Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 2: The Warrior Prophet
by R. Scott Bakker
The First March
The Plains of Mengedda
Welcome to Chapter Five of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Four!
Why must I conquer, you ask? War makes clear. Life or Death. Freedom or Bondage. War strikes the sediment from the water of life.
—TRIAMIS I, JOURNALS AND DIALOGUES
This is an appropriate quote since this chapter is told from two characters POV: Cnaiür and Saubon. They are both warriors. They are both ones who yearn for war, finding clarity in it. Cnaiür so easily discerns the battlefield while the disturbing sights and smells only reminds him of how his people find war holy. And Saubon is invigorated by it. To him, war is something simple, the clash of arms, not the pointlessness of politics. Everything is so clear in war, not muddied by all the ways life pulls at him. This quote explains the mindset of conquerers as opposed to unveiling truths like other of the quotes at the start of chapters, giving us insights in the characters whose perspective we’re about to read.
Early Summer 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, near the Plains of Mengedda
Proyas and his companions return from their patrol inspecting the heathen attack. Cnaiür is with them and realizes even before seeing the Holy War that there is too little smoke from campfires and too few scavenging birds flying. And he is corrected. Only the Conriyans and Nansur remained, everyone else (the Shrial Knights, Gothyelk, and Skaiyelt) followed Saubon. Proyas meets with Conphas, demanding why he let them go. Conphas speaks “as he always did, as though intellectually filing his nails” informing Proyas that Kellhus had a vision and wouldn’t be dismayed Proyas is dismayed, shocked that Kellhus told Saubon to march.
“So the man said,” Conphas replied. Such is the madness of this world, his tone added, though his eyes suggested something far different.
There was a moment of communal hesitation. Over the past weeks, the Dûnyain’s name had gathered much weight among the Inrithi, as though it were a rock that held at arm’s length. Cnaiür could see it in their faces: the look of beggars with gold sewn into their hems—or of drunkards with over-shy daughters… What, Cnaiür wondered, would happen when the rock became too heavy?
Afterward, when Proyas confronted the Dûnyain at Xinemus’s camp, Cnaiür could only think, He makes mistakes!
Proyas confronts Kellhus angrily, demanding an explanation. Achamian starts to explain the situation but is cut off by Proyas. To everyone’s shock, Kellhus shouts out, “You’re not my better!” Everyone feels something preternatural about Kellhus as he faces Proyas. He reminds the Conryian prince that they are equals. Proyas regains his anger after a moment, demanding to know why Kellhus, as an equal, didn’t let Proyas be apart of any plans.
“I made no decision. You know that. I told Saubon only…” For a fleeting moment, a strange, almost lunatic vulnerability animated his expression. His lips parted. He seemed to look through the Conriyan Prince.
The Dûnyain’s eyes refocused, his stance hardened—everything about him… converged somehow, as though he were more here than anyone else. As though he stood among ghosts.
He speaks in hidden cues, Cnaiür reminded himself. He wars against all of us!
Kellhus only told Saubon what he sees, and Proyas demands to know what that was. Kellhus asks if he really does want to know. Proyas hesitated, glancing at Cnaiür for a moment, then declares that Kellhus has doomed the holy war and leaves.
In private, Cnaiür confronts Kellhus, the Dûnyain claiming he did what he had to “secure our position.” Cnaiür is angry, pointing out he has alienated them from their patron, Proyas, and sending Saubon and half their forces to their death. Cnaiür is believes the Fanim were likely to win, and now it seems even more certain. “By the Dead God, you do need me to teach you war, don’t you?”
Kellhus, of course, was unmoved. “Alienating Proyas is to our advantage. He judges men harshly, holds all in suspicion. He opens himself only when he’s moved to regret. And he will regret. As for Saubon, I told him only what he wanted to hear. Every man yearns to hear their flattering delusions confirmed. Every man. That is why they support—willingly—so many parasitic castes, such as augurs, priest, memorial—”
“Read my face, dog!” Cnaiür grated. “You will not convince me this is a success!”
Pause. Shining eyes blinking, watching. The intimation of a horrifying scrutiny.
“No,” Kellhus said, “I suppose not.”
Kellhus does admit he didn’t think other groups beside Saubon’s Galeoth and the Shrial knights would have marched. He deemed losing Saubon and the knights acceptable, the Holy War able to go on. Cnaiür calls that lies, pointing out Kellhus could have stopped the others if he wanted and accuses Kellhus of believing Saubon’s tactical assessment of the situation of Skauras abandoning Gedea. Cnaiür throws Kellhus words back in his own face because “every man yearns to hear their flattering delusions confirmed.”
Kellhus explains he needs one Great Name to follow him. If Saubon takes Gedea, he will have that and the others will follow. Then he can claim the Holy War. To Kellhus, the risk was worth it. Cnaiür thinks he’s a fool. The need to correct Kellhus on the depths of his mistake has Cnaiür about to spill out Fanim tactics and how they’ll destroy Saubon when he sees Serwë glaring at him with hatred. Then he realizes he’s being manipulated by Kellhus to divulge those secrets.
And suddenly he realized that he’d actually believed the Dûnyain, believed that he had made a mistake.
And yet it was often like this; believing and not believing. It reminded him of listening to old Haurut, the Utemot memorialist who’d taught him his verses as a child. One moment Cnaiür would be sweeping across the Steppe with a hero like great Uthgai, the next he would be staring at a broken old man, drunk on gishrut, stumbling on phrases a thousand years old. When one believed, one’s soul was moved. When one didn’t, everything else moved.
“Not everything I say,” the Dûnyain said, “can be a lie, Scylvendi. So why do you insist on thinking I deceive you in all things?”
“Because that way,” Cnaiür grated, “you deceive me in nothing.”
The rest of the Holy War has been forced to march into Gedea after Saubon. Small groups were sent ahead to warn him, but one was found dead. Proyas asks of Cnaiür if Saubon is surrounded by Skauras. Probably Cnaiür begins to exam the signs of the battle, the scents of rot and sight of bloating bodies reminds him that war is holy. Proyas asks Cnaiür if he still believes in Kellhus. Cnaiür gives a diffident answer that Kellhus sees things.
Proyas snorted. “Your manner does little to reassure me.” He stood, casting shadow across the dead Conriyan, slapping the dust from the ornamental skirt he wore over his mail leggings. “That is always the way of it, I suppose.”
“What do you mean, my Prince?” Xinemus asked.
“We think things will be more glorious than they are, that they’ll unfold to our hopes, our expectations…” He unstopped his waterskin, took too long a drink. “The Nansur have a word for it,” he continued. “We ‘idealize.’”
Cnaiür muses that this “admixture of honesty and insight” is why Proyas is so beloved by his men. Kellhus acts much the same way, though Cnaiür wonders if there is a difference. Proyas asks what happened Cnaiür isn’t sure while Lord Gaidekki calls the patrol’s leader a fool who was overwhelmed by numbers. Cnaiür disagreed but doesn’t speak, instead heads up the ridge. He studies the battlefield while listening to Proyas arguing with his men. Cnaiür doesn’t see Proyas as a fool but “his fervor made him impatient.” Despite Cnaiür’s lectures on the Fanim, Proyas still didn’t understand them. “And when men who knew little argued with men who knew nothing, tempers were certain to be thrown out of joint.” Cnaiür has doubts they’ll succeed, especially given the infighting of the leaders and how they reject most of his advice.
In so many ways, the Holy War was the antithesis of a Scylvendi horde. The People brooked few if any followers. No pampering slaves, no priests or augurs, and certainly no women, which could always be had when one ranged enemy country. They carried little baggage over what a warrior and his mount could bear, even on the longest campaigns. If they exhausted their amicut and could secure no forage, they either let blood from their mounts or went hungry. Their horses, though small, unbecoming, and relatively slow, were bred to the land, not to the stable. The horse he now rode—a gift from Proyas—not only required grain over and above fodder, but enough to feed three men!
Cnaiür is frustrated that they didn’t even understand the Holy War had to break up to march across Gedea. A large host marches slower and that requires more food. Gedea isn’t a fertile land. He wonders if they’re inbred or beaten in the head as children. But the breakup had to be planned. To have means of communication and planned routes. He had to make them understand or they were doomed.
Murdering Anasûrimbor Moënghus was all that mattered. It was the weight that drew all lines plumb.
Any indignity… Anything!
From the ridge, Cnaiür orders Lord Ingiaban to get more men to secure the sight in case Fanim attack them. He is ignored so Cnaiür rides down the hill. He doesn’t care if they think him rude, he says what has to be said. Xinemus volunteers to go, but Cnaiür insists on Lord Ingiaban, who then calls Cnaiür a dog pissing on his leg and demands to know why him. Cnaiür does, explain Ingiaban’s men are closes and Proyas’s life is in danger. That takes him back with Xinemus commanding Ingiaban to obey. Ingiaban grows angry, telling the Marshal not to give orders to his betters while Gaidekki makes a joke. Ingiaban does go. Silence follows.
Proyas finally asks Cnaiür what happened here. Cnaiür says the patrol was outwitted and explains how the Fanim ambushed them from the hill while the patrol rode up in a tight file like they were on a road instead of spread out since they’re in open country. They were slaughtered trying to get up the sandy hill. A few made it, killing some of the Fanim. The survivors were shot to death by arrows. Cnaiür suspects the Fanim were afraid to fight the Conriyans in close quarters since the few who made it to the top must have caused enough casualties. Cnaiür estimates there were sixty or seventy while Gaidekki exclaims, “He reads the dead like scripture.” Proyas asks if Saubon is encircled.
Cnaiür matched his [Proyas] gaze. “When one wars on foot against horse, one is always encircled”
“So the bastard may still live,” Proyas said, his breathlessness betrayed by a faint quaver in his voice. The Holy War could survive the loss of one nation, but three? Saubon had gambled more than his own life on this rash gambit—far more—which was why Proyas, over Conphas’s protestations, had ordered his people to march. Perhaps four nations could prevail where three could not.
Xinemus muses that Saubon might be right and could be chasing Skauras’s skirmishers. Cnaiür disagrees. He is certain Skauras has assembled in Gedea and waits with his full host. Gaidekki asks how he could know. “Because the Fanim who killed your kinsman took a great risk.” Proyas understands, saying the Fanim attacked a larger, more heavily armed force. He deuces thy must have orders to keep Proyas from making contact with Saubon.
Cnaiür lowered his head in deference—not to the man, but to the truth. At long last, Nersei Proyas was beginning to understand. Skauras had been watching, studying the Holy War since long before it had left Momemn’s walls. He knew its weaknesses… Knowledge. It all came down to knowledge.
Moënghus had taught him that.
“War is intellect,” the Scylvendi chieftain said. “So long as you and your people insist on waging it with your hearts, you are doomed.”
Saubon is watching his host ford a river onto the Plains of Mengedda, staring at the land, knowing he had to own it. He looks at the field, knowing this is where the Vulgar Holy War, along with his cousin Tharschilka, had died. He’s not pleased to see his force spreading out on the other side, some of his men even beginning to fish. They had marched a week to get here, already parting ways with Gothyelk, Skaiyelt, and their forces over a difference of tactics and objectives. As much as Saubon wanted to take the city of Hinnereth, which he wants for himself, they had to secure the flanks. Gothyelk was more concerned with passing through Gedea to get to Shimeh, not caring at all about military realities. At the time, Saubon was pleased that they left, thinking Skauras had withdrawn from Gedea and he could seize it for himself.
Saubon has been obsessing over Kellhus words to march and punish the Shrial Knights. For the last few days, he has had doubts, wondering if he was mistaken and that Kellhus hadn’t confirmed his belief of no resistance but suggested the opposite. That they would have to fight. “How else was he to punish the Shrial Knights?” As he gazes at Mengedda, the Battleplain, he is sure Skauras means to fight. He wonders if Kellhus is a fraud.
Such was the madness of things—the perversity!—that one thought, one slight twitch of the soul, could overturn so much. Where before he need only collect the future like a tax farmer, now he threw number-sticks against the great black—for the lives of thousands, no less! Perhaps, for the entire Holy War.
One thought… So frail was the balance between soul and world.
He weeps in his tent at night because of the dread doubt has sown. He realizes this should be expected. The gods have always “taunted, frustrated, and humiliated him.” He was the seventh son but with the drive of the first. His father would punish him for no reasons, beat him for his ambition He had come so close sacking Momemn only for a young Conphas to stop him. The gods always cheated him.
After patrols, led by Athjeari, spot the Fanim, Saubon’s unease only grows while his nobles are unimpressed. They aren’t shocked to learn they’re shadowed. They point out Skauras should have defended the passes if he meant to hold Gedea. And because he is a landless prince, his nobles don’t feel the need to really follow his orders. His is the titular head of the Galeoth host. They go hunting and hawking while he has to pretend to listen to them. But he knows the truth. His forty-five thousand Galeoth and nine thousand Shrial knights were alone in hostile territory and vastly outnumbered. “They had no real discipline, no real leader. And they had no sorcerers. No Scarlet Spires.”
Back in the present, watching his men cross the ford, Saubon sees a patrol returning bearing lances with severed head—a Galeoth sign battle approaches. They were sent by Athjeari. Kussalt, Saubon’s groom, rides up from the patrol, Saubon desperate to know what they reports. As the leaders of the force, Gotian and Sarcellus included, learn that Athjeari and Wanhail have been fighting all day, they are convinced Skauras has assembled on the plains and is trying to delay the host with pickets. Others disagree, saying they are being baited to be rash, that Skauras is eager to fight them on favorable grounds as soon as possible. But Gotian, always cautioning about Fanim, is seen as a coward by many Galeoth.
Saubon realizes something. That they are being delayed because Gothyelk must have decided to cross Mengedda, being the swiftest way across hilly Gedea. The pickets Athjeari is fighting are to prevent the patrols from joining up with their allies. Gotian is on Saubon’s side. Saubon realizes that if he reconnects with Gothyelk and Skaiyelt, the entire Middle North will be on the field. “The greatest Norsirai host since the fall of the Ancient North!”
Suddenly the severed heads upon the lances no longer seemed a rebuke, a totem of their doom; it seemed a sign, the smoke that promised cleansing fire. With unaccountable certainty, Saubon realized that Skauras was afraid…
As well he should be.
His misapprehensions fell away, and the old exhilaration coursed like liquor through his veins, a sensation he had always attributed to Gilgaöl, One-Eyed War.
The Whore will be kind to you.
Saubon begins giving orders, wanting Gothyelk located. He plans to remain in hills until they find Gothyelk, denying the Fanim flat land for their horses. Saubon is excited that the months of “the womanish war of words was finally over.” Holy war had begun exactly as Prince Kellhus said. But then he remembers he has to punish the Shrial Knights and his excitement vanishes. He tells his groom he needs a copy of the Tractate. His groom actually has it memorized, which shocks Saubon even knowing his groom was a pious man. He asks what the Latter Prophet said on sacrifice, which turns out to be a lot.
“What the Gods demand… Is it proper because they demand it?”
“No,” Kussalt said, still frowning.
For some reason, the thoughtless certainty of the answer angered him [Saubon]. What did the old fool know?
“You disbelieve me,” Kussalt said, his voice thick with weariness. “But it’s the glory of Inri Sej—”
“Enough of this prattle,” Coithus Saubon snapped. He glanced at the severed head—at the apple—noticed the glint of a golden incisor between slack and battered lips. So this was their enemy… Drawing his sword, he struck it from the lance, and the lance from Kussalt’s fist.
“I believe what I need to,” he grated.
What a great way to reintroduce arrogant, narcissistic Conphas than his manner in being confronted by Proyas over a sizable portion of the Holy War marching without the rest. Bored, superior to everyone around him, more concerned with himself than what it meant. It wasn’t Conphas’s fault that everyone around him was idiots and listened to Kellhus.
Now Cnaiür has a moment or realization that Kellhus can make mistakes. He’s infallible Cnaiür needs that knowledge if he will have any chance of killing Moënghus If the son makes mistakes, why not the father.
Cnaiür sees how Kellhus uses every action and tone to control the men around him. To war against them as he convinced them that he is a prophet, leading them down that path slowly. Everything is calculated. It’s always great to see Kellhus through Cnaiür’s suspicious eyes. Bakker needs to keep reminding the readers you can’t trust him . No matter how sincere everyone else believes him to be. In every other POV both us the readers and the character are being manipulated by Kellhus to see him favorably.
