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Story #7: Pushed To The Edge

For fifteen years invaders from the distant land of Kallis have held Alsalam in servitude to their army, but they've brought peace and prosperity as well. When a murderous and enslaving change in command comes down from the eastern King, Alsalam must use the military knowledge he's learned from them not only to defend himself, but all the tribes of his homeland.

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Part One, August 3, 2010

Alsalam sheathed his sword, body still heaving in labored breaths from his swordplay. The duel was not won, but when General Brannis summoned, it was best not to delay in responding. After fifteen years of servitude, Alsalam had earned some minor freedoms, but he always walked with careful steps.

Alsalam dismissed the two men facing him with a salute and they sheathed blades of their own. They were getting better with the weapon, at one point he'd thought they might even win this time. He felt a great deal of pride at that.

"You are dismissed. Zukawa, give the men two hours rest." Alsalam said. They bowed and left without question or comment.

There was something to this military obedience from the east. If his people had possessed such discipline before the invaders from Kallis had arrived, they would not have been conquered so easily. Alsalam approached the gate separating his troops from those of the proper army.

The guards at the gate opened it to let him through. One nodded his head in recognition toward Alsalam and he returned the gesture. Many of these men he'd grown to like over the years. He may be no more than a slave to most eyes, but there was an understanding among these troops that rose above society, and he had earned some measure of respect in their eyes.

The structural contrast of the two camps was as striking as the contrasting skin colors of the troops they housed. His slave camp was a collection of large tents surrounded on all sides by a tall wooden fence. The army proper was made up of numerous wooden cabins and buildings. All of the important structures were found in the middle of the camp, surrounded by the protection of soldiers.

General Brannis had a grand two story structure as his command center. The guards posted outside didn't move at his approach, their expressions never changed. Alsalam didn't recognize the four men, which surprised him. They stood more erect than Brannis' usual guards and it made them seem more focused. If they were sending more troops, that could be bad for Alsalam's people.

The Kalish people who had invaded didn't just bring destruction. They may have taken men for their army, but they paid them for it, and paid well. Their military was a force of stability that the warring tribes had not seen in decades or more. Was life worse under these conquering people?

Alsalam had earned the respect of the men in his camp, they had come to trust his training, trust his words of encouragement. These were men from tribes that had fought for a long, long time. And it was General Brannis that given him the command and brought them together. Alsalam wasn't sure that was all bad. Ever more significant, many of the surrounding tribes now were richer, safer, and more productive after a decade of peace in the region.

Alsalam stepped up and knocked hard on the door. The latch wasn't down on the inside and it opened at the pressure from his hand. Inside, the general sat at his desk, but there were also other men in the room. One of those men was speaking as the door opened, anger hot in his words. He obviously hadn't heard the knock or the door opening.

"Lord Suleth is dead, Brannis. Commands come from a different source now, and Lord Mallic Pince has very different objectives." The room's stares finally made the speaker turn to see Alsalam standing in the doorway. The man glared angrily at the interruption.

"Alsalam, thank you for coming, gentlemen if you'll excuse me, I warned you that I had a meeting when you arrived." There was an edge to the general's words. Whoever these men were, they obviously made the man unhappy.

The man who had spoken when Alsalam arrived looked back, and for a minute he thought the man might actually growl at the General. Alsalam noticed that both men wore the same uniform, which made this man another general. Why would they have sent him? Alsalam didn't like the reasons that came to mind.

When the men moved to file out of the room Alsalam moved to the side and bowed respectfully. The angry man laughed and said, "at least they know to show deference. Perhaps your time here wasn't a total waste, Brannis" It took everything inside him to push down any reaction. Just keep his head down, that would be best. The door closed behind the men with a loud crack.

Alsalam turned to regard General Brannis. The man looked tired. What had been going on these last few days? He'd heard that more support had arrived by boat, but this had the feel of a changing command. Hadn't the man said that the High Lord was dead? That meant this new man, Mallic Pince was in charge.

"Welcome, Alsalam, I didn't mean for you to have to see that. The man should have sent a messenger at the very least. You're probably wondering what it all means?" Brannis said.

"That man must be general under Lord Mallic Pince," Alsalam reasoned. General Brannis smiled and some of the fatigue left his eyes. He stood and walked toward Alsalam, putting a hand on his shoulder.

"Come, let's sit. How long have you been with us Alsalam?" Brannis said.

"Fifteen years, General."

"Fifteen years," the man repeated with a sigh. "All these long years we've kept the peace, established trade. We've made this land prosperous haven't we, Alsalam?"

"You more so than me," he said deferentially.

"Come now, Alsalam, you can't believe that. Your people would never have worked with me without you." They both stopped walking and sat on chairs in the corner. "You would have gone far in Kallis," Brannis laughed softly. "Perhaps you would already outrank me even."

What had this man asked him here for? He had never been so open or familiar before. Certainly he had never been called friend.

"How has Zukawa's training proceeded?" General Brannis asked.

"It is well, Sir. He understands after one telling. He is trustworthy should anything happen to me."

"I hope you are right, Alsalam, He'll be tested sooner than I planned."

Alsalam was suddenly alarmed, was that a threat? "Sir, have I done something wrong?"

"No, no, nothing like that. I'm relieving you of your command, Alsalam." The general said.

"I can't, General, my men. Those men need me."

"Did you lie to me about Zukawa's progress then?"

Alsalam shook his head fiercely, Zukawa was a good man. "No, I did not lie."

"Then your men will be fine. You have been a good officer, Alsalam. You never questioned your position, you accepted and you fought to make things better for everyone around you. You have all the qualities of a good military leader, and more heart than most. It's time to have some freedom and time with your family." General Brannis paused and looked unsure if he should continue.

"Things are going to be changing soon, I fear. High Lord Pince is a despicable man, he poisoned my Lord, or he had it done anyway. That man's method has never been to dirty his hands personally." The general spat the words.

"Why do you tell me this?" He asked cautiously. General Brannis turned and met his eyes, his expression became very serious.

"I tell you, Alsalam, because there is no one else to tell. I tell you because you may be the only one who can protect your people soon." Alsalam's heart sank as the general paused. "Mallic Pince was sent here because our home is facing a great war. He's here to ravage these lands for natural resources. Taxes, government takeover, I don't know what their methods will be, or how brutal. I fear fifteen years of work could be destroyed in less than one, but then that always seems to be the way of it." He trailed off again, Alsalam wondered what destruction he'd seen.

"I'll be shipped home soon, most likely put into the service of another Lord or Lady, but I can do this one thing as revenge for this plot, I do this one thing for my Lord's death, for all the progress and peace that we created. Your people will not be ready to face what is coming, Alsalam. We've shown them peace and prosperity, but I fear it will be replaced with fear and death. There is only one thing I can give them, and that is you. You must be a leader now more than ever."

It had been just over five years that Alsalam had been singled out by General Brannis, personally trained and put in charge of others. Had he been thinking about these events for that long? "I will do my best, General." His commander relaxed visibly at the words.

This was all too much for Alsalam to take in at once. It wasn't long after agreeing that he was heading home, bags packed and slung over one shoulder, to his old village of Jalsalam, named for his own great grandfather who founded it.

He was free. Free to see his wife and daughter without escort, without guards. How good it would be to be home at last. But it sounded like he wasn't going home to rest. His work now would be more important than ever.

