THE FOUR horsemen of the Frontier Guard stood at the top of a high ridge, watching the dull orange sun edge into the purple haze that obscured the far horizon. Down below them was the Marusthali, flat and parched, a spidery network of cracks on its surface running infinitely westward. Behind them rose the rocky folds of the Arbuda Range, dividing the wasted desert from the fertile vastness of Sindhuvarta, which lay to the east.
And all around was the bleak stillness of the mountains.
The murky haze had smothered nearly half the sun when a bearded vulture swept lazily into the horsemen’s field of vision. The large bird circled a couple of times, before angling away sharply toward a far outcrop. As it disappeared behind the rocks, a chill wind suddenly sprang up from the Marusthali, plucking at the men’s clothes and ruffling their hair, which was dry and matted with dust.
One of them, a grizzled veteran, wearing a bronze medallion fashioned in the form of a sun-crest, pulled his cloak tighter around himself and cursed under his breath. The other horsemen exchanged sly smiles.
“Cold’s already getting to you, captain?” the biggest man in the group derided, his handsome young face twisting in a mocking grin.
“Humph!” the older man grunted, continuing to gaze over the darkening desert.
“Why don’t you retire and give the sun of Avanti a chance to warm your old bones, captain?” the handsome lieutenant persisted with his needling. “Leave this business of hunting the Hunas and Sakas to younger blood.”
The captain turned a cold eye on the cocky youngster. When he spoke, his voice was harsh and caustic.
“Count yourself lucky to have the luxury of hunting the Hunas and the Sakas, lieutenant. Because when I was your age, they were the hunters – and we the hunted. And these bones that you make fun of…” He paused and raised his chin toward the western horizon. “They have grown old pushing the Huna and Saka hordes back into the Great Desert. Don’t you forget that!”
A stiff silence followed, broken by the youngest in the group – a reedy lad not a day older than twenty.
“It must have been something… driving the invaders out of Sindhuvarta.” He looked wistfully at the last sliver of the dying sun. “I sometimes wish I was born a decade earlier. Then, perhaps…”
As the boy’s voice trailed off, the captain sized him up, shaking his head. “You kids can’t cease talking about fighting the Hunas and Sakas, can you? Your heads are just full of stories you heard as little brats. But you have no idea what it was really like.” His uneasy eyes returned to scan the empty desert. “I fear that you might wish them upon yourselves with your eagerness for combat.”
“You speak as if the Hunas and Sakas are more demon than human,” the young lieutenant butted in, still smirking. “Perhaps the fear comes with age.”
“And with ignorance comes bravado,” the captain snorted in reply. “None of you fellows have ever met a Huna or Saka in battle, so what would you know.”
“Let me assure you that the three of us are perfectly capable of dealing with any Hunas or Sakas we find in these hills, captain.” The young lieutenant’s voice turned combative as he squared his shoulders and gripped the pommel of his sword purposefully. With a slight jeer, he added, “That should give you all the freedom to deal with the cold.”
“Oh, I’m sure you must be awesome with that sword,” the captain retorted, his voice rising as he picked up the challenge. “After all, you have mastered your craft by hacking at those practice dummies in training school for years.”
The mounting tension hung around them like a sullen mist. But before things could spiral out of control, the fourth horseman, a young man with calm eyes, quickly moved in to defuse the situation.
“It’s not like we had a choice, captain,” he chuckled disarmingly. “You old men put the fear of Avanti into the invaders, and brought peace to Sindhuvarta. So now we have to be content with plunging our swords into practice dummies, patrolling these dead mountains and sparring with one another verbally. Yet, we mustn’t be judged without being given a fair chance to prove our worth, should we?”
The veteran considered the point before inclining his head. “I guess you’re right,” he sighed deeply. “It is in the nature of the bloodied sword to doubt the strength of untested metal.”
“As it is in the nature of the new blade to discount the sharpness of old iron,” the younger man smiled, tactfully acknowledging the captain’s climbdown. After the briefest of pauses, he added, “All the same, I’m glad the glory of Avanti has prevailed.”
“The glory of Avanti shall always prevail,” the lieutenant returned to the conversation, but now his tone was sober and placatory, too. “May our kingdom prosper under King Vikramaditya!”
The other horsemen nodded and turned to the desert. Now that peace was brokered, they sat in the dwindling light for a while. The captain spoke again to break the hush.
“Our watch is over. It’s time to return to the outpost.”
Turning his horse around, he made his way back toward a jagged cleft in the mountains. The others filed after him quietly.
Fifteen minutes later, the patrol rode into a small basin surrounded by cliffs. Night had fallen, but the horsemen picked their way with practiced ease, the noses of their horses pointed toward three flickering points of light that gradually grew to reveal small torches.
The torchlight also threw the contours of three small wooden buildings into focus.
As the quartet approached the buildings, the captain, who was leading the way, observed the outpost’s cook and an off-duty guard seated at a verandah, hunched over a chaturanga board spread out between them. Both men sat still, immersed in thought as they devised their game strategies.
The captain swore silently at the cook. Silly oaf, still at his bloody game when he should be in the kitchen getting dinner ready!
Deciding that the cook needed a ticking off, the captain dismounted, tethered his horse to a nearby rail and marched briskly toward the verandah. He was still ten meters from the house, when he sensed something was wrong.
The two men had not moved a muscle since he’d spotted them – surely they must have heard the horses trotting in. And even if they had missed that, the noise of his leather sandals crunching on gravel was loud enough to wake the dead. One of them ought to have noticed that. But both men just sat staring at the chaturanga board as the torch threw shadows around them.
It suddenly dawned upon the captain that the outpost was strangely silent. Yes, the stationed unit was small, and some soldiers were probably still out on patrol… Yet, there ought to have been some degree of activity, but there wasn’t any.
Something else was odd, too. No smell of burning firewood anywhere. Not from the kitchen, not from the fires that should have been lit to fight the chill.
Working on instinct, the captain drew his sword, dropped to a crouch and pussyfooted forward, his eyes darting from the verandah to the shadows lurking behind the building. Somewhere behind him, the lieutenant and the boy were laughing at some joke, but the captain’s mind barely registered this. He was preoccupied with the two men on the verandah.
As he drew closer, the captain’s eyes grew wide in horror as he noticed the hilt of a large knife protruding from the cook’s back, plumb in between the shoulder blades. Circling cautiously, the captain came in full view of the guard seated opposite the cook – and the first thing he saw was the guard’s tunic, soaked in blood from a neat slash that had opened the guard’s throat. The two men were propped up by spears that dug into their sides, preventing the bodies from keeling over under their weight.
In a flash the captain knew that the whole thing was a trap.
“Everything okay, captain?” hollered the horseman who had prevented a flare-up on the ridge.
Choking back waves of nausea and panic, the captain turned and stumbled away from the building, flailing frantically at his men, who were now approaching him tentatively.
“No…” he croaked. “No… we’re trapped. They are back.”
The three soldiers stared at the captain. “Who are back?” the lieutenant asked sharply, drawing his sword. The other two did likewise, peering at the verandah in confusion.
“They… the Hunas and the Sakas,” the captain’s voice rose a pitch and quavered.
The captain turned, raised his sword with both hands and scanned the darkness. Instantly, the three others, too, turned to face the dark, their swords on the ready. Slowly, facing outward, they stepped back toward one another to form a tight protective circle, their eyes peeled for danger.
Suddenly, a thin whistling noise filled the air. Before the soldiers could even make sense of it, a heavy arrow smacked into the thin boy’s head, cracking his skull and burying itself an inch above his left temple. The boy was dead before he slumped to the ground.
The other three had just about realized what had happened when a second arrow skewered into the lieutenant’s neck, ripping through muscle and tissue, its head emerging from the other side. The lieutenant coughed in surprise and blood gurgled from his lips as he fell on his face with a heavy thud.
The fourth horseman, the peacemaker, wasn’t so lucky. The arrow that was shot at him was aimed at his neck, but owing to sudden movement on his part, it smashed into his left jaw, splitting open his cheek and breaking his jawbone. The young man howled in agony and dropped to his knees, before toppling sideways and convulsing in the mud.
The captain whirled around a couple of times, sword waving drunkenly as he waited for the inevitable fourth arrow to claim him. However, nothing came out of the dark. The seconds went by, and the captain felt the alarm rising inside him as the pounding of his blood filled his ears.
Then he heard another sound – the gentle clip-clop of hooves.
Slowly, from the far reaches of the shadows, a ring of horsemen emerged. As they drew near the torchlights, the captain noticed the shamanic hriiz branded on the horsemen’s foreheads. He hadn’t seen the hriiz in nearly ten years. The captain raised his sword, blinking rapidly to clear the cold sweat and fear from his eyes.
“Drop your sword, old man. Don’t make us kill you.”
The horseman had spoken in fluent Avanti, but there was no mistaking the coarse desert tongue of the Hunas – or the intent behind the words. The captain lowered his arms, his sword dropping with a clatter. At his feet, the young guardsman began moaning again, clutching his face tenderly.
“You are wise, so you will live,” the Huna chieftain spoke again. “You will live so that you can let your king know that we are coming back. And tell him, this time we intend to take Sindhuvarta. All of it.”
Three Huna horsemen dismounted. As they approached him, the captain began backing away hurriedly. But two of them grabbed him by his arms, pinning him between them.
“You… you said you shall let me g-go,” the veteran bleated, wriggling in fear.
“I did, and you shall. But we can’t let you come back to fight us again, can we?” The Huna chief’s eyes gleamed wickedly. Turning to one of the captain’s captors, he issued an order. “Ah’khat waa.”
Right away, two Hunas began dragging the captain toward the verandah, while the third followed, pulling a machete out of his belt. The captain could instantly see the horror in store for him unfolding before his eyes – the Hunas chopping all his fingers off, and him never being able to wield a weapon ever again.
“No, please… no, no. I beg you, please… have mercy… No…”
The Huna chieftain watched the squirming and blathering captain being led away. He then hoisted a spear out of his saddle, dismounted, and walked up to the young soldier still writhing in the dirt. As the captain’s screams began shredding the night, the chieftain plunged his spear expertly between the young man’s ribs.
The soldier’s body heaved once and went still.