There’s a shadowy character that weaves in and out of my stories in Swords of the Four Winds, always off-camera but still casting a lengthy shadow on my setting, thanks to a movie based on a Rudyard Kipling story. I still remember seeing The Man Who Would be King on TV one late night with my late dad, who filled me in on the historical background. I think I was no more than nine or ten at the time, but that started a long fascination with the career of Alexander III of Macedon.
When I was a kid, he was to my mind Alexander the Great. But reading his histories again as an adult, I began to realize there was another side to the man, specially if you looked at him from the point of view of the Persians and Indians; in our time, Alexander would’ve been declared a war criminal. And yet these same people revered him, naming him Dhul-Qarnayn, the Two-Horned, perhaps in reference to his wearing the ram’s horn crown of Ammon on his commemorative coins. Tribes and dynasties from Afghanistan to as far away as Southeast Asia would claim descent from Sikanda Jokanin; Sikanda being Alexander in Sanskrit, and Jokanin, the Malay pronunciation of Dhulcarnein.
It was the mystique and Asian legacy of Alexander that gave me the ideas first for The Sons of Zhulkarnein, an Orhan Timur story in which Orhan fights to win the treasure of the legendary conqueror Callistos Zhulkarnein from the city where it’s been hidden for the past thousand years, only to find out it’s not what he had hoped. Betrayal, mayhem, dark sorcery and more mayhem follow, of course.
That story was very quickly followed by the character of Arios the Spearman, whose stories are set very shortly after the end of Callistos’ career. For the Arios stories, my main inspiration came from the wars of the Diadochi, the generals who usurped power after Alexander’s death. Arios for me is a real milestone in my writing. While Orhan is a savagely ambitious barbarian in the mold of Attila or Hengist, Arios is a tired old soldier who only wants to get back to his family. In building the character I read up accounts of soldiers from the Vietnam and Gulf conflicts, and the stories – thanks to David Gemmell – ring on themes of chaos and suffering and the futility of war. Don’t get me wrong though – the Arios stories are as filled with the clangor of battle as any of my tales, it’s just that the hero’s motivations are very very different.
I’m now planning to start writing up Volume II of Swords of the Four Winds (whenever I’ve time from my shoots, like tonight), with some of the existing characters and maybe some new ones. I tend to base my stories on snippets of history or legend that I pick up, so I’m pretty certain this Conqueror figure will be part of my background again. Maybe something based on the old Buddhist kingdoms of Bactria? Hmmm …