Nearly two years after the harrowing events of The Straits of Galahesh, Atiana and Nikandr continue their long search for Nasim. The clues they find lead them to the desert wastes of the Gaji, where the fabled valley of Shadam Khoreh lies. But all is not well. War has moved from the islands to the mainland, and the Grand Duchy knows its time may be limited if Yrstanla rallies its forces. Worse, the wasting disease and the rifts grow ever wider, threatening places that once thought themselves safe. The Dukes believe that their only hope may be to treat with the Haelish warriors to the west of Yrstanla, but Nikandr knows that the key is to find Nasim and a lost artifact known as the Atalayina. Will Nikandr succeed and close the rifts once and for all? The answer lies deep within the Flames of Shadam Khoreh. From Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, The Winds of Khalakovo, comes the concluding volume in the Lays of Anuskaya trilogy, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh.
The flint struck the frizzen. Through pinched eyes Nikandr saw a flash of yellow, a momentary glimpse of the sun, as the pile of gunpowder sizzled and erupted with a sound like snapping stone.
Burning powder seared the back of his hand.
Bits of stone pelted his arm and chest and face.
One of the janissaries cried out in fear and surprise.
Nikandr holstered the pistol and drew his shashka. One of the men had stopped but the other was continuing, sword drawn, perhaps hoping to barrel Nikandr over before he could recover.
But, blinded as he was, it was child’s play for Nikandr to step to one side, to hold out his leg and trip the man. He fell face-first to the ground, and Nikandr drove his shashka down through the man’s back. He withdrew his sword just in time to meet the rush of the other janissary, who was calling out loudly now and swinging his sword maniacally. He was not, however, running pell-mell as his comrade had been.
Nikandr beat off two hasty swings and stabbed the janissary’s sword arm. When the soldier dropped the sword, Nikandr swung his blade across the man’s neck.
A gurgling sound replaced the soldier’s shouts, and he fell, dropping his sword and grasping his neck in a vain attempt to stem the flow of blood.
Nikandr returned to Atiana and picked her up again. By now he could hear the enemy’s ab-sair. They were coming from the trail Nikandr and the others had followed just before nightfall.
He could hear Goeh and Soroush and the others preparing their own ab-sair as well. The beasts could sense the danger they were in, for they made a sad sound, like a wracking cough one got in the dark stages of the wasting.
“Here!” Nikandr said as he pushed harder to reach the top of the rise.
An ab-sair with a tall form astride it—Goeh—loomed in the darkness. Goeh bore two ab-sair by their reins, which he tossed down to Nikandr. Nikandr couldn’t let Atiana ride alone, however, so he swung Atiana up into the nearest beast’s saddle and came up behind her.
Soon after, they were off, kicking their ab-sair into lazy gallops. A musket shot pounded the air behind them. Another came, and Nikandr heard the musket shot whir past him. A third came, and Nikandr heard a grunt from somewhere ahead—Goeh, or perhaps Soroush, he couldn’t be sure.
They continued on with Goeh in the lead. As dark as it was, they were largely leaving it to the ab-sair to find their own way. Nikandr knew they were able to see in such dim light, and yet he still found his hands cramping from holding the reins so tightly. There were sheer drop-offs on their right, and every so often Nikandr’s mount would lose its footing when the loose trail gave way beneath it. The beasts were sure-footed, though, and each time it happened, the beast would recover, plodding on as if nothing had happened.
They took a curve to the left. Nikandr could see tall hills above them on his left. The inclines were much sharper here than among any of hills they’d been riding through for days. And it became more marked the further they went, until there were imposing peaks towering to their left and more sheer drops to their right.
The musket shots continued for some time, but stopped as the enemy lost distance, making it nearly impossible to get a reasonable shot. Still, whenever there were long unobstructed paths, a few shots would come in, some pelting into the earth on their left or whizzing above their heads.
Nikandr tried to wake Atiana. He called to her. He shook her. He even tried slapping her to jar her to wakefulness, but none of this worked. He feared she was dying, but when he held her close and listened to her breathing and felt for her heartbeat, they were shallow but strong, and remained so as the night led on.
When the moon set, the musket fire stopped altogether, and their progress slowed to a crawl. The beasts could see by starlight, but even they weren’t comfortable moving at a pace any greater than a walk. Surely it was the same for the janissaries chasing them. Nikandr hoped they might even call off their chase, preferring to wait for morning, but there came a time about an hour into the darkest part of their ride when Goeh called back to them, “Quiet now. Quiet.”
Minutes later, they took a sharp curve in the trail. On their right was a steep drop, as it had been for hours, but the trail had curved so sharply that the trail they’d just been riding along was on the far side of the gap, less than twenty paces away. Nikandr could see the barest outline of the dark hill with the gauze of starlight hanging above it. He thought he could detect forms moving along the trail. It felt as though they were training their muskets on them. He could almost feel the stare of their barrels. But no shots came, and eventually they made it to a place where the trail led between two tall cliffs. They moved faster after this, protected as they were on both sides. Plus, the path here seemed wider than before.
Dawn approached. Nikandr could see its light, an indigo brightening of the horizon behind them that illuminated more and more of the landscape. The hills were sharper and darker than the peaks above them. And ahead of them, there was a flat pan.
There, Nikandr thought, was Kohor.
The janissaries were gaining on them, though. There were nearly two dozen of them. Two dozen against their seven. Their only hope was to reach level ground and to make for Kohor as quickly as their weary mounts could take them. But it was already clear the janissaries were gaining. They had extra mounts at their rear. Surely they’d been spelling their mounts by changing every so often.
