The Shaded Mountain
Opening to a novel I’d written in 2015, and have let gather dust since. Looking to improve it prior to submission, and your thoughts would be appreciated.
Thanks in anticipation.
The day belonged to blood and death. Campfires bled smoky trails into the dawn sky where clouds drifted over the fertile flood plains of Mesopotamia. Across the Euphrates, the city of Dimal hid behind earthen walls that offered its inhabitants scant protection from the thirty thousand strong army camped half a mile away.
Queen Lacita pulled her cloak tighter, the sliver of sun clambering over the horizon yet to deliver on its promise of warmth. Dimal was a ripe fruit ready for the picking. Its people were soft, their comfortable existence built on the backs of those who lived outside the walls. Lacita beat a fist against her thigh as anger, a constant companion for a decade, surfaced once more. Dimal grew fat on the toils of those too weak to defend themselves, and offered them little in return.
Yet still Lacita struggled. Liberating towns and villages from marauders and bandits had marked her two thousand mile journey from the deserts of Eastern Africa, and precious few enemies now remained. Was she creating new foes just to fit her narrative? Were those cowering within the city guilty of anything beyond earning her disapproval?
Atop Dimal’s walls, guards paced nervously, their breath steaming in the chill morning air. They’d die this day, as would any who lifted knife or spear against her army. And yet the ones who should be held responsible, the rulers, would be spared. Yes, they’d be forced to denounce their heathen gods, but their comfort in this world would be assured. It was wrong.
A young king was Dimal’s token leader, but no one had ever seen him outside his palace. Priests were the city’s true rulers, and the king was as much a slave as those who scratched an existence outside the walls.
She wished she’d worn her heavy furs, wondering if her shudders were from more than just the cold. Years of constant warring had taken their toll and, although still young, her heart felt heavy and her soul weary. How many more would die today? How many of those would be children and the infirm?
Lacita smiled when she spotted General Hagas making his way up the sandy hill towards her. Sweat glistened off his dark skin as it always did before a battle, no matter how cold the day. He’d been her adviser in matters both military and beyond since she’d been a girl, appointing himself as a father figure long before she’d named him general. Had that really been eight years ago?
And she laughed on spotting her High Priestess, Mephalis, emerge from the camp and race after General Hagas. The pair were like an old married couple, always fearful Lacita would take the counsel of one without the other being present. She clapped when the General spotted Mephalis following and broke into a jog, a glint in his eye, and she considered whether to shout encouragement to one or both. Yes, the pair were her surrogate parents, although none could replace the real ones, whose slaughter had inspired her to rid the lands of both despot and bandit.
“Dear Hagas, you’re like a naughty child,” Lacita said when the General gained the hilltop, hands on knees as he sucked in air. “You realise Mephalis will be impossible all day now, don’t you?”
“The woman is always impossible, so I doubt I’ll notice,” General Hagas said, his words punctuated by deep breaths. He recovered enough to stand upright. “Anyhow, I’d thought it best to admonish you before she arrived.”
“Oh what’ve I done now?” Lacita asked.
“You’re stood atop a hill without guards in the heart of enemy territory when there’s enough scrub and brush around to conceal a dozen assassins,” Hagas replied. “One arrow, one spear, and the empire you’ve built these last few years would be undone in an instant.”
“Our victories have not been built on my shoulders alone,” Lacita insisted. “Should I fall, you would take my place.”
General Hagas glanced back down at Mephalis who was just starting the hill’s ascent, heavy robes hitched up round her knees and an anxious look on her face. “You’re wrong, my Queen.” He nodded at their camp where thirty thousand warriors prepared themselves for the coming battle. “They see me as a soldier, just like them. Yes, when we’re spilling blood it’s I who leads them. Yes, when we’re thanking the gods for granting us victory it’s Mephalis who leads them in prayer.” He rested a hand on Lacita’s young shoulder. “But it is you they fight for, not I. It is your name they whisper to the gods when they give praise for surviving the day. A general’s leadership will win you a battle, but only the love of a queen will hold an empire together.”
Mephalis stumbled onto the hilltop, and shuddered as Hagas whispered words into Lacita’s ear. “What crazy advice did this old fool offer you this time?” she asked, as she shuffled towards them, leaning heavily on her stick.
General Hagas shrugged. “By far the worst yet, dear Mephalis; I told her she should listen to her High Priestess more.”
Mephalis cracked him on the ankle with her stick, cackling when he yelped. “You’re an old fool Hagas, and should have been put out to pasture long since.” She patted his overlarge belly. “But perhaps not. You’d leave precious little grazing for the rest of the livestock.”