Of Tyrants and Gods
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appeared in issue 201.
Part 3 and part 4
appeared in issue 202.
The messenger returned when the servants were breaking camp.
Galvin calmly relayed the message that the captains had sent: “They say they obey the General and await his return.” Though Harish did not notice, a small smile lingered on the commander’s face. No doubt he would rather be with the men across the field than by the King’s side.
“Treachery!” someone cried.
“They should hang!”
“They will hang!” the King promised solemnly. “I do not forget such insults. I will ride into the camp and personally see to their execution!”
“My Lord...” Galvin hesitated again because he saw that Harish was serious. What a fool, he thought. “My Lord, please understand that there are five thousand men in that camp, all loyal to Aezubah and his captains.”
The King did not seem to understand. “I pay their wages, no? They are my army.”
“You may pay their wages, my Lord, but they are Aezubah’s army.”
“So I will pay them more and their loyalties will change,” Harish shrugged.
“Perhaps we should wait for Aezubah,” one of his advisors whispered. “Riding into a camp of barbarians without their shepherd near may be dangerous!”
“I am their King! They would not dare raise their soiled hands!”
“They are barbarians, your Majesty,” the whispers continued.
“Indeed,” Harish replied thoughtfully. “Let’s wait then! We’ll drink some wine!”
Barrels were opened and the Court was soon indulging themselves once more, as they did every night of this trip. Galvin watched the spectacle with distaste and from a distance. He noted this time that Baron Bahadur did not take part in the excesses.
Evening came quickly on the desert and covered the camp like a thick blanket. Fires and torches were lit within the circle of coaches and wagons which surrounded the tents. Horses and cattle grazed on a small patch of stubby grass some distance away. Lamb and pork roasted over open fires tended by servants and pages. Merry songs sounded throughout the camp. The Wizard was defeated!
Opposite the King’s camp, thousands speckles of light betrayed the spot where the General’s army was based. Galvin watched these flickering dots of light with growing anxiety. Something hung in the air, and it caused him to feel unnerved. Though he did suspect the General of treachery, he nevertheless doubled the guards and instructed them to inform him of every suspicious move they noted.
Some time later the camp was overrun with excited voices: “Aezubah! Aezubah is coming!”
He came with a regiment of men once more. Each soldier carried a torch, and the whole group rode silently through the camp like a funeral procession. Their weary and soiled faces were grim, but their eyes were feverish.
As before, the General was surrounded by his captains, each of whom now seemed even more exhausted than the night before. A fresh wound marked Modesto’s face and although tended to, it continued to bleed profusely. Drops of blood trailed behind the five men as they approached the rowdy and merry tent where the King and his Court presided.
The remaining warriors quickly dispersed through the camp without dismounting from their steeds. Nothing was said between them, as if they acted according to a plan. Galvin watched them with suspicion as they disappeared in the darkness. They cast aside their torches and blended with the night, but the trained ear of the commander heard them stop not far away. Sentries soon approached him with news that Aezubah’s regiment had surrounded the camp and that there was movement in the army across the field.
“They are coming?” Galvin asked.
“They are closing in slowly. Something is not right, commander.”
“What do we do if they attack?” the second guard asked.
“We are sworn to protect the King,” Galvin replied sternly. “Whether we like it or not, we will fulfill our duty!”
The sentries said nothing and, dismissed, disappeared into the darkness. Galvin twisted the sword on his belt to have it near if necessary and then entered the King’s tent. Aezubah and his four captains were already there, standing amidst the colorful Court, in the small space before the King’s throne. The songs and cheers were slowly fading as the men’s presence was noted.
Galvin slipped quietly through the crowd until he reached Harish. Taking his place beside the King, he noted with distaste that Harish was drunk with wine and emanated a heavy scent of opium.
Aezubah, in the meantime, stood motionless before the tyrant and fixed his stern stare upon the King. His menacing captains were silent as well. Galvin noted that one was wounded and bleeding, a pool of blood growing beneath his feet. And yet he seemed not to notice. Proudly slung over his shoulder was a simple bag, which now the General beckoned for him to hand over.