Ashan was spreading his arms wide while lifting his head toward the sky. Nikandr watched as he did so. He prayed that Ashan would be able to bond with a hezhan—any hezhan—but in the end nothing happened. Surely he was trying to bond with a havahezhan to bring biting wind against their pursuers, or to lift a dust storm so thick they could no longer follow, but the deadening around Kohor must have become markedly worse to keep Ashan—an arqesh of the Aramahn people—from touching Adhiya and bonding with a spirit.
Nikandr couldn’t see Sukharam’s face, but he too spread his arms, but he did so only for a short time. Either he’d given up or he’d judged that he would never be able to bond with a spirit here.
The horizon continued to brighten the east. They could make out the janissaries clearly now. Goeh was leading the group toward another defile when the first of the musket shots started. A second came, taking Ushai’s ab-sair in the flank. The beast tripped, tried to catch itself, and then collapsed, throwing Ushai violently from the saddle.
Soroush slipped off his mount easily and ran back to Ushai, who had fallen hard, but seemed well enough for it. Nikandr steered his ab-sair toward them and threw Soroush the reins of the extra mount, the one Atiana should have been riding.
After helping Ushai up into the saddle, Soroush sprinted to his own ab-sair. They’d lost little time, but even as they continued toward the narrow space between the cliffs ahead, more musket shots came in, and they were coming faster now. The path was wide enough behind them that the janissaries were allowing the men who hadn’t fired to move to the front of the line to fire, while the others fell back to reload their weapons.
A flurry of seven or eight shots rained in as Nikandr and the others reached the mouth of the narrow passage. Goeh’s ab-sair was struck, though it kept moving, and Nikandr felt a musket ball tug at Atiana’s skirts. If Atiana’s leg had been grazed, she didn’t show it. She was as silent as she’d been since leaving their camp.
Upon entering the defile, they fell into shadow.
They were protected for the time being, but the enemy would be on them soon.
Nikandr whistled and waved to catch Soroush’s and Goeh’s attention. He waved them back, and then he looked to Ashan. “Please, Ashan, take her.”
Ashan did, slipping behind Nikandr in the saddle and taking Atiana from him. Nikandr then climbed down and grabbed his musket from its holster behind the saddle and ran to stand beside Goeh and Soroush.
As the others continued down the trail, the three of them waited.
“I’ll take the first. Soroush, the second.”
Soroush nodded, and just then Nikandr saw the first of them. He thought of taking down the mounts—it was a much easier shot—but with their extras it would be a waste. It was vital that they take men out while they could. As the lead man came more fully into view, he sighted carefully and pulled the trigger. The shot caught the soldier of Yrstanla fully in the chest and sent him reeling back and over the rump of his mount. Even before he’d collapsed to the ground, Soroush fired, taking the second in line. Nikandr was reloading when Goeh took the third.
Nikandr fired again as the janissaries began returning fire. Soroush fired shortly after. Goeh was slower. Nikandr and Soroush were both able to fire one more time before Goeh raised his musket to his shoulder. Just as Goeh fired, the shot striking the red earth of the dry cliffs, the janissaries called a charge.
“Quickly,” Nikandr called, retreating toward their ab-sair. “We’ll try again ahead.”
But Nikandr knew that such a thing would be difficult. They’d dropped only four of the men, leaving at least twenty. And with the speed the janissaries would put on now, there would most likely be no time. They’d be lucky to make it out of this defile, much less reach level ground below.
They rode hard. Their ab-sair were winded, but they’d heard the pounding of hooves behind them; they’d heard the gunfire—they were every bit as scared as Nikandr, and their pace showed a renewed strength because of it.
Even so, it couldn’t last long. The winding path through the defile—so close at times his arms brushed the red rock of the sheer cliff walls—took them lower and lower, and then it opened up into a valley of sorts. The rock formations here were strange. Some were short. Others were hundreds of feet tall. Their bases widened and were somewhat rough, but the higher they went the smoother the stone became until they looked like needles ready to pierce the fabric of the deep blue sky.
The janissaries were only a hundred paces behind them now.
They could not outrun them.
If they tried, they would all be killed one by one, or their mounts shot out from underneath them.
Nikandr glanced back. Several janissaries, now that the path had widened, were spaced more widely and were sighting along their muskets once more.
Just then Nikandr noticed, toward the desert plain, a form rising from behind one of the strange rock formations. It was a man wearing robes the same color as the red stone from which the columns were made, the same red as this entire desert seemed to be made. He bore a musket with beads and braided rope decorating the barrel. His face was hidden by a red scarf so that only his eyes were revealed. He lowered his musket and aimed it toward Nikandr. Before Nikandr could react, a white puff of smoke issued from the barrel.
Nikandr ducked instinctively, but shortly after he heard one of the janissaries’ mounts scream. He looked back and saw the ab-sair rolling in the dry earth. The rider was caught in the tumble and was lost a moment later to the dust that rose up around them. The other riders steered wide, one of them firing his musket at the red-robed man, but as he did, a dozen others rose up, then more, and more. There must have been forty of them. Fifty.
Unlike the first who had fired, these men bore curving bows made from beautiful black wood. They pulled the strings back, sighting for a moment, before releasing their arrows in tight succession. They took down a dozen janissaries in mere seconds.
The surviving janissaries pulled their mounts to a halt. They looked, wide-eyed, for only a moment before one of them called retreat. The rest needed no convincing. They turned and urged their mounts to head back toward the defile. And soon, they were gone.
Leaving Nikandr and the rest alone with these men from the heart of the desert. These men of Kohor.