Snow paced across the sands.
The desert stretched far and vast to all sides. The sun was low behind him, beginning to dip into the
mirage beyond the shifting landscape, and yet it blazed with a fury so palpable that it burned his eyes
just to look at it. The desert-storm raged like a mad God’s fury and Snow paced.
The muted sound of horse-hooves reached him again, closer now…in pursuit…ever in pursuit. His breath
came in fits as he fought his way across the hissing sands, shrouded in the rising storm. His throat was
parchment-dry, his body weary. The horses pursued, and he paced.
There was the slight rise of a dune ahead. He picked his way up the cushioned slope, leaning to one side
against the maddening storm. It was all he could do to keep moving. More grit was packed in his eyes,
his nostrils and his mouth as he padded slowly along the all-too-familiar desert trail. Perspiration never
left him and his eyes squinted even further –the vision blurring– even as he pulled himself along, the
sweat beading on his forehead and being picked up as soon by the swooshing wind.
He halted at the summit of the dune, the sands drifting beneath and around him. A pleasant faint scent
reached his senses as he looked farther ahead –
An enormous wall of sandstone spanned the desert from horizon-to-horizon as far as the eye could
squint, the summits indistinct and blurring in the swirling sands. And directly in front of Snow stood an
iron gate, the plane, heavily banded and polished metal surface gleaming a stunning dull hue of grey. No
decorations. Simple wood and sandstone arches on both sides were the only added grace to the robust,
Snow took a staggering step –
– and something sharp punched into the middle of his back, the momentum carrying him forward
despite himself. Even as his vision blurred and the world darkened around him, as his knees buckled, his
mouth sour and wet, he looked down at his breast where the point of a spear jutted out from between
his ribs. Then he started falling –
He woke in a shuddering tent. The wild wind whipped and hissed everywhere, the sound ringing in his
ears –troubling his raw senses– and the tent-flap made irritating noise as it danced where the ropes
were tied. Sweat hung clung to his frame like a second skin. The bedding beneath him felt wet. That
Letting out a slow breath, Snow crawled out of his bedding and then folded everything properly. He
could easily make out –to his great relief– that it was still night outside, probably a bell before dawn.
Yes, it’s time. He examined his bandages in the dim lamp-light before he shrugged into his army-issue
tunic and leather armor. He checked his Sergeant’s badge.
The cutters and healers had wanted to force-heal his wound where it had been shattered. They had
suggested quick-healing potions and draughts and even the amber-reed salve. But the Infantry
Sergeant had settled with bandages and simple healing since he did not want to waste the rare herb
upon his accident-wound –much as it was needed by his fellow wounded and dying soldiers– and had
thought that the ample time in the march to the Holy Desert would gradually bring life to his leg again.
The rigorous drills and scouting only had –if anything– made things worse. The wound was festering. As
Snow had known in the first place. He had just hoped against hope.
Shrugging to himself, Sergeant Snow checked again his weapons before he untied the violently fluttering
tent-flap and stepped out into the starry night.
The tents occupied the starlight-illuminated landscape. Their straight, orderly rows flowed out all around
him in the Imperial style.The Sergeant’s squad –the Eleventh– was attached to the Sixth Company of
the Second Imperial Army : Raven’s Host. The Sixth Company had been posted right behind the
vanguard two days past during the march into the heart of the Holy Desert and to the impending war
with the Desert City of Feralithan.
The Emperor’s invasion campaign on this continent had been, thus far, messy : yet in the Empire’s
favor. Only a day remained ahead of them in the month-long march to the City.
‘Up too early, Sarge? Enjoyin’ the scenery, huh? Kinda ‘all that a soldier finds lovely’, ain’t it just?’ Bright
rumbled a hearty laugh. The huge, broad man was the squad’s cook and the shield – heavy infantry.
Though quick to laugh, Bright was not a man to mess with. And the added cunningness to his eyes.
Snow liked the man.
Snow smiled up to him. ‘Yeah, the very same stuff.’ His grin gentled. ‘Good to see your pretty face,
Bright. Now you don’t get me emotional, you oaf. I’ll be on my way now. Work to attend to. Duty calls.
All that.’ He waved at the man and picked his way between the lines to the centre tents of the
establishment – the Headquarters. One command-tent in particular.
‘Aye, ‘all that a soldier finds lovely’ type. I get it.’ Bright laughed again as he said that.
The very same thing, Bright. Yes, the very same thing.
Everyone in the Army knew him as a Sergeant of the Sixth, Marine Corps. Another unnoticeable soldier,
if not for the peace of metal on his tunic. Few knew him for what he was. Appointed by the Emperor
himself : He was a Black, a member of the Emperor’s secret guild of Imperial assassins. He was the
Emperor’s eyes here, his gloved claw around the commanders’ throats.
Tonight, Emperor Wasem had trusted him with close-hand work, and he now approached the tents in
answer. There was a need of cleansing the Army Command of some dangerous infiltrators. And I would
be the Emperor’s fist.
The man he had been tasked to kill was, like him, probably an assassin – but, by the Empire’s sources,
the enemy’s spy – of the Rulers of the Holy City of Feralithan. He had been told that the man was
working to infiltrate the Army with a society of his own assassins. Yet, the Emperor had known, as
always. I am the Empire’s justice. I am His hand. Snow was, in the end, a soldier after-all. And it all came
down to simple obeying and following at that. The Emperor had commanded. He would answer. Even if
wide-eyed-stupid that this might be.
There were no guards posted at the tent’s entrance where it stood well apart from others. Ah!
Confident and probably arrogant, are you now?
He kept to the shadows as he edged along the tent-wall to the entrance; silent as a ghost, invisible as
darkness. Shadows were an assassin’s friends, his stealth the armor and stealth his weapon. He slipped
through the entrance to the high-ceilinged tent and huddled to one side noiselessly. He waited for a few
moments for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. His honed senses quick in response, it needed little time.
He slowly drew his twin-bladed knives from their padded sheaths under his leather cape in a single fluid
Like every other time, there was no room for mistake. He would get but one chance. For men like him,
the count ended at ‘one’.
The man was an assassin, he remembered, hesitating. The air itself was thick with closely-huddled
shadows. We’re brothers, aren’t we? He had a bad feeling about this. But this won’t be a conversation,
so he was relieved. How he disliked conversations! Too many words.
He took a step forward –
– and staggered as an image flashed involuntarily across his mind : An enormous wall of sandstone
spanning horizons and a lone towering iron gate in sight. It was then that –as his heart rocked in his
chest– the attack came.
The blade of his attacker slipped as it hit the metal amulet under the leather on his left arm and slashed
at his side instead, opening the skin under the padding. Knocked off-balance, he feebly parried
synchronized blows to his either side. Quickly regaining his balance, he danced to one side as his
attacker lunged at him again. He tried several stances as the blows came one after the other, scarcely
leaving a breath’s width. In his adjusted vision, he saw between blows that his attacker was lean and
strongly-muscled, half-naked and black-skinned. Captain Snarl. He now saw the truth in the reports. The
man was skilled. And gods be damned! He’s fast! It had been quite some time since he had last crossed
blades with such a match for his own prowess.
Their knives danced as the combat gained momentum, the blades hissing, and sparks flashing
occasionally as they met. Snow dived to his right as a blade flashed in a full arc from the left. He rolled,
and stopped in a crouch. Seeing his chance then, he picked up speed as he threw himself at Snarl in a
flurry of blows. The man parried well for some time, but later as the gaps opened further, Snow’s blades
began to slash through leather and skin. The weaknesses began to surface.
Snow did not remember as he shifted weight from one leg to another upon seeing a final chance, and
and the half-healed leg buckled under the weight –
– then broke.
An audible grunt escaped his lips as he dropped to one knee in a surge of maddening pain. Should’ve
listened to the healers. Damn! Even as he went down, his advantage gone, he brought his knives down
in twin, converging sideways slashes and put all his strength behind the blow. A dagger lodged itself in
his chest and the attacker pushed hard with the hilt, but Snow’s hands were beyond his control. Steel
cut through leather, then skin, slipped over bone and soon after, the stench of spilled entrails reached
him, even as hot blood sheathed his limp hands. On his knees, Jon Snow died a soldier’s death.
– And the Iron Gate swung open above him as he was carried through the whizzing sands, under the
arch of the gateway, by men his eyes couldn’t see. The skies changed from a bright dazzling glare to a
softer, darker hue of crimson and gray. The huge Gate of his dreams swept past, its grey surface
gleaming with an innate glow. The faint echoes of a soldier’s song reached him, and Snow closed his
eyes and slept peacefully. He slept long and untroubled. And he knew he would not dream anymore. This
was a soldier’s paradise. The end of the road.
He had answered when the command had come. And now, he knew, the Iron Gate had welcomed
|THE IRON GATE
by: Anant Tripathi