Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 2: The Warrior Prophet
by R. Scott Bakker
The Third March
To piss across water is to piss across your reflection
So the Khirgwi are the desert nomads (who dwell in the very desert the Holy War is about to cross) and befouling water is such a taboo in such a harsh place. If they’re like Bedouin in the real world, then oasis would even be places were fighting wouldn’t happen, set aside because of the sacredness of water. So to piss in water, to them, is to soil their lives, to make things worse for themselves. Like the phrase never piss upwind in our own culture.
And so to see them poison water shows how desperate they are to stop the Holy War. They are, literally, pissing on themselves because survival has driven them so far.
Early Autumn 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Southern Shigek
The Holy War heads south into “the furnace plains of the Carathay Desert.” A place called the “Great Thirst” by the Khirgwi. On the first night camping, Athjeäri returns with his men from scouting, all exhausted and dehydrated. All they found were polluted waters. The heat forced them to travel by night. But the Great Names believe the pack mules and Emperor’s fleet would keep them watered. Athjeäri is not convinced. The next evening, the Holy War marches with their camp-followers, people making jokes about marching at night.
The Khirgwi raid them around midnight, charging on camels and “bearing the truth of the Solitary God and His Prophet on the edges of sharp knives.” They hit the supply train, slicing open bladders of water then retreat. The Holy War continues on, meeting up with the Nansur fleet, getting fresh water. By night, they attacked by the Khirgwi in bloody raids.
On the seventh day, the Imperial fleet fails to arrive at the next rendezvous. A council is called, and Conphas is accused of betraying them until he points out that, he, too is stuck in the desert without water. So the Holy War waits a night and a day. The fleet doesn’t arrive. Conphas argues a squall might have put them off course, but Kellhus says the Kianene had waited until now to unleash their fleet. The desert is a trap they marched into.
Two days later, the bulk of the Greater and Lesser Names accompanied the mule trains across the hills to the sea, and stared dumbfounded by its empty beauty. When they returned form the hills, they no longer walked apart from the desert. Sun, stone, and sand beckoned to them.
Water was rationed by caste, severely. People were executed for hoarding. Conphas suggests heading for Subis, an oasis too big to poison. He says they can reach it, but only if they abandon the mules, slaves, and camp-followers. Proyas asks how. The Holy War kills them. Slaves, whores, merchants, and slavers. Only priests, wives, and useful tradesmen were spared.
That night the Inrithi marched blank-eyed through what seemed a cooling oven—away from the horror behind them, toward the promise of Subis… Men-at-arms, warhorses, and hearts had become beasts of burden.
When the Khirgwi found the fields of heaped bodies and strewn belongings, they fell to their knees and cried out in exultation to the Solitary God. The trial of the idolaters had begun.
The Holy War breaks apart while marching south and hundreds are killed by the Khirgwi raiders. The Great and Lesser Names grow desperate the next day. They know water has to be out there. The Khirgwi must get it form some where. So their scouts, like Athjeäri, head off to find them and “disappeared into the wavering distances.” Only Detnammi and his men don’t return. The rest were driven back by the Khirgwi and the heat. Worse, they found no wells, the desert featureless to the.
The water has almost runs out before Subis is reached. Horses are now butchered save those belonging to the Great Names. The Cengemi footmen mutiny, wanting all horses slaughtered. They want water shared equally. They are put down. Dehydration grows worse. Men die. Others don’t even notice attacks, stumbling in a fugue. Subis becomes a name of hope, more so than God. Another day and still they haven’t reached it. People mistake mirages for it, racing out into the desert until they die.
Subis… A lover’s name.
The Men of the Tusk stumbled down long, flinty slopes, filed between sandstone outcroppings that resembled towering mushrooms on thin stems. They climbed mountainous dunes.
The village looked like a many-chambered fossil unearthed by the wind. The deep green and sun silver of the oasis beckoned with its impossibility…
The Men of the Tusk charge at the oasis, passing the abandoned village, and in the oasis, dead and bloating, they find the missing Detnammi and all five hundred of his men. The Khirgwi had found a way to poison Subis. But the Holy War didn’t care. They drank the befouled water, throwing up, and then drinking more. Hundreds were crushed in the rush, more hundreds drowning. The Great Names struggled to restore order. The bodies were removed, water distributed. Detnammi and his men were denied funeral rites for riding straight here to save themselves. Chepheramunni, King-Regent of High Ainon, posthumously strips the man of his rank.
Their thirst satiated, the Holy War begins to worry about disease. Cultic physician-priests of Akkeägni (the god of pestilence) warn of the symptoms to come but can’t do much more than pray, having abandoned their pharmaka. Soon, everyone is sick, from mild chills to diarrhea and vomiting. The Great Names know they can’t reach Enathpaneah without the fleet. Scouts are sent to the coast to find it. They don’t. Conphas and Saubon come to blows often, the rumors of the Empire’s betrayal growing. With no other choice, the Holy War continue marching south.
Either way, Prince Kellhus said, the God would see to them.
The Men of the Tusk abandoned Subis the following evening, their waterskins brimming with polluted water. Several hundred, those too sick to walk, remained behind, waiting for the Khirgwi.
The sickness spreads. Those without friends are abandoned to await the Khirgwi. The army shuffles. They now say Enathpaneah like they had Subis. Diarrhea kills the most, dehydrating them more than their ration replenishes. Proyas appears impossibly strong, walking and letting his horse die of thirst, refusing to water it while his men died.
Followed by two beautiful women, Prince Kellhus spread words of strength. They didn’t merely suffer, he told men, they suffered for… For Shimeh. For the Truth. For the God! And to suffer for the God was to secure glory in the Outside. Many would be broken in this furnace, that was true, but those who survived would know the temper of their own hearts They would be, he claimed, unlike other men. They would be more…
Men follow him everywhere, begging for his attention. Only he can laugh and give thanks. His words were like water. On the third night, he orders his Zaudunyani to dig in a certain spot. Ultimately, they dig fourteen shallow pools of muddy water that “were sweet, and unfouled by the taste of dead men.” The Great Names find Kellhus laughing, standing in water, handing it out, saying “The God Showed me!” They Holy War digs more wells, find more waters. They spend several days here, letting the sickest recover while the Great Names argue over Kellhus. “The desert, Ikurei Conphas warned, had made a False Prophet of Fane as well.”
The Khirgwi think the Holy War has given up, waiting to die. They attack and are slaughtered. Entire tribes are eradicated. The survivors flee. But food has finally run out for the Holy War. With full waterskins, they march once more. But now they sing hymns, many to the Warrior-Prophet. They march “unconquered and defiant.” So far, the Holy War had lost 1/3 of its soldiers since they left Momemn.
Evening of the second day, they see clouds. They realize it is a sandstorm. Their flimsy tents rae blown away and they have to endure it. Hundreds are found buried when it’s over while others were left “wandering like stunned children” across the changed desert. Losing many shelters to the storm, they are forced to march because they have no protection against the sun. Arguments on which way to march are held, some wanting to return to Kellhus’s wells, but Conphas points out they’re likely buried. He claims they are within two days of water. Kellhus agrees with him, which surprises some. They continue marching for Enathpaneah.
Water is rationed. Dehydration sets in. The last of the horses die. Gothyelk collapses and his sons carry him, sharing their water with him. When night falls, they keep marching, stumbling. The cool night air doesn’t bring relief. No one talks. “They formed an endless procession of silent wraiths, passing across Carathay’s folds.” Soon, the Holy War loses its discipline, units breaking apart into solitary wanders.
The morning sun was a shrill rebuke, for still the desert had not ended. The Holy War had become an army of ghosts. Dead and dying men lay scattered in their thousands behind it, and as the sun rose still more fell. Some simply lost the will, and fell seated in the dust, their thoughts and bodies buzzing with thirst and fatigue. Others pressed themselves until they’re wracked bodies betrayed them. They struggled feebly across the sand, waving their heads like worms, perhaps croaking for help, for succor.
But only death would come swirling down.
Men are dying. They aren’t thinking any longer, just walking. Family bonds are broken as loved ones are abandoned. “Each man had become a solitary circle of misery that walked and walked.” Everything is gone, even the voice of Kellhus. They only had the trial. And they died in the thousands.
Esmenet stumbles as she walks beside Kellhus. He is carrying Serwë in his arms. Esmenet finds that so triumphant. Then he stops. She sways and grows dizzy, but he helps her. She wants to lick her lips, but her tongue is too swollen. And he grins at her, somehow healthy.
He leaned back and cried out to the hazy roll and pitch of distant green, to the wandering crease of a flashing river. And his words resounded across the compass of the horizon.
“Father! We come, Father!”
