A shrill whistle pierced the din of commerce in the market square; one of them had been discovered. Though the others had not been able to reach the town watch’s garrison yet, they were close enough. Fhar could see a few of his Sworn brothers through a cluster of stalls, wrapped in the same pale cloaks worn by all the desert people. He did not need to give them the signal, for they all knew the moment the alarm had been sounded; it was time. Numbed as he was by the poison, he could not feel the cords that bound his limbs to prevent blood loss when the enemy’s blades finally bit into him. The gods were with him, imbuing his mind with courage, his limbs with strength, his spirit with righteousness, his bowels with vengeance. He was ready.
One swift motion cast his cream-colored garment aside. Beneath it were two slim blades tied to his belt, their twin edges sharpened over three days of prayerful preparation to split a leaf floating on the air. Though the tears of the martyrs’ mothers had already dried on them, they would soon be wetted again in the invaders’ blood. There were maybe twenty guards out in the market at this morning. Perhaps the watch had expected trouble today, but they were still unprepared for eight Sworn. These were no professional soldiers, only dressed-up cityfolk without virtue in battle. It would not be long before they all broke or fell and when they did, the Hirkani infantry would be on its way; worthy opponents at last, truly condemned for their butchery to wander the Other Place eternally, souls blasted by the brilliant wrath of the gods.
Before him was a trio of bewildered guardsmen, turning this way and that in the confusion around them. He heard one of his brothers shout from across the square: “Gods be good! Death to the oppressors! Death to the Hirkani!” With the same battlecry on his lips, Fhar dove at the three men as he unsheathed his swords.
Solemn words still rang in Fhar’s ears as he pushed open the door to his family’s little mud-brick home.
“Do you take this oath of your own volition and before the gods?” the preacher had said, his stern voice holding back the emotion his eyes could not.
“I do,” Fhar and the others had replied in unison.
“And do you surrender yourselves to the will of the gods, never to be released from this oath except through death in battle against the oppressors of our people?”
“Then I name each of you Sworn. May my words bind you to this oath and its fulfillment until the end of the world.”
“May it be.” As of that moment, Fhar was already a dead man.
Railla was seated inside when he opened the door, a single candle flickering half-melted at her side. She sprung up at the sight of her older brother, catching him in a firm embrace.
“Did you get lost on the way home? It’s already dark.”
“No, I just had someplace to go with my friends. Are father and mother home?”
“We were about to go to sleep,” his father said as he pushed aside a curtain and entered the room, both he and his mother dressed in their night clothes. “Where were you?”
“Father, mother, sister… There’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it, my son?”
“Heshae finally gave in to your advances,” Railla said with a grin. “I knew it! I told you she would eventually.”
“No, sister. Something else; I’ve taken an oath. An oath to help rid the land of oppression.” The smile left his sister’s face instantly.
“It is true?” his father asked. Silence settled on the room for a moment as every eye took Fhar in.
“Yes, father,” he said. “It’s true.”
“Why would you do this?” Railla’s pretty mouth twisted in anger. “What’s wrong with you?”
“The day is coming when the gods will judge the world and all the works of men.”
“Then let them judge,” she protested. “Only stay here with us!”
“And let the oppression continue? It’s our duty to resist them in any way we can.”
“You’ll just be killed like the others.”
“I’m already a dead man, like all the rest of us. Father, are we men not already dead when a Hirkani can kill one of us on the street without recourse, just for not stepping aside for him? And you may as well be too, Railla, when one of them can take your shroud and ogle you freely like he would a whore.”
“Don’t you dare make this about me! It was only ever about you, Fhar! You and your friends are all blind and at the end of this path, you’ll find only what you’re looking for.” She fled before him in a wave of dark hair and tears. Only his parents remained, mother embracing him as his father took to the chair across the room. It would be a long night of explaining himself to them, but they knew just as well as he did that there would be no going back from the holy words he had spoken that evening. All he needed now was time; time to prepare to face the enemy, and then to face the gods.
By the time the captain had turned to face his doom, both his companions’ bowels had already been opened to the sun. Pulling the blade out of the right-hand watchman’s chest, Fhar spun the sword in a glittering arc that ended halfway through the captain’s shoulder, above the heart. Blood poured out of the wound like water from an overturned bucket, bathing Fhar’s arm in sticky warmth though the sensation was lost on him. All he felt now was the rush of lives around him, the passion of vengeance.
He spied more watchmen across the square; between him and the oppressors a screaming crowd fled in every direction before Sworn blades on all sides. Panicked faces blurred together as Fhar’s eyes only saw the enemy. Swinging both his swords before him, he closed the distance in a mess of gore before the watchmen could form up to receive him. The sounds of wailing behind him faded and died in his ears as praises to the gods rang in his mind.
The way was now clear before him and he fell on the first watchmen with such fury that the man was nearly cut in half in the first assault. Pivoting to his right to favor his left arm for a punishing blow, he faced two fresh-faced boys in leather armor too big for them. The town watch must be desperate to conscript unblooded ones such as this. Fhar’s right fist took one across the teeth, tearing the skin of his knuckles and breaking a bone in his hand as the left blade took the other boy’s arm at the elbow. He spun completely around to dispatch the remaining watchman when he stopped just as suddenly as if he had hit a wall. Sunlight glinted off polished metal that jutted from his navel. Opposite him stood a frightened youth clutching the handle of a sword with both hands.
Fear of death had left him long ago. Fhar’s right hand opened, dropping his own sword and then closing again on the blade stuck in his chest, slick with his own blood and nearly as keen as his own. The edges bit deep into his flesh, grinding on the bones of his right hand until he could finally grip it. Where there should have been pain, there was rapture instead. Holding his own sword high, Fhar dragged himself along the iron a few finger-widths further towards the trembling guardsman. One slash opened the young man’s face into a brilliant red smile and he crumpled to the ground. The sword still buried in his entrails, Fhar looked up from the slaughter before him to see a marching column filling the entrance to the market square, glistening in the sunlight: Hirkani soldiers clad in their bronze breastplates and yellow caps. At last. His footing was unsteady in the mingled pool of blood below him, but his resolve was set; this would be the moment of his death. A prayer filled him as he charged the wall of armor and iron.
Fhar knelt naked before the preacher as water drenched his hair and washed the dust from his body. The glazed tiles below him were cool on his skin, their swirling colors and patterns bringing him further into his ecstatic trance. Behind him stood a cluster of people dressed in red, the color of mourning for those killed unrighteously. They were eight today, the men sworn to inviolable oaths of freedom and blood. Along with their parents or other close relatives, they were joined by a separate group of red-clad women, mothers of martyrs. Their sons and daughters surely watched in joy from the Other Place.
“Rise,” the preacher commanded and each of the Sworn did so. Moving silently, two white-shrouded men approached them, one by one pulling from a sack a handful of braided horsehair cords. The preacher raised his voice again as the two shrouded men reached Fhar, wrapping cords tightly around his upper thighs, just above each knee, below his shoulders, and then above his elbows.
“We consecrate the mind that it may be courageous in the face of evil. We consecrate the arms that they may not tire in bringing justice to the oppressor. We consecrate the spirit that it may burn with righteousness in the light of the gods. We consecrate the bowels that they may give place to vengeance on behalf of the oppressed. May these cords bind you to a blessed life eternal as they bind your body to a glorious death. May it be as we have said.”
“May it be,” responded the onlookers in unison.
For Fhar, Railla’s absence cut him deeper than the cords. How would she greet him after death, he wondered? With a slap across his cheek, as she had left him when he and his parents had come for his consecration, or with the sibling’s kiss? Hopefully, he would wait for her a long time in paradise. Let her have a joyful life when all of this was over, when their people were finally left to practice their ways in peace. Let her live to see her future sons grow up strong, her future daughters to have children of their own, without the Hirkani to treat them as cattle. If that was all Fhar’s death could buy her, then he would know peace himself.
Their arms and legs now bound, Fhar and the others slipped into white shifts that fell past their knees; the intricate patterns embroidered around the neckline marked them for burial garments. By now, they were already dead. Two slim-bladed swords lay on either side of him; taking one in each hand, he presented them to a shrouded crone, her bloodshot eyes as red as her covering.
“As our swords are sheathed in the tears of the mothers of martyrs,” he and the other Sworn intoned, “so may they be sheathed again in the oppressors’ blood.”
“May it be,” said the onlookers. Moving carefully despite shaking hands, the old woman drew a handkerchief she had soaked in her tears across each side of the two blades, leaving shifting patterns of moisture on their polished surfaces.
“These swords I name Jashir after my son thirty-five years dead, and Kahlit after my nephew six years dead, martyrs both.” The blades slid into their sheaths, which Fhar tied to his belt.
“May these swords find the vengeance your beloved ones could not,” Fhar said. As the woman backed away from him, he turned to face the preacher once more. His hands held eight glass vials of clear liquid dangling on leather thongs. Fhar took his vial in a trembling hand and hung it around his neck. The poison’s effect would be quick and in the few hours it would give him before death, it would deaden any pain of the body and ease him into the Other Place even if he should shrink from his holy mission. Whether the weapons of the enemy or the Comfort saw him to his eternal rest was unimportant; from here, there would be no turning back.
The first arrow hit him in the chest, though only the slightest pressure could be felt through the increasing haze of Laishi’s Comfort. He nearly slipped on his own blood when another arrow took him in the left shoulder. Fhar had known from the beginning that this would end in his death, but to be killed by archers was not nearly as glorious as being cut down in single combat with a competent foe. After all, the cords binding his arms and legs could only cut off blood flow in his limbs; they were useless to prevent him from bleeding out after being stabbed in the chest or filled with shafts.
Weakness overcame him. Too much of his own blood had spilled for him to rise to his fate. The shouting that filled the air around him could have been anyone’s; the other Sworn, gutted watchmen, butchered merchants. Fhar had no pain to cry out, held safely in the tender goddess’ arms. A golden sun smiled overhead as the darkness clouded his sight.
His mission had ended.