Updated: September 14, 2012
Commander Harold 'Hare' Bestfriend nodded. The Corps headsman killed the prisoner.
Two privates set to the task of dragging the limp body away. A priest, late come for the ceremony, hurried after the undertakers, mumbling a prayer for the sake of the deceased soul. The crowd of spectators silently dispersed, their thoughts rolling. They had just witnessed a comrade being executed over a whore. That is, having hired the services of one.
It seemed a harsh punishment. Hare did not think so.
He had learned the true price of prostitution a long time ago.
Three decades back, Harold had served as captain in the Northern Corps of the Kisin National Guard, on a mission of subduing the rebellion of the tribe city Majarun in the borderlands. For weeks, the campaign had been unfurling well, the numerical and qualitative supremacy of the organized military easily quenching the defensive efforts by the tribesmen. The height of the push was supposed to be the quick, inexpensive final assault against the city itself.
The aggressor had expected to meet a brief, fierce resistance at the town's gates. Instead, the Corps had been greeted with surrender. White flags of unequivocal meaning had been put on masts atop roofs and watchtowers. Bread and gold and whores had been brought out to nourish the hungry, exhausted warriors of the enemy.
Wary, the attacker had refused the food, but the flesh and coin had been gladly accepted. There just seemed to be no sensible way of getting poisoned in such a way. Bags of money had been hauled away by the merry, surprised looters, while the majority had devoted themselves to enjoying the lascivious services of the city's entire harlotry batch.
For the first two weeks, things had gone splendidly. The three hundred whores had worked overtime to satisfy as big part of the huge invading army as possible. While the officers strolled the city streets greeted with smiles and flowers and the city council fawned upon them like some kind of saviors rather than invaders, the soldiers were out there, exercising. For a fortnight, it had worked fine.
Then, the first signs of a strange disease had started to show. The whole division of the Guard had fallen ill. It was like plague. Men were vomiting and shitting their souls on the ground, helpless, but the worst were the thick, swollen blisters of puss that had started to bud in their groins and mouth. No one knew what it was at first, but then the answers had come.
The whores had given them more than pleasure. They had given them death.
It was then that the enemy had chosen to attack.
The stubborn, proud people of Majarun had not truly laid down their weapons. Warriors had fled the city into the wild, awaiting the signal to storm back. Now, the mighty Guard was reduced to a tiny piece of its original size. Where they had rampaged invincible only days back, outnumbering the defenders by five to one, now the odds were two to one, in the favor of the tribesmen.
Hare had survived, because he had never bedded a whore. But the campaign had been doomed. Morally destroyed, the few survivors had fled, escaping the plague even before they clashed with the angry and hotheaded rebels.
Several years later, Majarun had indeed fallen into the hands of Kisin, led by the freshly promoted General Bestfriend, but the first campaign had gone into the annals of history as one of the most extraordinary conflicts, known better as the War of the Bad Whore.
Haunted by nightmares of that vicious experience with the lethal sex disease, Commander Harold ever forbade his soldiers, regardless of terrain and circumstances, from using whores. The only pleasure they were given was by the women brought along with the camp, who underwent careful medical examinations by the divisional healers and wizards. The chance for getting laid under Hare's command was scant, albeit a safe one.
Since Bad Whore, assassination by ways of poisoned whores had become a trend. It was probably the most cunning way of executing someone. Men could hardly refuse female company, and the weakness did not skip the men of rank or noble birth, who often proved to be the easiest targets.
Upon his second crusade, Commander Hare had wondered about the wit his enemy had used in the first war. It had struck him odd that the rather plain and honorable people like the highlanders would resort to such ugly plots. But then, he had found himself the answer to the question.
In the mayor's manor house, he had located a big library full of books that were good enough for any scholar deeming himself worthy. In massive oaken cases, the volumes had been arrayed in two half circles about the perimeter of the oval room, between the door and a window on the far, opposite wall. All, except one.
It was caged in a box of glass, atop a pedestal that stood in the very center of the room, basking in the sunlight from the window. Fearing some deadly trap, yet deeply intrigued by the unusual arrangement, he had decided to have the special book.
Throwing the limp body of the mayor, he had toppled the pedestal. The book had come undone in a blanket of shards. There were no secret traps.
Reluctant still, Hare had donned his gauntlets and put on his helmet as he opened the cover. His doubts dissipated with the first page.
Although the writings had suggested its origin four thousands years before his time, the book was remarkably well preserved - and fluently readable. He seemed to have no trouble deciphering the old dialect that had served the book's author in that forgotten time.
He had read about the Bad Whore on the third page. Curiously, the use of kamikaze whores had been used long before Majarun.
Hare had taken the book and left. Ever since, it followed him, never leaving his side. The weather and war did not damage it. Somehow, it was protected from decay and ruin by spells.
The book had an odd title.
It read, How to Defy the Gods?
Commander Harold read the book occasionally, when he felt a need to immerse in its wisdom and claw his way out of some sudden mess. But he was afraid to read too much, fearing the insane potential of the genius scribbled inside it. Still, the pull would come here and there, and he would study the blasphemous thing.
Using his great talent, his prowess and the book, young general Bestfriend had quickly advanced, rising toward the highest ranks that the military service could present him with. He had no aspiration toward the throne and harbored no false hopes about his future. He was born a soldier and would never trade sword for class. Apart from being Marshal, he had fulfilled all his wishes and dreams and goals.
The Northern Command was his, three hundred thousand men. The National Guard had only five Over Generals, and he was one of them. His counterparts were all nobles and ten to fifteen years his seniors, almost just before retirement. He was fifty and had plenty of years left.
During his entire career, thirty-two years in total, he had never faced doubt. He was the man who always knew what to do.
Now, it was the first time in his life he did not know what the hell he was doing.
Harold turned about. It was early morning, in between winter and spring. Snow clung to the ground in wet patches colored brown with needles and human filth. The ground was frozen, but it was turning muddy. Pale mist lit by weak sunlight was caressing the lowland hills, small, round mounds growing from a greenish brown carpet.
Tents, filthy gray and white striped with battalion colors of a hundred plus units stretched beyond sight, cluster upon cluster. Smoke was rising where cooks were cooking and smiths were hammering.
Hare shrugged and started to walk. Martial court was one of the lower spots of a military career. Yet, it was a necessary. They were on a campaign, in foreign territory. This very land was their foe.
Why? Hare had no blasted idea.
The one man who might have the idea was Alan of the Uritica Clergy, the priest assigned to his command by the Temple Union. He greatly disliked the pale, weasel-like man, but the way things were, one such character was imperative within his ranks. Every valiant warrior needed a little devil to whisper secrets in his ear and try to corrupt him.
Harold removed his gloves. Deerskin stuffed with silk, they were excellent against the cold. He tucked them behind his wide ring mail belt. Just for emphasis, he touched the hilt of his sword as he approached the clergyman.
Alan was old and homely. His brows looked like segments of miniature wire fence attached to his forehead. He always scowled, pushing the hairy slates above his eyes even further. His hat, the humble head cover that protected his intellect from divine lightning and similar nonsense, sat on his ears, making them curl downwards. A goatee and a hooked nose formed the rest of the unlovely face.
He held himself miserably, as if the very thought of standing made him nauseated. In general, Hare did not scorn noncombatants for their apparent dislike of physical activity, but somehow, Alan looked as if he were some beast trying to bear on two legs instead of crawling.
Soldiers saluted and went about their duties. Harold ignored them. He was set on the priest.
Few people knew that he was also a magician, a powerful one. Most holy men were, using either religion or the hermitage of their seemingly modest lives to hide this unpleasant truth. Simple people feared many things, but magic was just about the worst. It was not something palpable, and often reminded of deities in the way it behaved - without any apparent proof to its existence.
The peaceful village they had just laid to ruin was a moth of regret on the list of emotions Harold displayed today. He was a soldier. He rarely put up with emotions, but it was starting to strike him as immoral, this crusade of theirs. They were leveling centers of population they encountered. No warning, no reconnaissance. It was just attack and kill all and any in plain sight. For weeks now, since they had crossed the border, they were slaughtering. True, Gerdaine was a foe, but it did not deserve this.
Alan would have answers.
"Morning, general," the priest said.
Harold was still nine paces away, so he did not bother with a reply. He reached the spot occupied by the other man. "I wish to know why is my army used for slaughter. If butchers are needed, Kols can provide any number of soldiers of fortune. They would do just about anything short of killing themselves for money. I see no reason why royal troops should filthy their hands in genocide."
"It has always been the army's way," Alan lectured, hands resting and warming in his pockets. That was another unusual thing about the man. He always kept his hands in his pant pockets. Occasionally, he sent a probing finger down, picking at his genitals, usually when he thought people faced in another direction, although Hare never missed anything. The man never withdrew his arms from his pockets when he did that. Men of virtue rubbed their crotches openly and roughly, publicly declaring their distress. Alan secretly fingered his sex. That was disturbing.
"Slaughter has been the army's traditional trademark for ages. The only wrong side in this story is your sentiment. You have set moral standards that cannot be kept. Unfortunately, that irks you. But you should not let your emotions get in the way."
"Slaughtering you might take ages and lots of tradition till you become a trademark," Hare politely explained. "Despite my obvious respect toward theology and her disciples, you would be regarded as a collaborator unless you disclose vital information that I require of you. Now, enough muleshit. Speak."
The priest fidgeted uncomfortably. He was not used to threats. "There is this need I cannot tell of," he began in a slow voice so unfitting his talkative pomp. "Just . . . one person must be captured. Our sources have informed us she might be hiding in this region." Alan swallowed.
Harold licked his lips. They were framed in an ellipse of chestnut-brown hairs called beard. His short, military haircut of honey-brown locks stood in contrast to his jaw pelt. "Well, it is a woman. What is she accused of that she requires a whole bloody Corps chasing her ass round the world?"
For a moment, Alan's eyes, glassy like a frog's, ignited with what Hare could only call religious zeal. "Of an attempt to bring the world to ruin."
The Commander chuckled. "That's not new. There were lunatics about before. Every one of them has tried something. So far, the world remains." Hare was taunting the clergyman, hoping for more. He knew the weasel was telling him only crumbs of the truth.
Alan started to walk away, mindful of the big general following his step. "I . . . cannot speak more. Even this is too much. If anyone saw me . . . or heard me, I would be forced to leave my post."
Harold was smart. It was a virtue asked for in capable generals. He could tell a lie and these last words were not. He could smell fear. Alan reeked of it. He was also hinting at something else, however.
"Speak clearly, man. I wish to know."
Alan voiced the fatal knowledge. "Spies, here, watching me." And ran off.
Harold felt no sympathy for the man. His doings with the church were his business. He paid for his life in his fashion. The only part Harold did not like was being involved. Religion was not his sphere of interest.
They had dragged him into the game without his consent. He was not going to shout about it, but he was certainly going to explore. Inquires would not help. If what Alan had said was true - not just invented to divert his attention from true matters - there was a church agent following the priest and making sure he did not blunder. Apparently, this slaughter was more than a trample-and-crush business. There were factions involved who wanted to see this slaughter carefully coordinated.
So, if he read the situation carefully, they were hunting someone who meant a grave fucking deal to the religious heads back home. Not only that, they had appointed a strong figure of their number to accompany one of the finest generals on the quest, then silently assigned an assassin to make sure no one balked.
If there were answers to this riddle, they were in the book.
Harold headed back to his tent.