By Michael Johnston
This is an excerpt from the novel Soleri by Michael Johnston, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Tor Books, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2017 by Michael Johnston.
THE BLACK SANDS
They used to be fishermen, but that night hunger made them thieves. Under a moonless sky the men set out from the island in small wooden skiffs, sailing across the ink black sea toward the distant city. They were crowded in the long thin boats, crammed shoulder to shoulder, some turned sideways or doubled over to shield themselves against the waves. Gusty wind and angry water forced a few ships to turn back, while others were lost to the surf, and those who journeyed onward kept their eyes focused on the horizon, searching for the dim silhouette of the Dromus. The great wall was hewn from cinder-grey rock and reflected no light, its jagged ridge biting at the lowhanging stars like a blacker piece of night. The skiff rolled and the boy caught sight of the desert barrier. His stomach ached, but not from nausea. He had eaten little in the past few days — stale salt cod, sea grass steeped in broth.
Up ahead, the first raiders made landfall. One by one the boats crashed into the surging whitecaps at the edge of the beach, the waves tossing the smaller ones, dashing others on the rocks, leaving the fishermen scrambling in the tide. The undertow took the unluckier of them, their bodies rolling over and over in the froth. Those who made it to shore moved quickly to conceal their arrival, and the boy watched as several others turned a longboat on its belly and used the paddles to submerge it in sand until it was just one more swell on the rippled beach. As dawn came, a cresting wave propelled his craft to shore. The skiff tipped as they neared the black sand, and everyone went overboard — he was first in the water, overwhelmed by the dark, the rushing swells, the screams of men. In all his ten and five years, he had never left the southern islands. Now here he was, scrambling for footing on a foreign beach, staring at the desert wall as his crew tipped their craft over and hid themselves in the shifting sands. The boy settled into the sand alongside the others, shaking with nerves as the bubbling waves rolled over his feet. He blinked salty water from his eyes and tried to orient himself. He gripped his oilskin sack and held it close to his side. The beach stretched to the horizon in both directions, with a field of rocks that extended all the way to the imposing wall, built right against the high sheer cliffs. The raiding party had meant to arrive before sunrise but it was already dawn, the dark sea had proven treacherous, and they had wasted long hours lost and adrift. He was glad they had arrived late — with the dim light he could avoid the sharp rocks in his path — but they had to make haste and march before the sun had fully risen. More boats were still arriving. The boy waited, trembling with fear and excitement as the last skiffs ground their hulls into the beach. The men were restless, eager. He felt an elbow in his side and craned his neck in time to catch the first sickle of sunlight as it lit the upper edge of the Dromus with a golden halo.
Voices echoed from behind him. The men were talking, scattered about the beach in twos and threes — brothers, cousins, friends, strangers — their whispers grew louder and sharper. It was time. One by one they rose from the damp trenches and made their way up the black sand beach.
Behind them the sky was already beginning to turn pink. As he marched, the boy was suddenly aware that only a few of the men wore shoes; most were barefoot, and the black sand was growing hot from the sun’s rays. If they lingered, it would scorch their feet like hot coals. He had heard that condemned men in Sola were made to stand barefoot on the sand until their feet burned, their limbs melting out from under them. He shook the thought from his head and pushed his way forward. A group of boys shoved past him, making no pretense of rank or formation. The sun striking their spears and glinting off their swords showed their weapons to be nothing more than fishing spears and scrapers, dull knives and fishhooks and lead sinkers turned to shot for poorly made slings. None wore armor, only seal-hide mantles and knee length tunics of homespun flax.
Standing in front of the cliffs, staring at the walls of the Dromus above them, the men from Scargill wondered for a moment if they had made a terrible mistake, if they should turn back. As if in reply, the eldest among them, Halst — whose idea this trip had been — urged them forward — reminding them that for the last several months all they had to eat were the bones of last season’s salt dried fish and those were all gone. There was no going back now. There was nothing to go back to. The men turned once more to face the Dromus, that ash stone monolith, onyx black, impenetrable, they said, impossible to breach — this wall that kept Sola rich, protected, and apart from the lower kingdoms. In the distance, as the bright morning sun spread from the barrier’s rim, they saw the first glint of what they had come for — the riches promised beyond the wall — gold.
All the gold of the Soleri. The words rang in their heads, the proverb they had heard as children at their father’s knees, words from their deepest memories: “Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be.” The ruling family had been in power longer than even the calendars that stretched back 2,826 years — first in stone, then clay, then parchment. Those records told a history of conquest and domination by a family descended from gods, a family older than anything in the known world, ruling with nearly absolute authority for three millennia. There was no world without the Soleri — they were the center of everything, the end and the beginning — and so it was to the center of the empire, to the Dromus and all that lay beyond, that the men from Scargill, dressed in sea-soaked rags and driven by desperation, now turned.