Amidst the silence, Aezubah reached into it. Gasps of awe and disgust swept through the tent when he showed to the Court the severed head of a man, whose bloodied features were twisted with rage and pain. Harish leaned in from his throne and gazed into the dead man’s eyes with triumph.
“At last!” he exclaimed, his arms greedily reaching for the horrid trophy.
Aezubah carelessly cast the head forth and it rolled to the King’s feet. Harish clutched it in both hands and raised it to his eyes.
“Yagdish!” the King’s drunken voice sounded throughout the silent tent. He raised the head high up into the air. Blood trickled down his arms and to the ground. “Still warm and fresh! The Wizard is dead!”
“Yagdish is dead!” a choir of whispers followed as men and women leaned into each other to pass the message on. It spread forth like the wind and soon everyone in the camp knew of this final victory.
“Yes, the Wizard is dead!” the General replied in a solemn voice. “I promised you his head and here it is!”
“Yes,” Harish did not look at Aezubah; his eyes were still fixed on his foe’s severed head which he now held to his bosom, stroking it softly like a child. Blood stained his colorful and costly dress. Those nearest him looked upon the King with dread, such was the madness in his features. Even his advisors quieted.
“Yes, you promised his head and you delivered! You kept your word!”
“I always keep my word,” the General replied quietly, but there was so much fury in his voice that some heads turned to look at him. He stood proud, his tall frame straight and his hand resting on the hilt of the sword. Great power emanated from his face.
Galvin watched the unfolding scene with interest, but his attention was necessarily divided between the King and the five grim men in the centre of the tent. They remained unmoved, their blazing eyes fixed on the King.
The commander’s sharp eyes suddenly noted a movement to his left and he saw Baron Bahadur slowly making his way through the crowd. The Royal brother stopped in the first row of aristocrats, a few paces away from both the King and the General. His face was tense, while his fists opened and closed seemingly without Bahadur’s knowledge. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and his eyes darted in all directions.
Galvin frowned, unnerved by the Baron’s strange behavior. He threw a quick glance to the entrance where his men were posted and his eyes opened in an unpleasant surprise. His men had disappeared and were replaced by Baron’s troops, who now silently trickled into the tent and mingled with the crowd of aristocrats. Galvin caught one of Aezubah’s captains, Kumar, exchanging a quick look with an armed man who had made his way to the front rows.
“Treachery,” the Royal commander whispered without realizing and unsheathed his sword. “Treachery!”
With this cry on his lips he suddenly lurched forward, a naked blade in hand. High-pitched shrieks of surprise and fear rose in the tent at the sudden commotion. Even the drunken Harish raised his gaze from the head resting on his lap, but only to see his long-time commander sink to the ground in front of him with a short shaft sticking out of his neck. The man gave a strange gurgling sound and staggered back clutching the deadly missile. Blood spurted out of the wound and soaked his clothes. He sank dead to the ground amidst further cries of fear and shuffling of feet.
But even those nearest the entrance could not make it out of the tent, for Bahadur’s two dozen soldiers blocked their path. Naked blades shimmered in the light of the golden lamps.
Harish blinked hard and looked at the General without understanding. The grim men before him did not move except for Novio who stood with a crossbow in hand, a weapon he had thus far slung over his shoulder. The speed with which he managed to make use of it to foil Galvin’s unexpected attack, was just as astonishing as his aim, apparently not at all affected by the scar disfiguring his face.
“What is this?” the King stammered and staggered to his feet. He released the bloodied head of the Wizard and it rolled to the side. He watched in stunned silence as his brother’s men surrounded his frightened Court and ushered them toward the centre of the tent.
“What is this?” he looked from Aezubah to Bahadur, who stood motionless several paces away, his features still tense.
It was the General who replied. He stepped forward and leaning towards the King, he asked in a hushed voice, beneath which boiled a terrible rage:
“Do you think you can order me around, Harish? That you can abuse and ridicule me after my men and I bled and died for this wretched kingdom?”