Part Two, August 10, 2010

Jalsalam came into view over a tall hill, one of hundreds across the large Mowarro plains he'd traveled these last three days. The village was a welcome sight at the base of Mount Bassavi. Even from this distance he wondered if it was still just a village. It had surely doubled in size, if not more.

The closer he got Alsalam expected to see the bustle of activity he'd grown to love in the expanded village. The growth was partly because of the stability in the region, and partly because he had acquired something of a reputation. Yet there wasn't anyone in sight. Windows were covered by cloth, doors were shut tight. It gave an eerie impression of a fabled haunted village. It certainly should more alive at this time of day.

Alsalam's home was no less quiet. As he approached he noticed the fresh tracks of horses and a carriage. Closer inspection showed they weren't just fresh, but perhaps not even ten minutes old. Had General Brannis changed his mind? But that didn't make sense, why would they have left without him?

Something was wrong. Had the village been abandoned? Had they been enslaved? Part of him didn't want to see what was inside his home, but it was up to him to protect his family. There was no running away.

Alsalam pushed open the wooden door of his hut to see his family crouched together against the back wall. When they saw it was him Alsalam noticed a mix of emotions looking back at him: relief, fear, and even anger. What had happened here? Then he noticed his daughter wasn't present.

"Jarabi, my heart, what has happened here? Where is Nigani?"

His wife rose and rushed to throw her arms around him, fresh tears filling her eyes. "They took her, Alsalam. Men came for you; they accused us of hiding you. They took her and said it was punishment for our betrayal." Jarabi laid her head on his chest.

He thought of the tracks and a deep rage filled him. A rage he had never felt before. Jarabi stepped back from him instinctively. She saw the change and everyone else in the room did as well. Well they would find he wasn't quite the man they knew so many years ago.

"They didn't leave very long ago, my heart. Where have they taken her? Did they say?" His wife shook her head and shrugged. "Do not worry, I will find these men. I will bring her back." He turned to leave again.

Jarabi cried out in alarm and put a hand around his arm. "No, they will kill you too!" He looked back, hand falling to his sword by reflex as he thought of who would be killed today, and she let go of his arm.

"How many were there, did you see?" He asked. It was his nephew Dakkswa that answered.

"I was watching from my home, Uncle, there were four of them. They," he paused and held back tears before continuing, "they took my wife as well. Please, bring her home to me."

Alsalam approached the youth and knelt down by his side, hands falling on his nephew's shoulders. "These men will pay, Dakkswa," he said, "if she still lives I will save her." He turned to leave the hut. He regretted how much he had scared his own family. What did they think of Alsalam the soldier? Should he be staying to protect them instead?

Worse still, after today there would be no going back. What he was about to do would not be forgiven by this new ruler, Lord Pince. This would be an act of rebellion. He supposed that was why he came home, but exactly what that meant made it all a bit more real.

The tracks from the carriage were easy enough to follow. No other carriages came through here. Whoever had kidnapped the women apparently had not intended to leave the village at all. The tracks led to a hut at the very back of Jalsalam, against the slopes leading up the mountain.

Four was an accurate count. As expected, that meant there were three guards protecting whoever the real enemy was. This wasn't the soldier's fault, they were only doing their duty. But that wasn't true. Alsalam knew he would never accept what was going on in there, even as a soldier. These men were no better than the one inside that hut.

Three-to-one odds were not something Alsalam wanted to tempt. That meant an open charge was out of the question. He crept between huts near the one the carriage was stopped in front of. Two of the guards stood there, and another was guarding from the back.

With a quiet step he came around the back corner of the hut next to the guard. A long knife never made a sound as it slipped from its sheathe. The knife was as old as this village. It had been discovered here when they founded Jalsalam.

The blade was hundreds of years old, but it still looked newly forged. The metal used had never been found except as the handful of blades. There had been a spear tip, an arrow head, and the blades of a dagger and sword. The first two had been reproduced in other forms, mostly rock from the mountain.

Luckily, General Brannis had never realized the importance of that. Although, neither had Alsalam until being in the Kallis military. The importance of such kinds of metal hadn't occurred to him before that.

When Alsalam was as close as he dared, his arm came back and he threw his knife with great force. The soldier tried to scream in his last moments, but the weapon had flown true into the man's throat. He peaked around the corner and ran across the gap between huts. He wiped the bloodied dagger on the dead soldier and sheathed it again.

He took a few deep breaths and cleared his mind of everything. His shoulders rolled in circles to stretch, preparing for combat. There was no quiet way to kill these two. His eyes opened with a determined calm and he walked around the corner, drawing his sword.

The first guard turned and saw him approach with a sword. The man laughed and said, "Now where did you find that? You best put that down before you cut yourself."

Alsalam took on an offensive stance and rushed forward. The man gasped in shock and tried to pull his own sword, but he was dead before it was all the way out. The other guard called out a warning and drew his sword, all mockery gone from his face.

They faced off and began to circle one another. Steps falling in synchronized steps, they watched each other. Alsalam needed time for the man inside to come out. It would be too dangerous if he went inside. When he heard boots on wood, Alsalam attacked. The man was not bad with a sword, but he wasn't used to Alsalam's style. The soldiers of Kallis all used the same two-handed long swords.

His opponent was on the defensive from the start. Their swords clashed together again and again but the soldier just didn't have Alsalam's speed or strength. With a fluid sweep he knocked the man's sword to the side and then thrust through his chest. The man died as the door to the hut was flung open.

Alsalam recognized the man who came out. He'd been one of the men in the room when the new general had spoken with Brannis, his uniform marked him as a captain. The man recognized Alsalam as well as he took in the dead guards. Any hope that the sight would put him off was dashed when the man grinned at him.

"I thought this might get your attention." The man said.

"These people were not hiding me, Captain. I arrived less than an hour ago. I have no horse to carry me." The fool of a man actually paused at that, considering. He nodded after a moment but shrugged. "Well, it doesn't matter now does it?" He grinned again and drew his sword, taking an attacking stance.

There was no circling this man, no sizing each other up. Alsalam held his rage at bay, but just barely. His muscles were taught and ready to strike. If the captain of their army was like this, then Brannis must have been right about Lord Pince as well. These were not men that they could work with.

The man moved like lightning as he came for Alsalam. With an effort he knocked the blade aside but it was approaching again as fast. He moved backward with the speed of the captain's strikes. Alsalam had never trained against anyone so skilled and he felt a little foolish.

He began to notice the man's strain at recovering those deflected blows though. The man was not used to fighting someone as strong as Alsalam, he realized. His stomped down his nerves and focused his blocks on hard strikes. The captain's eyes widened slightly as Alsalam took the offense. His muscles tightened on his sword and he drew the knife at his waist.

The two men moved in a dance of terrible violence. Finally Alsalam found his opening. The man thrust, thinking he had the kill. But Alsalam's knife came up to deflect the blow as his sword arm fell upon the captain's neck. The knife didn't deflect the thrust though; it simply sliced right through it!

The captain stared in open shock as his sword, no longer with a pointed end, stabbed into Alsalam's side. It was the stare of a dying man, for Alsalam's sword had landed true and sliced a deep, diagonal gash across the man's chest.

As the captain died Alsalam found he couldn't hold himself up any longer. He fell to his knees and pain wracked his side where he'd been stabbed. The blow had lost much of its force, and the tip of the sword probably saved his life, but it still bled badly. His vision began to blur.

