Being enslaved was better than dying but only barely. Kennet did what he had to in order to survive as a slave with the knowledge that freedom would risk being found by the people who drove him into slavery. Kennet saw no reason to do anything extra for the men who bought him. They didn’t care about him and he didn’t care about them.
That was true until the royal family of Penhale purchased Kennet guard Prince Didymos. Protecting Prince Didymos from the assassins seeking to kill him dragged Kennet into the world of national politics and onwards to face an enemy that threatened to destroy not just Kennet but the whole world.
Kennet didn’t want to deal with any of it, the assassins or the magic that lurked around him but if he wanted to survive, Kennet would have to not just face down the threats surrounding them but also track the assassins back to their shadowy leader.
What he found at the source of the chaos changed Kennet in ways he could never have anticipated, taking him in all new directions. Hopefully Kennet’s new skills would be enough to let him save the world, his lovers and himself.
Artifacts of Awareness
By Meyari McFarland
33: Battlefield Reunion
Kennet looked up at the sky, smiling at the heavy black clouds that loomed over them. The desert was cold even though it was morning and it should be heating up. All night it had rained, poured really, soaking the sands around them to the point that the sand dunes had compacted. A few of the dunes had collapsed under the rain in nasty little landslides that happened out of nowhere but none of their people had been caught in them.
He sort of hoped that Rihab’s people had been caught but doubted it. It wouldn’t be very much longer before the storm broke over them. Granted the winds were dropping rapidly as the storm moved over land and lost some of its power but Na’im was certain that the winds would be strong enough for their needs. Besides, what they really needed was the rain, not the wind.
“We will be fighting in the rain, won’t we?” Oren asked with the sort of miserable certainty that made Kennet want to laugh at him.
“Fuck yes,” Kennet said. “Gives me more power and takes power away from Rihab. Don’t complain. Gives you guys a hell of better chance of surviving if it’s pouring down rain on us.”
Oren looked at him with such a mournful expression that the laughter won. “You do not know how horrible it is for a warrior to fight in rain.”
“I’ve been in pit battles,” Kennet told him, grinning at Oren’s surprise. “Trust me, I know vicious fights. I just don’t know how to command a fucking army.”
“Give orders and let your general translate them into military terminology,” Oren instantly replied with a wicked grin of his own.
“Works,” Kennet said. “We heard from Kelairn and Penhale yet?”
“They approach now,” Oren said, looking to the south. “King Barabbas and King Niniano’s armies should be here very soon.”
Kennet’s mind automatically spun outwards, locating the armies less than half a mile away. He smiled, nodding confirmation to Oren that they were almost there. The smile went away as Kennet realized that King Barabbas had brought Prince Didymos and Idris with him. That promised to be a really fucking uncomfortable meeting given that Kennet had both Toma and Dimi here with the army.
Toma of course intended to fight and everyone accepted that. Dimi’s insistence on joining the battle had shocked everyone but Kennet. He knew just how vicious Dimi could be. Hopefully Dimi would be sensible and stay in the background for the most part. He was much better at giving orders than he was at going up against heavily armed men and Kennet was going to be completely occupied dealing with King Rihab’s magic.
Which was another thing that was going to be ‘fun’ to explain; Kennet didn’t know how King Rihab had managed it but he’d somehow saved his hand. Sort of. From what Kennet had seen with Na’im’s senses, the right hand that King Rihab now sported was made of magic. It looked white-hot to their shared senses anyway, as hot and dangerous as a poker heated in the fire until it glowed. Kennet hoped that maintaining a magical hand would drain Shihab’s resources even further but it hadn’t slowed down whatever Shihab was doing under the sands. If anything, that thing was moving closer to the battlefield, slowly heating the sand behind King Rihab’s waiting army until it steamed in the morning’s dim light.
“They’re here!” Toma called, distracting Kennet from his worried studies of whatever the thing under the sand was.
Watching the three armies slowly meet was strange. Kennet had never been in an army, never seen one other than General Dritan’s army back when he and Juraj were kids. That one had been moving, heading south to fight against the ‘heathen unbelievers’ in Rantore, not coming to a waiting stop next to another army that very clearly didn’t quite trust it. Na’im sighed in the back of Kennet’s head at the painfully obvious mutual suspicion going on between the troops on either side.
“I believe you will need to do something to calm everyone,” Na’im observed.
“Yeah, figured that one out,” Kennet agreed.
He scanned the troops and smiled as he saw King Barabbas riding closer with another shorter man who had to be King Niniano by his side. Prince Didymos and Idris were right behind them along with a young woman who looked like she could kick Oren’s ass without breaking a sweat. Her circlet obviously made her a princess, presumably King Niniano’s daughter and heir.
“Gonna go say hi,” Kennet told Oren. “Tell everyone to calm the fuck down. They’re allies. Our enemies are over there.”
His hooked thumb at King Rihab’s troops made Oren grin and nod before he started bellowing at the men to calm down and do something that sounded complicated with the barricades that weren’t quite set up yet. Toma and Dimi both rode behind Kennet, neither of them asking permission nor allowing Kennet to deny them the right to follow him into the meeting. Not that he would have tried; Kennet sort of felt like he needed the reinforcements for this one. The urge to bow or kneel was a lot stronger when faced with King Barabbas’ stern expression. He always had responded more strongly to stern authority figures.
“Kennet!” Prince Didymos exclaimed once they were close enough to talk without shouting. The armies were still settling in side by side so they weren’t exactly unobserved. “Idris said you’d taken charge but I wasn’t sure if I should believe it.”
“Yeah, I kind of got drafted for the job, Highness,” Kennet said and managed not to smile at the way King Niniano and his daughter glared at him. “You stop trying to hug your would-be assassins yet?”
“Sadly no,” Idris sighed as Prince Didymos went blazingly red. “He is as clueless about his own survival as you implied, Kennet.”
Kennet grinned at him. “Good job on carrying the message, kid. I don’t think we would have had a chance to survive without the reinforcements.”
That made Idris perk up and smile shyly, giving King Barabbas time to clear his throat. His men were busy putting up a big tent made of rich striped fabric. Kennet blinked at it, raised an eyebrow at King Barabbas and then snorted as Dimi groaned at him.
“Talking in the tent would be a good thing,” Dimi said in that ‘I can’t believe how much of an idiot you are about politics’ way that he had when Kennet was missing something painfully obvious. “Less likelihood of people overhearing things that they shouldn’t.”
“Uh-huh,” Kennet said, looking out over the sands. “And there’s something they shouldn’t overhear? I mean, the plan’s pretty simple. I bash Rihab with magic, you guys bash his people with swords and shit. We try and kill more of them than they kill of us and hopefully by the time the day’s over we’re all alive to decide that we won instead of Rihab. What’s the big deal?”
Both King Niniano and King Barabbas’s eyes wrinkled in smiles though Dimi whined a groan that made Toma start laughing. They did head into the tent but as they went Kennet could feel how much more relaxed the Kelairn and Penhale troops were. Putting it that way, blunt, direct and just out there, appeared to have reassured them that they weren’t going to be doing anything that they had no training for.
“I am curious where the magic came from,” King Barabbas said once they all settled around a truly amazingly engineered camp table that they’d brought with them. The little stools were a bit wobbly on the heavy carpet that someone had put down over the sand but not too bad.
“It’s complicated,” Kennet said. “Idris was there. You tell them anything, kid?”
“I did not feel that it was my place to share that,” Idris said, fidgeting in his spot directly behind Prince Didymos. He hadn’t claimed a stool, instead standing guard on his older brother. “I have only said that you now have powerful magic, nothing else.”
His expression made it clear that he’d said nothing at all about Na’im or the magical oasis they had found. Kennet nodded thoughtfully, not willing to explain it around people he didn’t know. Hell, he wasn’t sure he’d be willing to explain it even then. There were too many of King Rihab’s spies and assassins in King Barabbas’ court for it to be a safe subject of discussion, something that Idris had apparently realized already.
“Um, how did you become king?” Prince Didymos asked.
He said it hopefully enough that Toma stiffened and Dimi shifted to lean extravagantly into Kennet’s side. He curled in on himself a little bit at their blatant efforts to lay claim and then stared at his hands when Kennet didn’t stop them, didn’t reprimand them, and especially didn’t do anything to encourage Didymos to lay a claim of his own.
“Queen Yafiah got killed by assassins,” Kennet said, “and I started snapping orders at people. They followed the orders. Later than day people started calling me king. Took a couple of days and a few executions for people to take me seriously but after a bit it stuck. Now I wish I’d handled it completely differently. Too much damned paperwork for my tastes.”
That made Toma snicker at him but King Barabbas and King Niniano both burst out laughing, nodding their agreement with him. King Niniano leaned forward as Prince Didymos looked back at Kennet as if he was trying to find something to say to bring the conversation into more personal territory. Kennet ignored Didymos in favor of King Niniano, more because he wanted to avoid that discussion as long as possible then for political reasons.
“Do we know what magic our armies will face?” King Niniano asked. “Is the storm something that will attack us?”
“The storm is mine,” Kennet said with a smug enough smirk that Dimi poked him in the side just above the armor Oren and Toma had bullied him into wearing. “That’s not an issue at all. Granted, you’re going to be fighting in serious wind and rain but every bit of moisture helps me and hurts Rihab. His magic is based on fire. Mine’s based on water. He’s got something big and hot under the sands behind his army but I haven’t figured out what it is yet. That’s something you’ll have to watch for but really, what you guys are going to be doing is pretty normal fighting. I’ll handle Rihab’s magic for the most part. You guys just duck when something magical comes at you.”
“His method of combat appears to be ‘bash it until it stops moving’,” Dimi sighed.
“These are…?” King Niniano asked.
“Dimi’s my main advisor,” Kennet explained. “Former slave, incredible dancer and the most vicious person you’re ever likely to meet. Really good at all the political stuff that goes over my head. Toma’s my vizier. He’s the one who makes me sign paperwork and who’s organized all of this. Oren’s the big guy outside yelling at the troops. He’s my general since he actually knows how to command an army and I don’t.”
“Ah,” King Barabbas said, nodding slowly as if that made sense even though his expression made Kennet think that he was surprised by all of that. Or maybe he was surprised that Kennet had already gathered a staff to support him. “You trust them?”
“As much as I trust anyone,” Kennet said and grinned at the way King Barabbas and Prince Didymos laughed. “You’ve had more experience with my paranoia than anyone else.”
“He gets more paranoid than this?” Dimi asked Prince Didymos. “How appalling.”
“Much more,” Prince Didymos said with that grin that lit up rooms. “I think his paranoia is the only reason I’m alive. Well, him and Idris. Idris has been doing a really good job as my bodyguard since he arrived.”
Idris’ little sniff of disgust didn’t hide how flattered he was by the praise. Na’im’s quiet hope that once the war was over Idris would be able to live life as an ordinary child made Kennet smile at the kid. That would be good, not that being a prince would be an ordinary life.
Kennet could feel things from each of the others, telling him that King Barabbas was somewhat worried that Kennet would be a threat to his kingdom after this. King Niniano and his daughter seemed to feel that he was a figurehead that they didn’t need to be concerned with. His focus was squarely on Toma while hers was on Dimi. Of course, Didymos was fully focused on Kennet but everything Kennet could feel coming from him was the same romantic nonsense that he’d tried to express before Kennet fell off the cliff.
None of that mattered. All that mattered was stopping King Rihab, stopping Shihab and hopefully catching Princess Tahirah so that she didn’t continue to send assassins against them all.
“Look, I know you’ve got a bunch of questions,” Kennet said directly to King Barabbas and King Niniano. “I can feel that. It’s kind of obvious. Doesn’t matter at the moment. We’ve got a war to fight. Everything else can wait until afterwards, always providing we all survive.”
“How long do you think this will last?” King Barabbas asked with the feeling that he’d keyed in on ‘war’.
“No fucking clue,” Kennet said, shrugging. “We’ve been fighting for years. Or more accurately they’ve been fighting for years against Rihab. I’ve been fighting ever since I crawled out of the damn river and that’s not that long at all. Hopefully we’ll deal with Rihab today. Might not manage it but he’s building to something huge in the very near future and so am I. Pretty much what I’d like is for you guys to cut a path through his troops so that I can take him on man to man.”
“You are completely insane,” Idris hissed. “Grandfather is more than a man.”
“So am I,” Kennet said.
He let Na’im’s magic flow outwards, showing in his eyes and radiating out of his body. The light in the tent shimmered blue just like it had when Kennet was under the water in the oasis. Neither Toma nor Dimi showed any signs of being disturbed by the display of magic though Dimi did lean a little away from Kennet as his temperature dropped back to Na’im’s normal level. Toma leaned in slightly. Idris tapped his forehead, lips and chest, face calm despite the prayer to Inina and Haraldr for protection. Both kings jerked backwards as if they hadn’t been prepared for anything like that. King Niniano’s daughter bolted to her feet, face far too pale in the blue light.
Didymos was the one who reacted the worst though. He flinched so badly that Idris put a hand on his shoulder to keep him in his seat. His face and aura both radiated misery, as if seeing Kennet do magic confirmed that they’d never be together. Of course, they weren’t going to be together anyway as far as Kennet was concerned but the magic seemed to finally convince him that it was over.
“Just get the soldiers out of my way,” Kennet told King Barabbas and King Niniano. “Do your best to keep them from running away, hiding in the desert. And, well, really. You need to warn them that things might so seriously sideways on us once the battle begins. I’m dropping a hurricane on our heads as soon as the fighting starts and Rihab’s surprise is sure to be nasty as all hell.”
He let the magic subside but a moment later it was back as Oren shoved the tent flap aside and pointed towards Rihab’s army. “They’re moving to attack!”
The general scramble for the door included everyone so Kennet didn’t feel bad at all about toppling his little stool over or shoving King Niniano’s daughter out of the way. King Rihab’s men were moving but so were all three of their armies. Oren had apparently already met with King Barabbas and King Niniano’s generals because the three of them were shouting orders that seemed to dovetail nicely with each other if the movements of the soldiers were anything to judge by. Kennet strode right past them, going to his waiting horse to mount up.
With a higher vantage point Kennet could see that this was probably not the real attack. Most of King Rihab’s men were holding back. Only a couple hundred or so where moving towards them; armed with spears, bows and arrows and swords, all of which glowed red to Na’im’s sight. Kennet bowed his head and let the storm loose. Rain began to fall on them, pounding down hard enough that the Kelairn and Penhale armies shouted in surprise. Kennet’s men didn’t react to it other than a few sighs in his immediate vicinity. Rihab’s troops didn’t react either but the steam that rose from the sand made him frown.
“How hot is the sand?” Kennet asked Dimi who had yet to mount, unlike Toma.
Dimi knelt and put a hand on the sand, pulling it back quickly before setting it on the sand again. “Too hot. Not burning but the heat is rising, Kennet.”
“Oren!” Kennet shouted over the general’s orders. “You’re going to have to deal with fog pretty damn soon. Rihab’s heating the sand and I’m pouring rain on it. Once the wind dies down that’s going to mean heavy fog.”
“Lovely,” Oren grumbled. “We’ll deal with it. Go kill that damned usurper!”
Kennet laughed. It died quickly as the hot magic that King Rihab had been working welled closer and closer to the surface. Na’im pulled his mind out of the clouds, coming down to rest inside of Kennet’s body. The wind battered at them all, knocking some of King Rihab’s men from their feet though they scrambled back up again immediately. It wasn’t as bad on Kennet’s side of the battlefield but the wind still made the big tent behind them snap and flutter like an overworked drum.
“Any idea what that bulge is?” Kennet asked Na’im. The sand behind King Rihab’s army was actually bulging upwards, pushing up as though it was trying to create a mountain in minutes.
“I have some suspicions but Shihab has never dared to do such a large working before,” Na’im replied. He sounded worried, which was not something that Kennet wanted to hear as their troops began firing arrows at King Rihab’s army. “If I am correct it may be very dangerous to be this close once it is unleashed.”
“Gonna share what you think it is?” Kennet asked.
All he got was worried silence from Na’im and an image of a mountain somewhere else in the world. It smoked and rumbled but that wasn’t something that told Kennet what Na’im thought it was. He focused on the battle instead of worrying about Na’im’s fears and Shihab’s plans. That was more important at the moment.
The armor King Rihab’s men wore was spelled to make their arrows bounce off so Kennet reached out with Na’im’s help and direction. Breaking the spell took a bit of effort and a wash of water welling up from the sand. To his amusement that wash of water made the sand turn liquid under the other army’s feet, sucking many of them down to their chests in sand. As soon as they were buried Kennet grinned, pushing the water towards King Rihab’s remaining troops to try and repeat the trick.
It didn’t work at all. The sand was so hot that the water turned to steam that was whipped away by the rising wind. Kennet growled at that, feeling King Rihab’s amusement that he would waste power that way. Na’im felt equally annoyed by the wave of amusement coming from Rihab, or maybe it was Shihab, but he didn’t react to it. The soldiers that Kennet had trapped in the sand shouted and struggled, trying to free themselves as arrows rained down on them once more. This time the arrows struck home, killing most of them on the first volley and then killing the rest on the second volley.
“I need to be closer,” Kennet said as he realized that whatever he and Na’im did was going to be countered unless it was right in King Rihab’s face. “I need to kill this fucker hand to hand.”
“You’re a mage and a king,” Dimi snapped, one hand latching onto Kennet’s boot to keep him from riding away. “Surely you can do this from a distance, Kennet.”
“No, not really,” Kennet said. “He can see it coming. Like in a fight where your enemy’s feints are so damn obviously feints that you know what he’s going to do before he does it. I can see what he’s going to do and he can see what I’m doing. The damage I’ve done to him has always been up close and personal, Dimi. If he’s far enough away he can block and he can run. I won’t let that happen.”
“Then we need a charge,” King Barabbas said calmly despite the way Dimi glared at him. “Take your best warriors, Kennet. Attack. We will guard your flanks and help you cut your way through to Rihab’s side.”
“Agreed,” King Niniano said much less calmly but still with enough determination that his general nodded his support for the plan. “We cannot stop a mage-king. Only you can. Be careful.”
“Careful is the last damn thing this will be,” Kennet snorted. “Damn near suicidal and terrifying is more like it but that’s what it’s going to take to kill Rihab and free the entire Rudrash from his rule.”
“And that’s what it’s going to take to stop Shihab, right?” Kennet asked Na’im. “Killing his host and then preventing him from taking another right away.”
“Yes,” Na’im sighed. “That’s the only way to end this.”
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