He stepped even closer and looked into the King’s drunken, sweated face. “Who do you think you are?” the General spat with contempt.
“I am Harish, King of Estrata,” the wretch replied in a breaking voice and cowered back in fear. There was nowhere to go. All around him the Baron’s men loomed with naked swords in outstretched hands.
“You are a slithering snake, the likes of which I step on!” Aezubah snatched the King and forced him to his knees.
“Bahadur...” Harish whimpered and looked to his brother pleadingly, but the Baron turned his face away. He had not forgotten years spent in fear of the King’s assassins, who might have been lurking behind each corner and shadow.
“You are a king with no kingdom,” the General continued and his words fell down to Harish’s head with the weight of stones. “You are a leader with no army and a ruler with no subjects. They have suffered long enough under your foot.”
Kumar handed the General a long poniard which Aezubah eagerly gripped. “You are a coward who hides behind the backs of others!” he hissed as he raised the blade over the King’s head.
Several of the aristocrats jerked forward with stifled cries, but they were held back by the strong hands of warriors. Novio grinned at the nearest ladies and the sight of his crooked yellow teeth showing through the horrible scar tissue, caused them to cry out in fear and back away in disgust.
“You are a drunk and a swine, a tyrant and a wretch!” Aezubah thundered. “This kingdom will do much better without you!”
Slowly and clearly taking great pleasure in the deed, the General sunk the knife into the heart of the King. Harish gasped for air and clutched Aezubah’s arm with both hands, but the General was too powerful. The blade disappeared amidst the colorful dress that covered the King’s breast. Blood gushed forward and stained the clothes red.
The King gasped again and a pathetic whimper escaped his lips. His fading eyes locked with the triumphant gaze of the General. Then his grip on Aezubah’s arms lessened and his body collapsed under its weight. The General laid it carefully on the ground in the growing pool of blood. The butt of the knife remained rising out of the King’s breast.
In the awful silence, Aezubah slipped the crown off the tyrant’s temples. He gazed into his glassy eyes for a moment, his own stern look slowly fading. Before turning back to the people gathered behind him, Aezubah lowered Harish’s eyelids as a sign of respect for the dead. His heavy gaze now rested on Bahadur as he studied the Baron’s features for a long time during which no one moved.
The Baron said nothing, but it was clear to everyone that he was frightened. He wetted his lips nervously. Having made a deal with the devil, he was not sure now whether the beast would keep his end of the bargain.
Aezubah turned the crown in his hand. Kingship? Who would stop him?
“It is rightfully yours, Aezubah,” Kumar said. The other captains nodded.
“There are five thousand men outside, seasoned veterans, who will proclaim you King and follow you to the end,” Modesto added, wiping the blood away from his eyes. In the fervor of battle, a nameless blade had cut his forehead and left a wide, red mark.
Bahadur’s eyes darted toward the entrance. His hands trembled.
“If you think, Baron,” the General said, having noted his nervous glance, “that you have trapped me here with your men, you are mistaken. My captains and I are a match for your troops, not to mention that my army awaits outside and they would tear you apart if something would happen to us.”
The Baron swallowed hard, but did not move. His gaze was now glued to the crown which Aezubah continued to play with.
The General looked to his captains, whose eyes were full of hope. Kingship?
He shook his head finally and turned to Bahadur. “You told me before that you wish to taste the burden of kingship,” he said. “Here you are. Prove yourself to be a better ruler than your kinsman.”
He threw the crown to the Baron and started towards the exit without looking back. Behind him he heard the sound of metal falling to the floor and the shuffling of feet as the Baron feverishly searched for the crown that slipped through his trembling hands.
The General motioned for his captains to follow. A small smile lingered on his lips as he exited the tent and was greeted by thousands of men, each holding a torch. Each man awaited his word, his command, his beckoning. Thousands of eyes gazed upon him.
He was their General.
He was their god.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala