Of Tyrants and Gods
by Slawomir Rapala
Part 2 appeared|
in issue 201.
Part 4 appears
in this issue.
|part 3 of 5|
“Maybe there will be peace in Estrata after all?”
“But when? The giants war with each other and spill oceans of blood. The sands we walk on are crimson-red, for how long? Aezubah is a madman, thousands have died because of him. An entire generation has been lost because of him and the tyrants. ”
“Many Kingdoms are born from bloodshed.”
“Can peace have such a heavy price?”
Peregrinus did not answer. He swallowed the last of the beer noting that the sun was beginning to set outside. The afternoon heat was slowly subsiding.
“I have not answers, innkeeper,” he stretched his arms. “I’m nothing but a traveler through these lands. I wish you and your kin all the best and curse the General as much as you. Perhaps on my way back I will find you and your kingdom in a happier state.”
“You’re leaving?” Felix’s voice betrayed disappointment. Seldom did he have a chance to lead such conversations.
“It will be growing dark soon and I must hurry, “ Peregrinus replied. “I have a ship waiting in Mortlock and it will sail in two days.”
“Will you be visiting Arkeen?”
“After what I heard from you, I’d rather not.”
“Then you must travel at night to avoid patrols.”
“Be swift and careful, traveler,” Felix warned. “These are not steady times and one may easily lose his head.”
“Thank you for the warning,” the Nekryans smiled and patted the jewel-bound hilt of a sword hanging at his side. “I may be a difficult prey.”
He gathered the few belongings he had, swung the travel bag over his shoulder and headed towards the door.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he turned before exiting.
“And I for your company,” Felix raised his hand in a friendly gesture. “Should you indeed be crossing through in better times, please visit. There will always be cold beer waiting for you here.”
“Aye,” Peregrinus waved and left the inn.
Felix watched the Nekryan briskly march off towards the blood-red sunset that now seemed to swallow up the entire horizon. He shook his head and returned to the long-abandoned chore of cleaning the counter.
“Better times?” he scoffed quietly. “Not with those monsters around.”
By the time Peregrinus disappeared behind the horizon, Felix had locked the doors and windows for the night. The guest rooms stood empty as the night before and the one before that. Felix spent another brooding evening alone by the fireplace, smoking a thin Estratian cigar, sipping strong beer and cursing the war that claimed his kingdom.
* * *
Morning sun rose slowly over the desert, a silent witness to the havoc wreaked upon this wretched land by power-hungry giants. Its crimson rays caressed softly the body-ridden battlefield at the foot the great mountains whose jagged peaks rose to the sky in a grim cry for justice. The corpses lay silent, joined in a brotherly embrace that carried them into death. Bodies of enemies and friends, commoners and warriors, of men divided in life who found union in the cold grip of death.
Aezubah looked upon the battlefield, his face grim like the mountains. His captains stood quietly several paces away, their features dark as well, for they realized better than the General the magnitude of the destruction. The amount of brotherly blood spilled on the previous day and over the course of the night, for the mad battle raged long into it by the light of great fires lit by the Wizard’s troops, could not be measured in oceans. The war had drained the Kingdom of its most promising youth. Thousands of young men and women had died in the needless struggle for power between the Wizard Yagdish and the tyrant Harish. The Estratian captains, the closest advisors to their General, realized that the war was now nearing an end.
But, alas, at what price!
They slid off their heads the metal caps bearing marks of savage blows delivered by Yagdish’s fanatical soldiers, and they gazed upon the carnage before them in dismal silence. Yes, the war was nearing its end. The Wizard’s army was decimated and trapped in a valley before them and even he, the self-proclaimed Ruler of the World, could not now gather enough magic to conjure up a victory.
Trapped with a handful of warriors amidst insurmountable slopes of the mountain range that separated Estrata from Nekrya, the Wizard could not hope for victory. Yet he fought like a lion until the very end, and both the General, the great maestro who orchestrated the Wizard’s momentous defeat, and his Estratian captains realized that the priest would force his men to fight until the last of them was dead.
Aezubah studied the vast field before him, his eyes resting on the twisted corpses, the torn banners that littered the field, the forest of broken spear-shafts and the naked blades still clutched by unfeeling hands, now glimmering in the rising sun. Wind howled over the empty space. From time to time the General’s hawk-like gaze paused when it came across a familiar face and lingered longer on its pained features. Then his eyes ventured forth, skimming over the four-legged scavengers that lurked between the bodies.
