Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior
by R. Scott Bakker
The Istyuli Plains
Welcome to Chapter Four of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Three!
All ropes come up short if pulled long enough. All futures end in tragedy.
And they forged counterfeits from our frame, creatures vile and obscene, who hungered only for violent congress. These beasts they loosed upon the land, where they multiplied, no matter how fierce the Ishroi who hunted them. And soon Men clamoured at our gates, begging sanctuary, for they could not contend with the creatures. “They wear your face,” the penitents cried. “This calamity is your issue.” But we were wroth, and turned them away, saying, “These are not our Sons. And you are not our Brothers.”
An interesting quote. All futures end in tragedy. The tragedy of death, certainly. But also the tragedy of history. The cycles of violence because we cannot see each other as brothers and we cannot take responsibility for our mistakes as we see in the second quote.
The Nonmen didn’t want to admit their responsibility in the Inchoroi’s survival nor did they want to ally with those they thought were their lessers. Especially those who are being harmed by their mistake. They could have helped them, but didn’t. Not until it was the ruin of them all.
And now we find ourselves back with Sorweel heading out on their patrol. And where does his future end?
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli
The Scions are crossing the plain to the southwest looking for game to drive towards the Army of the Middle-North. But they find so little, they’re barely feeding themselves. The Parching Wind doesn’t cease. Sorweel, despite being “bred to the plains, to open endless skies” feels so small on the barren, flat plain. It’s a reminder to Men that the World is far bigger than their ambition.
Sorweel can’t ever shake how small he feels, not even during the embarrassing language drills with Eskeles. Sorweel feels like a schoolboy around Eskeles not the King of Sakarpus despite Eskeles saying he’s here to chaperon all the members of the Scions. But he is because they are special to their parents, the enemies of Kellhus that remain a threat to the New Empire. Sorweel finds the fat man with no armor or weapons with them ridiculous and yet believes that Eskeles is there to protect them with his sorcerery.
At night, he pretends that those around him are his father and uncles out hunting pumas, a costume called the Lioning that the men of his family do during the planting season. He had loved that more than anything.
The Lioning was how he learned his father was truly funny… and genuinely beloved by his men.
SO he would lie with these memories, curl about their warmth. But whenever it seemed he could believe, some dread would lurch out of the nethers and the pretense would blow away like smoke before gusting apprehensions. Zsoronga. The Aspect-Emperor. And the Mother—the Mother most of all.
He wonders what Yatwer wants from him. He spends many sleepless nights trying to understand what happened. How he could pray to Yatwer and have never wondered what “Lay behind the ancient names.” What does her name even mean? He had not paid too much attention to her. She had been something “dark and nebulous.” Too near to the beginnings of things.
All children come to temple with a fear of smallness, which the priests then work and knead like clay, shaping it into the strange reconciliation-to-horror that is religious devotion, the sense of loving something too terrible to countenance, too hoary to embrace. When he thought about the world beyond what his eyes could see, he saw souls in their innumerable thousands with only frayed threads to hold them, dangling over the gaping black of the Outside, and the shadows moving beneath, the Gods, ancient and capricious, reptilian with indifference, with designs so old and vast that there could only be madness in the small eyes of Men.
And none were so old or so pitiless as the dread Mother of Birth.
That was what her name was: childhood terror.
He feels pinched between Yatwer and the Aspect-Emperor. “Gods and Demons.” He wants to escape the Great Ordeal and all of this madness. He’d rather be out here on the plains. One night, he asks Zsoronga his fear with as much care as he can, using the discussion of omens and portents that proclaim that Kellhus’s dynasty is doomed for overreaching.
“What happens,” Sorweel finally ventured, “if we fail the Gods simply because we don’t know what they demand?”
Tzing says, damnation. “The Gods care for nothing for our excuses.” Zsoronga disagrees and says only if they fail their ancestors. They decided who gets into heaven, not the gods. Charampa gets mad, calling that Inrithi nonsense and saddened the Zeumi believe it. Zsoronga says honoring ancestors predates Inrithism. “Family survives death.” Sorweel, listening hard to what is being said, and realizes that as a conquered people, he’s turning to foreign beliefs. He asks, what if his family is damned? Through Obotegwa, Zsoronga has an answer.
“Then you must do everything in your power to discover what the Gods do want. Everything.”
Sorweel understands that the Zeumi see death as the “great life.” So it’s important to have ancestors that got your back. Sorweel asks what happens if you don’t have that. Zsoronga studies him to see if he can trust Sorweel.
“Otherwise you are lost.”
Morning comes, making the world seem larger as night if banished. It’s a bright day. Sorweel, bred to this land, finds it dizzying because he is “beyond the Pale.” Beyond Sakarpus’s domain. Not only that, but the Place feels like a “moral boundary.” He thinks of all the miles between him and his holy city. He finds it insane that such a small company is riding out here alone.
However, his respect for Captain Harnilas brings him comfort. Old Harni is a veteran of the Kidruhil, and it shows. He had tried to hate the man, like the other Scions, but the man is too good and full of “warlike wisdom.” The man so didn’t care what others thought of him. Zsoronga calls him a nkubaru, “stone-hewers.” A man has to be stronger than stone to cut it. Eskeles added, “Or smarter.”
Sometimes they chat. Other times they ride in silence. Usually, it would be a momentary spark then snuffed out. On the tenth day, they sighted the tracks of elk. A huge one, thousands of hoofs crossing the vastness of the world.
Sorweel cursed himself for a fool, such was his relief.
They track the elk for two days and spot crows. They are excited until Sorweel understands what it means. He rides up to the front where Captain Harnilas snaps at him. But the says the word that “transcended all languages of Men.”
As he stares Captain Harnilas in the eyes, Sorweel realizes this man is much like his father’s bondsmen. A man who quarantine’s his compassion from clouding his senses, loving only “in the cracks and crevices of a warring world.” Eskeles joins them. Sorweel says those are not crows but storks, holy birds that only follow Sranc. Captains Harnilas believes him.
Through Obotegwa, Sorweel learns there is a debate between Captain Harnilas and Eskeles. The Schoolman wants to use Gnosis on them while Captain Harnilas wants to attack with the Scions to give them a taste of real combat even if some will die. “Better to begin with an easy blooding, he says, then a hard one.”
They track the storks and realize that it’s a warband of three hundred, not a migrating clan. They travel at an angle and close within a mile of the enemy. It’s here that the argument happened. It’s been a thrilling afternoon, everyone smiling and eager for the fight. They’re gleeful for the first fight. Sorweel feels no fear and is glad for that. He’s eager for the fight, too. Even his pony is hungry for it.
“Of course Eskeles was intent on ruining everything. Blasphemer, Sorweel found himself thinking.
Rumor says Mandate Schoolman outrank even the Judges, but Sorweel hopes Captain Harnilas can outrank Eskeles. Especially since the captain wasn’t a political man, hence his position leading the Scions. Intrigue, as Sorweel’s father always said, kills more men than battle.
Captain Harnilas loses his temper at Eskeles, driving off the Schoolman who calls him a fool. Sorweel sings out, “Practice-practice,” as the Schoolman always said during their language drills. Zsoronga chuckles while Eskeles glares as Sorweel before regaining his composure. He hopes Sorweel is right.
A chill seemed to creep into the shadow.
Captain Harnilas gives orders and they ride out in a wedge formation. The Sranc don’t move as they approach which surprises Zsoronga who is shocked that their group hasn’t been seen. Sorweel says the Sranc are probably resting since they like traveling at night. Zsoronga is confused why they wouldn’t camp on a hilltop. Closer to the sun they hate. Zsoronga points out that men hate the night and keep watch only for Sorweel to counter no men have walked this land in thousands of years. “Why should they keep watch for myths and legends?”
His earlier eagerness seemed to slip out of him, plummet through the soles of his boots. They climbed a slope, riding into their shadows at an angle to the dust that pealed away from them. Everywhere he looked he saw the ground, and yet it seemed he rode the lip of a perilous chasm. Vertigo leaned out from him, threatened to pull him from the saddle. There was no certainty, he realized. Anything could happen on the field of war.
The Sranc all cry together at once then fall off into individual squeals as they mob together. They draw weapons and raise their standards of human skulls attached to bison hide. They bated them into attacking and the Scions know it.
For a moment, the two sides face each other before they charge. Sorweel whispers in his pony’s ear, “One and one are one…” The two sides crash together. His lance strikes a shield, deflects to the other side, and kills a different Sranc. He draws a sword and swings, killing them with ease. It was no “different from practice melons.”
Then he’s cut through the horde and finds Zsoronga grinning at him. Sorweel grabs a lance gutting from the ground and turns for the next charge, howling his war cry. The Sranc flee and are run down. Sorweel felt joy in the pursuit. He finally feels like he’s a Horselord. He was born for this.
There was joy in the race. Ecstasy in the kill.
One and one were one.
The Scions exterminated the Sranc, losing three with another nine wounded. Eskeles isn’t happy, but Harnilas is thrilled. They are all exultant, slapping each other on the back. Including Sorweel. He ends up climbing to the top of a hill and stares across the plain. He thinks about his ancestors doing this, killing Sranc. Killing “those who did not belong.”
The darkening sky was so broad that it seemed to spin with slow vertigo. The Nail of Heaven glittered.
And the World towered beneath.
Harnilas busts out the rum so the Scions can celebrate. They are “boys drunk on the deeds of men.” They only get two swallows. They also stake a surviving Sranc down. Most of them were “youths of gentle breeding” who don’t do more than kick the Sranc. Sorweel finally gets fed up and puts out its eye. Some love it, but others say torture is a crime. Part of their “effeminate and obscure laws of conduct.” Sorweel is shocked by this and Captain Harnilas moves to his side and tells Sorweel to explain just what the Sranc really are.
Through Eskeles, not Obotegwa, he tells how the Sranc usually attack in winter when they can’t dig grubs out of the frozen ground. This is why his people have a strong defense on their border. But one tower is almost always overwhelmed and the Sranc will reach a village. They mostly kill the men. But women and especially children are taken for their rape. He trails off, remembering that day when he was fourteen and his father showed him the aftermath of one of those pillages.
“We could torment a thousand of these creatures for a thousand years,” his father had told him that night, “and we would have repaid but a droplet of the anguish they have visited upon us.”
He repeated those words.
When he hears silence, Sorweel thinks they hated it and Eskeles’s continued speech is him trying to undo the damage. But Obotegwa translates the Eskeles is saying Sorweel peaks true. That Sranc are “beasts without souls” and “flesh without spirit.” They are not beings with feelings, but things no different from dirt. Despite Eskeles’s strong words, the Scions look at Sorweel. He realizes they weren’t condemning him.
Respect. Admiration, even.
Only Zsoronga seemed to watch him with troubled eyes.
The sport began in earnest after that. The Mannish laughter was as shrill as the inhuman screams were crazed.
What was left twitched and glistened in the blood-sodden grasses.
The next day, they are surprised vultures aren’t feasting on the Sranc. They ride out laughing and joking, acting like veterans but they still are talking like boys. “Easy victories, as a Horselord would say, grow no beards.” They resume tracking the elk only to find them slaughtered and left to rot in the hot sun. None of the Scions can utter a world as they stare at fields of dead elk. Vultures feast and fill the air with their cries. Sorweel sees they have been gutted and their entrails strewn across the ground.
They descend into the massacre which unnerves Sorweel because they’ll be seen for miles, alerting anyone that their feast was disturbed. Zsoronga doesn’t understand this. It’s madness. Eskeles say it’s a Hording. Sorweel can see the Sranc massacring the elk.
“In ancient days,” his Mandate tutor continued, “before the coming of the No-God, the Sranc would continually retreat before hosts too powerful for any one clan to assault. Back and back, clan heaped upon clan. Until their hunger forced them to take game, until their numbers blackened the very earth…”
“And then?” Sorweel asked.
They realize the Great Ordeal has forced the Sranc back and back until the Hoarding is now happening. Eskeles tells Captain Harnilas about the danger of this. Sorweel stares at the destruction and it worries him at how many it would take to do this to the elk. Sranc clans never numbered more than a few hundred. Rarely, a chieftain would enslave a few other clans then besiege Sakarpus. It happened five times. Still, this slaughter is something more.
Only some greater power could have accomplished this.
Sorweel realizes that Kellhus’s war is real. Zsoronga concedes it might be, but still questions Kellhus’s motivation.
Zsoronga’s warning that Sorweel is lost without his ancestors echoes in his mind over the coming days. Zsoronga, despite being young, has “salt.” He’s mature. He can’t deny that Yatwer has possessed him even though he was “trothed to her brother Gilgaöl” since he was five. It’s strange because he’s a warrior, a Taker and a thief in her eyes. It was a humiliation that she had chosen him, and one he was worthy of. He just wants to know why.
Porsparian would know. The slave is clearly some priest even though Sorweel thought only women “attended to the worldly interests of the Ur-Mother.” He was never educated on Yatwer. She’s a goddess for the poor. He feels an idiot for not realizing that Porsparian would be the key. Sorweel just had to learn Sheyic to get his answers.
That night, Sorweel remembers Porsparian making the face in the mud only to realize he’s doing it right now. It is insane and makes his stomach churn. He has trouble making the face in the dry soil. But he works to form it. Once done, he stares at it. “For a mad moment, it seemed the whole of the World, all the obdurate miles he had travelled, multiplied on and on in every direction, was but the limbless body of the face before him.” Instead of Yatwer, he realizes he made his father’s face. And his father speaks to him, calling him “son.”
He felt himself bend back… as if he were a bow drawn by otherworldly hands.
“Water,” the image coughed on a small cloud of dust, “climbs the prow…”
Sorweel raised a crazed fist, dashed the face into the combed grasses.
Sorweel hovers between waking and sleeping, remembering what Eskeles said about the Sranc building up like water before the prow of the ship. Despite never seeing many boats, he understands the metaphor. Sorweel realizes that they are very far from the prow tracking game. Something doesn’t make sense about the massacre. So he waits for dawn to tell the others what he’s realized.
“With all due respect, my King…” the sorcerer said with a waking sneer. “Kindly go fuck your elbows.”
Eskeles is not happy to be woken by this and snaps out, letting his rare temper ride free. Captain Harnilas watches, but Sorweel doesn’t speak Sheyic well enough. He explains how the Sranc had no sentries. Eskeles just wants to go back to sleep, but he persists and asks how water piles behind the boat. That has Eskeles blinking. Then he groans and gets up. They go to Captain Harnilas and Eskeles takes too much time. Impatient, Sorweel snarls, “We’re tracking an army!”
That raises alarms. Harnilas asks why he thinks that. Because the Sranc can’t be Hoarding. Something is driving them. He speculates the Consul knows about the Hoarding and is using that knowledge. Eskeles admits the Consult would know about it. Sorweel continues to explain the Consult will know when the Hoarding reaches critical mass and attacks the Great Ordeal. Eskeles concedes that’s possible.
Sorweel through of his father, of all the time she had heard him reason with his subjects, let alone his men. “To be a worthy King,” Harweel had once told him, “is to lead, not to command.” And he understood that all the bickering, all the discourse he had considered wasted breath, “tongue-measuring,” was in fact central to kingship.
Sorweel says that their expedition is a joke. They are patrolling a safe place where you wouldn’t have patrols to keep them busy and safe. But then they stumble on a war party with no sentries who are not afraid of the Great Ordeal. They think they are safe. And the fact they slaughtered the elk is something they shouldn’t be doing here. Eskeles encourages Sorweel to keep talking, to give his thoughts, but he doesn’t know what is happening. He feels unsure.
Sorweel guesses that they have stumbled onto elements of a Consult army. They’re using the elk to hide their passage and shadow the Ordeal. This army will attack the Great Ordeal from behind when they fight the Hoarding. But this confuses Sorweel. The Sranc don’t do this. They don’t plan. Use tactics. This worries Harnilas and Eskeles. They ask what Sorweel thinks they should do. He says to ride for the Ordeal and sound the alarm. Harnilas agrees and approves.
Sorweel asks if his theory is possible because it makes no sense. Sranc don’t use tactics. Eskeles has a fatherly gleam in his eyes as he thinks. Then he talks about the time before the No-God was activated. Back then, the Consult would chain Sranc into massive armies called Yokes and drive them like slaves. They starve them. When they’re famished and desperate for food, they strike their chains and let them rampage.
Something within the Sakarpi King, a binding fear and hope, slumped in relief. He almost reeled for exhaustion, as if alarm alone had sustained him through all the sleepless watches.
Eskeles asks if he’s okay. He dismisses the worry then glances at the horizon. He asks what Harnilas said. Eskeles replies that he thinks Sorweel has “the gifts of a great king.” Eskeles has a look of fatherly pride that makes Sorweel feel guilty.
Gifts? something within him wanted to cry. No…
Only things the dirt had told him.
We see Yatwer working on Sorweel to do what she wants him. Through Zsoronga and his talk of honoring ancestors and families surviving death, he is saying what Sorweel needs to embrace Yatwer and be her Narindar. He just doesn’t see how the circumstances are being manipulated from the outside by a being that can see past and future all at the same time. The Darkness that Comes Before as a weapon being turned against Kellhus. Sorweel doesn’t even know it.
The “Our smarter” line from Eskeles is a nice point to his character and contrasts with the captain who is strong while Eskeles is smart. Two different ways to come at something.
Why does he curse himself for a fool? Because he’s relieved that they found food for his enemy. He is bouncing between two people: the rebel and the conquered.
Come on Eskeles, let’s not be a party pooper!
Interestingly, we see our hero is the one who does the most vicious act. He is shocked they don’t want to torture the monster. This is not the first parallel we’re going to be drawn between Sranc and Men. But you’ll never see Sranc hesitating. Men are trapped between Intellect and Desire. The Dûnyain and the Inchoroi. Some are closer to one end of the other. Both lead to bad decisions. The balance has to be struck.
“Go fuck your elbows?” There’s a phrase.
Yatwer continues guiding him. She’s positioning him as someone insightful and knowledgeable. She’s winning him respect. Bringing him more into the notice of Kellhus so he could be in a position to strike when the time came.
Not a lot to say, but we are seeing those strings being pulled. It puts Sorweel on a very typical journey, but it’s out of his control. He’s not a hero who’s answered the call. He’s just dragged along on the journey by the will of a goddess that will end up with him dying.
And yet, I think he has a big impact on Serwa. But we’ll get to that when we get to the fourth book.
Not a lot to say. Pretty straightforward chapter.
Want to read more, click here for chapter 5!
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…Ary’s people have little chance.
Can he find a way to defeat them?
At 19, Ary has spent ten years mourning his father’s death. The aftermath of the attack still haunts him. Now, on the eve of the draft he faces his greatest fear, being sent to become a marine.
He knows the cost of war.
All he wants is to marry Charlene, who he has loved since they were kids. Building a farm and starting a family sounds perfect. There’s just one problem, his best friend Vel adores her, too. He’d give anything for peace.
But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…
…isn’t going to make it happen.
For love, for his people, and especially for the life he wants, Ary makes a decision that will change everything.
The adventure begins.
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