Of Tyrants and Gods
by Slawomir Rapala
|Table of Contents|
|part 1 of 5|
Those who rule the day and night,
— an Estratian children’s prayer
The King’s chambers were brightly lit, a clear sign that the Monarch was receiving important visitors despite the late hour. Guards stood on attention before the Royal rooms, but although they strained their ears they heard nothing through the thick oak doors that separated them from the chambers.
Faint signs of light slipped through the thin crack just above the stone floor and penetrated the dimly lit corridor. Its brick walls bore no decorations or ornaments, creating a gloomy aura which could not be dissolved by the flickering light of several torches whose long shafts were driven into the floor at twenty paces’ length from each other. Most of them had burnt out already, marking an end of a long and strenuous day.
The day was a difficult one for the King of Estrata as news reached him of more cities sacked by the wicked Wizard and of more garrisons deserting and joining the victorious armies of the renegade priest. Lord Harish clenched his plump fists upon receiving the message and ordered its bearer killed, but that did little to aid the matter or ease the embarrassment.
All of northern Estrata was engulfed in rebel flames as the Wizard Yagdish continued his triumphant walk through the Kingdom’s Provinces. With each city sacked and each Royal battalion decimated, his own fanatical armies swelled. Those of the King’s men who survived the blood-drenched battles were either tortured and killed or forced to join the ranks of the dark army through wicked tricks and black spells for which the self-proclaimed Ruler of the World was well known. Not a stone remained unturned on his path and not a tree remained free of dead men hanging.
North of Arkeen, the Kingdom of Estrata was nothing but a burnt-out rubble of ash and debris. The heavy war machine continued its triumphant roll through the countryside, pushed forth by the skilled hands of a dark priest, destroying the Kingdom and relishing in the blood spilled.
As the steel fist of war spread carnage in Estrata, the remaining Southern Realms watched with little interest, each having their own experiences with the treacherous Estratians. Even the mighty Nekryan Lion remained still, to concerned with the troubles brewing within his own borders to rush to the aid of a dubious ally, an ally who had once left him amidst an uneven battle with the Tha-kians and run off to save his own head.
King Harish, the Lord of Monkeys as he was called behind his back, had few friends among the rulers of the world and even fewer supporters in his own Kingdom. His long dictatorship had often been marked with violent uprisings of the poor masses who were taxed much beyond their limits and terrorized by the Royal troops.
These soldiers — tall, bearded, red-haired warriors — were brave fellows when collecting taxes from poor peasants and merchants, when drinking their wine, eating their food and lying with their wives and daughters. But when ordered to meet the Wizard’s maniacal troops, they cowered in fear and fled like whipped dogs. Some joined the dark priest even before he used his powers, showing clearly where their loyalties lay.
Harish paid them well, but in the face of an enemy who fought with a fury fueled by a religious fanaticism and aided by dark magic, these brave fellows often wisely chose to switch sides. In the Wizard’s services they were once more free to do what they did best: to terrorize unarmed peasants and merchants, to chase women and whores, to drink, gamble and spill innocent blood. Whether they did this in the name of Yagdish or Harish made little difference to them.
* * *
“It’s ironic, don’t you think?” the King asked as he sipped on the wine from a beautifully crafted thin crystal globe and studied the man sitting across the table.
“What is?” the man asked, his blue eyes fixed on the King. The warrior’s long frame was enclosed in a long ring-armor which covered his breast, shoulders and arms. A thin metal collar shielded his neck while metal plates served as further protection to his forearms and thighs. The whole dress seemed difficult to penetrate either by arrow or sword while at the same time it hardly restrained his movements.
A Surathian armor, the King thought to himself when he first saw the man. The Kingdom of Surath, a Realm of tough warriors, was well known for crafting carefully weighted blades and almost infallible armor. Few could afford them, however, since their price often reflected the amount of time spent on them by the master-craftsman.