Movement caught the corner of his eye as he fell onto his side. It was his daughter, Nigani, standing in the door to the hut. He smiled knowing she was alive, but his smile slipped away at the terror in her eyes.

Would everyone he knows think different of him now? Was everyone going to afraid of what he had become? This was who he was now, who he had to be. Even if it meant he would be alone.

"I'm sorry," he said to her, hoping she could hear. Then he lost consciousness.

Part Three, August 24, 2010

Pain shot through Alsalam's side and he woke with a gasp. Still in shock, he tried to sit up but he didn't have the strength and was hit with another wave of pain for his effort. His head fell back onto a soft pillow.

His wife was there within moments with a cool, wet cloth. Jarabi gave him a worried smile as she wiped away the sweat forming on his brow. Even scared she was a very beautiful woman. This certainly wasn't the homecoming he'd prayed for all these years.

"How long have I slept?" He asked.

"Only a few hours, star of my sky, not long enough." Jarabi's tone said that she planned to stay by his side to ensure more rest. She laid a hand softly on his chest. "I thank the gods that you woke at all. Elder Healer said you would recover, but you lost a great deal of blood. You will be weak for a few days."

"Jarabi, what of the girls?"

"They are alive, and very grateful for you I imagine. The man did not hurt our Nigani more than a few bruises. Her real hurt is from being forced to watch'" Jarabi's eyes lowered to the ground and she closed her mouth without continuing.

"Dakkswa's bride, what did he do to her?" Even Alsalam could hear the anger in his question. He saw tears form in her eyes. His side burned when he tried to move to comfort her.

"It is enough to say she lives, my star. If she wishes to tell you more that is her choice and you should respect it." Jarabi said decisively.

Alsalam nodded and didn't press her further. He felt great admiration for Jarabi already. He was allowed to visit her from time to time, but she was always so guarded with her emotions. Now he saw what strength she'd found over the years.

He put his hand on hers and squeezed. There would be retaliation for the men he killed. Had he only brought death home with him? There hadn't been time to consider his actions. The warrior in him had taken control.

At the time, he'd assumed that anyone would do the same given the circumstances, but nobody else had. Word had obviously spread about the abduction or the streets wouldn't have been empty. The village had known, and they'd hid in their homes and shops. Alsalam didn't know if he should be angry or sympathetic.

Raised voices in the other room made him open his eyes again. Jarabi was looking back at the curtain obstructing the view from the other room. She turned back to look at him. "That is Dakkswa and Mavis. They should know better than to wake you."

Had he really dozed off again? Jarabi left and the voices quieted at once. Alsalam smiled at the thought of their similarities. Maybe she wasn't a soldier, but she certainly led this family. It had been so long since they spent any length of time with each other, but he knew already she was still woman he'd married.

The curtain opened and a woman he'd never seen stood in the entryway. He assumed it must be Dakkswa's bride, Mavis. "You will not tell me that I cannot speak with him!" The stranger said sharply, but not to Jarabi like he expected. Instead she said it to her own husband. Alsalam could see Dakkswa standing in the background with an angry expression.

Mavis entered the room with the other two on her heels. He could tell that Jarabi had no problem letting the younger woman in. Perhaps she felt Mavis earned the right to speak with the man that rescued her.

"Alsalam, I owe you my life. I know I can't thank you enough for what you did, but I needed to say it." Mavis said. "How are you feeling? I admit I found it hard to believe when they said you would survive. I'm' Well I'm sorry. You came for us and you were the one who got hurt." She hid tearing eyes in her hands.

"It could be said I was the reason you were taken in the first place." Alsalam pointed out.

"No, that man was the reason we were taken. That is all that matters." She said. Alsalam met her eyes. They were fierce but she looked away embarrassed. Alsalam hated what had happened to this woman, she was too young.

"Jarabi, could I have a minute alone with him?" Mavis asked without turning around. Dakkswa tried to protest, but Jarabi had him out of the room in a hurry.

"Alsalam, I can't imagine what pain you must be in, but I need to ask you something." She paused and took a deep breath. "Your family has been there for me since I came to this village as a girl. My village was attacked when I was eight, the Gingawi tribe killed everyone and burned the village to the ground. I was out filling water buckets when it happened. If anyone else survived I never knew."

"Someone will eventually notice these men you killed are missing. You were a soldier for them. You must know more of them than we do. How many will come when they realize what we've done here today?"

Alsalam had been thinking about that as well. "It won't be a small force, but they won't expect much of a resistance, so it likely will not be large either."

"We don't have enough able warriors in the village to stand up to them." Mavis said. Alsalam looked up at her with a new curiosity. She had a sharp mind for strategy.

"I don't know how much I can do about that in my condition. I'm afraid I haven't come up with anything yet." Alsalam said.

Mavis put a hand on his shoulder and smiled nervously. "If you were not stuck in this bed, then what would you do?"

That was a question Alsalam could answer. He'd spent most of his walk home thinking about what he could do to prepare his people for the coming war. So far none of it had gone as he'd expected.

"I would send the fastest messengers to friendly villages nearby. Many know me around here and many have shown loyalty. The first step would be to boost our numbers. Each of their soldiers is worth two or even three of our own on the battle field. They are efficient and tough with better weapons."

"And then what would you do?" She prodded.

"The town will need defenses. The mountain is a good defense in itself protecting our backs, but if we are outnumbered it will only make it more difficult to escape."

"What are our best defenses against them?"

This was something he'd thought a lot about over the years. Cooperation was the most important difference between the Kallish armies and their own. His people were no strangers to combat with all the tribal wars spanning many centuries, but they had no experience working together as a solid unit.

"Spear and bow are the best weapons we have. They will be over confident and expect to overrun the village. Close combat and easy kills will be the aim, a fast strike. Maintaining a good distance is our best bet. It has been years since they've had to fight our tribes. They won't be as used to our spears anymore."

He noticed the girl was studying him while she listened. She had looked timid and scared upon arrival, but all that was gone. It occurred to him that he was talking to someone with no military training. "That was probably more than you were asking. I apologize for rambling on." He said.

"There is nothing to be sorry about. I will have messengers sent out within the hour. Warriors will be more difficult. We have good fighters but they are afraid the Kallish armies. Word is already spreading about how you killed four of them though, that should help." Mavis paused and smiled at the surprised expression he knew he must have. "I'll make them pay for what they did to me, Alsalam. I need you to do that. And you need someone not bound to a bed to do what needs to be done."

She was certainly right about both things. Could he really build an army when he couldn't even sit up? It wouldn't be easy. Then again, at the moment he didn't have much choice in the matter.

Part Four, September 7, 2010

Sitting on a bench in the rich, red Affraki dirt, Alsalam watched as the sparring partners circled each other. He hated that he was too weak to stand and watch. When it looked as if his healing was complete, the wounds and blood loss had brought on a terrible fever. The wounds were closing properly but the fever still made his body too weak for much activity beyond walking, and even that was strained. Jarabi hadn't wanted him out of bed at all, but time was too precious for him to be bedridden now.

Mavis had done remarkably well giving out orders in his absence. She held a good reputation with the others, strong and fair, and her assault had given her a fierce edge that made most step lightly. Or perhaps she'd had that all along, Alsalam couldn't be sure.

Mavis circled a broad-shouldered opponent who held a long spear with ease. At Alsalam's instruction, she wielded a wooden longsword tight in both hands. The shape of it mimicked the one Alsalam had brought home. A lacking confidence still showed in the whites of her knuckles.

