Of Tyrants and Gods
by Slawomir Rapala
Part 3 appears|
in this issue .
|part 4 of 5|
The five newcomers gathered before the King in silence, their faces dark. Their black armors and the bent caps that covered their heads bore many marks of having received blows and just as many stains of blood. A great contrast was between them and the bathed, rested and colorfully dressed members of the Royal Court.
“Aezubah,” Harish broke the uncomfortable silence.
“King!” the General replied shortly.
“How is it that you disregard my orders and ride into my camp like an enemy, atop a whole regiment?”
Aezubah took the metal cap off his head and gazed directly at the King. “I come at your beckoning.”
“Like a pack of wolves!” the King’s face flushed in anger.
“And smelling like a herd of swine!” someone whispered behind the King’s back. The comment was loud enough for all to hear and the whole group, aristocrats, pages and servants alike, burst into laughter. Even the King chuckled, but he quickly silenced the tent seeing that the faces of the men before him remained stern.
“Oh, lighten up, Aezubah!” he said. “Victory is ours, no? We should be merry.”
“The Wizard is still alive, King,” the General remarked, seemingly unshaken by being the subject of ridicule. “Perhaps we should postpone the celebrations until after he is captured or dead?”
“From what I’m told, his army has been defeated?”
“Finally,” Harish rose from the throne. “It’s about time, Aezubah.”
The General raised his eyebrows and glanced at his companions. He motioned the hot-tempered Novio to release the hilt of his weapon and looked back at the King, who now paced the space before them.
“For two years you drained my treasury hunting this renegade priest! How long can it take to defeat a priest and his band of ragged rabble?”
He stopped and pointed a finger at Aezubah. “You!” his face reddened again. “You are the greatest mistake I made during this war! I should have never hired you! The priest would have been long defeated and my kingdom would not lie in ruins!”
Modesto clenched his teeth and tightened the grip on the shaft of his giant axe. He looked to his General, but Aezubah remained perfectly still.
“You decimated my army, destroyed my Kingdom and now you come here, before your King, bearing weapons and bringing with you these barbarians!” Harish continued, his rage growing as the wine he had drank before rushed to his head.
The words that his advisors seeped into his mind before the General’s arrival came rushing back and he spat them out now. In his drunken anger, he believed what he said. “You should be on your knees, begging me not to send you away from Estrata! Everywhere you turn you have enemies willing to skin you alive! I saved you from a thousand deaths, Aezubah! How dare you show such disrespect tonight?!”
Kaylan and Kumar both gritted their teeth and looked around to see how many sentries were posted in the tent. Like Modesto and Novio they fixed their eyes on their General and waited for a sign — the smallest nod or move of hand — and they would tear the tent apart on the tips of their blades and drown this barking wretch in a pool of his own blood. There was no sign, however, and the only effect that Harish’s words thus far had on Aezubah was a slight crease on his tall forehead.
“And you tell me now that Yagdish had escaped?!” the King roared.
“He is trapped with a handful of men,” Aezubah replied calmly.
“Then go fetch him! I want his head!”
“The war is over, King!” the General raised his voice slightly. “My men need rest.”
“If the war is over, then you’re free to go! We can finish here if you’re too much of a coward to do so!”
Harish had exclaimed these last words in a fit and even he regretted them as soon as they were uttered. A terrible silence followed, during which all that was heard was the quiet sound of swords slipping out of their sheaths. The General’s four barbaric companions stood in the center of the tent with naked blades in hand, their fearless eyes blazing with fury.
For a moment no one dared move a muscle. Several of the ladies present fainted and that caused a bit of commotion at the back of the tent, but nothing could offset the General’s suddenly hardened gaze with which he pierced the King.
Even the most dull-witted of the Court’s servants realized the King’s audacity. It was one thing to ridicule and abuse the General as part of a game to undermine his authority. But given everything that Aezubah had done, accusing him of cowardice was a bold, if not a foolish, move.
Few doubted presently that the King had just signed his own death sentence; many paled because they feared the General’s and his companions’ fury would not end with the King. They had all heard terrible tales of the General’s inhuman ways of dealing with enemies.
Nothing happened, however. After a moment of silence, Aezubah simply motioned his captains to sheath their weapons.
Slowly he put his cap back on. “Before the night falls tomorrow, I will bring you the Wizard’s head,” he said, his voice grave.
He turned on his heel and left the tent, followed by his companions, who were still gritting their teeth. The one with the disfigured face snapped his teeth at the nearest aristocrat as he passed him, sending the man backward with his arms flinging in fright.
When the fearsome five left the tent, everyone sighed with relief. Harish, who deemed himself a dead man as well, breathed easier. He clutched the globe of wine which someone handed him and eagerly gulped the warm drink.
“You see, great King?” someone’s whisper reached him. “Even a barbarian bows down before your majesty.”
“Yes,” Harish whispered, feeling confidence quickly returning as the drink raced through his veins. “Yes, I am his King.”
The tent slowly filled with voices again and soon, as the servants brought more wine, merry shouts sounded once more. The incident quickly faded from the collectively spoiled memory of the Court. Heavily powdered men and women giggled as they sipped the wine and exchanged lewd jokes. The King sat brooding for some time, but even he eventually cheered, especially when opium was brought and naked girls ushered in to dance before him.
As all this was happening, the General’s regiment was headed back towards the battlefield. Torches were lit and the whole column moved swiftly through the desert. The warriors’ faces were pale and their eyes blazed with anger.
Though the General himself said nothing and rode in silence atop the group, the clearly stirred captains recounted what was said in the tent to their comrades as soon as they were among them. Many cursed the King and swore his death, others were ready to charge the camp and murder everyone there.