Clearly, the King’s guest was not a simple warrior or mercenary. He was a tall man whose face was long and pale. Thin lips and ice-cold eyes betrayed a violent nature, as did his dark features. Though advanced in age, the man showed no signs of weakness, and even the King realized that few men could match his strength and agility in hand-to-hand combat. The man was born to be a warrior and a leader. He was born to become a part of the war machine.
“I have an army numbering in thousands, I have the gold to pay them, but I can’t stop them from deserting,” the King exploded. “As soon as they face the bloody priest, even if it’s from across a battlefield, they tuck in their tails and flee.”
“From what I’m told, they flee mostly in his direction,” the warrior smirked.
“Indeed,” Harish threw a quick glance at the man’s face, which was marked by a recent burn. When they first met, the Estratian had asked him about it, and the soldier smiled and replied that he had a meeting with a sand demon. ‘No such thing,’ the King scoffed then. The man only shrugged and did not pursue the matter.
Harish was left wondering whether the statement was indeed true and studied the warrior closer. He called himself Aezubah and his name was well known throughout the Southern and Northern Realms. Exiled recently by the King of Bandikoy, this famous General had crossed the No Man’s Desert and entered Estrata, probably the only remaining Southern Kingdom that would have him. The Nekryan Lion roared in anger upon hearing the news, demanding Aezubah expelled and turned over to Nekrya to answer for his crimes. Not for the first time Harish refused to oblige the powerful monarch and instead offered Aezubah protection.
A legendary General who brought peace to Bandikoy, one who led hordes of Northern Vikings to victory over a powerful Sorcerer and his Underworld army, one who shattered the foundations of the ancient Kingdom of Biyack, yes, the King smiled to himself, this man would be a perfect ally against the renegade priest whose initially small-scaled rebellion had now engulfed a whole nation and threatened Harish’s regime.
“You want to me to take charge of your army then?” the General asked.
“I want you to defeat Yagdish for me,” the King replied. He rose from the chair and paced the chambers. “The problem with the priest is that he uses his powers to swell his armies. He stupefies the already dumb peasants, and they join him like sheep at the beckoning of a shepherd. My troops do the same. It’s ludicrous! I’m losing a war without even seeing the face of my foe!”
“It’s all magic, then?”
Harish threw another quick glance at Aezubah and noted a mocking smirk slowly fading from the man’s thin lips. The King scowled and faced the warrior.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he remarked, his face slightly flushed.
“Of course you do,” the General shrugged and reached for the globe of wine resting before him. “You know just as well as I that two decades of your rule have left some of your subjects less than happy. They slave away under the scorching sun, tearing the crops out of this wretched, sand-ridden land, and you take it from them with complete disregard of their circumstance...”
“I am their King!” Harish interrupted angrily.
“They watch their wives and children starve to death while your men ride away with their goods,” Aezubah continued calmly. “You grow rich and they grow poor. They curse you and your men, they shake their fists in futile anger, and they pray to the gods to send someone who would overthrow you and end their misery.”
The aging General paused to have another sip from the crystal globe. He swirled the crimson drink, balancing the chalice between his fingers. King Harish gazed upon him in a stunned silence, his face flushed and the knuckles of his clenched fists white.
“And that’s just the peasants,” Aezubah added, pretending to be far more interested in the globe in hand rather than the furious man before him. “Should I talk of the merchants whom you tax so much that they trade in secret behind the city walls and risk their lives by crossing the No Man’s Desert so as not to run into your troops on the main roads? I won’t even mention the priests, whose temples you raid and rid off anything resembling gold.”
“Thieves!” the King exclaimed. “They all keep what’s mine!”
“By what right is it yours?” the General smirked.
“I am the King!”
“Yes,” Aezubah nodded with boredom. “But for how long?”
Harish slammed his fist against the table. “Don’t forget your place, General!” he hissed. “You may be a legend, but one that’s unwanted in many of this world’s places. I offered you protection!”
