He passed Carsek a flask. It had something in it that tasted like fire, but it dulled the pain.
"Thanks," Carsek grunted, handing it back. He paused, then went on. "I'm sorry. It's just the damned waiting. It's like being in my cage, before the master sent me out to fight." Thaniel nodded, took a swig from the flask himself, then stoppered it. Nearby, Findos the Half-Handed, deep in a fever, shrieked at some memory or nightmare.
"I've always wondered, but never asked," Thaniel said pensively. "Why do you Vhiri Croatani call us the Bornmen, anyway?"
Carsek wiped the rain from his eyes with the back of his hand. "That's a strange question. It's what you call yourselves, isn't it? Vhiri Genian, yes? And your queen, the firstborn of your people in this place, isn't she named Genia, 'the Born'?"
Thaniel blinked at him, then threw back his head and laughed.
"What's so funny?"
Thaniel shook his head. "I see now. In your language that's how it sounds. But really-" He stopped, for a sudden exclamation had gone up among the men, a mass cry of fear and horror that moved down from the front.
Carsek put his hand down to push himself up, and found the mud strangely warm. A viscous, sweet-smelling fluid was flowing down the trench, two fingers deep.
"By all that's holy," Thaniel swore.
It was blood, a river of it.
With an inarticulate cry, Carsek came back to his feet.
"No more of this. No more!"
He started to clamber out of the trench.
"Stop, warrior," a voice commanded.
A woman's voice, and it halted him as certainly as the spectral whip of a master.
He turned and saw her.
She wore black mail, and her face above it was whiter than bone. Her long auburn hair hung lank, soaked by the pestilent rain, but she was beautiful as no earthly woman could be. Her eyes sparked like lightning in the heart of a black cloud.
Behind her stood her champions, clad much as she, bared feyswords gleaming like hot brass. Tall and unafraid, they stood. They looked like gods.
"Great queen!" Carsek stammered.
"You are ready to fight, warrior?" she asked.
"I am, Majesty. By Taranos, I am!"
"Pick fifty men and follow me."
The forward trenches were filled with milled meat, with few pieces still recognizable as human. Carsek tried to ignore the sucking his feet made, somehow different from walking in ordinary mud. He had less success ignoring the stench of opened bowels and fresh offal. What had killed them? A demon? A spell? He didn't care. They were gone, but he was going to fight, by the Twin and the Bull.
When they halted in the foremost trench, which was half again as deep as Carsek was tall, he could see the black walls of the fortress looming above. This was what nearly a month and two thousand or more sacrifices had gained them-a hole at the foot of the fortress.
"Now it's just a brisk walk to the wall that can't be broken and the gate that can't be breached," Thaniel said. "The battle's nearly won!"
"Now who's the skeptic? Here's a chance for glory, and to die on my feet," Carsek said. "It's all I ask."
"Hah," Thaniel said. "Myself, I intend not only to cover myself in glory, but to have a drink when it's all done." He held out his palm. "Take my hand, Carsek. Let's agree--we'll meet for a drink when it's over. Overlooking the arena where once you fought. And there we shall account who has more glory. And it shall be me!"
Carsek took his hand. "In the very seat of the master." The two men clenched a mutual fist.
"It's done, then," Thaniel said. "You won't break a promise, and I won't, so surely we'll both live."
"Surely," Carsek said.
Excerpted from The Briar King by Greg Keyes Copyright© 2003 by Greg Keyes. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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