The Imperial Army entered the Nia Valley through trails winding among the hills from the west. The planners were very good and the timing exact. On a night of full moon, when its round, lustrous disc was at the meridian, horse units, riding at a gallop to close the last few miles, fell upon the Nia Capital. They surrounded its outskirts in a series of well executed movements and then, when the main body caught up and the first light of day glimmered above the eastern hills, they started moving into the suburbs, slaughtering and burning as they went. They butchered everyone, for the order was to butcher everyone and the Imperial Army always obeyed orders. As the slaughterers went about their work, troops with wagons came behind loading the corpses to be carried to the riverbank and tossed into the water.
The Nia had been asked to sign a treaty with the Imperial government involving a garrison, tributes of sheep and metals, and hostages. The Nia had refused. This refusal put the Emperor into a terrible mood for the very day he heard of it he received intelligence that a numerous and warlike people called the Rechyai had conquered the northern section of the River Eg and were soon to move out onto the plain. Two things threatening the Empire learned of in a single day pushed him over the top, although if the truth be told it did not take much to push him over the top. He once ordered the killing of several thousand in a local marketplace because he heard that one of its merchants had sold a cloak made of purple cloth, a color reserved for his Royal Person.
As well as ordering a punitive expedition the Emperor also ordered that Storytellers accompany the Army. Their task was to compose an Epic poem or two about the heroic exploits of the Imperial troops and then later to spread out through the far provinces of the Empire reciting it in marketplaces and taverns. Thus the butchery of the Nia would act as an object lesson for the outer tribes, reminding them it was wise to obey the Imperial will.
The General of the Imperial Army was a small man with a snow-white beard. The dazzling effect of his beard was accentuated by the fact that his hair was dyed a bright orange for this was the fashion of the court at that time. Perhaps because he realized there was too great a contrast between his beard and his hair, he wore on his head and enormous hat resembling a gigantic loaf of bread pouring over the sides of far too small a pan. The hat, like the beard, was white but a little off color, a kind of beige. After many hours of looking into the mirrors (he owned thirty nine of them) in his ancestral home and still further hours asking the opinions of his concubines, he decided that the hat, its color complementing that of his beard and smothering with its folds most of his orange hair, created the desired effect. The effect he was looking for was one of splendid, dashing, heroic glory.
Rising from the helmet strapped onto the head of the charger the General was riding was a single plume made up of the feathers of many birds, resplendent and multi colored. Below, on the breast plate of the charger and, as well, on his own breastplate in a smaller version, was the coat of arms which the Emperor had granted him after his second Triumph. This was a hideous image of a man impaled upon a stake and writhing in agony.
It was a hot day and the work of butchery was tiring and tedious. It took all day for the Imperial troops to work their way into the center of town. The river was filled with bodies and the streets red with blood. There was little resistance. The Nia warriors were south raiding tribes on the borders of their territory. The few young women and small boys who attacked the troops were soon cut down. When the forward horse units reached the center of town they were pushing before them a crowd of Nia elders. When they reached the main square other troops had already set up sharpened stakes in a line along the river. The elders were stripped and beaten and then impaled on the stakes. There were two hundred and thirty-three of them and, for the first while before loss of blood weakened them, the screams and screeches of these old men were deafening.
The Storytellers (in the Falconian Empire a special sect which wore badges to indicate their office and had a school in the capital where they were taught their trade as well as a mystical love and devotion to the Emperor) were ordered to stretch themselves out in a line (there were twenty –five present) and sit before these sufferers. They were to listen carefully to their shrieks and moans and thus, according to both General and Emperor, bring to their literary compositions the power and energy of harsh and strident reality. Most of the Storytellers found this to be difficult. They were men and women of words and ideas and they found this terrible cruelty almost overwhelming. Yet they sat and watched for they knew the General was not adverse to impaling Storytellers who showed weakness and misguided compassion. He had done so before.
One of the Storytellers, a man named Nawan, a member of the sect and an Imperial citizen but half Nia himself through his mother, actually approached the victims, shouting Imperial slogans up into their twisted faces. Of course they barely heard him for their sufferings were terrible, their eardrums bursting. Such was his fervor and fury that the General himself noted his actions and instructed one of his officers to find out the man’s name so that he could be rewarded later with one of the Emperor’s low ranking metals reserved for Storytellers. However, if he knew what Nawan was up to he would have done otherwise.
Tied up in a harness beneath his voluminous cloak Nawan concealed a sheep’s bladder filled with a strong narcotic, a small amount of which would stop a man’s breathing.
Attached to one end was a hollow needle which he could easily bring out through the opening in his cloak. When he came in close to scream and spit in fury at the impaled man he leaned against his thigh and injected him with this potion. The victims were so engrossed in other more horrible pains they did not notice the jab but within ten or fifteen minutes they were dead. Nawan administered his potion of death strategically to protect himself. He walked the whole line abusing each in turn but choosing only every tenth man for injection. By the time he came to the end of the line, exhausted by his shouting, almost unable to speak, he had brought to twenty-three men his kiss of death.
Several hours after the impaling the General rode from his place at the side of the square surrounded by his subalterns, all brightly uniformed young men, who, as they remained away from and above the killing on their horses, looked as though they had just turned out for a fancy dress parade. They were all from noble families and carried on one side of their breastplate the Emperor’s coat of arms, on the other that of their own house. As this processional made its way across the square, the soldiers created for it a path much as the magician in the Falconian fable created a path across a raging river. As the processional passed, on each side the packed and hysterical soldiers shouted themselves hoarse, crying out from the dying embers of their bloodlust for their victorious General. He graciously waved back and even, once or twice, in a sly, ironic fashion, smiled.
When the General came up to the line of the impaled his officers moved off to either side. He was draped by a servant in a hide cloak which covered his front and handed a long sword, razor sharp. With this he proceeded to cut off the heads of the first ten men in the line of the impaled. With each beheading his troops shouted in delirious joy and his subalterns politely clapped. When he was done he handed the sword to his chief of staff. The subalterns jostled with their horses to be in line to cut off a few heads of their own. Afterwards the bodies of the victims were removed from the stakes and thrown into the river. They were replaced by the heads, the features frozen by their sufferings into masks of agony. The General ordered these to remain until they were reduced by rot, insects and birds to bare skulls. Then they were to be taken down, smashed with hammers and thrown into the river.
One of the Falconian Storytellers sitting crosslegged on the ground before the impaled elders, was a young woman of twenty-one. Her name was Fli and she had just received her First Degree Certificate from the Institute in the Imperial Capital, Hawan. Although she had heard stories of such things and had been taught at the Institute that the Glory of the Emperor required many grim practices she was truly devastated. It is one thing to listen and approve of ideas, words, ideologies and another to witness up close unbelievably cruel depravity. When the soldiers had lifted the naked old men up and jammed them down on the sharpened stakes the entire structure of her inner world was
shattered in a single blow. Every thing she had been taught at the Institute was a lie. The purpose and significance of her life, which up until then had been sure and steady and lain out before her in a long, glorious shining road stretching off into the future, was cut off and she felt as if someone had suddenly removed all of her inner organs and replaced them with an iron nothingness. But she was a strong young woman and did not allow any of her true thoughts to show on her face. She arranged her features in a mask of cool stoicism and looked upon these suffering and screaming men as if they were so many fish thrown by fishermen to die flopping on a sandy shore.
When Nawan came down the line of the impaled, cursing and abusing the sufferers, her reaction was one of disgust. She knew Nawan from the Institute and was surprised for he had always seemed to her to be a thoughtful young man free of the brutal fanaticism of many of the students and here he was a screeching maniac, a point man in a world of raving lunatics. But when he came up to the man off to her left she saw what he did with his needle, not clearly for what he did was covered by his body and cloak but still she was sure by the movements of his body by the almost imperceptible pause in his stream of abuse that he was accomplishing something diametrically opposed to the dramatic role he was playing. She watched the impaled man she was sure Nawan had done something to as Nawan himself went on down the line. He was a man in his seventies, his face white with pain, his features distorted, his eyes staring off into a terror which could only end with a now deeply longed for death. Two minutes after Nawan was with him his writhings slowed down to a kind of weird rhythm. Four minutes and his face relaxed withdrawn somehow from the world of terror it had been in to become human again, to take in one last time the actualities which were about him, the soldiers, the Storytellers sitting before him, the cries of his fellow victims, perhaps even the smell of the river behind and the blue haze of the sky above. A minute later he reached up with both hands and closed his own eyes, very gently, employing his fingers in the most delicate way. Then he dropped his hands, slumped to one side, and stopped breathing.
When the impaled man was gone Fli shifted her eyes to watch Nawan who had progressed down the line. She got up and walked to the end of the line and watched him from there. By the time he was finished and walked over to one of the water buckets to drink she was sure. Somehow he had drugged and delivered a kinder death to some of the victims. And here, in this world of mockery, sadism, and depraved hysteria his actions, perhaps because they were so weird, so out of synch, had gone undetected, other than by herself. Nawan sat not far from her and they both watched the closing act, the General with his deft beheadings, the bodies flung into the river, the heads placed upon the stakes. When it was over Nawan rose, shouldered his pack and started up the river bank to the north. Fli followed.