"Relax your grip." Alsalam said and she reacted in an instant.

He'd seen Mavis duel other men of the village with a spear and she was more than just skilled. She had a natural talent in combat, an awareness and level-headed focus that many lacked. Alsalam had the practice sword made because he knew she would pick it up quickly, and because it would surprise her enemies. Kallish women were not trained in combat like his people were. Her size added a level of speed he hadn't considered with the blade as well.

One of the first things he'd done since waking was have the old discovered sword blade that matched his knife fit with a good, sturdy grip. How long had that blade hung in the ceremonial tent? After seeing just how easily his knife cut through one of the Kallish blades, he knew what advantage he would have with a sword to match. Whether or not he would be strong enough to wield it for the coming battle was another matter altogether.

Alsalam knew the village was as ready as it could be on such short notice. There were no new tents set up, but the population of the village had grown a great deal. Mavis's runners turned out great numbers; many other tribes had come to Jalsalam's aid. He hadn't expected so many able warriors at his command. What was more, the soldiers, his soldiers, readily adapted their concept of battle to Alsalam's views.

He watched Mavis's eyes and could tell the time for striking had finally come. Her opponent saw it as well, seeing the same signs in her eyes. But before the first strike connected warning cries began to spread in succession through the village. If his planning had worked, that meant a Kallish army was still some distance off. If not, well, Alsalam didn't want to think of how close they might be in that case. Many of his troops were in a camp not far to the west. He didn't have to order for word to be sent, runners should already be on the way.

He quickly stood and his head swam almost forcing him back down. Two women standing to either side moved and positioned themselves under his arms in an instant, supporting him where he could not. He thanked them and waved back a worried crowd, hoping to alleviate the concerned soldiers.

"Help me to the platform," he said weakly to his companions. Then, a bit louder, "You know your place men, the time has come!" Men all around lifted spear and bow to the sky and chanted as they moved off in formation.

The men of Kallish did have some experience in war against his people, but they wouldn't be ready for what they faced today. After only two weeks the gathered tribes had learned to work together. To make sure that relationship stayed strong, Alsalam had made one man from each tribe commanders under himself and Mavis. He'd also let each of the men submit names to fill lower ranks among their squadron. His approval served as a reminder of who was in charge'both for the men and the commanders.

So far, his plan had worked remarkably well. Discipline was tight. Each of the tribal leaders formed a high council that was in charge of discipline for the men. Alsalam did have some concerns about what the changes could mean in the long run, but for this day at least they all had a common enemy. The trick would be to hold them all together until the rest of the Kallish armies could be dealt with. He still wasn't sure what to do after that.

The platform built for him was a simple thing. The highest hill in the village now had a wooden lookout for Alsalam and the other commanders. Because the terrain was mostly flat anyway, the platform hadn't needed much height to afford a sweeping view.

Jalsalam had changed drastically in only two weeks. A gently sloping, deep trench now spread out in the shape of a waning moon, each tip touching the mountain rising high behind him. He had gotten the idea from Kallish history, ironically enough, from one of General Brannis's books.

A new wooden city wall had been constructed as well. Not that it would do them much good should the enemy reach it. There was very little supporting it. Hopefully it wouldn't be a problem since it was just for show anyway. The Kallish troops must perceive them as weak for his place to work. A shoddy gate would help support that image.

It was too bad Mavis wouldn't stand by his side for this battle. He understood her wanting to take part though. He wanted the same thing, and likely would if standing didn't prove such a difficulty. A leader shouldn't have to sit back and watch something like this.

The leaders of all five tribes that came to their aid approached one after another. For the sake of pride none would approach with another leader. It was dangerous water building these men up as leaders. Any one of them might already be wondering what he or she could do with such disciplined power. For now at least they seemed impressed with his plan. It was his knowledge that protected him and kept him in charge.

Squad by squad the soldiers fell into their positions. Many stayed out of sight hoping not to tip off the enemy to their real numbers. Alsalam couldn't help but feel proud as he looked over the different groups of men. The archers waited with bows at rest, soldiers lined up in even rows behind the gates. Affraki people had never worked together like this to his knowledge, at least not five tribes.

That was the one thing General Brannis had never understood. His people were slow to learn the sword styles of the Kallish army. Had he left them with their native weapons, their training would have proved much more beneficial. Lucky for him, that wasn't the case.

He thought about Zukawa and wondered if all those men were still alive and well. Would Lord Pince react to this battle by hurting the ones already locked up? He would have to rescue them soon. Assuming he could save these people first.

The faint rhythmic sound of rumbling drums marked the approach of their enemy.

Part Five, September 14, 2010

General Mallic Pince approached the little village of Jalsalam with a growing anticipation. The fact that it shared the name of his enemy would make this day so much more an example, so much more a treat. In some ways this man Alsalam had done him a favor, killing an increasingly rebellious captain of his. But that didn't mean he could let the act stand.

Perhaps Alsalam hadn't killed the man at all. If that was the case he'd make sure the good captain met a grisly fate in the oncoming battle. He'd be just another casualty in the heat of battle.

Mallic glanced over his shoulder at the man riding four horses back. Jackson Brannis wore a stoic expression despite his bound hands. It was disappointing that the man showed no signs of worry for this friend of his. Disgraceful as that was. Mallic spat reflexively and turned back to the approaching village.

General Pince ordered his men to halt as they approached a wide sloping trench. He recognized it of course, and fought down the annoyed urge to look back to Brannis again. So the man had even let Alsalam study their war books. Well it wasn't going to ruin his day.

Prepared or not their defenses were weak and only partially complete. They had managed to gather enough wood in this desolate land to build part of a wall, but how they expected that feeble thing to keep anyone out made no sense. Mallic almost felt disappointed. He'd come hoping for, at the very least, an interesting fight. This would be over before noon.

"Men, dismount and group!" Mallic called out, the command was repeated and carried down the line. Not everyone rode a horse as they were a rare commodity here, but many had. The general smiled as he watched from atop his mount, the men efficiently and quietly forming into ranks for a charge. Adolescent boys gathered the reins of horses and moved them to the back of the company to be tied to supply carts.

Mallic had held onto some hope that this could be a cavalry charge, but the enemy archers were too numerous. He simply couldn't risk losing that many horses. He pulled a looking glass from his saddle and held it to his eye. He found Alsalam standing with a handful of men. His expression seemed to mimic his own truth-be-told, but the faces of those around him showed what the general really wanted to see, the nerves of being outnumbered.

Mallic grinned and shouted, "On my command!"

*******

Alsalam watched as the Kallish army formed into ranks for an assault on foot. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. It was his first victory today, hopefully the first of many, but it was a small one. An assault from horseback would have made their plan a disaster from the start.

He didn't like war. It was an ugly game of chance and expectations. The men playing that game seemed to sit back and play from a safe distance. But that wasn't true. Mavis had been integral to this plan and she'd put herself in the front ranks, and in the most danger had they charged on horseback.

He tensed as the Kallish armies began their advance. They poured like a flood over his man-made slopes in worrisome numbers. He held onto his confidence though, he knew they were watching. Besides, their plan was solid and he had a formidable army as well now. It was hard to tell for sure, but he already thought he saw some of the Kallish men falling as they ran down the slope. That was Mavis's bold addition to the plan. It was risky, but it would be rewarding if it worked.

