This excerpt is from early in “The Sacred Band,” our mythic novel that begins in 338 BCE on the battlefield of Chaeronea. There, Tempus’ Sacred Band of Stepsons rescue twenty-three pairs of doomed warriors and take these survivors of the Theban Sacred Band to Sanctuary, the town that the shared-universe Thieves World® made famous. In this first “authorized Thieves’ World novel” in many years, it is Tempus’ intention to settle old scores there and train new blood for a new and greater Sacred Band. But the gods have their own ideas, and the sorcerers have theirs.
Off and on, we have written stories and novels about Tempus’ Sacred Band of Stepsons since 1980. Our characters in this multi-temporal milieu have spawned a series of novels, some set in the distant past, some in metaphysical realms, some in the future. Staging from Lemuria, the Band can fight wherever it chooses. And it does. When we decided to expand the Sacred Band series with new novels, we also embarked upon a set of Author’s Cut editions of the previous novels. Beyond Sanctuary is finished and available as an Author’s Cut; Beyond the Veil and Beyond Wizardwall will be released in 2013, each revised and expanded by twenty thousand words or more. If you’ve read the previous novels, you’ll feel right at home in The Sacred Band; if you haven’t this is a great place to join the Stepsons.
When he woke, when consciousness rushed back in a blinding flash, it was as they pulled the spearhead out. “Where?” he croaked, gritting it to mask his pain.
“Safe. Rest, Riddler,” he heard. Niko’s voice was very low.
“How many lost? And found?” he wanted to know, asking questions of the grainy dark. He would heal. He always did.
“None lost of ours…yet. Found, of theirs…enough.” Stealth, called Nikodemos, has iron in his voice. Tempus would be protected, better shielded from whatever the Stepson thought threatening, if love could heal and save.
“We have to go back, do their rites,” Tempus croaked. He had made a solemn promise. His word is binding. He tried to sit up, fell back. Weakness was unaccustomed. Strange, because the god was in him, yet – just a rustling, but truly there.
“Riddler, it’s taken care of. Rest awhile.” He heard Critias, near at hand, who always handled everything thrown at him.
“Make a light.”
“It’s not dark in here, Riddler. Bright as the god’s eye,” Straton said, with an empathy that chilled him. They were all using his war name, when the danger should be past.
“Ace, keep shut,” Niko whispered urgently to Straton.
“Why can’t I see?”
“Commander, we don’t know,” Stealth said. “It will pass.” Where and how his fighters were, his right-side partner’s tone said, was not his problem – not just now.
A man as angry as Nikodemos was, in the aftermath of the Theban rescue gone awry, didn’t belong among the civilized. And the island of Lemuria was the most civilized place Niko had ever been: a city-state with towering citadel, power unchallengeable behind its sheer seaside walls. Nikodemos was a secular adept of the Bandaran mystery of maat – of transcendent perception, equilibrium and mystic calm. He was failing himself and all maat’s precepts if he lost control of his temper, of his balance or his heart.
So once back safe, if not sound, on New Year’s Day in Lemuria, he quietly ordered the Sacred Band of Stepsons and the new Theban Sacred Band, all twenty-three pairs, to make ready for an unspecified sortie as soon as they were fit to fight. Seeing hell in his eyes and muscles jump in his angular jaw, his flesh wounds unbandaged and scabbing up willy-nilly, Stepsons went scurrying through the whitewashed barracks and the town below, preparing for they knew not what. Meanwhile, Niko chased after his temper, trying to get it under control. But he couldn’t catch it. There was too much unrest in his soul.
Now nearly all knew he was planning a mission. He didn’t tell them where. But Crit knew where, had to know. And Straton knew. Soon Cime the Free Agent, the Riddler’s woman who ruled as “Evening Star” in timeless Lemuria, must be told that he was taking the Sacred Band to Sanctuary.
This was the foray the Riddler intended, after all. When Niko had briefed Critias and Straton, they’d stared at him in disbelief. But they would implement his orders. He was the Riddler’s right-side partner; his word bound the Band like law while their commander lay abed.
Ignoring deeper wounds (his own, his seasoned fighters’) that needed tending, he called the three youngest Stepsons out of their barracks and told them they were lucky to be alive, dressing them down savagely for not holding steady in the ranks. Their eyes, wide and shocky; their faces, cut and bruised; their hands, trembling, told him they’d learned something on the Chaeronean battleplain. What they’d learned was nowhere near enough. These three Bandaran-trained youths were his responsibility; he couldn’t leave them to their own devices. He’d sponsored them, first on Bandara with the secular adepts, and now in Tempus’s Sacred Band.
So he got his best horse and he drilled the trainees on the practice field until the sun set, and had the veteran, Gayle, take over from him then. “All night long,” he told his broad and sturdy Stepson, once a 3rd Commando fighter and among his most studied masters of the crueler arts. “Until they drop in their tracks. And tomorrow, all day long. I want them disciplined.”
And he left, wishing he could find something to hack to pieces.
Then he had to face the Riddler’s woman up at Pinnacle House in that uncanny palace of hers, with indoor trees and arcane windows to take you anywhere in the blink of a god’s eye. Up he went as the sun was setting, a supplicant on a pilgrimage, seeking absolution in that vast and vaulted hall of glass and stone where multicolored streamers hung from rafters, tattered standards from forgotten wars.
His own cowardice shamed him. He should have come here sooner. Cime would have all their hides for bedspreads. But Stealth, called Nikodemos, had a rage in him so deep he’d spent years in the misty isles of Bandara trying to tame it. Now it was loose, anger aimed at the gods themselves. He’d had to wait until he could trust himself with Cime: they never were easy with each other. She’d almost seduced him once. He couldn’t trust her. Her relations with his left-side leader were beyond his ken.
“I’m here to see the Evening Star,” he said when a jowly servant with black dogs on either side opened up the huge oak doors.
“Come in, Lord Nikodemos,” the man bid him. They all knew he’d wed a princess, years ago, and was royalty in his own right – if he cared to return to the city at the edge of time. He didn’t care if he ever went back there. Those were other days, other hurts that fed his anger; but none as deep as these, today.
How was he going to tell Cime how badly he’d failed, what a botch he’d made of this mission of mercy that Tempus had decreed?
Niko was led by the padding servant and the dogs through marble halls, all red and black and white, to her sanctum. Cime was the Riddler’s sister, some said: a gray-eyed beauty, her black hair silvered, wearing silk and leather and a look on her diamond-shaped face as if she’d seen a ghost. Ageless, Cime was, as long as he’d known her; as they all were here, while in Lemuria’s embrace. She seemed thirty. He’d heard she was far beyond three hundred years of age. She had a deeper beauty than mortals do, a fabled power, and a voice always full of seduction. Always.
Always, but not today. She knew at first glance that something was very wrong. Perhaps she sensed his misery. Or she’d heard whispers. She was braced and guarded.
“What is it, Niko?” Voice too sharp, edgy. She looked him up and down and found him wanting. Three huge black dogs milled around her feet; some said they changed to humans when she chose. “What happened?”
So he had to own to it. He squared his shoulders and sucked in a breath. As she came up close, he bowed his head to look into those gray eyes his commander loved so well. “We fouled up. I did. He got hurt. Badly, maybe. And the god…is not helping him today.”
She said nothing, but ran full-tilt past him down the hall, like a sprite or a goddess bent on vengeance. She’d know where Niko would have put him.
He had to run after her. And he never caught her till they got to where the Riddler lay.
When they reached the Stepsons’ billet, everyone was there who had no incapacitating wounds or pressing duties. Even a couple of Thebans waited (walking wounded in kirtles and mantles, hair shorn, alike as father and son, eyes so full of loss they barely noticed what they saw), helmets under their arms. Stepsons saw Cime, then Niko, come running and parted the crowd for them, squinting at them as if from a hundred miles away. No one talked. All stood back. It wasn’t a good day, everybody knew.
He tried to guide Cime to the sickroom. She shook him off – a sharp, dismissive shrug. Inside, Strat and Crit sat on the Riddler’s either side with a bucket full of bloody rags and murder in their eyes. Whitewashed walls seemed too close, the simple bed of his commander’s office cell too hard.
Tempus just lay there, unseeing, a wound bubbling in his chest that should be mortal. But wasn’t – yet. Niko clutches that hope like his dream-forged sword.
Cime pulled two rods down from her hair and it tumbled around her face. Even Niko stepped back involuntarily. All three Stepsons in this room know what those diamond rods can do: suck your soul, suck your life, and leave you empty, lost, or worse. What else they did was between her and the powers that she served.
“Well,” Cime said, still at the foot of the Riddler’s sickbed, diamond rods in fists on either hip, “now you’ve done it, haven’t you, all you fools? Tempus, can you hear me?”
“Life to you, Cime,” said the Riddler from his bed, “and everlasting glory.” He smiled his humorless kill-smile, just a tightening at the corners of his mouth.
The last thing Cime would do was acknowledge the Sacred Band greeting. “Get out of here, Stepsons. I’ll see to him. You three have done quite enough today: all of you and your feckless, treacherous god.”
And with that, she banished them. Niko hoped this banishment was not forever, but who could say?
The last thing he saw was Cime striding to the bed. The last thing he heard was Tempus’s voice, rattling deep in his chest, saying, “Sister, don’t bait the god today.”
“So we’re still going. Tomorrow. With the Riddler or without him,” Niko told Critias and Straton, three days later, out by the bullpen where Stepsons worked their horses in the bright morning light. The sea wind was gentle; the sky was blue and clear; and nothing about this morning matched Niko’s mood.
Crit kept silent, running a hand through his dark, feathery hair, never looking up. He had a bandage on his right forearm and one on his right thigh, both spotted with red and pink, stiff and yellow toward the edges.
Strat replied, “Whatever you say, Stealth.” Taciturn, stolid Strat, with his wide forehead scabbed up into his sandy hair, spread his scraped hands and dropped them to his sides. His left eye was swollen half shut; his left cheek lacerated, bruised: fresh souvenirs from Chaeronea. On his arms, deep cuts were healing, flushed and angry, covered with grease. Straton, nearly Tempus’s size, still had a bad left shoulder from Sanctuary duty, long ago and far away. These new war wounds were insignificant compared to what Strat, the Stepsons’ interrogator, had suffered at the hands of a necromant in Sanctuary ten years past. The witch haunted Straton yet.
Niko knew that was bothering Crit, who still hadn’t said a word. Critias didn’t want Strat going back to Sanctuary, not while the witch lived there. But only Tempus could rescind Niko’s order, and Cime wouldn’t let any of the Stepsons see the Riddler.
Niko told Straton, “Ace, bring those three Bandaran trainees to me, and the senior Theban after I’m done with them.” Niko needed to talk to Crit in private, without Straton there. Strat left, glancing back once over his damaged shoulder at the two of them.
Beyond Crit, in the circular bullpen, was Sync, rangy and dark, working one of the black sons of Tempus’s gray Trôs stallion. The colt bucked and bugled to any mare near enough to hear. Several nickered back, from paddocks nearby. Critias looked up, pretending to judge the training. “Nice colt, Stealth. Yours, isn’t he?”
Niko said to Critias, “Take him, Fox. He’s yours.” It couldn’t matter less today, although colts of the Band’s senior stallion were highly prized. What mattered was the Riddler. What mattered was Crit’s partner, Straton.
“I don’t need him, Stealth,” Crit said, his face carefully arranged, and turned to him. Or anything from you. Unsaid, but clear as the sky above.
“Then don’t take him. Doesn’t matter.” What mattered was that all three of them were using war names among themselves, a sign of tensions high and aggression reined tight. “What are we going to do about Ace?” Niko asked. “That witch of his in Sanctuary might be more than we can handle.” Niko knew all about witches, and witchery, and the compulsion in your soul you couldn’t fight.
“He says she’ll be no problem. He wants to go.” Crit’s eyes slapped him across the face. “Not a smart move, this mission. Not now, for any of us.” He came one step closer.
“It’s Tempus’s mission, not mine. What he wanted.”
“Not if he can’t…go.” Crit was Tempus’s executive officer. He had the rank, if he pulled it, to make a schism out of this. “Why go now? To help that god-sired brat, Kouras, cage his temper? So Arton can meet his mommy? So Sham, the wizard-boy, can have an outing? To teach the remnants of the Theban Sacred Band how to get along without their brothers? That lot is grieving so, it will take more than new horses and new tactics to heal them. And it’ll take longer than I want to stay at the world’s anus to wet-nurse them.”
“We go where the commander says we go. We do what he wants done.”
The colt hit the boards with his hooves and charged Sync, in the middle of the pen. A whip cracked. The colt surrendered, stopped, and went back to the rail, ears pinned, eyes rolling.
“Who knows what he wants today? Not you. Not me. He’s not seeing anyone. Strat doesn’t need this trip. Neither do I. Somebody’s got to stay here with the Riddler – if she’ll let us near him.” Now Crit took two more steps toward Niko and jabbed a finger at his chest. “You should stay.” The finger withdrew, but Critias was too full of truth to stop. “This is your mess. Running away won’t solve it.”
Niko took a deep breath and grabbed his temper. “If you’ll have them ready to travel, two days hence, we’ll leave,” he said. If: a small opening for compromise, an acknowledgement of rank necessary with this man, who was protective of his partner, Strat – and everything else teetering on the edge of oblivion here. None of them had ever seen the Riddler take so long to heal, if heal he would.
Damn the Theban Sacred Band and all it had cost them. But Niko had command, and command must not be wasted, not spent foolishly, nor respect and camaraderie lost in anger. Niko’s mouth was full of barbs. “I’m going to take those Bandaran-trained boys.” Crit would never understand Bandaran stricture. Or care. “And the Thebans, and the best Stepsons who’ll sojourn. And leave some in Sanctuary a year or two, if I can. Come with me, or stay behind. This is no time to argue.”
Now it was out, open discord.
Crit said, “Time? Stealth, you haven’t even had time to look in on your own wounded Stepsons. What would the Riddler say to that?” then turned on his heel and walked away, his long stride giving Niko no chance to stop him unless he wanted to run after Crit like a penitent child.
Too much anger. Too much helplessness. Too much grief. Niko couldn’t bring himself to meet with the Thebans yet. He knew he should, but he couldn’t face the ghosts in their eyes. So Crit had had to do it. If Tempus didn’t recover, then what? The Sacred Band would be at Cime’s mercy. They served at Tempus’s pleasure. All this talk of Niko being Tempus’s inheritor was only that…talk.
He went to see his sable mare. Then, on foot, he fled the walled citadel and went down to the shore, through the town where nothing ever had been wrong before, where people lived happy lives free from want and the worst thing that ever happened was a bar fight among Stepsons or moldy hay coming in from surrounding farms.
Tempus and he had brought horses down here to work them in the surf on better days. He was too angry even to think, too taut and regretful to bring the mare. He might make another mistake. The mistake he had made was a worse error than he’d ever thought a man could survive.
Would the Riddler live? See again? Walk again? Lead again? None of them could get in to visit, to find out.
Niko’s fury, at himself and the gods, was driving him, he knew, as it had driven him for so long before he’d joined the Stepsons. He’d lost one partner soon after, then a second. He couldn’t lose another. Tempus was supposed to be eternal. At least, everyone said he was. Had they so angered the gods, trying to save the Thebans, the fated dead, that Tempus would be taken from them?
Niko walked knee-deep into the surf as if the tide could cool his anger. Long ago, his rage had driven him to maat, his discipline of will and equilibrium, justice and balance, and those had driven him on, to the Sacred Band and the Riddler’s service, where he was – finally and correctly, he thought – Tempus’s right-side partner, learning day by day what his commander had to teach. He was, at long last and great cost, an avatar of Enlil on his own. With the Riddler hurt, his anger was nearly ungovernable.
