Stands a Shadow - By Col Buchanan


The Shining Way

It was like being at sea, this plain of grasses that stretched to the brink of the horizon and beyond; the eyes filled with sky wherever they looked. In the milky brightness of day the twin moons hung lonely and high, the smaller of the two a pale white, the larger a pale blue, each cupped in darkness and clearly spherical in form; reminders, to any observer with knowledge or imagination, that the world of Erēs too was a monstrous ball tumbling through the nothingness, and that they were spinning with it.

‘Thank the Fool there’s no wind today,’ remarked Kosh, sitting poised in the saddle of his prized war-zel. ‘I haven’t the stomach for another burning.’

‘Nor I,’ replied Ash, and tore his gaze from the far moons, blinking as though returning to himself and the world of man. The air lay thick and hot today, shimmering above the stubby grasses that stretched between the two armies. The heat waves were causing the dark, glittering massif of enemy riders to loom with an unreal closeness.

Ash clucked his tongue as his own zel tossed its head again, jittery. He was a lesser rider than Kosh, and his zel was young and still untested. Ash had not given this one a name yet. His previous mount, old Asa, had fallen with a ruptured heart in their last skirmish just east of Car; a day in which the smell of roasting meat had hung like a pall above their fighting, while the enemy Yashi were burned alive in the great wind-driven conflagration Ash and his comrades had sent gusting into their ranks. Later, his soot-stained face streaked with tears, he had mourned for his dead zel as much as for his comrades fallen that day.

Ash bent forward and stroked his young zel’s neck with a gloved hand. Look at that pair, he tried to communicate to the animal by thought alone, eying the still form of Kosh and his trusted mount. See how proud they look together.

The young zel skipped once on its hind legs.

‘Easy, boy,’ Ash soothed, still stroking the muscular neck of the animal, flattening the grain of its coarse hair, black as pitch between the bands of white. At last the zel began to settle, began to snort the fear from its lungs and calm itself.

Leather creaked as Ash straightened in his saddle. Beside him, Kosh uncorked a waterskin and took a long drink. He gasped and wiped his mouth dry. ‘I could do with something a little stronger,’ he complained, and pointedly offered none to Ash. Instead he tossed it back to his son, his battlesquire, standing barefoot next to him.

‘You’re still sore at that?’ asked Ash.

‘You could have left me some, is all I’m saying.’

Ash grunted, leaned between their mounts to spit upon the ground. Blades of tindergrass popped and crackled as they absorbed the sudden moisture. It was the same all across the plain; a constant background noise could be heard – like uncooked rice raining down on far shingles, as the secretions of the two armies wrought a chorus of similar minute reactions from the grasses beneath their feet.

He looked right, over the head of his own son and battlesquire Lin, the boy standing there in his usual quiet absorption. Along the line, other mounts were prancing edgily beneath their riders’ attentions. The zels could smell the enemy war-panthers in the odd scrap of breeze, leashed within the distant ranks facing them in this nameless spot in the Sea of Wind and Grasses.

The People’s Revolutionary Army were outnumbered today. But then they were always outnumbered, a fact that hadn’t stopped them from learning how to win against an enemy overly reliant on grumbling conscripts and the established hierarchical forms of warfare as laid out in the ancient Venerable Treatise of War. Today, the confidence of the old campaigners was apparent as they waited for the fighting to begin. This was it, they all knew, the big throw of the die; everything that either side could muster had been committed to this final confrontation.

A cry rose up and spread along the ranks; General Oshō, leader of the Shining Way, cantering on his pure black zel, Chancer, past the lines of the Wing, the men who today would anchor the left flank of the main formation. A lance bobbed upright in his hand, a red flag trailing from it above the dust that coiled from his mount’s hooves. An image was stitched across the cloth: one-eyed Ninshi, protectress