As one, he watched his archers lift arrow to bow and draw back, waiting. Once the Kallish men hit the bottom of the slope and started the rise back up his archers loosed and the uniformed soldiers fell to the ground, injured or dying. As always was the case, some of the men behind those hit fell as well, stumbling over the falling bodies.

As they drew closer Alsalam gave the signal to drop the wall and charge. The last of the Kallish men were approaching the bottom of the slope and Alsalam could finally see the dead scattered on the slope, all wore Kallis uniforms. The first part of her plan had worked. A loud horn sounded, it was loud enough to carry far across the battlefield, signaling phase two of her plan. Hundreds of figures rose from the ground itself, faces painted red and clothes blending into the dark dirt. Each held a spear and charged the back line of the Kallish troops.

*******

Mavis gritted her teeth as a thick boot stepped on her thigh. If it hurt her though, it was the doom of the man who wore it. She grabbed the man's ankle between her legs and pulled him to the ground with a quick hand. Even as he fell her knife cut across his throat preventing any shout. His wasn't the first body lying beside her.

The shield that protected her head and torso from boots was too small to protect her entire body. It had done its job well enough though. A few bruises were better than a crushed chest.

Finally the sounds of men running stopped, having passed her down the hill. She moved the shield down and saw light through the cloth she hid behind. She began a count to fifty and wondered if any of her volunteers for this duty had been killed. Those deaths would be on her hands if they never even made it to the battle.

After fifty she tossed aside the cloth and knife and lifted her spear as she rose. Around her dozens upon dozens of men and women rose the same way, dressed as ridiculously as she must look. Alsalam had said these were superstitious people and would be wary of this sort of strike. So they had painted themselves and agreed to go into battle screaming. It was more than a little embarrassing.

At the same time, she wasn't surprised he had been right. As she cried out and charged men from the back of the Kallish army'the men who felt the safest no doubt'turned in alarm. Many stared in open shock as spears ran through them. Others had more control over their fear and quickly joined the fray.

Mavis had chosen the very best for this mission. These were not frightened villagers wary of an army that was supposedly more advanced, not anymore. Their spears had the advantage of distance, and their fighting style had the advantage of speed.

Mavis squared off against three soldiers who thought surrounding her the best option. She let them. She struck first thrusting her spear forward to be deflected away, but the deflection put the shaft of her spear near the feet of the man to her right and a quick shift in her stance took those feet out from under him.

The man she had thrust toward moved to strike and she used the spear shaft to deflect the blow, the thick wood didn't even show a nick. Trained to fight unarmed as well as armed, Mavis thrust her foot forward into the man's gut and he stumbled back on to the ground in surprise and lost breath.

In an instant she turned her attention on the third man and brought the butt of her spear down hard on his hands, the man hadn't expected a strike there and was too slow to dodge. With a thwack his sword fell to the earth. He reached to grab it but the tip of her spear was faster to strike.

She spun and stabbed the man she had tripped next, running her blade through his chest just as he was finally getting to his feet. More men approached as she turned her last opponent's blade aside again. Their attacks got more and more worrisome as the battle drew on.

Mavis hadn't considered that her tactic would put her men at a slight disadvantage in battle. As more men turned back to fight them she found they had the high ground. The only thing going for her was the length of her spear. Her men began falling in greater numbers as the fight dragged on.

Yet one by one the men of Kallis fell as well. And when there was no soldier to fight, her labored breaths felt sweet. The intoxication of battle retreating away brought on pain and fatigue.

She saw that there were Kallish men running back up the slope in retreat and was surprised to see some had injured prisoners too weak to struggle. Among them was Dakkswa! Mavis ran toward him but a hand grabbed her arm. She turned angrily and saw it was Ellovo. Her arm looked like a twig in his thick fingers.

"Let go of me, they have Dakkswa!" She cried. He simply pointed up the slope in response, his grip did not loosen. She turned and saw archers lined up hoping for anyone to come into range. She turned back angry, but she wasn't fighting him anymore. Getting herself killed wouldn't help either of them.

"Look there." Ellovo said, pointing. He looked confused. A man dressed in Kallish garb was stumbling down the slope toward him. His hands were bound, but by Kallish ropes, and he had three arrows in him. The panting man had gray hair and a well-groomed beard. As he approached Mavis she saw his knees go weak and she rushed forward to catch his fall. Ellovo released his grip in an instant, seeing the same.

Part Six, October 5, 2010

Jackson Brannis watched from the corner of a large meeting tent as a thin man entered at a quick pace. The messenger had a stack of papers bundled together and held by a cord. He approached Alsalam and the other elders who sat cross-legged on the floor. Alsalam was the youngest man in the group by a considerable gap.

This tent was larger than he'd seen made before. It was just one sign of the times changing. They were changing fast for these people, and even faster for Alsalam. Already the man had become much more than he'd ever been under Brannis. The freedom to make decisions was a powerful thing, but it weighed on a soul.

Even after so short a time Brannis could see the differences in his pupil'if he could call him that. His face showed little emotion in front of all these men. That was one of the first things you learned in his shoes. People had to know you were cool and collected if they were going to follow you. It was equally matched against a dozen men near twice his age.

The closeness between Alsalam and the men from other tribes was fascinating. Alsalam did not ask for obedience. It was more a council of equals from what Brannis could tell. They obviously looked up to Alsalam, most likely because of what he knew. It made him invaluable among these men and they all knew it.

The messenger set the bundle of papers on the ground and asked permission to speak. The eldest of the men, Parrish Muhawy gave his permission. What they did in private had minor, respectful formality, but age was very important to these people in public. Something he'd had great experience with over the years.

He knew almost all of these men. In some ways better than Alsalam did. Many had spoken to him about their problems with Kallish rule. Most of them had a right to be angry. For so long he'd tried to help these people, truly he had believed that, but it was the help he assumed was needed.

Brannis watched Alsalam sitting the other tribe leaders. He could see Alsalam studying them. He had spent a long time training the man that he couldn't help but feel some pride in his behavior.

"Three more tribes have arrived. Word has spread it seems none are approaching your gathering. They have all chosen their Elders already and await their time to be summoned." The messenger said.

"New times must bring about new customs." Elder Parrish said.

"Yes, Elder."

"Do you bring more news?"

"Yes, one of the tribe's that arrived is the Karrasi." The messenger held hand to heart, his fingers made a sign of some sort. Brannis leaned forward. Whispers had begun immediately. Whoever these people were they were important.

Alsalam raised his hands to quiet everyone. "Thank you, Dallan. Please excuse us now." The room stayed silent until the messenger had gone. "If the Karrasi have arrived it is greater than us gathered here. An assembly must be called. I leave it to you all to arrange things; we've discussed what must be done. It must be seen to."

Slowly the men nodded and rose to leave. There was no bowing, no saluting, yet Brannis got the same feeling of respect that he was used to from his own troops'so different and yet so similar.

When the men were gone Mavis entered. She shot a quick glance over toward Brannis then turned away dismissively. She was less subtle than many of the others. He knew it was because she blamed him for her husband's abduction. No matter that he'd come out of that battle far worse off than most. Still, he couldn't blame her. His people took him.

"You know what they call you out there?" Mavis said with a laugh. Brannis was surprised to see Alsalam look away from the girl. He doubted that Mavis had noticed it but that was shame in his eyes. Brannis knew what it meant, but what order had he given to feel that way to his Second?

Mavis went on, not really expecting a reply. "Alsalam the Great."

"What man can live up to such expectations?" Alsalam replied, blunt as usual.

Mavis frowned at the reminder. "Have you thought about what to do when this is finally over, assuming we survive?"

"I still think it will end up in the hands of the tribes. There haven't been so many united in so very long. Every day there are fights, some to the death, despite all our efforts to stop them. Can such hatred as that of generations be dissolved in the name of freedom?"

"You will be in a position to unite them should you win this fight. A skirmish among tribes is nothing to the power they see in one great man. They have not titled any as Great since Maraquwa so many generations ago."

"You may be right, but when I am gone? What then? Maraquawa united these lands and gave us the name Affraki, true, but within decades of his death it all fell apart. New tribes, new hate, new wars' What good could it do?" Alsalam asked.

Mavis stood up proudly, the spirit of youth lit her face. Brannis hid a smile. "It would do all it has to do. It would give them a good start. It may fall apart, but you do not know that it will. That is no reason not to try."

Alsalam didn't hide his smile. "Such wisdom for one so young, perhaps it is not me the tribes should follow."

"'To be happy people need the strength of a leader,'" Mavis began, reciting from memory, but Alsalam finished the quote.

"'and the wisdom of his friends'" He said and Brannis could see him swell with pride. "I haven't thought of my grandfather's words in too long I think. Thank you, Mavis."

The girl gave a respectful nod and left. For a few minutes the two of them sat in the silence of a tent that now felt much bigger than it had moments ago. Jackson wasn't sure exactly what their relationship was now. Alsalam hadn't put a guard on him or put him in chains, even though many had demanded it. It seemed despite their sharing of power, the other Elders deferred to Alsalam in military matters. Luckily as a prisoner of war he was a military matter.

"How are you feeling, General? Please, come sit with me."

Brannis winced as he stood up his wounds still hurt a great deal though he did his best to hide it in front of others. They all had their parts to play after all. "I don't know that you can call me that anymore." He pointed out and Alsalam laughed softly.

"We may not be in your camp, General, but that doesn't change who you are."

"Then call me Brannis at least. Did you think our roles would be reversed even a month ago?"

"I'm not sure it's real even now. Does your hand still ail you?" Alsalam asked. Brannis felt at the empty gap that used to be his right arm. For a time he'd still felt the pain and disease that had spread so quickly through that arm. "Not so much any more. If only I could say the same of my other wounds."

Brannis wanted to ask him about that look he'd given Mavis, but somehow it didn't seem like the right thing to do. Alsalam hadn't discussed strategy with him yet and Brannis wondered if he ever would. The two of them discussed such things for hours on end in times past. Not exactly friends, but Brannis had hoped they would be in time.

"General, pardon, I mean to say Brannis, even Mavis says I should not trust you, but I have never told any of them that you let me go. I cannot say why I did not tell them. I'm finding it hard to separate my life with my duty. What to speak of and what must be kept to myself for a time."

Brannis felt bad for him, he'd spent a lot of time considering what would happen to Alsalam in this situation. The man had led a small force within Brannis' camp, but nothing compared to the thousands who stood behind him now. Even still, Brannis had chosen this man for a reason. He'd found no one better to lead this revolution.

"You always wondered why I spoke of the mistakes I've made." Brannis said. "You never understood why I told you mishap after mishap, but now you have to remember those stories as the lessons I meant them to be. I saw your potential early on, Aslalam. I never imagined things would turn out this way, of course, but I have no doubt in you. You must be confident."

Alsalam considered those words for a long time. Sitting in silence was something Alsalam did often, so he waited for him to work things out in his own time. He wondered again if Alsalam could defeat Pince's armies. Alsalam had a good chance at it but it wouldn't be easy.

The battle at Jalsalam had been a good victory and it did wonders for the morale of his troops, but none could comprehend the fight that was to come. Alsalam would need his help, but Brannis couldn't make the first move.

"You speak the truth as always, General. I sent men with messages to Zukkawa. Kallish custom with prisoners should ensure at least one makes it to him. I have spent too much time keeping these truths inside and now time is running out." Brannis thought about he meant by that and something clicked in his mind.

"You sent that girl's husband to be captured." He said.

Alsalam looked into his eyes with a new suspicious gaze. "You see a great deal, General."

Brannis could have cursed. He had just said he needed to gain Alsalam's trust then put his foot in his mouth. "Forgive me, Alsalam, I should not have spoken so." The two watched each other for a minute.

"He came to me saying that Mavis would look at him with shame." Alsalam began slowly. "Despite all my assurances against this he would not hear reason. Word of my messengers had caught his ear'something I admit I'm not pleased with. He was determined to risk his life to carry my secret. I have not the heart to tell Mavis, not yet at least." He paused for some time and then changed the subject.

"I am not so blind myself you know. I know what you have done by fleeing General Pince. Not only did you risk your life, you walked away from a lifetime of achievement and status as well. Why did you do it?"

"Because it was the right thing to do." He said

"But it is many of your men we are going to war with. Do you not feel you owe it to them to fight at their side?"

"I do owe it to them, but I have other debts, some that I haven't thought about in a long time. To answer your question, yes, I do feel that way and know the betrayal will forever weigh on my soul. But I have accepted this and perhaps will pay for it sooner than later. This is where I chose to be. This is the side I've chosen to fight for."

"Then I suppose we have many things to discuss, General." Brannis offered a friendly smile and let out a long-restricted breath of relief.

Part Seven, October 19, 2010

Alsalam left the gathering tent contemplative. That hadn't gone as he'd expected. Even as the tent flaps closed behind him he could hear the raised voices, arguments that were still going on. Seated on a bench nearby sat General Brannis, he'd been forbidden to enter.

These tribes would have to see that the General's wisdom in this matter was important. It was true that they had plenty of experience in war, but this was an enemy they had lost to time and time again. None of the tribes had even attempted to fight back for many years now.

There had been some hope of the Karassi standing up for him, or at least taking some sort of stand at all. The weight of the People of Prophecy would make a big difference here. Who would they support though? Alsalam didn't think they had any ties to a specific tribe.

"How did it go?" Brannis asked.

"They do not trust you. Many claim this is all a ploy and a trap for our people."

"Why did you tell them I had a hand in it?"

Alsalam eyed the man. "I did not, but they are not such fools as you seem to think, General." Brannis looked down in shame.

"Forgive me, Alsalam. I didn't mean it like that."

"I know you didn't. I suppose I am a bit on edge today. The Karassi people didn't say a word the entire meeting. I never even saw one of them show any emotion at all. What if I have doomed my own men by sending those messengers? What if none survived long enough even to make it to Pince's camp?" Alsalam sighed.

He felt confused and worried. There had been many mistakes he'd made in life, but these mistakes would cost lives, perhaps hundreds of lives. How had his ancestors done it? His grandfather was considered one of the best tribal leaders in history; a great warrior in his own right. He fought at the front lines and established a home for his people.

That seemed simple in comparison to what Alsalam had on his shoulders. He was not trying to lead a tribe toward a safe home, but an entire army toward salvation and freedom. Every day reports came in of the brutality and cruel nature of what Pince's army was doing to Affraki's across the lands. Each day his anger grew.

He noticed Brannis' hand on his shoulder and looked up from his thoughts wondering how long the man had been standing beside him. Parts of him still wondered if they were right about the General. What if he couldn't be trusted? He could see why the tribes would think he was sending them all into a trap, but Alsalam didn't think it was true. He had worked with this man, for years he had worked as an emissary between Kallis and the tribes. He knew how Pince's mind worked. Assuming he could trust him.