Early Autumn 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Iothiah
Xinemus and his two loyal men, Dinch and Zenkappa, are hiding the corpse of a Javreh, the slave soldiers who guard the Scarlet Spire. Xinemus is annoyed by Dinch and Zenkappa’s joking banter, not taking their missions seriously. It hurts him to realize they don’t care about Achamian’s life.
But if they failed to grasp the importance of their task, they were well aware of its lethality. To skulk like thieves among armed men was harrowing enough, but in the midst of the Scarlet Spires…
Both were frightened, Xinemus realized—thus the forced humour and empty bravado.
They are stalking through the Scarlet Spire base in Iothiah, the palace of a dead Ceneian Governor, to rescue Achamian and “undo what I’ve done.” They are hoping it is nearly empty with the Holy War marching into the desert, those remaining unable to properly defend such a huge place. Xinemus hopes Achamian is here, reckoning they wouldn’t have taken them south. “The road was no place to interrogate a Mandate sorcerer, especially when one marched with a prince such as Proyas.” He finds it heartening that they had left some behind.
If he [Achamian] wasn’t here, then he was very likely dead.
He’s here! I feel it!
Xinemus clutches his Chorae as if it “were holier than the small golden Tusk that clicked at its side.” He had two others, which he gave to his men. It is why he hasn’t attempted this with more of his men. He hopes that the sorcerers are asleep and they can creep in and out. He reminds his men that the Chorae must touch bare flesh, to hold them in fists. He expects wards to guard the place.
They enter the palace through the stables, finding a maze of empty rooms and hallways. Sometimes they hear voices and they hide. They pass sleeping slaves. “Each door they opened seemed hinged upon a precipice: either Achamian or certain death lay on the far side.” They gambled over and over while fearing the Scarlet Spire.
After some time, Xinemus began to feel bold. Was this how a thief or a rat felt, prowling at the edges of what others could see or know? There was exhilaration, and strangely enough, comfort in lurking unseen in the marrow of your enemy’s bones. Xinemus was overcome by a sudden certainty:
We’re going to do this! We’re going to save him!
Dinch suggests searching the cellars, reasoning if they’re torturing him, it’ll muffle his screams. Xinemus hates the thought but sees its logic. They descend “into pitch blackness” They’re blind, huddled close together, and then see a moving light. They spot a sorcerer ahead with an arcane candle. Their fear swells. The sorcerer pauses, looking in their direction like he had smelled something. But then he scowls and walks on, not seeing them in the dark. Xinemus wants to follow him.
Witnessing the face, the sorcerous light, now made their every step sing with peril. The only thing keeping Dinchases and Zenkappa behind him, Xinemus knew, was a loyalty that transcended fear of death. But here, in this place, in the bowels of the Scarlet Spire stronghold, that loyalty was being tested as it had never been tested before, even in the heart of their desperate battles. Not only did they gamble with the obscenely unholy, there were no rules here, and this, added to mortal fear, was enough to break any man.
They reach a door. They open It quietly and enter a large room, feeling as though “they were entombed in dread night.” They enter it when a voice speaks out that still there hearts: “But this will not do.” Light erupts around them. They are surrounded by a dozen Javreh, half with aimed crossbows, and all armed and armored.
Stunned, his thoughts reeling in panic, Xinemus lowered his father’s great sword.
There are three Scarlet Magi, including the one they spotted. Their leader (Iyokus) admonishes Xinemus and his men while the marshal frantically thinks of a way out. Iyokus revels it was the Chorae that betrayed them since sorcerers can feel them. Sounding defiant, Xinemus demands to know where Achamian is.
“Wrong question, my friend. If I were you, I should rather ask, ‘What have I done?’”
Xinemus felt a flare of righteous anger. “I’m warning you, sorcerer. Surrender Achamian.”
“Warn me?” Droll laughter. The man’s cheeks fluted like fish gills. “Unless you’re speaking o inclement weather, Lord Marshal, I think there’s very little you could warn me about. Your Prince has marched into the wastes of Khemema. I assure you, you’re quite alone here.”
“But I still bear his writ.”
“No, you don’t. You were stripped of your rank and station. But either way, the fact is you trespass, my friend. We Schoolmen look very seriously upon trespass, and care nothing for the writ of Princes.”
Humid dread. Xinemus felt his hackles rise. This had been a fool’s errand.
But my path is righteous…
Iyokus orders them to drop their trinkets. With the crossbows aimed at them, they have no choice. They surrender. Then Iyokus consumes Dinch and Xinemus in sorcerous fires. Xinemus is thrown to his knees by the heat. Their shrieks die, leaving only burning heaps behind.
On his knees, Xinemus stared at the two fires. Without knowing, he’d brought his hands up to cover his ears.
Xinemus is seized by the Javreh, forced to face Iyokus. He reveals he knows that Xinemus is Achamian’s closest friend. He realizes he’ll be tortured to hurt Achamian and that he has failed his friend again. Iyokus continues, saying Achamian has been telling lies, so they want to know what he has told Xinemus. Then they’ll see if Achamian will surrender the Gnosis. “If he values knowledge over life and love…”
The translucent face paused, as though happening across a delicious thought.
“You’re a pious man, Marshal. You already know what it means to be an instrument of truth, no?”
Yes. He knew.
At the destroyed Library of the Sareots, Achamian’s Wathi Doll escapes the ruins. It had taken weeks for it to find its way free. But now it has a mission. “Someone had spoken its name.”
Got to love Bakker’s description of the desert, starting off, of course, with something as crass as dung beetles and the mirth they bring.
The Kianene plan is great. They are using the terrain to their advantage. The Carathay has to be crossed. There aren’t enough ships to transport around, and that’s dangerous anyways. And now the Holy War is trapped. They wait until they are seven days in before attacking the Nansur fleet. They can either march back, losing many, or press on, losing more but hoping they will find something, water, hope, the fleet.
Either way, the Kianene benefit.
It’s a brutal decision to save the holy war. To put to death all those camp followers (including those friendly whores Esmenet knew). It is a terrible decision. A horrible one. But they are seven days into the desert. They wouldn’t have made it back to Shigek alive with all those people. The entire Holy War would perish. Morality vanishes when survival is at stake.
Bakker describing the thirst is so powerful, especially the apathy as they near death. Not even caring when they’re being attacked. Their bodies are giving out beneath the desert. Things are so dire. Even though Bakker is writing this part in his remote, historical style, you can still feel the emotion, the stakes of everything. You don’t get insight from any POV characters, but you can imagine how Esmenet, Serwë, Proyas, Cnaiür, and even Conphas are suffering. You wonder how badly is affecting Kellhus. After all, he’s still human. He needs water. Even his will and breeding will give out.
Hi Chepheramunni. Haven’t heard your name in a while. And that’s about to be important. This is very clever on Bakker’s part. He gives us this Ainoni nobleman, Detnammi, as a scout, shows us how humans can be so selfish in survival situation by having him abandon his duty and heading for Subis. This greed only further harms the Holy War. And then Bakker can use Detnammi’s posthumous punishment to remind us about the ceremonial Chepheramunni again without arousing any curious eyebrows. Of course, Chepheramunni would denounce such a traitor. The Holy War’s hope was taken away from them by Detnammi. It hits Bakker’s themes on human behavior and acts as a reminder to readers about a minor character about to have more of an impact on the plot. This is great writing, accomplishing so much with one little plot line.
“The God would not be satisfied.” That is a curious line Bakker drops here about Akkeägni and how he’ll now inflict pestilence. It’s such a bleak look at the gods. The Cultic priests seem to have a real good grasp on the gods on how evil they truly are. We see this in the second series with the high priestess of Yatwar (Blanking on her name) and the information Kellhus uncovers venturing into the outside. When Fane called the Gods demons, he was absolutely right.
Marching into the desert with poisoned water is not great. Vomiting and diarrhea just dehydrate you faster, forcing you to drink more befouled water. And yet what choice do you have? You’ll definitely die without it. This is the crucible that shapes the Holy War into the fanatical army that follows Kellhus in the end. This makes brothers out them all.
And more references to the Nail of Heaven. Really want to know what this is and why it’s in a stationary position over the North Pole. There is one reference in the Great Ordeal to it arriving three years ahead of the Inchoroi crashing onto the planet. Is it a satellite? How’d they get it in a stationary position? In real world physics, a satellite can only be in a Geo-stationary orbit over the equator.
Good for Proyas. He is, mostly, a good man, but one forced to do some bad things by politics and his faith.
Then we see Kellhus using this to his advantage, making all these promises about salvation, saying how they will be better than others, flattering their egos and making them more and more fanatical about him.
You can always count on Conphas not to buy Kellhus’s BS.
Losing only 1/3 of their fighting strength after two major battles and the march across the desert in impressive. Of course, the full numbers of the Holy War have lost far more with the death of the camp followers.
More powerful imagery from Bakker on the sandstorm attacking the Holy War. “A new calligraphy of dunes was scrawled about them.”
Love the imagery of the footmen kicking their lords dead horses. I would be pissed, too. Horses need more water a day than a human. Those men had friends that had died because those horses were watered. Bakker always keeps the human in his text.
The horror of the march only mounts. The dehydration, the death. Without shelter from the sun, they’re loosing even more now, baked. Thousands are dying instead of hundreds. They stop thinking, just marching. They’ve truly become animals know, the intellect vanished. Not even Kellhus is speaking. “Gone was the voice of the Warrior-Prophet.” Even bonds of love and family break now.
And, of course, the return of Bakker’s favorite phrase (or a variant): “But only death would come swirling down.
Esmenet finds the sight of Kellhus carrying Serwë triumphant because he is the only one left caring about anyone. As we see in the preceding paragraphs, husbands aren’t helping their wives, and men are abandoning their brothers. It’s all about saving yourself now. The animal has wholly taken over them, but he’s still carrying someone. To Esmenet, it’s an act of love.
A shame Kellhus is doing it for his plans. He needs Serwë. He knows the Circumfix is coming. He needs to have a wife to be killed as part of his test. And he can’t afford for that wife to be Esmenet. He’s saving Serwë’s life now to sacrifice her later.
Javreh come from the Sranc Pits. That sounds interesting. Are the Ainoni capturing Sranc or are the Javreh purchased from slavers that operate on the frontier. There’s a lot of weird stuff with the Ainoni, like the mysterious Chanv.
Humor probably came about in humans because of men hunting in the distant path. In dangerous situations, stalking prey with primitive weapons that forced them to get up close and risk life and limb, demanded human males work together instead of competing. And humor and joking banter is one of the ways that eases the tension, the stress, and breeds camaraderie. We still do it today.
Xinemus’s guilt is driving him to this act of bravery. You can almost feel his desperation. He’s sneaking into the Scarlet Spire’s nest with only two other guys. It’s foolish, he knows it, but he has to do it. He can’t let his friend rot. Xinemus is my favorite character in the series for a lot of reasons, but this is one of them.
Interesting that Bakker turns the Chorae into an instrument of faith, one more important in this moment to Xinemus than his actual symbol of faith. He knows the Chorae works to stop sorcery.
The exhilaration Xinemus feels sneaking through the palace is no doubt a mix of adrenaline and the fact he is growing used to stalking. And it is hard to fear what is familiar. As the fear dwindles, complacency grows, and thus a bold feeling. He’s realized he’s gone this far without getting caught, he’s figured out how to do this, and he has confidence. It’s a trap in situations like this.
And there’s the fear again when the spot the sorcerer. They are reminded of the true stakes. Complacency has fallen away. They all want to flee, but Xinemus is ignoring his survival instinct out of love and guilt for Achamian, and his two men are doing it out of love for Xinemus. This, right here, shows you so much of Xinemus’s character. He has earned these men’s love and loyalty. He didn’t buy it. He didn’t scare it out of them.
Iyokus describes Chorae in the way a scientist will often describe how gravity warps spacetime. That Chorae’s greater weight distorts the sheet of reality more and more.
And Xinemus is struck by such a profound lesson: just because what you are doing is good doesn’t mean you’ll prevail. In another story, Xinemus would find a clever way to escape, to cause a distraction, take down the Javreh, make the sorcerers flee because they have Chorae. But things don’t work like that in this story. Things are, sadly, far too realistic.
The crushing realization hits Xinemus. He has utterly failed. He has gotten his men killed and knows he and Achamian will both suffer for it. This is the last time we see Xinemus as that strong man. In many ways, he dies here but only he keeps living, broken, shattered, debased.
And worse, Bakker shows us Achamian’s true instrument of freedom breaking free of the library and coming to save him. The Wathi Doll. Xinemus could have done nothing and Achamian would have been freed.
Way to twist the knife, Bakker.
“Through a tiny mine, whose only ore was the debris of knowledge.” What a sad line to read about the destruction of so much knowledge.
It was a short chapter, but a powerful one, from the suffering of the Holy War to the peril of Xinemus.