They had spent three weeks at sea, two sailing along the southern archipelago’s sheltered waters and a third upon the open sea. The first stretch had been bearable; the lay of the water was familiar near their home. The men were reared on skiffs and rafts and had cut their teeth with nets and sails, but only a few had ever made the journey to the mainland. Scargill, their home island, sprouted from the southern tip of the Wyrre, an archipelago that numbered ten times one hundred islands. Three weeks of sleepless nights and cold mornings had passed before their tattered sails drove them north from their craggy shores across the Cressel Sea to Sola’s black sand beaches. Carrion birds circled the Dromus, crying to the fishermen, beckoning them forward. Fear made the sons of Scargill tremble, and the older men rallied the younger, striking spears and slapping backs as they urged the crowd forward. The boy followed, blending in with the rest of his fishermen, his head down, his oilskin sack clutched tightly against his chest, the sand feeling warm beneath his feet. The cliffs loomed just ahead, and the men thought to use its shadow as shelter from whatever was waiting for them from beyond the wall, but stones began pelting them from above. They halted their march, suddenly afraid, but it was only the wind blowing bits of limestone from the bluffs high above. Then came a thin, far-away sound like a cry, like the voice of a guard on the lookout warning them away.
But they pressed on, passing into the wall’s growing shadow with a mixture of dread and determination. They had crossed the burnt sand beach and were within striking distance, but now they were vulnerable to attack from above, from the deadshot archers of the Soleri army. They scanned the wall for signs of its inhabitants, upward and down, following the ragged contour of the Dromus until it disappeared into the horizon. The line thinned out along its broad curve, and they moved more quickly now as the ground became more certain underneath their feet, the wide plain of the desert opening up around the ashstone barrier. There it was. The Gate of Coronel. He could see the two panels of the gateway, each one the size of a great raft turned on end. But what was this? The doors stood open, their hinges creaking in the wind — making the sound they had mistaken, from the cliffs, for a human cry. A trap, some said. If they crossed the threshold, they would dash through the great archway and fall into a pit, where the Soleri army would slaughter them one by one, sending their heads home to their wives and children. But others disagreed, said it was just a bit of luck, that the guards must be napping in the first light of dawn. They should take this chance, they murmured, while they still could. The open gate stood before them. The elders made the decision: the fishermen of Scargill would charge the wall as planned.
Black sand filled the air, grating and stinging at their eyes. For a moment there was only dust tearing at their skin, darkness. Then the wind faded. They crossed the Dromus and entered the gate. Steeled themselves for spears, for swords, for fire, for the emperor’s soldiers, warriors of exceptional skill and ferocity, who were bred to conquer and slay. Who were said to be able to kill with a breath, with a look. They were ready for anything, but nothing rose to meet them. No fire. No arrows. No soldiers. The Dromus was empty. Unguarded.
There was no one there.
Inside the wall they found the remains of soldiers’ encampments: empty barracks with their doors gaping, tattered tents, half-burned fires extinguished before their heat could consume the tall stacks of wood. A skinless fennec hung on a spit, its muscles shriveled, rotting. Farther on, beyond the mud brick village, the temple-house of Mithra stood looted, its once-shining dome stripped of its gold casing, the brown clay tiles exposed to the sun. Broken shields lay crusted with blood baked black by the morning sun, doors and walls were covered with splintered arrows, the ground was littered with crushed spears. Though the damage was fresh, the desert was already scratching away the battle’s remains. Soon only the stones would remain.
No soldier stood guard, and even the gold they had seen from a distance was nothing more than the sun’s first rays reflecting off the temple’s tattered dome. No army and no riches here. No food or fresh water either — the storehouses and water barrels stood empty. The severed remains of a hand flapped against the temple gate, the exposed palm held the emperor’s brand, an ink-black circle, that was pierced in its center by a bronze-tipped arrow. As if to warn: turn back! The men would not turn back. The fishermen from Scargill, their limbs thin, bones poking out at the joints, who had come if not for gold then simply for food for their children, could not go home, not yet. Past the temple, past the fields of spears and upturned earth, the men pushed onward till the air turned foul. Here at last were the mighty soldiers of the Soleri. But the fighting men were not arranged in serried ranks, nor were they spread out in a mighty phalanx of spears and helms.
The soldiers lay lifeless, stacked in mounds, left to rot in the sun and the wind, left for the crow’s next meal. The men from Scargill, woolly-bearded elders and smooth-chinned boys stopped their advance. The boy scratched his cheek, and spit in dismay. There was nowhere else to go, nothing left to see.
Around them, the Dromus stretched to infinity — its black line holding the last traces of night.
Everything else was just sand.
Copyright © 2017 Michael Johnston
Will be published by Tor Books on June 13, 2017
In hardcover and digtal formats
Michael Johnston was born in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child and a teen he was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and during a lecture on the history of ancient Egypt, the seed of an idea was born. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, graduating at the top of his class. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before moving to Los Angeles. Sparked by the change of locale, a visit to the desert, and his growing dissatisfaction with the architectural industry, he sought a way to merge his interests in architecture and history with his love of fantasy. By day he worked as an architect, but by night he wrote and researched an epic fantasy novel inspired by the history of ancient Egypt and the tragic story of King Lear. After working this way for several years, he shut down his successful architecture practice and resolved to write full time. He now lives and writes in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can find Michael on twitter @mjohnstonauthor or at his website.
Author photo by Cathryn Farnsworth.
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