Could Brannis be no better than Pince? Had he tired of this life and suggested the death of his own Lord? Between them, Brannis and Pince could change these lands forever. A thought he'd wondered on many occasions, and it made him shudder every time he did.

No. Alsalam knew he had to decide. Either he trusted the man or he didn't. His mind was always so distracted on ifs that it was tearing him apart. Perhaps this is what it meant to be a leader. The hardest part seemed to be finding peace with your decisions.

Brannis wore a fatherly smile. There was concern in his eyes that Alsalam didn't want to feel was forced. He did trust this man. Alsalam returned the smile.

"It's a lot, young man." Brannis said softly. "Even with everything I have been through I can't fully appreciate just how much is on your shoulders. I was raised to be a general; by fifteen I was leading a small troop of soldiers in my father's army. By twenty I led armies of my own. But I've always known what is expected of me. My men have always known who was in charge."

Brannis paused in thought before continuing. "I'm not sure either of those things can be said for your situation. I think the one thing you need is the one thing you cannot ask for. And that is time. I-" suddenly the general was interrupted.

"Alsalam, you have been asked to return." The messenger, Bavarri of the Gattonal tribe looked suspiciously at Brannis beside him. "They are asking for the one-armed General as well."

"Who is asking?" Alsalam asked, confused. This was too soon to be asking for him. That could be very bad.

"The Karassi." The messenger said simply and turned back into the tent.

Alsalam looked at his companion in open shock. None of his people had given Brannis any sort of title. For the Karassi of all people to do so'

"Is there anything I should know?" The General asked.

"Yes, don't say anything at all." Alsalam grinned at the older man, amused by his suddenly nervous expression, and led them into the tent. If nothing else, they were safe at least.

This was the largest tent Alsalam had ever been in. It was said the Karassi carried it wherever they went'rare as it was for them to travel at all'because it meant the gathering of many tribes. There would be no tribal fights while they were here. To do so would be blasphemous and the punishment would be extremely severe.

The assembled gathering was quiet. Shifting eyes moved from the Karassi elders toward the Alsalam and back again. Nobody knew what to expect. If the Prophets had decided to address them, everyone would be respectful until they had spoken. The two men walked down a carpeted path, tribes gathered to either side of them, toward the circular dais in the center of the tent. All around the tribes sat silent.

A figure rose from where the Karassi tribesman sat. Like the rest of the tribe the Karassiman wore a full robe with a hood pulled low over the face. It was said to be a terrible thing to look upon one of the Prophets. Stories said what you'd see in their eyes could drive a man mad.

When the figure approached a thin hand rose and motioned a servant forward with a tall piece of parchment. The hand showed Alsalam that this Prophet was a man, and he was very old.

The man spoke with a thin wispy voice. "It is foretold that we will follow Alsalam the Great." He said simply. The crowd gasped openly. This wasn't just support, this was the support of a prophecy. There was a prophecy about him? He shifted uncomfortably at the thought.

"Show them the picture," the voice commanded. The servant stepped forward and unrolled the parchment, slowly turning it so that everybody in the crowd could see in turn. Alsalam's eyes widened at the drawing. It was of him standing just as he was now, shining sword and dagger gleaming at his waist. Behind him stood General Brannis, one arm missing. Both wore the same clothing.

Yet the picture was obviously old, very old. That meant the Karassi had known about this when the Kallish had first arrived. They'd kept to their mountains in solitude through all of it. Why did they approach now? Even as he wondered the answer seemed obvious. Only the events of the last couple weeks had brought them all where they were.

With obvious strain the man who had given the Karassi prophecy lowered himself to his knees to Alsalam. All the other Prophets did the same. Alsalam was stunned. He never expected for each and every other one of the tribes present to rise and mimic the Karassi. As he turned in a circle he found that every tribesman, hundreds of them in all, were kneeling to him. It was decided.

"What does this mean," Brannis whispered into his ear. Alsalam turned to look at him.

"It means we are marching to war."

Part Eight, November 9, 2010

Alsalam couldn't help but feel awed by the army moving steadily behind him. He hadn't imagined just how difficult it would be to mobilize tens of thousands of men. It seemed an obvious challenge now, but even a few days ago such a vast number of men following him seemed just as hard to picture. That picture was much clearer now.

Behind him rode General Brannis sitting tall and proud despite his missing arm. The man had quickly grown accustomed to the disability. Alsalam had a feeling the general was very good at conforming to necessity. The two of them had spent many long hours staring at maps and making their plans. Surprisingly the older man had little complaint about the plan Alsalam had come up with. It was becoming more and more pleasing when the general approved of his strategies.

Back straight, Mavis had a place of honor as his second in command. Despite being new to riding, she had a firm command of her saddle. A rift had grown between them over their march to war. He couldn't bring himself to tell her that it was his order that allowed her husband to give himself up to the enemy at the battle of Jalsalam. She obviously knew something was wrong but seemed content, for the time at least, to leave it until he was ready to talk. Alsalam had tried to figure out just how the rumor had reached Dakkswa's ear. He'd found nothing so far.

"Alsalam." Mavis said. He looked up surprised to see she was looking at him and only then realized she'd been talking. He really needed to get control of his thoughts.

"My apologies, Mavis, I-." He cut off his words at her expression.

"Your mind was just wandering?" She said.

Alsalam looked down, embarrassed. Mavis moved her horse closer to his and lowered her voice so that only he could hear. "The men are talking more and more about that, Alsalam. It's making them uneasy. You need to stop doubting yourself. It wasn't like this before you defended our home. It makes everyone think they're marching to a hopeless battle."

Her eyes were eager, prodding. She obviously wanted to know what had happened. In her mind she likely thought she had the right to be upset where he did not. She was right about that. It was a thought that shamed him.

Mavis sighed audibly and he looked up to meet her eyes. There was anger in them. "Alsalam, I was the one who made sure Dakkswa knew about your plan." She said.

He couldn't hide his surprise. "Wha- why did you do it?" He asked.

"For the same reason you didn't tell him he couldn't go. Everyone has their roles to play in this war. I tried to protect him and keep him out of this but I was wrong to do so." She paused and looked into his eyes. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I was wrong."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Alsalam asked.

"Because I didn't want it to get back to my husband that I did this, and that meant you had to argue against it. He needed that victory as much as you need the one we march for. That victory meant you had to be hard to convince." Mavis said, and he nodded seeing the reason in her argument.

"I wanted to wait until you brought it up to tell you. I could see it tearing you apart. When you started having the men poke around to discover who talked I knew I couldn't wait any longer. Oh don't look at me like that." She grinned at the words. "You put me in charge of these troops after all. Did you think I wouldn't know the rumors? Did you think I didn't help create some of those rumors?" Mavis smiled at him. "We all need you to be focused now and I want you to trust me. We are on the same side of this war. I worry about Dakkswa's safety too, but I leave it in the hands of the gods."

She was right of course. Alsalam never ceased to be amazed by this woman. He sat up straighter in his saddle and she smiled again. "I'm sorry, Mavis. I was a fool to push you away like I have been. I assure you I trust and value your aid. You say these men need me as an example then that is what I will be. Thank you." He did value her, even more so now than before they'd talked.

He hadn't realized just how effective she had been over the last few weeks. Appearing satisfied with that she moved her horse away again. They both seemed more relaxed.

They rode over the crest of a hill. The view opened up to the city spread out below. It had grown since General Brannis had let Alsalam leave. There were more people here now, more soldiers. But he was surprised to see the city already under siege.

"Hakkam, Garrawn." Alsalam said. The two men picked up their pace and caught up to Alsalam. They were his runners and over long distances they could outpace a horse with ease. He'd chosen them specifically, hunters who were known to chase down animals until the beasts were too tired to escape. The other men looked up to them.

"Yes, Great One?" Hakkam said. Alsalam still hadn't gotten used to that title.

"I need to know which tribes these are, and what their plans are." He didn't point down to the men circling the city, he didn't need to, Alsalam could tell that there were three tribes that made up the ring. The two men took off without another word. It didn't look like the tribes had taken up arms against the Kallish men.

"General, will this change the rules of trade with your people?" Alsalam asked over his shoulder.

Brannis dug his heels into his horse and rode up to Alsalam. "I can't say for sure, but they will still want a chance to get their prisoners back I think. It could depend on how long they've been caught inside those walls. I must say this significantly increases your position here, Great One. You already had them outnumbered."

"Very well, we proceed as planned. Bring the prisoners to the front lines so they can be seen openly."

*****

Mallic Pince wore a dark expression while he ran a sharpening stone over his sword. It helped relieve him when he felt stressed. The last few days had kept his nerves ceaselessly on end. Food supplies wouldn't be a problem for many weeks, but these men might be willing to wait that long.

He had to decide if they should strike. He had them outnumbered, but he didn't know when that blasted Alsalam might arrive with reinforcements. He should have attacked when this army first arrived. They were like peasants next to his army, but he'd been surprised by the numbers.

His reports said this was only a gathering of three tribes. Everything he'd read up to now said these Affrakis did not join tribes together. Over a decade of history and never had there been such an alliance. He knew it was Alsalam that had gathered them together. He could feel his teeth grinding again.

There was a knock on the door. "Enter." Mallic said.

Conner Arillis entered with a formal bow, hand holding a collection of papers. The man always had a stack of papers with him no matter what he was doing. He was efficient and thorough. "General Pince, Alsalam has arrived with a great number of men. Early estimates, assuming he can rely on the tribes already surrounding the city, put their numbers at more than thirty thousand. As expected, General Brannis rides along the front lines. They have lined up prisoners for trade."

Thirty thousand men had gathered under this man? That was considerably more men than he himself had access to. And a large number of Pince's men had served under the traitor Brannis. Would they stay loyal to him if he put them in the battle? He hadn't intended to find out, but now it didn't seem he had much of a choice.

Still, his army was full of trained soldiers, not tribal peasants who were fighting merely out of desperation. And he had the benefit of defensive fortifications. This wasn't the time to cower; it was time to fight.

"Very well, I am eager to be rid of these animals we've had locked up. I don't know why we even let them live this long. Even on half rations they are a drain on our supplies." Each of his soldiers that were returned would be worth twenty of these prisoners in the upcoming battle. Mallic stood and put a brimmed hat on his head, tying his sword belt around his waist. He grinned in anticipation.

*****

Zukkawa took deep breaths as his men were led, surrounded on all sides by armed soldiers, toward the city gates. This had been what they'd waited for ever since the arrival of Dakkswa and the other prisoners a couple of weeks ago. They had no weapons since both Alsalam and General Brannis had abandoned them. Pince and his men treated them like savages, reducing their food in attempt to starve them and break their spirit. Zukkawa looked down at his dark skin and the scars on his hands and arms from the lashings. They were his reminders of why he'd been holding on. This was the day he'd been desperately wanting for so long.

His men had almost given up before Dakkswa and the others had arrived. Rumors said Brannis had killed Alsalam, that Alsalam had killed Brannis, that both had been executed. They hadn't known what to believe. The Kallish army thought of them as weaklings.

The gates opened before them and Zukkawa smiled to see rows upon rows of men, his people, standing just outside. Other men wearing the full uniform of the Kallish army, from the high boots to the gloved hands, were lined up with black cloth over their heads, the Kallish men who were to be traded. These men were very formal when it came to war. They just didn't understand the Affraki people. Zukkawa looked to the men on his left and right, and then sprang into action.

Zukkawa's men instantly fell into a fighting cluster, moving in a circle to surround the newest prisoners who had been captured, those who had not trained to fight these last fifteen years. None of them were armed, but almost all of the Affraki people learned to fight with hands and feet at an early age. It only took seconds to overpower their armed escort. The Kallish men who were being led forward, heads covered, threw off their hoods revealing black Affraki skin and drawing weapons as they attacked the soldiers guarding the front gates.

It only lasted seconds but the ambush was a complete success and the prisoners moved quickly to stand against the walls as thousands of their people poured down the hill toward the opened front gates of the city. Zukkawa's part of the battle was done. They were weak from reduced rations and daily beatings and whippings. Even the small burst of energy he'd released had tired Zukkawa greatly. He looked beside him and put a hand on Dakkswa's shoulder, smiling at the youth. "She'll be proud of you this day, my friend. You might have won this war for us."

After many hours Zukkawa made his way to where Alsalam the Great stood tall on his horse. He recognized Mavis standing to one side of the man. She looked upset, probably about not being allowed to partake in the actual fighting. Zukkawa smiled at her knowingly but she had noticed Dakkswa standing by his side and flung herself off her horse to run and wrap her husband in a warm embrace.

"I'm so sorry my wife." Dakkswa said. "I just wanted you to be proud of me."

"Oh you fool man, I've always been proud of you." She said softly, a whisper that Zukkawa almost didn't hear. She was rubbing her hands over the wounds on his head and his arms. "Look what they've done to you. You must feel such pain." Dakkswa smiled weakly at her but didn't say anything. He had indeed been subject to numerous tortures as they tried to figure out what Alsalam would plan.

"I live, my heart. That is enough." He said. She embraced him again and held tight. Zukkawa couldn't help but smile. He turned as Alsalam stepped up to him. He had dismounted as well, followed, surprisingly, by General Brannis. The older man was missing an arm!

"Dakkswa had said you won a great victory for our village, Alsalam the Great." Zukkawa said formally. Then he turned to Brannis. "He didn't say that you were the one who was defeated." The old general smiled fondly and shrugged.

"I always did say that Alsalam was a better warrior than I." The Kallish man said with a grin. The old man looked from Zukkawa to Alsalam and then back again. "Who would have guessed after all my years of fighting that my greatest captains would show me a thing or two about war?" The man said.

Zukkawa had to admit it was an odd set of circumstances. This was probably a tale that would live on in the legends of his people for a great many years. He noticed Alsalam looking out over the city and realized the man hadn't spoken a word. He turned and realized he was watching the fighting that was still going on. It was obvious they would win at this point, but perhaps it was a bit disrespectful the way he was acting.

"We did it, Zukkawa." Alsalam said suddenly. "What we'd planned all those long years ago. Do you remember that far back?"

Zukkawa nodded. "I never imagined that it would happen like this though. All of our people united and fighting together."

"Perhaps this was meant to be." Alsalam said. "Perhaps it takes war to bring about peace and cooperation."

Zukkawa said nothing and neither did the old general. Mavis and Dakkswa had turned as well. Nobody said a word. It didn't seem like there was anything else to say. So the five of them stood in silence and watched as their people took back their freedom.