by Slawomir Rapala
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appeared in issue 189.
|Part 3 of 4|
Aezubah rose and circled his prisoner. “I wonder,” he remarked matter-of-factly. “I wonder what would happen if I left you here? You cannot die by the blade, that much is clear, but what of hunger and thirst?”
“They cannot kill me.”
“Perhaps. But if you are more alive than dead, as you claim to be, then perhaps you feel their gnawings just the same?” Aezubah’s eyes narrowed. “A few months of such two monsters churning your stomach might change your mind?”
Athanasios shook his head. “There is much you don’t understand, Aezubah,” he repeated. “I have no feud with you.”
“Why then?” the General demanded.
“We are mere pawns, don’t you see?” the giant sighed and rested his head against the ground. Long, thick-plotted hair scattered all around him.
“See?” he pointed upwards where the black cloud was quickly devouring the blue sky. Aezubah followed his gaze.
“The Treacherous is a temperamental mountain,” he shrugged.
“Maybe, but this...” Athanasios hesitated. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Thunder rolled over the empty landscape. The cloud expanded quickly and soon stretched over their heads in its entirety. The world around them darkened and the wind picked up. In a few moments, its gentle rustling turned almost into a howling. Its ravishing force snapped branches and forced the scant vegentation to bow to the earth. Heavy rain followed almost immediately, a few drops at first but quickly gaining power and beating against the faces of the two foes who remained motionless amidst the growing fury of nature. Within moments they were both soaked through as streams of water poured over their heads.
Aezubah wiped strings of hair away from his forehead and looked around for shelter, but the scarce thicket did offer much protection. “We have to leave the slope!” he shouted over the increasing wind. “It’s much too exposed here! The rain itself is bad enough, but if the wind continues to grow, we might have loose rocks falling on our heads!”
Athanasios made no gesture that would suggest he understood Aeuzbah’s words. The General leaned in, studying his captive’s closed eyes and the determined features of his face.
“If I release you, will you still seek to kill me?” he demanded, his hand raised in a feeble attempt to shield from the raging rains.
The giant’s eyes opened and he gazed straight at the General. “Yes,” he said.
“Your death is the price he put on mine.”
“What do you mean?”
Thunder sounded over them, threatening, menacing. Vicious winds howled throughout the rocky waste, ravaging the scant vegetation of the Treacherous, raising clouds of dust and shifting entire mounds gravel that covered the face of the mountain. Heavy rains pounded the earth with fury. Aezubah looked around again, frowning in indecision. His gaze ventured back to the motionless giant beneath his feet.
“My death for yours, what does that mean?” he demanded again.
“I’m bound to life, don’t you see?!” Athanasios suddenly exploded. His head jerked forward as he abruptly raised himself on his elbows. “He’s given me a life I curse every day!”
“Immortality then?” Aezubah whispered in bewilderment, but his voice was lost in the storm raging all about them and Athanasios continued uninterrupted: “He’s promised me death if I kill you! So I took the bargain and I will go through with it! You would, too, if you’d lived for three thousand years, watching everything age and pass, everything but you!”
The giant collapsed back to the ground amidst the streams of rain, suddenly tired, his frame shrunken and small. Aezubah watched the stranger’s features tighten and his eyes close shut.
Rain and wind beat furiously against the solemn faces of these two men whose fates were bound to each other despite the centuries that divided them. It was as if the sky had opened up above them and the gods pounded the earth with hatred and fury that only they were capable of.
The General lowered his head so that it almost touched the giant’s. “Who?” his lips barely moved when he uttered the question.
“I cannot tell you,” the Azmattian shook his head in determination. “He is vengeful and powerful, I will not further anger him.”
“Can he hear us?”
“A god then?”
“No,” Athanasios shook his head again. “Don’t question me any longer, for I will not answer.”
“Then die here like a wretched dog, you fool!” Aezubah exclaimed in anger and exasperation. “Can’t you see that your plan is foiled? You are my prisoner!”
“You cannot keep here forever!”