Proyas glances at Cnaiür The prince has come to trust Cnaiür’s judgment in martial matters. The fact Cnaiür predicted something was wrong at the Holy War before the party saw them no doubt lifted his worth in Proyas’s eyes.
Cnaiür realizes he still has value in Kellhus’s eyes. The man doesn’t know war. He has made a dangerous gamble that may very well cost the success of the Holy War and doom his mission to kill Moënghus
Kellhus’s explanation about how alienating Proyas is a good thing would, from any other character, smack of self-delusion, a way to explain a bad mistake. But it is probably Kellhus’s honest assessment of his actions. The only problem with his actions is they HING on Saubon being successful, which Cnaiür is certain won’t be the case.
Humans do love flattering lies. That’s why so many powerful people have entourages, why it can be so hard for them to hear contrary opinions. I’m a writer, and sometimes when my readers talk to me about my books I wonder if they’re being honest or telling me what I want to hear so they can stay on good terms with me. Because I don’t want to be told my writing sucks, but if I’m not, how can I improve. It is a dangerous trap to get sucked into. Look at Emperor Ikurei and all the sycophants he has with him, puffing him up to believe he is a god.
Cnaiür is really enjoying himself realizing that Kellhus has badly miscalculated, how he has believed Saubon’s assessment and based his actions on it. And then to spit it back in Kellhus’s face about believing flattering lies. It’s a satisfactory moment.
But it doesn’t last because Cnaiür realizes he’s been fed flattering lies, stopping himself from telling about Fanim tactics in a fit of anger. War is the last thing he has that is useful. Kellhus, as we know from the last chapter, is gambling on Saubon’s success. He realized he has to make educated guesses that there are too many variables, which can lead him to make mistakes. And then he uses that to manipulate Cnaiür into divulging information. And it almost worked. You cannot trust Kellhus ever.
We do idealize, don’t we? Such a mistake. It always gets your hopes crushed when the hypetrain derails. Then notice how Cnaiür compares Proyas’s honest insights to how Kellhus acts, thinking Kellhus did the same. Of course, Proyas are honest where Kellhus is faking that sincerity
Cnaiür’s statement on men with few facts arguing with men who know none leading to arguments is borne out by the comment section on almost any internet website.
Cnaiür’s skill at reading the signs of battlefield and his knowledge of tactics is on display here. It’s fascinating to read while at the same time illuminating much about the Kianene culture, such as how they were loathe to kill their enemy’s horses.
Cnaiür is right They have to have good intelligence. If they had planned it properly, they could have used this to their advantage. If the leader of the patrol had bothered to have his own scouts, he wouldn’t have blundered into the ambush. And Saubon, if he had also done that, he wouldn’t be wondering through Gedea surrounded and cut off.
We see with Saubon surveying Gedea what his true goal is. He is the son of a king, but he has a lot of older brothers (six). He will never inherit. But he wants it so bad, believing of his brothers he should have been born the first one, that he has what it takes. And since he’s clearly not the kill all my brothers type of guy, he has to carve out his own kingdom. In our world, many Crusaders formed Levant Kingdoms in the Holy Lands after retaking them from Muslim occupation, which didn’t make the Byzantine Empire happy since the Muslims had conquered the Holy Land from the Byzantines a few centuries earlier, much like our Nansur Empire wants all this land back because the Fanim took it from them.
Doubt is insidious the way it can disrupt your certainty. Like Saubon now grappling with the realization he had led his men into a trap, that he allowed two-thirds of their force to go a different way, is hitting him hard. Especially as he looks at the Battleplain. Doubt is eating at him.
Doubt eats at Saubon even when he realizes the truth of what Skauras is up to and that they need to get to the Gothyelk’s aid. He always is questioning himself. Always seeks validation. Being beaten by his father, always belittled, has really affected him as an adult.
Saubon doesn’t understand why he is angered by Kussalt’s answer about sacrifice. But it’s simple: Kussalt’s answer didn’t flatter the lies Saubon wanted to believe. He is certain he has figured out the truth, and now he won’t let anything rob him of it.
Well, it looks like Kellhus gamble will pay off if Saubon reconnects with Gothyelk and the Middle North are victorious against Skauras.