An eagle cry prompted him to look up to the sky where hundreds of black-winged birds circled the field screeching impatiently and thus urging the men to leave so that they could begin a macabre feast. Aezubah’s features darkened even more, but then his gaze slipped off the hungry scavengers and rested on the army of men gathered to his left.
The General’s features softened when met by the thousands of their gazes locked with his. The soiled, weary faces of warriors said much of what they had been through under his leadership. They spoke volumes of the exhausting two years spent in pursuit of the Wizard and his mad army of religious fanatics. Two years during which they had slept with their eyes wide open, always on alert and gripping their weapons. Two years during which they had not seen their wives and children, two years of crossing the deserts at night, two years of hunger and thirst, for the General marched swiftly and with little rest.
Many of his men did not survive the strenuous war and fell along the way. Many more fell under the blades of the Wizard’s mad soldiers. Of the twenty thousand young, sturdy red-haired warriors who had begun the campaign with smiles on their faces, only five thousand remained. These were the most seasoned and skilled, the strongest and the most enduring, whose muscle-knotted bodies were hardened like steel.
Aezubah’s war trained them like no other school, and each now was worth ten blades, each fought with the desperation of a trapped animal, and with complete disregard of his safety. They fought for the General, their General. King Harish had long disappeared from their thoughts, as did Arkeen and the pleasant years of sluggish restlessness they had spent there. Aezubah’s merciless campaign had turned these five thousand young men into grim machines, ready to rise at each his beckoning or the slightest wave of hand, and to plunge into battle without as much as a thought. He was their General and they were loyal to him and him alone, until the very end.
They looked to him now with awe, for he was the reason behind their victory. As costly as it was, he had saved their kingdom from the rule of a mad priest. His military genius had defeated the unholy magics that Yagdish commanded. Brotherly blood was spilled, but a kingdom was being birthed now, in this very moment, and they were instrumental in crafting its new face.
Aezubah turned to face his captains. There were four of them, the most trusted companions he could imagine, loyal beyond reason: Modesto, Novio, and brothers Kaylan and Kumar. They noted their General’s bloodshot eyes; he had not slept in days. Neither had they. Their arms were weary from wielding the swords, but victory was theirs.
“Harish has arrived,” remarked Kumar, the elder of the brothers.
No one replied and the words hung in the air for a moment. These five men had been through so much together that often words were not needed between them. Each knew the others’ feeling towards the King of Estrata. The two years they spent bathing in the sweat and blood of their friends, enemies, and their own, Harish had spent in the comforts of the Capital, bathing in milk and honey, drinking and whoring. Now he had come to claim victory over Yagdish. He had come to put a leash on their General and to reap the harvest he had sown with his own blood. Aezubah had fought among the men and suffered wounds just the same.
“Where is he?” the General asked without looking..
“Westward, half a day’s trek. He dares not come closer, not trusting the Wizard.”
“Maybe he doesn’t trust us,” Novio scoffed. Though the youngest of the captains, he had proven himself over and over again by fighting amidst first ranks. A terrible wound suffered from a vicious cleave had left him blind in one eye and disfigured his young face so much that few could look upon him without a shudder. But his heart was worth its weight in gold and his loyalty was unquestioned.
“He asks for the General,” Kumar added. “He wants a one on one meeting.”
“Coward,” Modesto grunted. This one proved his courage while flanking the army’s escape when they were drawn into a trap through Wizard’s tricks. The treachery was discovered soon enough to withdraw, but the priest’s mad troops followed them on beastly horses for leagues on leagues of empty deserts, fueled by the Wizard’s dark power. Modesto had stayed behind with a handful of men to slow the pursuit. He alone escaped the furious wave of the dark army, but not without losing his left arm to a vicious axe blow and not before decimating the enemy.
His sacrifice enabled Aezubah to recover position and counter the attack with such force that the Wizard’s army was thrown back. Modesto was later found bleeding to death on the desert, half-mad from the heat and thirst. For weeks he was in delirium, mumbling incoherently of fire-blazing monsters and three-headed giant snakes, which the Wizard’s commanders used to ride through the sands. For a long time his companions disregarded what Modesto had spat out in fever, until they themselves faced those creatures on the hot sands of Shaad-iht.
“I will not meet him alone,” Aezubah shrugged. “I will not play his games. We will ride as we always do, let the wretch see who he deals with.”
“He will ask you to relieve yourself of command,” Kumar said.
The captains looked at their General with anticipation. But he dismissed the implied question and asked instead, “Is the Baron with him?”
“He joined him last.”
“No love between them.”
“All is as planned, then,” the General remarked. “We ride at noon.”
They reached the King’s rowdy camp in the evening and rode through it at a steady pace, silencing the merry cheers and songs that had sprung up when fires were first struck. Heads turned as they passed, a hundred solemn soldiers whose wasted frames and exhausted horses betokened great hardships. But the eyes of them all blazed with great intensity. They were all fixed on the man who rode before them, a tall and grim soldier who spoke little and whose cold gaze seemed to penetrate down to the very soul of those who looked upon him. Though he wore no distinctions and his armor and gear were just as worn-out as the rest of the men’s, it was clear that he was their leader.
Flanked on the sides by four giant Estratians, one of whom exhibited a terrible scar running through his face so as to make his true features impossible to recognize and one of whom held a massive war-axe in his only arm, this man needed no introductions and as soon as he was spotted, everyone rose to their feet and watched him ride by. Whispers sprang up among the servants and the soldiers and they swept through the camp like wind, bearing a name repeated by hundreds of lips until it reached the King’s tent.
Harish sat atop a portable throne which he had assembled by his servants as soon as the camp was set. It dripped with gold and the King took great pleasure in the soft caress of the wealth beneath him. A chubby, reddened face betrayed a proneness to wine and other mind-numbing condiments. Small, beady eyes looked on with contempt and disdain from beneath the wide-rimmed crown that was carelessly placed on the King’s temples. A great mind lurked behind them, however, although in the last two years his wit had been dulled by his excesses.
Having surrounded himself with men whose loyalty he had bought long ago and whose hearts were as black as his, the Estratian King believed the image he had crafted for himself. No General was his equal and this Aezubah character, having done what he was hired for, must bend his arrogant neck to the King’s greatness and deliver the victory.
Harish’s eyes lit up with triumph upon hearing of the Wizard’s defeat. The war had taken longer than anticipated and it had emptied much of the treasury, but victory was his at last. The length of the war was Aezubah’s fault, Harish’s advisors whispered into his ears. The man’s fame was clearly exaggerated, they said. So many of his soldiers have died, so much of the gold was squandered, so much of Estrata lay in ruins. Who was to blame once Yagdish was dead, they asked? It was time for Harish to put an end to this General’s reign of terror.
The King was emptying another globe of wine when the noise that swept through the camp reached the tent where he and his Court were spending the evening. Several pages entered, their hair in disarray and their eyes bearing resemblance to those of a hunted prey.
“Aezubah!” they exclaimed. “Aezubah, Aezubah is here! He comes with an army!”
Harish frowned upon hearing this and put the wine away.
“How dare he?” one of his advisors leaned in with a whisper. “You ordered him to come alone, how dare he oppose you?”
“A most disrespectful manner!”
“Where did we conjure up these barbarians?”
The King threw a quick glance at his brother, the Baron Bahadur, whose decision to join this venture was surprising. Harish had sent him an invitation as usual, such was the custom when the King of Estrata traveled. Given the many foiled attempts on his life, which Bahadur had good reason to suspect the King of having arranged, it was surprising that he had this time agreed to accompany his brother.
Presently, a strange smile lingered on the Baron’s lips as he looked on. Harish followed his gaze and watched the flaps of the tent rise and Aezubah himself enter in the company of four men whose sheer appearance was enough to drive fear into the hearts of the Royal Court.
The King silenced the whispers which rose all around him and studied the General for a moment. He had not seen him for months, not since that memorable day in Arkeen when Aezubah burst through his chamber doors demanding to know why he had been denied access to the treasury.
Indeed, such arrogance, the King thought! The General had not changed much; perhaps only his lanky frame became leaner still and his face more determined. Bloodshot eyes and weary features betrayed a long and strenuous ordeal that he and his companions had behind them.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala