Gates of Stone extract: Chapter Two
Here is another extract from my epic Indonesian-flavoured fantasy debut, Gates of Stone, which is now available in good bookshops and online. Hope you enjoy it!
Jun felt another slug of hot sweat slide down his bare, brown ribs and bury itself in the scarlet and gold sarong that was wrapped around his loins. It was his only garment, save for a scrap of gold ribbon that tied back his long black hair, and it was already uncomfortably moist. The night was absurdly hot. Even two hours after the sun had sunk behind the sacred mountain to the west, the sweat welled and trickled all over his skin. The fan-boys had all been dismissed for the night, that was the problem, and the huge Pavilion of War was hot as an oven and dim as a cave.
The Pavilion was lit only by four single palm-oil lamps, and one was hung from each of the four pillars that supported the thatched roof. It was ostensibly empty save for Jun himself, sitting cross-legged on a rice-straw mat in the centre of that wide, square space, with a horn-and-bamboo recurved bow in his left hand, and a light bamboo shaft in his right. There was no breeze either. The night seemed bunched and tense, as if awaiting the coming of the rains with just the same quiet eagerness as the parched lands and people of the Island of Taman. Jun took a long breath in through his nose, sucking the hot air down into his lungs; then he released it slowly through his mouth. Extend the senses, he told himself, mimicking War-Master Hardan’s precise, clipped diction. Feel out into the darkness. Be at one with the night.
It was no use; Jun’s mind was wandering. He had been sitting here for the best part of an hour, holding the bow and arrow and waiting for one of four targets – man-sized rice bags stuffed with straw – on the four sides of the Pavilion to be released from the eves. They would swing down and he would nock, draw, loose the arrow, skewer the bag – and so call an end to this ridiculous so-called training session. He wanted a long cold drink. He wanted to take a dip in the Moon Pool – his favourite of all the swimming places in the Watergarden – and then emerge dripping to lie naked on the silk cushions in his airy apartments while one of the servants fanned him dry.
Hardan was certainly taking his time – the cruel old bastard. Jun’s orders from his trainer had been quite clear: sit and wait and shoot when a target drops. And Jun did not quite dare to disobey the War-Master’s explicit orders – the Gods knew why – he was a ridiculous old fart, a buffoon in his bamboo armour and stiff cloth-of-gold headdress. Even his kris was absurd. The wavy-bladed sword was far too long, easily the length of Jun’s outstretched arm, and when Hardan tucked its scabbarded bulk into his sarong-sash at the back it stuck out in a most awkward and vulgar manner. He didn’t even try to be elegant, or so it seemed to Jun. No breeding, that was the issue.
Yet there was something terrible about him that commanded Jun’s respect: a residual air of black menace, a whiff of the feral blood-stink of the battlefield – even if he had not swung that over-long kris in anger for twenty years or more.
A pair of sweat-beads began a long parallel journey down Jun’s spine. Damn the man. Jun was not afraid of him. He was a prince of the blood, heir to the Gods-blessed Kingdom of Taman, beloved only child of the Son of Heaven. Hardan was peasant-born. A nobody. A prince should not be intimidated by a war-mongering oaf with no sense of either style – or timing. Jun decided that he would wait a hundred heartbeats more and then simply get up and leave the Pavilion of War and go off and find something to drink. Perhaps later he might even step out of the Watergarden and make his way down to the village by the sea to watch the shadow-puppet play. There might be a cooling breeze off the ocean and there were often pretty village girls there who were only lightly guarded by their rapt mothers. No, too much effort for such a hot night. He would summon one of the palace maids to his chambers, encourage her to drink a little rice wine, offer her a few coins or a pretty necklace and . . .
Something white flashed in the corner of his eye. Jun snapped his head to the left, saw the big rice bag beginning to swing downwards. With almost no conscious thought, in one smooth movement, he lifted the bow, nocked the bamboo arrow to the string, drew the cord back to his ear – and loosed. The shaft flew – smack! – and punched into the stuffed rice sack, dead centre, before it had even begun the upswing.
Jun let out a small whoop of triumph. He put down the bow and began to get to his feet, his joints stiff after such a long stillness. Half-way up, Jun froze. He saw the second rice bag swinging, down from the eves to his right, on the opposite side of the Pavilion. He stared at it, unable to move, as it completed its slow arc, down and up into the gloom of the Pavilion’s ceiling, and began the reverse journey. Belatedly he fumbled for his bow by his feet, his clumsy reaching hand knocking over the quiver of arrows to spill the shafts, the steel heads clattering across the polished stone floor. As he gathered the loose arrows, dropping some of them in his panic, then releasing all but one and finally getting it nocked on the string. He felt a touch of cool metal on the back of his neck and heard a clipped and horribly familiar voice say: “By now you would be a dead man, my prince.”
Jun lay naked and spread-eagled on the huge pile of silk cushions. The drops of water from his swim had stained the expensive fabric, leaving it black and wrinkled – but he did not care. An ancient retainer, a fattish little fellow with long grey hair who seemed at least a thousand years old, was crouched beside him fanning his body with a huge leaf-shaped instrument woven from palm-fronds. For the first time that enervating day, Jun felt deliciously cool. He rolled over on to his side and picked up a sheet of palm-leaf and studied the dozen lines of spidery black scrawl the page contained. The Last Dance of the Dragonfly. He liked his title, but the rest of the poem seemed a little less brilliant than it had the night before when, after three pipes of prime-quality obat, it had come to him all of a piece, no doubt a gift from goose-winged Hureshi, God of Writing, Poetry and Wisdom and he had written it down in a feverish hurry lest the scintillating words fade from his mind. Had he really described the dying dragonfly as the colour of a fresh scab? It seemed a rather ugly way of saying dark red. Did he want ugly? Perhaps he should say that its four wings were the colour of a mortal wound – but that seemed a little off, too.
Jun decided he was too tired for poetry. He stretched out a languid hand to his right. The servant, with near clairvoyant anticipation, pressed a tiny porcelain cup of chilled rice wine into his groping fingers. Jun knocked it back in one, belched politely, and handed back the delicate cup without once glancing at the old man.
He rolled on to his belly and looked out through the open shutters of his private pavilion at the tranquil darkness of the Watergarden. The hot-weather home of the Son of Heaven and his family, the Watergarden was a series of interlinked square pools, brimming with fresh spring water. The pools were joined by statue-lined walkways, filled with lily pads and clumps of tall bamboo, and dotted with water-spouts that tinkled delightfully, driven by a complicated Han plumbing system beneath. The various pavilions that sheltered the people of the court from the fierce heat were arranged around the outside of the pools, so that each one was no more than a dozen feet from a cool lapping surface. The fat full moon was reflected from the nearest pond making the garden almost as light as in daylight. The only sound was the gulp of the blue and white carp taking a night insect from the water’s surface and the gentle rustle as the bamboo leaves caught the merest whisper of wind.
This was just how things should be, Jun thought to himself, calm and ordered. Everything in the place that the Gods had decreed for it – the insect eaten by the carp, the carp speared during the day by darting jewel-bright kingfishers, and man engaged in contemplation on the banks of this charming watery universe. This Watergarden was a place of beauty, a place that ill-bred boors such as War-Master Hardan could never understand.
Jun cringed inside as he recalled the trainer’s words to him after missing the second rice sack and allowing the veteran to sneak up behind him. The War-Master had wielded the phrases as efficiently as he wielded his weapons. Woefully incompetent. Sloppy. Weak-willed. Lacking in sufficient military discipline. Jun had no desire at all to be filled to the brim with military discipline – whatever that was. He wanted to lie here on these cushions and ponder the secrets of the universe. Maybe write another line or two about dragonflies. He was a soul-rich poet not a blood-lusting soldier, and what use anyway was all this training? The hours he spent with bow and sword. The endless repetitions of the strikes, blocks and throws of the Han unarmed combat style that Hardan favoured. He had no ambitions to go to war – and Taman was too insignificant, too poor to attract the ire of the great powers of the Laut Besar. It was a foolish waste of time. He’d make his protests about the War-Master’s behaviour tomorrow at the council before the Son of Heaven himself.
Yet Jun was not much looking forward to that meeting. Hardan had told him that he would be reporting his shortcomings to his father at the monthly council meeting the next day, and advised Jun to be there, sober and contrite, to listen to the charges against him. Insubordination. Insolence to a superior officer. Absence from a training session without prior consent (after one gargantuan obat party with two lovely and willing girls from the south, Jun had been too exhausted at noon to climb out of his bed). Punishment would no doubt be dire: confinement to his apartments for a day or two, loss of his allowance for a week, maybe two weeks, something of that draconian order.
The prince could well imagine his father’s pained expression, the old man with his kindly round face and halo of fine white hair, his stiff embroidered jacket and gold-crusted sarong, a bony brown finger tap-tapping on the hilt of the Kris of Wukarta Khodam. This was the ancestral sword of the Wukarta, the royal family of Taman, a long, thin decrepit blade, notched and pitted, and said to be more than a thousand years old. It was drawn from its much-newer oiled walnut scabbard and set in its stand at the Son of Heaven’s right hand at every royal council meeting, as it had been for centuries. The sword, the Khodam as it was known, was a legendary blade: it was claimed that it had been forged by the divine Grandfather Pande himself, ancestor of the blacksmiths’ clan, when the world was still young. Its magic could only be awoken by a drop of sacred blood from the true line of his family but, once roused, so the old legends went, the sword had an awesome power.
It was all nonsense, of course. Many of the old princely families scattered around the rim of the Laut Besar had treasured objects that they claimed were magical, cups that never emptied, carpets that could supposedly fly, arrows that never missed their marks – tales for children and ignorant peasants. Jun had never seen the Khodam wielded in anger but he was certain that the frail ancient metal would fracture at the first clash.
But it did undeniably have some more prosaic power: whenever the Son of Heaven wished to shame Jun he gently laid his hand on the hilt of the Khodam and invoked the ancestors, asking his son what the venerable dead would have made of his childish actions. And, Gods curse it, it never failed to work: Jun always felt the weight of the disapproval of the ancestral spirits when the old man solemnly touched the old sword. He remembered then that his father had been a noted warrior in his youth, and in his heart he knew himself to be a disgrace to his illustrious family, to the generations of dead Wukarta warriors. It would be the same tomorrow. He would squirm; his father would lecture him sadly, patiently; War-Master Hardan would smirk from the ranks of the counsellors at the Son of Heaven’s left.
Well, that was tomorrow. Tonight was tonight. Jun reached out another languid hand, received another tiny cup of wine and sunk the draught in one. His belly felt pleasingly warm. His limbs cool. His mind aglow. The shadow play at the village by the sea would be in full swing now; everyone would be there. There might be a plump suckling pig, stuffed with saffron rice and roasting on the coals. Perhaps he would indeed stir himself and go down there, catch himself a nice salty fisher-girl . . .
The prince frowned. He was looking in the direction of the fishing village. Something was wrong. At the far edge of the Watergarden, beyond the wall of shaped volcanic stone, above the big ceremonial gates, the air was orange-red, flickering. The smell of smoke came to him, harsh in his nostrils. And sounds. Could those be screams? He turned to the servant – and saw that the old man was gone. Disappeared. The wine flask and the fan were placed neatly by the edge of his cushion pile, but the wrinkled gnome was nowhere to be seen. Jun made to call for him but realised that he did not know his name. He did not know any of their names. There was no need to know their names – it was not as if he was ever going to converse with them. He shouted: “Hey!” and clapped his hands loudly. No response.
Jun got slowly to his feet. He could not understand what was happening. Something was burning beyond the walls – could it be the huddle of filthy dwellings on either side of the gate, the line of shanties occupied by the sweepers, the Dewa, the lowest caste of servants who emptied the privies, slaughtered the pigs, gutted the fish and dealt with all the daily unpleasantness that no one else wanted to sully their hands with? Who would want to burn their homes? Who – frankly – would want to go anywhere near their stinking hovels?
He shouted “Hey!” again. And this time he could see the dark shapes of people coming out of the pavilions around the edges of the square pools. Lanterns were being lit. Torches sparked and flamed. He saw his father standing in front of the Royal Pavilion, half-dressed in a sleeping sarong but bare chested, with his body servant beside him and one or two of the palace women exclaiming and pointing over the wall at the smoke and flames. And there was Hardan, his bamboo armour strikingly yellow in the torchlight, his long kris sticking out awkwardly as usual. He had a score men of the royal guard with bamboo pikes mustered behind him. He was issuing orders, gesturing at the gate. But Jun could not hear his words.
There was a tearing crash – shockingly loud. The wooden double doors of the Watergarden burst open. A wave of yelling strangers burst through the portal, hundreds of armed men, shattering the tranquillity of the palace, tumbling down the steps like a breaker on the beach and almost falling into the first pond of the garden. One man dropped a brutal-looking chopper, and only prevented himself from falling into the Ghost Tiger Pool by catching hold of a stone statue of that noble animal, one of a pair that guarded the walkway to the Royal Pavilion. The tide of men, shouting, shoving, steel blades glinting – were now pouring down the central walkway between the pools towards War-Master Hardan, the tiny royal guard, his aged father and his terrified servants.
Jun was paralysed by this sudden, appalling entrance. He could see intruders clearly now, back-lit by the leaping flames in the gaping entrance. The Dewa shanty town was burning savagely, and beyond Jun could make out leaping flames in the fishing village beyond, only occasionally obscured by rolling banks of smoke. The Watergarden was filled with menacing strangers. And more were coming in behind them, spreading out left and right from the gates, waving their weapons. None was armed or dressed alike: Jun had only the impression of a herd of stampeding beasts in coloured rags with flashing blades, screaming mouths and eyes rolling in skull-like faces. Missiles hissed out of the mass of attackers, arrows and javelins. A musket fired. Hardan was shouting at his guards, trying to get them into line at the end of the walkway between the enemy and the Son of Heaven. Getting the pikes lowered against the foe. The royal guard started forward in a double line, shouting: “Wukarta! Wukarta!” Their long spears wobbling up and down out in front.
They drew blood. The pikemen stabbed into the mass of intruders, and Jun could see men falling, screaming, and the pike points come back bloody. A few of the intruders got past the pike heads and crashed into the wall of guardsmen. And the War-Master in the centre of the front rank met them, doing terrible execution with his over-long kris. The line held, the spears punching forward, skewering the foe, other guardsmen, face to face with their enemies, stabbing close quarter with their long knives. Hardan hacked the sword arm off one yelling fiend. But muskets barked from the crowd of enemy on the walkway, arrows flew and men of the royal guard stumbled and fell, leaving dangerous gaps in the line.
Then attackers gathered their courage, and suddenly surged forward. They brushed aside the inexpertly held pikes, leapt into their thin ranks and rolled over the lot of them in one swift howling charge. The pitiful handful of royal guardsmen was entirely devoured. Dull blades made more terrible by the flashing firelight chopped down and came up bloody, hacked bodies spilled sideways splashing into the black water. Shrieks of pain and shouts of crazed laughter filled the air.
Jun knew that he must not stand idle but he could not move his legs. They seemed glued to the stones of the ground. His mouth was wide open. His eyes wider. It did not seem real – perhaps this was all just some terrible but very lifelike obat dream.
He saw Hardan erupt out of the huddle of writhing bodies at the end of the central walkway by the Royal Pavilion, his long kris swinging. He took the head clean off a bald fellow with a long pigtail. He severed the shoulder and arm from another heavily tattooed man – then a long spear stabbed him hard in the side, the steel point crunching through the yellow bamboo armour. Hardan’s body jerked with the impact. He roared, fell to his knees, the spear was retracted. But the War-Master lurched up again and turned to face his foe, the kris lifted high. Hardan stepped forward. At the same moment, a long-handled axe looped out of the mass of foemen and hacked into the side of his face and Hardan fell back to one knee, the blood black on his cheek. The axe-man pulled his blade free, swung again, and the top half of Hardan’s skull wheeled away and splashed into the Moon Pool.
The War-Master’s death spurred Jun into movement: he darted back into the pavilion, rushed through the first room and into the second. In the darkness he scrabbled with the lock of the chest that held his most precious possessions. He got the big lid open and rummaged inside to find bow and quiver. Then he hurtled back to the entrance to his apartments and looked out in absolute horror.
The Watergarden was already burning. The enemy were all over the paths, in and out of the pavilions – hundreds of unfamiliar faces, savage in the leaping flames, gleeful – some already splashing playfully in the pools, a knot of men by the Pavilion of War was crouched over a screaming girl. He saw his father by the steps of Royal Pavilion, a lone pikeman at his back, two servants with long knives on either side.
His father, naked but for his sleeping sarong, had the Khodam in his right hand, its pitted steel glittering in the light from the fat moon. As Jun watched, the Son of Heaven lightly touched the palm of his left hand to the wavy blade, pulled it down, the metal slicing through the skin, and immediately a pulse of colour seemed to leap from the touch of his blood and expand through the blade, surging up its entire length, changing its ancient silver to a deep and fiery red.
Jun could hardly believe his eyes.
The Khodam was now a tongue of flame in his father’s hand. A pair of shaven-headed men, their faces painted with horizontal yellow stripes, rushed at the king, curved swords slashing down at his bare head. He ducked and swept the Khodam across his front and the two men parted at the middle, four sections tumbling, blood jetting high, as if they were made of no more than bean curd. Then a mass of men, a dozen at least, followed them in, hurling themselves at the slender old man with the blood-red flaming sword. His father whirled the blade in a complicated pattern, carving into the crowd, arms, legs spinning away, bodies falling, piling on the flagstones, slipping into the nearest pools. An arrow lanced out from the mass, missed his father and took the servant behind him in the throat. His father advanced, the sizzling Khodam held high and to the right, he slashed diagonally through an iron-armoured fellow, slicing him through from shoulder to hip. A spearman ran in, jabbed at the half-naked figure, his long probing shaft immediately hacked away; then his father leapt quickly in and separated the man from his head. A space opened up between the Son of Heaven with the terrible red blade and his horde of enemies.
Jun stood and stared, his bow and arrows forgotten in his hand. Forty paces away, the Son of Heaven was standing alone, the Khodam brandished high, the mob of a hundred jostling men on the walkway between two pools held at bay by its glowing, ruddy power. A spear arced out, his father jumped nimbly out of its path.
A tall, slim figure in a long gauzy grey cloak stepped forward out of the mass of enemies. He held out his arms wide, as if holding back the tide of men. His only weapon was a long black staff. At the head of the staff was a large green jewel, the size of a hen’s egg, which was protected by a thin curve of sharp, shiny steel, like a miniature scimitar blade, which rose out of the wood of the staff to curl over the top of the jewel and end in a needle point. The man’s headdress was an elegant fan of starched pure white peaks of decreasing size. Through the thin cloak, Jun could make out a black-and-white chequered sarong and green silk jacket. His narrow dark-skinned face was lit from beneath by a dropped and guttering torch on the causeway, and Jun could see it perfectly clearly: a broad, flattened nose, high cheek-bones, a slash for a mouth and two large dark hooded eyes.
The tall man said something quietly to his father, and Jun heard his father laugh bitterly, and lift the Khodam higher. The Son of Heaven boldly stepped towards the grey-clad stranger, who grasped the bladed head of his staff and gripped. Jun could see the blood ooze from between the stranger’s fingers as the flesh of his palm was forced on to the sharp steel and the green jewel suddenly seemed to throb with life. The man gave a high, harsh cry, like a word of command; then there was a sound like an axeman splitting the trunk of a palm tree, a creak that grew into a deafening crack. The gauzy cloak fluttered down, a buzzing filled the air and a black amorphous mass boiled out of its folds.
There was no sign at all of the tall stranger. He had utterly vanished. Jun’s father shouted in fear and stepped back, but the swarm, now spreading out and distinguishable as a mass of black flies glinting with flecks of iridescent green, the whole teardrop-shaped and the size of a house, rose in the air high above his head, hovered above the raised Khodam, and descended. It swooped down on to the Son of Heaven, smothering him. The night was vibrating with the deafening saw of insects. Jun saw the flaming blade of the ancient kris, sweep through the mass of flies, a few insects exploding, popping with flashes of brilliant green, their husks falling like thin rain wherever the sword touched, but thousands upon thousands of flies were all over his father, a shiny heaving mass, tiny bodies crawling into every orifice, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, pulsing like a living black carpet over his entire body.
The hum took on a deeper, more urgent note. The Khodam swept once, twice through the empty air, and then dropped from fingers now dripping with black. The shapeless writhing lump that had once been his father crumpled to its knees, and toppled over on to one side.
The thump as the body of his father hit the ground broke Jun out of his trance. The horde of men on the causeway gave a roar of approval and, as if released from some barrier, immediately rushed forward. A colossal wave of terror crashed down on Jun. He dropped bow and quiver, turned on his heel and, a world of nameless horror clamouring inside his head, he ran full pelt back into the darkness of his pavilion.
That’s it for now.
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