“To gain my services!” Aezubah also raised his voice, unshaken by the King’s outburst.
“You will lead my armies or leave my Kingdom tonight!”
“You’ll be dead within a fortnight, great King!” Aezubah laughed with scorn. “Your own men will slit your throat.”
“What happens to me if you decide to leave Estrata should be none of your concern.”
“I think nothing of it.”
“I wonder, though,” the King added with a sly smile, “where would you go? Back to Bandikoy from which you were banished not more than a month ago? Perhaps to the Kingdom of Tha-ka, where they hate you with such passion that men write your name in blood during ritual war dances?”
Aezubah leaned back in the chair and sipped on the wine.
“Or maybe you will visit Nekrya, where King Diovinius still hunts you for the death of his wife and placed such bounty on your head that it would make any man richer than a god?”
“My conscience is clear,” the General remarked.
But the King failed to hear the quiet words. He paced the room and continued, now and again facing Aezubah and pointing an accusatory finger. “How about Messenjah or Argaron, both pets to the mighty Tha-ka, where they would trade you in for a pair of good riding boots? Or the Black Steppes, where the black head-hunters to this day proclaim you to be a messenger of death, cursed in this life and the next?
“Burrodha and Surath are allied with Nekrya and hardly wish to see you within their borders. Where would you go then, General? Back North to your Viking friends? They only wait to shred you to pieces following your treachery during the battle of Knoss when you aided their enemy, Vaherra of Lyons!
“And let’s not forget Biyack XIV, who seeks vengeance for the bloody spectacle you orchestrated at Reele, or his Underworld allies, whose spies follow your scent wherever you go!”
Harish stopped before Aezubah and gazed at him triumphantly. “Where will you go, General, if you refuse my offer? You are a hunted animal.”
“And you’re one that’s trapped,” the old warrior snapped back.
“Let’s help each other then,” Harish stepped behind the General’s chair and put his hand on his shoulder. Aezubah swallowed the rest of the wine in gloomy silence and pushed the globe away. He fixed his eyes on the flames of the dozens of candles illuminating the Royal chambers.
“On my terms, though,” he finally said.
“What are they?” Harish sat opposite the General.
“Full control of the army. I owe nothing to anyone and respond only to you.”
“Fine. What else?”
“No questioning. I do things for a reason, even if it may at first elude you.”
“I want to be briefed on all your movements and the reasons for them,” Harish frowned.
“No,” Aezubah shook his head. “I will move throughout the country. You can’t expect me to communicate every one of my decisions to you. Trust is essential.”
“Can I trust you?”
“Have you a choice?”
“You put me in a difficult spot,” the King tapped his fingers against the table. “How will I know that you haven’t fallen under the Wizard’s spell and are not plotting against me?”
“I’ve warred with wizards before and won,” Aezubah grinned. “Their powers may work on the weak-minded, but I’m not one of them.”
“Gold, of course,” the General shrugged. “A sealed letter of privilege giving me full access to the treasury.”
“War is a costly business.”
“That’s nothing short of the power I have.”
“I’ll be acting in your place, no? If you want this victory, this is the way. You will continue governing the Kingdom and I’ll disappear to take care of Yagdish.”
“What guarantee will I have that once the Wizard is defeated, you will surrender all of your power?”
“I will give you none, but I’m sure you’ll have little problem designing a plan yourself,” Aezubah bared his teeth again in a nonchalant smile. “A secret assassin posing as my best friend, a poisoned chalice as a gift of gratitude... Use your imagination, great King.”
“What will I have in return?” Harish chose to leave this last comment unanswered.
“The Wizard’s head and a Kingdom where no one again will raise a sword against you,” the General replied. “Small price to pay, don’t you think?”
“Indeed. But a great gamble as well.”
“There’s no reward without risk.”
The King mused over the last words for a moment. Outside the cock began to crow his morning tune and Aezubah stirred impatiently in his chair.
“Well?” he asked.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala