Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
The Jiünati Steppe
Welcome to Chapter Six of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Five!
It is said: a man is born of his mother and is fed of his mother. Then he is fed of the land, and the land passes through him, taking and giving a pinch of dust each time, until man is no longer of his mother, but of the land.
… and in Old Sheyic, the language of the ruling and religious castes of the Nansurium, skilvenas means “catastrophe” or “apocalypse,” as though the Sclyvendi have somehow transcended the role of peoples in history and become a principle.
—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War
Bakker gives us some insight into both the Sclyvendi world view and how the Nansur Empire views them. The Scylvendi equate manhood with being completely divorced from his mother. He has left her behind and found a new mother, the land.
As we learned in the last chapter, whenever the Scylvendi tribes unite, an empire dies. No wonder their name has become synonymous with catastrophe the way the Vandals became synonymous with destruction to the Romans.
Early Summer, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, the Jiünati Steppes
Cnaiür urs Skiötha approaches the King-of-Tribes and other clan leaders on a ridge overlooking the Nansur’s army. Cnaiür studies the group, half-expecting to hear insults and snide comments thrown at him.
Why would they disgrace me like this?
But he was not a child. He was the many-blooded chieftain of the Utemot, a seasoned Sclyvendi warrior of more than forty-five summers. He owned eight wives, twenty-three slaves, and more than three hundred cattle. He had fathered thirty-seven sons, nineteen of the pure blood. His arms were ribbed with the swazond, ritual trophy scars, of more than two hundred dead foes. He was Cnaiür, breaker-of-horse-and-men.
I could kill any of them—pound them to bloody ruin!–and yet they affront me like this? What have I done?
But like any murderer, he knew the answer. The outrage lay not in the fact of his dishonour but in their presumption to know.
The chiefs all were dressed mismatched armor, looking like they came from a large variety of nations and ages. Some wear Kianene helmets, marking them veterans of Zirkirta. “Only their scarred arms, stone faces, and long black hair marked them as the People—as Scylvendi.” Xunnurit was elected King-of-Tribes.
Cnaiür watches a warrior fire an arrow and realizes they measured distances and were planning the assault without him. Cnaiür rides up and looks down at the Nansur. They were camped on the banks the River Kiyuth and were building fortifications. When Cnaiür first saw the Nansur army digging in on the Steppes, it filled him with anger. Now, he feels foreboding.
Cnaiür demands to know why he wasn’t summoned. Xunnurit, with “undisguised contempt” says he was. There had been instant dislike between Cnaiür and Xunnurit when they met five days ago. Cnaiür states it would be juvenile to attack. The rest of the chiefs murmur disapproval. But Cnaiür’s many swazond demanded respect. Xunnurit disagrees with Cnaiür, saying the Nansur defile the hallowed land. He asks if Cnaiür wants to parlay and pay tribute to Conphas.
Cnaiür wants to wait. To starve out Conphas and force him to attack the Scylvendi out of desperation instead of attacking Conphas on the ground of his choosing. The older chiefs, Cnaiür observed, saw the wisdom in his words. Xunnurit was unimpressed, demanding to know what Cnaiür would do if he found his wife being raped in his yaksh. Attack at once, or wait for a better tactical situation. Sneering, Cnaiür says this is different. Xunnurit asks, if this is what the memorialist tell them.
It wasn’t so much the man’s cunning that shocked Cnaiür as the realization that he’d underestimated him.
Xunnurit’s eyes flashed with triumph. “No. The memorialist say that battle is our hearth, earth our womb, and sky our yaksh. We’ve been violated, as surely as if Conphas had quickened our wives or cracked our hearthstone. Violated. Desecrated. Humiliated. We’re beyond measuring tactical advantage, Utemot.
Cnaiür points out eight years ago at Zirkirta, the tribes feel back from the Kianene, slowly bleeding them, before crushing them. Xunnurit tries to protest that this is different, and Cnaiür asks how this battle can be like a hearth, and not like Zirkirta where patience was practiced. Oknai One-Eye, Chieftain of the Munuäti, points out that the droughts began soon. Herds must be taken to summer pastures. The Scylvendi cannot wait long. Xunnurit jumps on this, pointing out Conphas’s large baggage train he brought. He might be able to last six months.
Cnaiür sees the worry in the other chiefs eyes. To long from away presented many hazards: herds could die, slaves revolt, wives wander, or for northern tribes (like Cnaiür’s), Sranc. Cnaiür realized, even if the others knew it was foolish, the pressure to act swiftly were to great. All eyes turns to Cnaiür.
Had Ikurei Conphas intended this? It would be easy enough, he supposed, to learn the different demands the seasons placed on the People. Had Conphas deliberately chosen the weeks before the summer drought?
The thought dizzied Cnaiür with its implications. Suddenly, everything he had witnessed and heard since joining the horde possessed different meanings: the buggery of their Scylvendi captives, the mocking embassies, even the positioning of their privies—all calculated to gall the People into attacking.
Cnaiür says Conphas has brought all these supplies to fight a war of patience. Xunnurit exclaims, that is why they must attack, before hunger forces the People to disband. Cnaiür disagrees, he plans to wait until hunger forces the People to attack him. Xunnurit mocks him, saying the Utemot are far removed from imperial lands and do not know the political situation. Conphas has grown to popular. The Emperor sent him hear to his death.
Cnaiür, in disbelief, retorts the cream of the Imperial Army is here. The elite cavalry, Norsirai auxiliaries, and even Eothic Guard. The Empire must have been stripped to assemble this host. Xunnurit disagrees, the memorialist speak of other Emperors who did this. Cnaiür points out the current Empire is besieged and could not afford to lose this army. Xunnurit jumps at this. Once this army is destroyed, they could sweep the Nansur Empire, like their fathers of yore. Cnaiür continues his protest, but the others begin mocking him.
Cnaiür could smell it then, the good-humoured camaraderie that amounted to little more than a conspiracy to mock one and the same man. His lips twisted into a grimace. Always the same, no matter what his claim to arms or intellect. They’d measured him many years ago—and found him wanting.
But measure is unceasing…
Cnaiür continues to try to reason with them. He explains that Conphas has gambled on the People making the mistake of attacking his fortifications. He is counting on the People to do what they always have done. The only way to defeat him, is to not play his game. To wait. Xunnurit openly mocks Cnaiür now, calling him “Time-killing Cnaiür.” The other chiefs join Xunnurit laughter. Their laughter falters under Cnaiür’s murderous glare. Nervously, Xunnurit says tomorrow they “shall sacrifice an entire nation to the Dead-God.”
The next morning, Cnaiür prepares for battle. He wonders why Conphas had provoked the People. The were fractious by nature, and few things could unite them. Invading the steppes is one way. Conphas had just created a great threat for the Empire and Cnaiür knew all was not as it seemed. Cnaiür could not grasp Conphas’s goal for doing this.
Cnaiür leads his tribe up the ridge, looking down at the lines of the Imperial Army, forming up in phalanxes between the river and their fortifications. Calvary were poised to harass any Sclyvendi crossing the river. Horns blared, and soldiers pounded weapons on shields. Cnaiür studies the assembled Imperial Army and is unsurprised to see them deployed between their camps and the river, instead of at the river. This would change the Scylvendi battle plan.
Cnaiür is startled out of his thoughts by Bannut, his uncle. Bannut wonders why the deployed so far from the river, allowing the People to charge them once they cross. Cnaiür thinks Conphas wants a decisive battle. There will be no room to maneuver once they cross the river. Bannut thinks the Nansur are mad, and Cnaiür remembers the Kianene had tried a similar tactic at Zirkirta and failed. Cnaiür doesn’t think Conphas is mad though. He sends Bannut to find out what Xunnurit wants the Utemot to do. Bannut takes Yursalka, who married Xunnurit’s daughter, with him.
Xunnurit signals the assault. As the Scylvendi ride their horses to the river, Bannut and Yursalka return from Xunnurit. They inform Cnaiür the Utemot are to take the southernmost ford and form up before the Nasueret Column, the Ninth Column. They are rumored to be the best. Cnaiür thinks Xunnurit means for the Utemot to be killed.
The Scylvendi begin to ford and drive back the Imperial Skirmishers. The first to cross began to fire arrows at the Columns while the rest of the Sclyvendi cross. The Utemot cross, and form up before the Nasueret. Conphas allows the Sclyvendi to assemble without contest. Horsehair signals were passed, and the Sclyvendi made ready to charge.
Bannut informs Cnaiür he will be measure today. Cnaiür is surprised that the old warrior would bring up old wounds and furiously confronts him. Bannut says this is the best time to revisit the past. Worries beset Cnaiür, but there was no time to think. “The pilgrimage had ended; worship was about to begin.”
Signals are sent, and the Scylvendi begin their assault. When they reach the Nansur bow range, they charged. Arrows fall on the Utemot and some died. Before them, pikes were readied to meet their charge. “War and worship!” is the Utemot battle cry. A pike takes Cnaiür horse in the chest and he dives off his mount.
The Nansur ranks were unbroken, and his kinsmen died. Cnaiür glanced behind him, expecting to see the second wave of Utemot and saw his tribesmen watching the slaughter from safety. Cnaiür realizes treachery and searches for Bannut. He finds him fighting with a Nansur soldier and Cnaiür kills the soldier with a javelin. Cnaiür demands to know what is going on. Bannut answers, they made a deal with Xunnurit.
“Killed you! Killed the kin-slayer! The weeping faggot who’d be our chieftain!”
Horns blared through the uproar. Between heartbeats, Cnaiür saw his father in Bannut’s grizzled face. But Skiötha had not died like this.
“I watched you that night!” Bannut wheezed, his voice growing more pinched with agony. “I saw the truth of what”—his body cramped and shook about a wracking cough—“what happened those thirty years past. I told all that truth! Now the Utemot will be delivered form the oppression of your disgrace.”
“You know nothing!” Cnaiür cried.
“I know all! I saw the way you looked at him. I know he was your lover!”
Cnaiür is shocked to learn his people think he is gay and a weeper. Cnaiür boasts of all the men he has killed, more than any other. “I’m the measure of disgrace and honour. Your measure!” Cnaiür yells, as he strangles Bannut, like a slave, until he dies. Cnaiür grabs his sword and rallies the few Utemot left alive from the charge.
The Nansur ranks advanced and charged Cnaiür his men. Cnaiür kills the first soldier and, in the Nansur “womanish tongue,” demands to know who’s next. Cnaiür continues to taunt and kill the Nansur soldiers, fighting with a feverish skill. The soldiers envelop Cnaiür and his Utemot, but they falter before the ferocity of the Scylvendi. More Scylvendi charge into the ranks of soldiers. Finally, the Nasueret Column breaks and flee.
While his tribe cheered their victory, Cnaiür climbed a low knoll to survey the battle. The Nansur camp was already burning, and several columns were isolated from the center. Cnaiür sees chaos at the center. Xunnurit has been pressed back to the river by Eothic Guards and other columns Cnaiür does not recognize. Cnaiür looks for the Kuöti and Alkussi tribes and sees them on the wrong side of the river being attacked by Kidruhil, elite cavalry. Cnaiür spots a perfectly formed column bearing the standards of the Nasueret.
Cnaiür is confused. The Utemot had just routed the Nasueret, so how could they be marching to the north? And Cnaiür was sure the Kidruhil were on the right flank of the Nansur formation, a position of honor, not across the river. Balait, Cnaiür brother-in-law and someone he respects, brings him a fresh horse and tells him they need to reform to strike again.
Something is wrong, though. Cnaiür explains that Conphas has conceded the flanks to the Scylvendi and to hold the center. He had used false banners to trick the Scylvendi into thinking the best soldiers were on the flank, not the center. Balait thinks Conphas means to kill Xunnurit and those throw the People into confusion. Cnaiür disagrees, saying Conphas is to smart for that. Cnaiür studies the battle, trying to figure out Conphas’s plan.
Cnaiür realizes Conphas’s plan. The Scylvendi had deployed their Chorae bowman behind their center. Conphas has either destroyed them or routed them and is now free to unleash a School upon the Scylvendi. Cnaiür tells Balait to flee. From the sky, descended two dozen Imperial Saik Schoolmen who unleash sorcery on the Munuäti. The entire battle was a trap to deny the Scylvendi their Chorae. Cnaiür grabs his Chorae from beneath his breastplate.
As though walking across the back of roiling smoke and dust, a Schoolman drifted toward them. He slowed, floating the heights of a tree-top above them. His black silk robe boiled in the mountain wind, its gold trim undulating like snakes in water. White light flashes from his eyes and mouth. A barrage of arrows winked into cinders against his spherical Wards. The ghost of a dragon’s head ponderously ascended from his hands. Cnaiür saw glassy scales and eyes like globes of bloody water.
The majestic head bowed.
He turned to Balait, crying, “Run!”
The horned maw opened and spewed blinding fire.
Teeth snapped. Skin blistered and sloughed. But Cnaiür felt nothing, only the warmth thrown by Balait’s burning shadow. There was a momentary shriek, the sound of bones and bowels exploding.
Around Cnaiür lies the cooked remains of many Utemot. Cnaiür routs. He spots Yursalka fleeing with a band of Utemot. Yursalka ignores Cnaiür’s cries for help. The Kidruhil begin to fan out and harry the routing Scylvendi. Cnaiür continues to run, reaching the river, and sees Yursalka and the Utemot on the other side. Cnaiür struggles to cut off his armor so he can swim the river, when he is struck in the head and is knocked unconscious.
When Cnaiür awakes, he lies in the river mud. It is night, and Cnaiür hears group of Nansur’s combing the dead for loot and killing any survivors. Cnaiür buries his Chorae in the mud beneath him, smears some dried blood on his face from a corpse, and fills his mouth with mud. When the looters reach him, they think he’s dead and quickly loot his body, moving on.
Cnaiür passes out again, and when he awakens it is morning. The first thing he does is dig up his Chorae. Cnaiür climbs up the riverbank and surveys the battlefield. He realizes the Nansur have humiliated the Scylvendi on their own territory. Anger fills Cnaiür. He had warned the chiefs and they had laughed at him. Cnaiür realizes they were all dead. The Scylvendi had been massacred. The People of Lokung, vengeance made flesh and bone, dead.
And by the Nansur! Cnaiür had fought too many borderland skirmishes not to respect them as warriors, but in the end he despised the Nansur the way all Scylvendi despised them:as a mongrel race, a kind of human vermin, to be hunted to extinction if possible. For the Scylvendi, the mention of the Empire-behind-the-Mountains summoned innumerable images of degradation: leering priests groveling before their unholy Tusk; sorcerers trussed in whorish gowns, uttering unearthly obscenities while painted courtiers, their soft bodies powdered and perfumed, committed earthly ones. These were the men who had conquered them. Tillers of earth and writers of words. Men who made sport with men.
Cnaiür begins to weep, and remembers the accusation of Bannut, that he was a weeper and a faggot. Cnaiür realizes his suspicions these thirty years were correct. His people had secretly hated him and slandered him behind his back. Cnaiür begins to scream out loud at his demons.
Cnaiür’s outburst is interrupted by the sound of voices. Cnaiür deduces that two officers approach. They are Martemus and Conphas. Conphas is explaining to Martemus why his plan worked. Conphas had studied the Scylvendi, reading everything he could find on them. He even had agents steal records from the Fanim. Conphas learned that in thousands of years, the Scylvendi battle tactics have not changed. “The Scylvendi are just as philosopher Ajencis claimed: a people without history.”
Martemus points out that any illiterate people would be without history. Conphas explains that even illiterate people would change over the years. But the Scylvendi are two obsessed with custom. Martemus thought Conphas’s plan was folly, and only his faith in Conphas kept him loyal. Conphas and Martemus banter about whether Conphas should fully explain his plan. Cnaiür begins to formulate plans on how to murder the pair. Finally, Conphas explains why they won.
“As I said, the Scylvendi are obsessed with custom. That means they repeat, Martemus. They follow the same formula time and again. Do you see? They worship war, but they have no understanding of what it truly is.”
“And what, then, is war truly?”
“Intellect, Martemus. War is intellect.”
Conphas spurts his horse ahead and Martemus follows. Cnaiür hears Conphas order Martemus to collect all the Scylvendi heads. Conphas plans on lining the road to the capital of with spiked heads.
Cnaiür wonders what to do now. The Scylvendi were dead, and Cnaiür lies down amongst them. He remembers the death of his father, Skiötha. Like many other times, the leaders of the Utemot were gathered in the White Yaksh of the clan chief. A blonde Norsirai man, found abandon on the steppes and taken as a slave, challenges Skiötha to a wager. Skiötha is taken aback by a slave challenging him, speaking his name. Cnaiür had a role to play, and asks his father if he’s scared. Skiötha, stung, asks the slave his wager.
And Cnaiür is gripped by the terror that he might die.
Fear that the slave, Anasûrimbor Moënghus might die!
Not his father—Moënghus …
Afterward, when his father lay dead, he had wept before the eyes of his tribe. Wept with relief.
At last, Moënghus, the one who had called himself Dûnyain, was free.
Some names mark us so deeply. Thirty years, on hundred and twenty seasons—a long time in the life of one man.
And it meant nothing.
Some events mark us so deeply.
Cnaiür flees the battlefield under the cover of dark, haunted by the dead.
Wow, you do not often get barbarians with an inferiority complex. The entire chapter is Cnaiür paranoid about people talking behind his back, making fun of him. Thinking everyone knows the truth that he murdered his father to became the Utemot Chieftain through dishonour. And then, in the midst of battle, to find out just how much his people hate him. To learn that they knew the entire shameful story. Cnaiür had conspired with his male lover to assassinate his father. To the Scylvendi, nothing could be worse.
And then through shear, hateful determination, Cnaiür has thrived as Chieftain. He has slain all rivals. Cnaiür so hates himself for what he did, he constantly strives to prove how great a Scylvendi he is. He has more swazond than any other. He is the greatest Scylvendi warrior. And yet, all that battle prowess is not enough. He is still the “faggot weeper” to his people. Nothing he does will ever change that.
When Cnaiür sees Conphas’s army, he senses something is off. He wants a siege, but the Scylvendi people clearly are not a patient group. The young burn with the anger at what Conphas has done to them: defiled both their holy steppes as well as their captured comrades. The Scylvendi are arrogant. For two thousand years, no army has ever stood up to all the clans united. And never on the steppes.
In the battle, we see why the Scylvendi are so feared by the Nansur. We have Cnaiür and the small handful of Utemot that survived the first charge, all on foot, fighting in a circle and driving back the soldiers. They are so effective that Yursalka can no longer hold back the rest of the Utemot, who charge in and rout the soldiers. That hateful determination of Cnaiür really comes into play here. He’s not going to let his tribes treachery kill him.
And then we see why sorcerer’s are really hated and feared. Once their Chorae bowman are scattered, it takes only two dozen Imperial Saik to massacre the Scylvendi. It is a rout. Every man for themselves. In an hour, the power of the Sclyvendi is destroyed, perhaps to never rise again.
Cnaiür is one of the most complex characters I’ve read in genre fiction. A man combining wild passions and deep intellect. A violent man. A man who has driven himself mad trying to be what his people expect and still is rejected because the harder he tries, the weaker they see him. He has completely buried his true self with who he believes he should be.
No wonder he screams at his demons.
The battle scenes are immerse, putting you into the thick of it, the horror and the smells, the screams and the fear. Bakker understands ancient warfare and the tactics of the steppe hordes from our own world. The Sclyvendi fight like the Scythians against the Romans. The first battle of the Holy War has been fought and one by the Ikurei Dynasty.
The introduction of Conphas talking with his general, Martemus, is a great and hearing Cnaiür’s anaylsis confirmed demonstrates his intelligence. The two have a great back and forth. Martemus is a commoner who rose through the ranks of the army. Conphas almost treats him like an equal, and Conphas eventually confides his plans and explains his actions to Martemus. I also think its great that the People of War were brought done by careful scholarship and understanding war.
“War is Intellect,” says Conphas. Remember those words when we get to the end of the novel.
We learn from Martemus, that he, and by extension the army, only followed Conphas on this crazy plan because he had faith in him. Now that Conphas has done the impossible, destroyed the Scylvendi threat for decades to come if not permanently, the army will be even more loyal. Emperor Ikurei should watch out. History shows that ambitious general with the armies loyalty can take an emperor’s throne.
And finally, we have mention of the story set out in the prologue. The Dûnyain have reentered the tale. Thirty years ago, Anasûrimbor Moënghus had passed through Utemot land. From what we saw with Kellhus and Leweth in the prologue, it must have been child play for Moënghus to seduce Cnaiür and use him against his father. Moënghus would not only need to escape the Utemot, but would need safe passage through the rest of Scylvendi lands. The Dûnyain are amazing fighters, but not even they can take on hundreds by themselves.