Long spear, thunking into flesh. Man staggering backward, impaled, groaning.
He whispered to the surf, “Help me help him.” Only pounding waves answered.
Thebans. These unlucky Thebans were bringing their fate home to roost here, looking dazed and amputated, full of silent grief for their lost brothers and the entire world they’d known. Better off than dead. He would take them to Sanctuary, the most luckless town he’d ever seen. They would fit right in there.
And he and Straton, Tempus’s two witch-cursed Stepsons, would face their fears – or their doom. It didn’t seem to matter. Greater dooms win greater destinies. This, his commander had taught him.
The next day, after Niko had gone to Cime, helmet in hand, begging assistance and pleading for mercy, apologizing until he thought his heart would break, she relented and let him see the Riddler.
Not long after that, Niko rode beside Tempus as the commander, still healing, led his Sacred Band of Stepsons on their best horses into Lemuria’s mystic portal. And out again, to emerge – by dint of Cime’s Lemurian power – right onto Sanctuary’s northwest shore, with every boy-soldier and Theban bringing up the rear, just as the Riddler had planned.
Once Tempus’s vision returned, by Enlil’s grace, the Evening Star couldn’t interfere with the commander’s wishes. Niko sympathized. No one could.
Steady drizzle falls. The sky above is restless with scudding clouds. A furious storm masses behind them, out to sea, throwing black spears of rain down from heaven’s walls. Dark waves flee inland, surly, breaking on the beach.
Riding toward the ochre walls of Sanctuary on his sable mare, with the Riddler beside him on his gray Trôs horse, Niko catches Tempus’s eye.
Tempus stares back, baring his teeth: “Enlil rides with us, Niko. Every step of the way.”
Wet wind blows like the breath of the gods on Niko’s neck. Rain falls harder. Thunder cracks as distant lightning skewers the sea.
Since the storm is coming near, and his commander sitting easily on his horse, Niko doesn’t doubt the Riddler’s word. Enlil, ancient storm god of the armies, is with them; and Vashanka, the local storm god; and Niko’s maat. And perhaps even the Theban goddess, Harmony, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Good. They will need every man and god and skill among them in this hellhole. Even his sable mare knows it. She raises her head and challenges the heavens as they jog along, the Stepsons two by two, Crit and Strat close behind: sixty-six fighters, all told, come into the city-state of Sanctuary through the Gate of Justice. Maat is justice, as well as balance. In all the years he’d served here, Niko had never ridden through this gate. Maybe it will be lucky for them this time, with a child of Sanctuary’s storm god, a warlock’s son, a seer and all the saved Sacred Band of Thebes in tow. But Niko isn’t counting on it.
Excerpt from The Sacred Band, copyright 2010; by Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Perseid Press edition, 2012.
Janet E. Morris began writing in 1976 and has since published more than 20 novels, many co-authored with her husband Chris Morris or others such as David Drake and C.J. Cherryh. She now owns the copyrights to more than 60 novles, both fiction and non-fiction. Janet’s first novel, published in 1977, was High Couch of Silistra, the first in a quartet of novels with a very strong female protagonist. Since then she has contributed short fiction to the shared universe fantasy series Thieves World, in which she created the Sacred Band of Stepsons, a mythical unit of ancient fighters modeled on the Sacred Band of Thebes. She also created, orchestrates, edits, and writes for the continuing, award-winning Bangsian fantasy series Heroes in Hell. 15 volumes to date since 1986, the latest three being Rogues in Hell, Lawyers in Hell, and Dreamers in Hell. Most of her fiction work has been in the fantasy and science fiction genres, although she has also written historical and other novels. Her 1983 book I, The Sun, a detailed biographical novel about the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I was praised for its historical accuracy, and has recently been reprinted by Perseid Press. Among Janet’s numerous novels are the Kerrion Empire Trilogy, Warlord, Threshold (with Chris Morris), and The Sacred Band.
Interior Illustrations by Duncan Long