Courtesy of Skull Island eXpeditions, we have a free excerpt of Instruments of War by Larry Correia.
What’s it about?
Makeda , Supreme Archdomina of House Balaash, is known throughout the Iron Kingdoms for her leadership of the mighty Skorne Empire, but it was not always so…
Before the coming of the Skorne Empire into the west, Makeda was little more than the second child of a great house, but through her will, determination, and adherence to the code of hoksune, she rose above all others.
For the first time the secrets of both Makeda and her people are revealed in the tale of their epic struggle for honor and survival, Instruments of War.
by Larry Correia
“What is it that you whisper to yourself, child, when the pain becomes too much?”
Makeda wiped the blood from her split lip. Her head was spinning, and her body ached from the savage beating. “I recite the code.”
“Why must a warrior recite the hoksune code?” Archdominar Vaactash asked rhetorically.
“The code shows me the way to exaltation. Only through combat may one understand the way.” She studied the blood on the back of her shaking hand as she spoke. All of it was hers … so far. She would have to remedy that. Akkad had beaten her mercilessly, but Makeda could still fight. The tremors slowed and then stopped. “Suffering cleanses the weakness from my being. Adhere to the code and I will become worthy.”
“Correct. You have learned much for one so young,” her grandfather stated without inflection. It was as close to a compliment as the archdominar had ever paid her. “Take up your swords, Makeda of House Balaash. Your lessons are not yet through today.”
The practice swords lay in the sand near where she had been thrown. They were made of hard wood, the edges dented and cracked from hundreds of impacts, the hilts worn smooth by sweat and callus. She had begun learning their use as soon as she was strong enough to lift them. She may have been a child, but she was skorne, and thus she did not question, she endured. Makeda reached out and seized the pair of wood swords. They felt comfortable in her grip, mimicking the heft and balance of true Praetorian blades.
“Rise,” Vaactash commanded.
Makeda struggled to her feet, muscles aching in protest. Her laminate armor had been crafted for an adult, and was too big for her slim body, but it had kept her intact during Akkad’s last merciless assault. She had yet to begin her studies in the art of mortitheurgy, but she did not need to be a master reader of the energy that dwelled within the blood and sinews to understand that her body was in danger of failing her. Her opponent was simply too strong.
Akkad was waiting for her to stand, obviously excited to prove his worth to their grandfather. There were only three present within the gigantic training arena of House Balaash, but one of them was Archdominar Vaactash himself, master of their house and a warrior so great he had already secured exaltation for his deeds. It did not matter that the stands were empty , since the opinion of Vaactash alone mattered more than the cheers of several cohorts of troops.
“What lesson would you have me teach her next, Archdominar?” Akkad asked. As the elder of the two children of Telkesh, first son and heir of mighty Vaactash, Akkad would someday lead House Balaash. Hoksune dictated that the eldest, unless unfit for war, must lead. It was vital that Akkad display his martial superiority before his grandfather, and so far he had. “She is still but a tiny thing.”
Vaactash’s expression was unreadable. “Then why have you had to work so hard to defeat her?”
Makeda took some pleasure in seeing the anger flash across Akkad’s face as he sputtered out a response. “I merely wished to provide you with an amusing show.”
“Watching a paingiver flay a captured enemy is amusing,” Vaactash snapped. “I am here to make sure my grandchildren are being properly prepared to bring glory to my house. Demonstrate to me that you are ready to fight in the name of Balaash.”
Akkad dipped his head submissively. “Of course.” Ten years older, her brother was far larger and had already received advanced training under the tutelage of their father’s veteran Cataphract. Akkad walked to the nearest rack of weapons and removed a war spear, the heavy polearm of the Cetrati. It was longer than Makeda was tall, and even though the blade had been replaced with a block of shaped wood, she knew that it would still hit like a titan’s tusk. Akkad tested the balance of the heavy weapon before grunting in approval. He spun it effortlessly before pointing it at Makeda’s chest. “I will finish her swiftly this time.”
“See that you do. Hold nothing back. Demonstrate your conviction.”
For the skorne, life consisted of either making war or preparing for it. It was a harsh, brutal, and unyielding existence. That was especially true for those blessed enough to be born into House Balaash, the greatest of all houses. There was no doubt they would fight their hardest until physically unable to continue or were commanded to stop by their superior. Other, lesser houses may have done it differently, perhaps not risked the lives of their heirs so flagrantly, but that was why they were weak and House Balaash was strong.
Makeda welcomed the challenge. She crossed her swords and saluted her brother.
Their grandfather studied the combatants intently, his white eyes unblinking. Though his form was bent with age, his mere presence seemed to fill the arena. This was a warrior who had led tens of thousands into battle and conquered more houses than any other dominar in several generations, earning himself the extremely rare title of archdominar. He was a master mortitheurge capable of commanding the mightiest beasts and rending unbelievable magic from the flesh. Makeda wished that she could have a fraction of his understanding, but promised herself that one day she would. Vaactash was the epitome of what it meant to be skorne.
After a long moment of consideration, Vaactash stepped aside, gathered up his red robes, and took a seat on the first tier of the training arena. He gestured dismissively. “Continue.”
“Come, sister. Let us end this.”
Akkad swung the spear in a wide arc. Makeda raised both blades to intercept, but the impact was so great that it nearly tore them from her grasp. Her arms were already exhausted and quivering. She grimaced and pushed back, but her boots slid through the sand of the arena as Akkad overpowered her. The pressure released, the heavy pole moved back, and Makeda lurched aside as Akkad stabbed at her. He followed, relentless, eyes narrowed, looking for an opportunity to finish her.
He was stronger, but she was faster. Stepping in to the threat, Makeda slashed at Akkad’s face with her right, narrowly missing. Show your foe one blade. Kill him with the other. She stabbed with her left sword and clipped the edge of his breastplate. Akkad didn’t seem to notice. The spear hummed through the air again, and this time Makeda was unable to stop it.
She crashed hard against the arena wall.
The code of hoksune declared that the eldest was the default heir, but every child of the highest caste was a valuable war asset, and thus not to be wasted frivolously. Yet, when Makeda looked into Akkad’s maddened eyes, she wondered if her brother really did intend to kill her. She narrowly rolled aside as the wall was pulverized into splinters. Vaactash said nothing.
Her brother was relentless. The war spear covered vast swaths of the arena with each attack. The muscles of Makeda’s arms clenched in agony as her practice swords bounced harmlessly away. Sweat poured down the inside of her cursed, cumbersome armor. She was struck in the ribs, and then in the leg. Flesh bruised and swelling, Makeda continued fighting. She would fight until her archdominar said it was time to stop or she was dead, for that was the code. Another massive strike knocked one of her blades away. It spun through the air and landed in the stands with a clatter.
Makeda knew she was losing, but the words of the code played through her mind. Only by conflict can the code be understood. Embrace your suffering and gain clarity.
Time seemed to slow. His moves were too fierce, too uncontrollable. He had underestimated her resolve. Akkad lifted his spear high overhead before bringing it down in a crashing arc. Makeda barely moved aside in time. The mighty hit threw a cloud of sand into the air, but before Akkad could lift the war spear again, Makeda planted one boot on top of the war spear’s blade. Though sleight, the extra weight was enough to cause his grip to slip as he tried to tug the spear away. The momentary surprise was just enough to allow Makeda one clean strike.
The tip of her practice sword caught Akkad in side of the head. Blood flew as skin split wide. The spear was pulled from beneath her boot and the siblings stumbled away from each other.
Makeda gathered herself, but there was a lull in the fighting. Akkad was glaring at her as if stunned, one gauntlet pressed to his head to staunch the flow of red. She had struck him hard. His ear was mangled, the tip hanging by only a small bit of skin. Surely, he had felt that one.
“I have seen enough.”
Gasping for breath, barely able to stand, Makeda looked to their archdominar. Vaactash nodded once. Her heart swelled.
“Both of you have improved since last I watched you spar. It pleases me that the blood of House Balaash does not run thin in this generation. One day I will die and your father, Telkesh, will lead my House, and you will serve him. In time, Akkad, you will take his place. When you learn to temper your ambition with wisdom, you will bring great honor to our house. Your sister will make a fine tyrant in your service, and I have no doubt that multitudes will be conquered to feed our slave pits. Until then, you have much to learn.”
“The more you bleed in training, the less you will bleed in war. Learn from every fight, Akkad. Do you know why Makeda defeated you this time?”
“She did not defeat me!” Akkad snarled.
“Silence!” The entire arena seemed to flex at Vaactash’s displeasure. That one stern word caused Akkad to fall to his knees and bow. “Do not ever disagree with the ruler of your house. If that had been an actual Praetorian blade the contents of your thick skull would have been emptied into the sand. Fool. How dare you question my decree?”
The siblings shrank back. The archdominar’s legendary temper was a thing only spoken of in hushed whispers.
“For that you will not have this wound repaired. Have the end cut off and cauterized. You will wear that scar as a reminder of your impertinence.”
“Yes, archdominar.” Akkad kept his head down as droplets of blood painted a pattern in the sand. He was trying not to sound sullen. “It will be as you command.”
“Again I ask, do you know why a tiny child capable of hiding in your shadow managed to beat you?”
“Forgive my ignorance. I… I do not know the answer, grandfather.” Akkad risked a quick glance toward Makeda. She could feel the malice in his gaze. Makeda did not gloat. She had merely done her best, as was required. “Please, enlighten me.”
“You only understand the concept of victory. Makeda does not comprehend the concept of defeat.”