But the General gave a short order and their voices subsided. The regiment formed a column and, despite the late hour, left immediately. They presently moved through the desert like ghosts.
Novio, the most rash of the four, urged his horse to come up alongside the General’s. He rode beside him in silence for a moment.
“Aezubah,” he finally said. “You cannot let such an insult go unpunished.”
“Don’t worry, Novio.” The General turned his head, fixing a gloomy stare on his young friend’s scarred face. “He is a dead man.”
A small smile crooked the horribly disfigured features of the young warrior. Satisfied, he slowed his steed and joined his companions to quench the anger steadily rising in their breasts since they left the King’s camp. The General was planning a move, he told them. The Lord of Monkeys was as good as dead.
The General continued to ride alone, his bloodshot eyes flaring and his thoughts grim.
* * *
King Harish and his Court reached the battlefield in the late afternoon of the next day. Though they had planned to arrive earlier in order to witness the final agony of the Wizard’s army, the previous night’s orgy of opium, wine and sex had lasted almost until the morning and midday still found them recovering.
During this time the servants and pages had begun preparations for departure. Under the supervision of the Royal troops, two regiments of which had remained with the King in Arkeen, they swiftly folded the tents and loaded the wagons and coaches.
Still, all had to wait for the King and his aristocratic friends to rise and dress themselves. They emerged one by one from the tent, their powdered wigs in complete disarray, their eyes blank from the overindulgence and their gait unsteady.
Completely out of humor, these privileged men and women shuddered at the thought of climbing into their carriages and making way through the desert without a proper meal and drink. During the communal breakfast that followed, their whims and fancies enraged even the commander of the Royal troops, but he restrained his anger and patiently waited for the capricious courtisans to finally ready themselves.
The King himself was ill all morning and needed much aid in preparing for the trip. Several times he ordered it cancelled and furiously demanded a medic, claiming indigestion was giving him horrible runs. Only thanks to his advisors, who convinced him that his majestic presence was needed during the Wizard’s final defeat, did Harish finally force himself to rise and allow his pages to dress him.
All the time he eyed with envy his brother, Baron Bahadur, who seemed completely untouched by last night’s excesses and had been ready to travel since dawn. His two-dozen strong company of men formed a small column at the back of the camp and waited patiently for the rest of the Court.
When they finally reached the foot of the mountains, the final battle had already taken place. The General’s army had broken camp atop a rise next to the body-ridden battlefield that was presently overrun by scavengers, both animal and human. Bands of thieves flocked to the site of battle in hope of stripping fallen men of goods and weapons.
Though Aezubah had posted strong patrols to fend these wretches away, on this second day of guarding the vast field of rotting and horribly maimed corpses, even the most strong-willed of men were turned away by the smell lingering over them. The bands of thieves were finally allowed to enter the field as the General’s patrols withdrew and watched in dismal silence the desecration of the bodies of both their friends and enemies.
“Such wretched smell!” someone exclaimed when the Court had stopped atop a mound overlooking the field. As far as the eye could see, it was covered with bodies of soldiers who lay arm in arm in the confusion and chaos of death, gripping to whatever they could in the last moments of life, unwilling to bid farewell to this world. Their wasted limbs wrapped around one another, their bony fingers clutched hard the hilts of swords and shafts of spears. The horribly twisted features of dead men and their wide-opened lifeless eyes gaping back at the Royal Court caused some to turn away in disgust.
“War is such a horrible business!” a lady remarked matter-of-factly as she gazed through the window of her coach, a handkerchief drawn over her nose.
“Indeed, it is a barbaric sport.”
“Must we stay here?” more voices were raised.
The commander of the Royal troops to whom the question was directed shrugged it off and went forth to meet a messenger approaching them from the General’s camp. He spoke briefly with the man before returning to his troops.
“Galvin!” the King beckoned him to approach. “What news?”
“The Wizard’s army is defeated, my Lord,” the warrior replied.
“He gave chase after Yagdish.”
“The priest escaped?” the King’s eyes flared in anger.
“No, my Lord,” the commander shook his head. “The Wizard hid amidst the last ranks of his troops, and once Aezubah’s victory was assured, he used his powers to call forth a beastly animal. He rode it into the mountains, followed by Aezubah and a handful of men.”
“So he escaped,” the King repeated.
“No, my Lord,” Galvin shook his head again. “The Wizard will not traverse the mountain range with Aezubah on his trail.”
“We shall see, no? In the meantime, who leads in the General’s absence?”
“Captain Kumar, aided by his brother Kaylan.”
“The names seem familiar,” Harish scowled. “Were they with Aezubah yesterday?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Arrogant barbarians!” the King spat furiously. “Send word for them to relieve themselves of command.”
“My lord?” Galvin looked at his King puzzled.
“That army is mine, I am here, I am the leader, no?” A triumphant smile stretched the King’s plump face. “Send the messenger.”
“My Lord, those men obey Aezubah,” the commander hesitated.
“They will obey me!” Harish’s sudden roar frightened those standing nearby. “I am the King of Estrata, am I not?”
“My Lord...” Galvin shuffled his feet nervously.
“Am I not?!”
“Yes, your Highness, you are the King!” the powdered men and women standing nearby replied in unison. The ladies smiled and fanned their faces.
“And that is an Estratian army over there, no?” the King continued.
“Yes, my Lord!”
“Then send word to my army that their King is here. Have them prepare a proper entrance for the victor!”
The Court clapped their hands politely to show agreement with the King. Baron Bahadur who stopped nearby with his men smiled strangely, but made no gesture. Galvin shrugged and turned away to do his King’s bidding.
To be concluded...
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala