard. "Is this surrender?"
Still the Gothans said nothing. They were fifty yards away at least, and Vorto wondered if they had heard the question over the wind.
"My God," grumbled Vorto. "They surrender as poorly as they fight."
And then the spiked gate of Lokkens castle began drawing upwards. The Gothan guardians parted like waves, revealing the murky insides of the keep. Vorto and Kye both strained to see past the gathering snow. A small figure emerged from the darkness. Thinking it was the duke, Vortos heart leapt with excitement. But then he saw the crimson uniform of the Gothan military and knew the man wasnt Lokken. This soldier was old, far older than the duke, and slightly stooped. He walked past the guardians of the fortress without regard, heading straight for Vorto and his army.
"Whats this?" asked Vorto. He drew himself erect, then handed his battle axe to Kye. "Who are you?" he demanded of the soldier. "And what business have you with me?"
Without a bow or any ceremony, the soldier stopped mere feet from the general of Nar.
"You are Vorto?" he asked pointedly.
"Old man, I asked you a question," warned Vorto. "Do you speak for Lokken?"
"I speak for the duke, yes," replied the soldier. "I am Larius, Counselor-at-Arms for the Walled City. You are Vorto, are you not?"
Vorto smiled. "I am your master and lord high executioner, dog. Servant of Heaven and Bishop Herrith." The general glared down hard. "Where is your duke?"
"The duke awaits you in his throne room," said Larius. "I am to take you there."
"A personal invitation? Oh, how gracious. I accept, Gothan. Take me to the pig."
Colonel Kye cleared his throat. "General . . ."
"Be fearless, Kye," said Vorto. "We are in Gods hands. Counselor, lead on. Kye, you come with me."
Larius of Goth made a disdainful face but said nothing more. He turned his back on the legions and headed again for the fortress gates. Vorto followed, as did Kye, with the ten soldiers that shadowed the general everywhere in tow. When they reached the gates, Vorto and his entourage dismounted, handing their horses off to the Naren infantry. The soldiers of Goth eyed them balefully. Vorto watched Larius disappear into the fortress. Inside, the great hall was lit with torches and lined with perfectly positioned soldiers, all in uniforms of bright crimson. They had their swords drawn and held erect at their sides, so that they looked more like toys than things of flesh. Vorto hesitated at the threshold.
Larius paused to regard him.
"Come, General," ordered the soldier impatiently. "They wont hurt you. They have their orders."
Vorto stepped unflinchingly into the hall, spurred on the by insult. Colonel Kye was equally deliberate. At the far end of the hall was a set of open doors. Larius led the intruders through the hall, and when he reached the doors he stepped aside.
"The duke," he said.
Vorto stepped into the room. At the other end of the expansive chamber he saw Lokken, sitting upon his modest throne. At his right hand was the austerely beautiful Kareena. Her eyes flashed when she glimpsed the general. At the feet of the Duchess were two small girls, Lokkens daughters, looking stricken and confused. The duke himself seemed surprisingly composed. There were no guardians in the chamber, no soldiers of any kind. Only Lokken and his brood. Vorto strode noisily into the chamber, his armor dripping Gothan blood. When he came to the small dais he paused, choked up saliva, and spit the wad in Lokkens tranquil face. With perfect composure, Duke Lokken wiped the spittle away.
"So," grated Vorto. "This is where the king sits, eh?"
Lokken said nothing.
"Oh, you treacherous thing. You are abhorrent in the eyes of God! How is it you dare defy the will of Heaven?"
Still the duke was silent.
"Say something, you arrogant maggot!"
But it was Kareena who responded. She lunged at Vorto, screaming, her nails raking his face. Vorto hissed and caught her arm, twisting it and driving her to her knees. His other hand slapped her face, splitting her lip.
"No!" cried Lokken, leaping from his throne. He grabbed his wife and drew her into his arms.
"Control your woman, Lokken," warned Vorto, "or I will take her back with me and teach her manners myself."
"Dont you touch her!" Lokken seethed. He rose to his feet and faced the towering General. "Youre here for me, butcher. Me alone."
Suddenly Vorto understood. "Is that why you surrender? To spare your family, dog?"
Lokken grimaced. "Yes. Spare them, and no one else dies today. I can kill you now just with a word, Vorto. But I wont. Not if you agree to spare my kin."
"It is for Heaven to judge, not I."
"Spare them," Lokken begged, "and you can walk out of here alive. With your men."
Vortos eyes narrowed. "Threats from a traitor. How horrible to hear."
"Im no traitor," said Lokken. "I am loyal to our Emperor and his memory. Youre the usurper, Vorto. You and your bishop. Call it what you will, but I fly the flag of Nar."
"Oh, yes," crooned Vorto. "The flag. Youre keen on flags, arent you Lokken?" Vorto turned to his waiting men. "Take him," he ordered. "The females, too."
At once his waiting legionnaires seized the royal family of Goth, dragging them after Vorto who was exiting the chamber.
"Not my family!" the duke cried as the men took hold of him. "God, not them!"
"God doesnt hear you," said Vorto over his shoulder.
"Not them, please!"
"Not them," agreed Vorto. Outside the chamber he found the worried Larius again. The man looked about to faint. "Counselor, your master has something to tell you."
"Duke Lokken?" gasped Larius.
"Tell him, Lokken. About our agreement . . ."
Lokken looked relieved. He tried shrugging off the grasp of the soldiers, but they wouldnt yield. All the Gothan guardians watched their duke, their jaws slack. Duchess Kareena was in tears, as were her two children.
"Safe passage," said Lokken at last. "For all of them. If they let my family live, all of you will let them go. Promise me, Larius."
"My Duke . . ."
"Promise him," urged Vorto. "Or they all die right now. And even if you kill us, my legion will burn Goth to the ground."
"My Duke, its your death . . ." Larius begged. "Dont make me do this."
Duke Lokken finally shook off his captors. When they tried to seize him again, Vorto put up a hand to stop them. He let the duke go to his man and clasp his hands firmly on the soldiers shoulders.
"I die," said the duke. "You hear me? I die. And no one else after me. Now promise me, my friend. Safe passage for these Naren beasts. Its my last order. Will you carry it out?"
Larius expression collapsed. "I will, my Duke. My . . . friend."
"No archers, no cavalry," pressed Vorto. "Nothing til we reach the gate, old man. Is that understood?"
"Aye," said Larius. "I hear you, Naren."
"Good for you." Vorto smiled sharply. "Then, to the tower. I want to see these flags of yours up close, Lokken. Take us there. Now."
Once again the soldiers tried to take hold of him, and once again the duke shrugged them off.
"I wont drag you if theres no need," said Vorto. "Or your bitches. Lets go."
Lokken took hold of his young wifes hand. "My love," he choked. "Im so sorry I did this to you." He went down to his knees to his crying daughters, who looked to Vorto like twins of no more than four. The children didnt seem to know what was happening. He kissed them both on the forehead, wiped away their confused tears, then stood to face his executioner.
"Take us to your flags," Vorto ordered. "Your family can watch you die, or they can wait here. I dont care which."
Kareena would not let go of her husband. "I want to be with you," she pleaded.
"No." The dukes voice was icy. He spared her one last kissone last, long lookthen went down the corridor. Vorto and his men followed. Larius tried to follow to, but Kye kicked at him.
"Just the duke," snarled the colonel.
With a bravado that impressed Vorto, Duke Lokken never wavered. He led them directly to a spiral staircase within a tower of gray granite, a dark place lit with sconces which sent up an oily smoke. As they disappeared into the spire, Duchess Kareena uttered a wailing, agonized sob. But Lokken remained as unbending as steel. Without a word he guided the Narens up the stairs. When he came to the top of the tower he pushed open the door and let an icy breeze blow in.
They were atop the tallest spire in the city, with all of Goth burning at their feet. Vorto stepped out onto the roof. In the center was the flag pole that had caused them all such grief. And at the top of the pole, hideously aglow in the coming dawn, were the two offending flags of Goth. The old flag of Nar made Vorto shudder with disgust. He stared at it for a long moment, then bowed his head and prayed.
"Dear God, Lord of all things, give me strength to destroy this travesty. God of mercy and light, be with us, your servants."
No one else prayed with Vorto, but all except Lokken inclined their heads. When he was done praying, Vorto sighed and looked at the duke.
"I give you one chance to redeem yourself, Lokken. Here and now, will you renounce the Black Renaissance? Will you accept Heaven as your salvation? Your lord Biagio is a sodomite and a devil. He lies with men and defies the church of Nar. For your soul, Lokken, renounce him and his works."
Lokken stared at Vorto, and then the duke was laughing, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Mad," he declared. "You are truly mad. Oh, I pity you, Vorto. I pity all of Nar. Youre under a spell, cant you see? Youve fallen for a myth."
"God and Hell are no myths," said Vorto. "Save yourself from the eternal burning. Renounce Biagio so your soul may rest."
The duke was resolute. "If there is a Hell, then I would gladly burn there. Better that than to grovel to Herriths church."
It was the answer Vorto expected. "So be it." He went to the flag pole, undid the knots, and quickly lowered the flags. Lions Blood came down first, and this the general crumpled into a ball and threw off the ledge. Taken by the wind, the crimson standard of Goth drifted out of sight. Vorto went back to the pole and cut down the Black Flag. It was the most unremarkable standard in the Empire, nothing more than a field of black fabric, but it held generations of evil in its stitching.
"Bind him," the general ordered. At once his soldiers cut off lengths of rope and tethered the dukes wrists behind his back. As they worked Vorto mumbled over the Black Flag, praying in High Naren to exorcise its unholy powers. Then he grabbed hold of the flag and tore it in two. Lokken watched the destruction, unmoved. Vorto stuffed the two halves in the dukes lapel.
"You want to fly your flags, Duke? You want to defy Heaven? Then fly your damnable flags!"
Colonel Kye pushed the bound Lokken toward the flag pole. Two more soldiers made a noose of the rope and looped it around Lokkens neck. They gave it a quick jerk to tighten it, bringing the duke to his toes.
"No regrets, Lokken?" taunted Vorto. "None at all? Theres still time, demon. But the clock is ticking fast away. Tick tock, tick tock . . ."
"Damn you and your bishop both, butcher. I will see you in your Hell!"
"Yes, yes," agreed Vorto. With a wave of his hand he ordered the legionnaires to tighten the rope. Lokkens pale eyes protruded from their sockets and his tongue darted out for air. He held his breath halfway to the top before letting out a belching cry. His feet kicked the rest of the way, and when at last he reached the top, Duke Lokken of Goth was dead. Vorto looked up at him, satisfied. Now all the Walled City could see his folly.
"God have mercy on you," said the general quietly. But it was no less than the heretic deserved. Someday, Vorto pledged, he would do the same to Biagio, and then at last Nar would be free of its dynasty of tyrants.
Weary to the bone, General Vorto turned to his loyal Colonel. "Kye, come. There is still work to do."
Vorto left the rooftop first, eager to be gone from the dead dukes bulging gaze.
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