“I can leave you here and it will be months, years even, before someone comes,” the General snapped over the howling winds and the pounding rains. Water streamed over his anger-stricken face. “No one ventures here for fear of the highlanders, and these stay clear of the Treacherous for fear of its temperament! It may be years of hunger and thirst gnawing away at your stomach, years of wild animals tearing you into pieces and feasting on your flesh while you breathe! Is that what you want?!”
“You dare not do it,” Athanasions returned, but his voice betrayed fear.
“Hah!” Aezubah’s spiteful laughter rose over the storm. “I’ve slaughtered everything that walks or crawls on this earth, burned cities to the ground, I’ve soaked the earth with so much blood you will never know however long you live! I’ve defied gods and demons alike, and you tell me that this I won’t do?!” He snatched the Azmattian by his shoulder with a crazed look in his eyes, lifted him off the ground and shook him soundly, while screaming into his ear, “Who is your master, tell me?!”
“Tell me or your flesh will be forever a feast to the beasts of this country! I will bind and gag you and throw you into the bears’ den! Tell me!”
“No, I will not forfeit my prize!”
“You have lost it already. Now tell me who your master is!”
Another great thunder sounded over their heads, followed by a lighting that struck the summit of the Treacherous. Both men startled and gazed at the awesome pillar of fire rising from the peak.
“Who is it?” Aezubah shook his prisoner again. Lightening struck once more, this time closer and even more powerful.
“He’s coming!” Athanasios, whose limp body hung loose in the General’s powerful grip, looked towards the summit.
“Who, tell me!” angered beyond reason, Aezubah reached for the hilt of the sword and twisted the blade that pierced the Azmattian through. The man grunted and a pitiful cry escaped his lips. Aezubah snatched him by his arms again, shook him with hatred and Athanasios finally broke. He opened his eyes and there was great intensity in them. They burnt feverishly like two great torches that no amount of rain could extinguish.
“The demon who dwells as the edge of the earth,” he whispered.
“What’s his name?” the General’s hand ventured toward the sword once more, but there was no need for it.
“He has no name,” the giant’s voice was no more than a breeze. “He needs no name. He is the King of the Underworld.”
“Betrayer,” the demon whispered as he furiously gripped the edge of the world with his claw-fitted feet. “The bargain is off. You will never die!”
Rain and wind ceased suddenly and the world was plunged into a stunned silence. Dust and gravel settled slowly on the slopes of the Treacherous. The scanty bushes that were thus far punished by the rain and forced to the ground by the wind, now slowly raised their twisted branches, reaching to the sky again, shyly, as if uncertain. Streams of water seeped into the ground leaving behind only small puddles and pools of mud. Darkness retreated as the sun stole quietly over the rugged landscape. Aezubah looked around in awe. The storm was nothing more than a mere memory, having lasted for only a moment and being gone in a blink of an eye. He looked questioningly at Athanasios.
“It is over,” the giant sullenly.
“The bargain is off,” Athanasios shrugged. “I no longer need your head. You may release me now.”
“The demon is gone?” Aezubah eyed him with suspicion.
“He is never gone,” the giant shrugged. “But, aye, he’s no longer here. Release me!”
“How can I trust you?” Aeuzbah did not move. “How do I know you won’t crush me as soon as the binds are off?”
“My eyes don’t lie,” the giant shrugged. “Peer into them and see the truth.”
They were a vast blue, the shade of which was impossible to describe for it was not found in nature. Aezubah saw no treachery in them.
“Are you satisfied?”
“Not by a long shot,” Aezubah’s face remained grim. “Too many unanswered questions still linger.”
“I shall answer them as best as I can.”
The General studied again the giant’s solemn face, now seemingly peaceful and serene. Suspicion leered its head once more. “Why the sudden change?” he questioned. “Not but a moment ago you swore me death and now you seek to converse?”
“He deemed me a betrayer and broke the bargain,” Athanasios shrugged again. “Your head means nothing to me now, it is not the prize I seek. You looked into my eyes.”
It was not without effort that Aezubah finally managed to roll the boulder off the giant’s chest. Athanasios grunted painfully, but breathed easier with the weight off. He wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Now the sword.”
“This will hurt,” Aezubah warned him as he gripped the hilt.
“Not as much as when you first plunged it,” the Azmattian’s face tightened. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes. The General took a deep breath and then pulled hard on the weapon, freeing the giant with a swift motion. Athanasios grunted again and rolled to his side, spitting and coughing. Aezubah in the meantime examined the blade with wonder. There was not even a drop of blood on it, nothing. He glanced back at his strange new acquaintance and watched him pull the long knife from the terrible wound in the neck.
“That one hurt more,” Athanasios said with a weak smile as he handed the weapon back to Aezubah. He then massaged his neck. The General’s eyes narrowed as he watched the deep wound close slowly beneath the giant’s fingers. His gaze ventured downward and noted that the gash in the warrior’s chest closed as well and the only mark remaining was now a narrow slit left in the metal plate by the sword.
“You may look like a man,” Aezubah said, “but appearances are often deceiving. Whatever creature you are, you are no mere human.”
“I am a man like you or any other,” Athanasios leaned his massive back against the boulder that had imprisoned him.
“Except that you’re immortal?”
“Cursed,” the giant remarked sullenly. “Cursed to feel hunger and thirst, to suffer cold just the same, to breathe, to walk, to hurt like any other man.”
“But you cannot die?”
“Aye,” Athanasios nodded. “I cannot bleed, yet I can feel the wound. I can feel hunger but never die of it. I can have breath taken away by rope or water, yet I will live and suffer the choke forever. It is a curse, I tell you, and the demon knew well what he did when he handed it to me.”
“Tell me of it.”
Athanasios sighed and glanced at the General who still stood some paces away with the sword naked in his hand.
“’Tis a long tale, friend,” he remarked. “But very well. The sun now shines and its warmth feels good against my pale skin. I have time so I will tell you the tale, especially since it concerns you, too.”
“How can that be?” Aezubah approached now, sheathing his weapon. “If you say who you say you are, we are divided by centuries. How can my fate be subject to yours?”
“Best you sit down, friend,” the giant made room so that the General could too lean against the smooth, rain-washed rock. Then he began:
“Everything in this world occurs in cycles; even the most debilitated of men can recognize this. Day and night occur interchangeably, and the four seasons come and go bringing forth different patterns. Even the wretched peasants know this and plan their lives accordingly. History repeats itself, and nothing that is now has sprung up for the first time. Philosophers know this and they teach it to Kings and rulers. Time is a loop and our fates are bound by it and within its circular path. Do you follow?”
“Of course,” Aezubah shrugged. “Spare me the basic principles.”
“Fine, then, as you wish,” Athanasios looked into the clear blue sky and waited a moment before continuing, as if gathering thoughts. “Long ago, as you know, the Southern side of the large body of water you now call the Azmattic ocean was all claimed by Azmattia, an ancient Kingdom. My Kingdom. Ah, Azmattia,” his gaze ventured upward again and his voice drifted. “Azmattia, with her great forests full of magnificent beasts, Azmattia full of great cities whose glittering towers reached to the sky and challenged the gods. Azmattia, where men were free. Azmattia, where all progress and all knowledge lay. Azmattia, an island of strength and wisdom amidst an otherwise dark, barbarian world.”
“Yet the barbarians prevailed,” Aezubah scoffed.
“Aye, that is so,” Athanasios sighed again. “Dark times came and brought forth the Northern hordes, Vikings and Wolves alike. Biyack III was then King of the Northern Realms, and his fist was as hard as steel. He came bearing thousands of black sails and hundreds of thousands of beastly men.
“Our beautiful Azmattia fell to his greedy hands and all was awash in blood. Cities fell one by one, forests turned to wastelands, knowledge was lost. Dark times came and brought with them the Second Age of the Lords, the Age of Water, the Deluge. Much was lost.”
“And you?” Aezubah asked after a moment of silence during which Athanasios seemed to study the sky and the birds circling over their heads.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala