The Spear of Destiny
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
appeared in issue 220.
|chapter 4 of 5|
Dispossessed at an early age, Aezubah has wandered the world in search of vengeance. On arid mountaintops, remote glaciers and burning deserts he has conquered demons from the edge of creation, wicked sorcerers, and evil kings. As a General, he is beloved of all the warriors who follow him.
But his victories are never final; he goes forth again and again with nothing but his horse, spear and sword, in loneliness and solitude, seeking the treasure that always eludes him: peace.
“The Spear of Destiny” recounts an episode early in Aezubah’s career.
The insane laughter of a kookaburra, a bird native only to Nekrya, sounded in the forest once and then again, breaking the silence thus far unspoiled even by the rustling of leaves. The afternoon air was still and not a breeze disturbed it. At this time of day animals stretched their sluggish bodies in the shade, watching the world from beneath heavy eyelids.
Nothing moved in the forest as both predator and prey gathered strength for the coming night, when they came to life in search of food. It seemed odd, then, that a kookaburra found the energy to sound her voice now, and Diovinius looked out the window of the coach in search of the distinctive long-beaked bird, thinking that something must have scared her. But the tops of the trees remained empty and motionless.
The King scowled and his eyes scoured the green walls of the forest surrounding them. Retreating into the carriage, he checked to see if his young wife had awakened. But no, Serena’s head rested against a pillow that one of the pages had handed her when she was being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic motion of the coach, the steady pace of the armed troops marching and the low song on their lips.
The King gazed out the window again and motioned for Yanush, who rode nearby, to approach.
The Captain of the Royal Company urged his mount into a trot, passed the second carriage and soon he evened his pace with the Royal coach. “Yes, Your Highness?”
“Everything all right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“The scouts report nothing,” Yanush shook his massive head.
“Keep your eyes open,” the King retreated into the shade.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Yanush pulled on the reins and fell back to resume his previous position. He slid the scabbard that sheathed his sword along the belt so that he could reach it with ease. His hand gripped tighter the handle of the tough wooden shield which protected his left side. Sweat trickled from beneath the heavy cap that adorned his head and streaked his seasoned, grim face, but Yanush did not move to wipe it. Instead, he glanced back to look at his soldiers.
Despite the impossible heat and the difficult trek through the forest, the guards kept their formation and looked as keen as ever. They too, had heard the kookaburra and considered it a warning sign. The soldiers’ song died down and the Nekryans studied the forest, gripping their weapons tightly.
Aezubah, hidden in the branches high over the beaten path, noted the quieting of the Nekryan troops and shook his head in frustration, in his mind cursing his scout’s decision to signal easy prey. The caravan, forwarned by the kookaburra’s laughter, now moved in total silence, broken only by the squeaking of wheels, the steady march of troops and the metallic sound of heavy armor.
The scout used the signal to urge Aezubah to strike, but Aezubah was not convinced that it was a good idea. Yes, he could see the heavily decorated carriages, each dripping with gold and ornaments, but he could also see the heavy troops marching behind them. Even from this height, Aezubah saw the soldiers’ hands gripping the long shafts of spears and noted the sun dancing on their tips. There must have been at least a hundred of them.
No, it’s not worth it, Aezubah thought. This was not an ordinary merchant caravan traveling from Arrosah. Though his band of thugs outnumbered the troops, Aezubah’s experience dictated caution. The numbers may have been equal, but he commanded rabble and despite what he had told his thugs the night before, they could never match the skill and experience of Nekryan soldiers.
Aezubah made no gesture and no movement that would betray his position.
Just then the kookaburra sounded again, her laughter louder now and carrying a mocking tune, which Aezubah understood well. He scowled, unhappy with his men’s insolence. The scouts were urging him to attack despite the presence of troops and to prove his leadership. Proud, arrogant, and roused by Aezubah into believing their own strength, they saw the Nekryan troops as no obstacle. An opportunity rather, to prove their strength and to send a message to King Diovinius, the hatred for whom Aezubah had skillfully summoned the day before. If he did not give the signal now, what would happen in the evening? Would he be able to control them if they accused him of cowardice or, worse still, of mercy?
Aezubah could never forget that as an outsider and a foreigner, he was always being tested and that his leadership, though long and fruitful, could always be questioned and undermined. His leadership had lasted this long not only because of his ruthlessness, which the thugs had witnessed the night before, but also because of the brutality which he had demonstrated each time he led them into battle. To control a group of untamed beasts, he had to become a beast like them.
The kookaburra sounded again and another one answered her. The forest was waking to her crazed laughter and if he waited any longer, Aezubah risked the troops’ realizing that these birds walked on two legs and carried weapons. Already he saw the soldiers raising their heads and searching the tree tops. Pressed into making a quick decision, though frustrated, Aezubah no longer hesitated. He unsheathed his sword and put two fingers in his mouth. A sharp whistle broke the silence of the forest and stirred it into movement.
The forest came to life suddenly as dozens of thugs appeared amidst the trees, stepping from behind the trunks, sliding down or leaping from the boughs overhanging the caravan. A rain of arrows showered the surprised troops. With crazed smiles glued to their lips, the thugs raced towards the Nekryans, swords and axes bared, and vicious war cries escaping their lips.
Having given the signal, Aezubah placed the blade in his mouth, gripped the rope with both hands and, wrapping his legs around it, he left the safety of the branch and plunged down, sliding rapidly towards the ground. Branches slapped him on the way and the palms of his hands burned, but Aezubah did not slow. His feet touched the ground in the next moment and he sprinted toward the prey, swinging his sword like a madman.
The caravan halted immediately as the coachmen pulled on the bridles in an attempt to control the horses. Frightened by the sudden explosion of yelling, the beautiful animals rose to their hind legs and neighed in protest while the men tried to pull them down. The Nekryan troops raised their shields to protect themselves against the sudden rain of deadly missiles. Some of them fell, but they kept their formation and drew their swords when the first thugs appeared from behind the thick wall of trees and bushes.
Though surprised and facing a ruthless opponent, they did not lose their heads. They were the cream of the Nekryan army, handpicked by the King and trained by Yanush, a feared warrior himself, to protect the King and Queen under even the most desperate circumstances. They grit their teeth at the sight of fallen comrades, but experience and discipline prevailed, and they remained unmoved, waiting for the wave of screaming thugs like a solid wall of steel.
The attackers, drunk with power, crazed by the smell and sight of blood, and further urged by their own vicious war cries, ran blindly forward until they clashed with the Nekryans. And like a savage wave breaking against a rocky shore, their lines broke as well, cut down by the calculated blows of trained soldiers.
The King gripped his sword and after urging his frightened wife to remain in the carriage under the protection of two Nekryans, he leapt to the ground and joined the battle with Yanush flanking him and watching his every move.
The Nekryan Lion, a valiant warrior himself, never backed away from a battle and although often restrained by his advisors, he would make his way to the first ranks and fight among simple soldiers. Their hearts lifted and they fought twice as hard when they saw their King, their ruler and leader, raise his sword along with theirs and cut the enemy down, blood streaking his silver armor, his face weary like their own.
The guards showed no surprise now when Diovinius joined their ranks with Yanush. They formed a solid wall and protected him from each side as he pressed forward, meeting the thugs face to face. His long sword reached far and many bearded and crazed assassins fell before they even had a chance to deliver a blow. Yanush used his shield once to stop an treacherous arrow from reaching the King and continued to press forward at his side, pushing the thugs back towards the forest line.
Though the primitive attackers fell like flies, out-skilled and out-manoeuvred, they attacked with a ferocity that surprised even the most seasoned warriors. Some of the Nerkyans fell too, killed by arrows that left the trees in great numbers, soaring through the air like a deadly swarm of stinging insects. Others fell under the heavy blows of war axes or the quick and stealthy stings of long hunting knives. Cries of pain and metal clashing against metal, the pained neighs of fallen horses, screams of women and servants hidden in the carriages, loud commands voiced over the sounds of battle, all formed a distinct noise, a terrible and hypnotic hum that was well known to each veteran warrior.
A cruel smile surfaced on Aezubah’s bloodied face. Day and night he longed and yearned for the sound of battle. This was his world, the world of pain, murder, and blood, yes, the mad world of war.
The sun danced off his sword as he thrust it forward and back, as he twisted and turned his slim body to avoid blows, as he hacked away limbs, as he sought out the soft spots of the Nekryan armor with his trained eyes and broke through them to reach vital spots, as he slashed across exposed faces and felt the blade slide over bone, as he gutted the soldiers with his knife-wielding arm, and as he parried the strikes aimed at him.
Fighting in the first ranks of his men, he too was being pushed back towards the trees though he struggled and pressed forward. The heavy line of Nekryan soldiers was too strong, too skilled, too numerous. His men fell all around him and Aezubah soon felt exposed. The grim and bloodied faces of Nekryan warriors loomed all around him.
He bared his teeth in a savage smile and his sword sang the song of death once again. Two of the nearest soldiers sunk to their knees, their eyes glazed over by a deadly mist. Death was his companion, and as Aezubah slowly retreated, knowing already that the short battle was lost, he smiled and fed her again and again. The battle was lost, yes, but he would make it costly for the Nekryans. Let them remember him, he thought, as he cut down another young soldier in the prime of life.
Some distance to his left Aezubah saw a tall man clad in a silver, heavily decorated armor, fighting along simple soldiers. A large Nerkyan followed him like a shadow and protected his sides while the silver-clad warrior pressed forward, cutting down Aezubah’s men with ease. He worked hard, clearing the path before him like a hurricane. It seemed that nothing could stop this man, that he would uproot the trees before him and ignite the forest with the intensity of his burning eyes.
Hatred twisted his noble features, and Aezubah realized in the heat of the battle that this man fought for much more than gold or riches: he fought for his home and family. The silver-armored man was the heart of the army. The Nekryans grouped around him and pressed forward according to the pace of his steps. He was their leader and the source of their strength. Break a man, a calculated thought appeared in Aezubah’s mind, and you break an army.
Aezubah suddenly exploded and hurled forward, delivering two skilled blows that forced the nearest Nekryan to his knees and the rest to back away, giving him just enough space and freedom to manoeuvre. As he turned towards the silver-clad man whom had he glimpsed again through a crowd of soldiers and thugs embraced in a savage struggle for life, Aezubah snatched up a long spear rising from a nearby corpse. One more moment, one more turn, then Aezubah drew his arm back and launched the spear with strength and precision that had not yet failed him.
In that same instant, the giant Nekryan who fought at the silver warrior’s side shook the last of the assassins off and with the corner of his eye he noted the heavy missile soaring towards them with viper-like quickness. Instinct refined in dozens of battles and wars took over and Yanush shifted his body and raised the shield-wielding arm to protect his King from the lethal blow.
The spear struck with such force that the soldier’s arm numbed and he drew back a step, but it did not break through the steel-enforced wood. Instead, fueled by the awesome power of Aezubah’s arm, it recoiled and continued forward on its deadly path, a black messenger of death.
Aezubah’s heart sank in that same moment because his eyes had already leapt forward and noted the new target. He opened his mouth to scream a warning, but it was too late. The heavy weapon reached the Queen who stood on the steps of the coach and struck her with vicious force, piercing her fragile breast and violently pushing her delicate frame against the wall of the carriage.
Serena grimaced in pain and closed her eyes when her back was thrown against the gold-plated panels of the coach. When she opened them again, she saw the black shaft of the spear before her, heaving up and down along with her failing, staggering breath.
The Queen’s face paled and all blood flowed away from it. Her arms dropped loosely along her sides and she swayed on her feet. She would have fallen, but the spear struck her with such force that it pierced her through and pinned her to the carriage. Aezubah closed his mouth and watched in growing horror as the young Queen rested her hands on the shaft and locked her eyes with his.
It seemed that the world stopped and in this still image painted by the hand of an immortal artist, only the King stirred. With his heart twisted by a crazed fear, Diovinius dropped his sword and started for his wife, pushing aside thugs and soldiers alike. He reached her in a moment and swooped her swaying body in his mighty arms. Looking into her paled and pained face with dread, the King opened his mouth, but nothing save a gasp escaped his knotted throat.
Serena’s failing arms wrapped around his neck and in the last moments of her life, she rested her head against his chest. Tears stained his shirt, tears of a young woman dying an unjust death. She would never hear the birds again. She would never see the light of day. She would not see her little Laela grow into a woman, into a Queen.
Then her eyes closed, hiding from Aezubah’s horrified gaze the fear and certainty of death. The Queen’s body jerked once and twice as she struggled to fend off the deadly mistress that came on swift wings to claim her young spirit. Then she stiffened for the last time and a moment later Diovinius felt her body grow limp. But he dared not look into her face and continued to caress her hair and he held her slim body tightly pressed against his chest, like a child, refusing to release her into the greedy clutches of death.
Silence that followed the fateful spear-drive was now only interrupted by the King’s quiet sobs and tears. Assassins and soldiers stood side by side, arm in arm, their weapons drawn but pointed to the ground. The thugs were suddenly quiet and confused, the soldiers saddened and horrified, and all unsure as to what was to happen next.
Aezubah was the first to regain poise despite being the inadvertent instigator of the drama unfolding before him. He sensed the storm brewing and his eyes quickly scoured the surroundings, noting the green wall of trees close behind, offering safety and security.
Pushing the nearest Nekryans away, he started back. “Back, back now, damn it! Go, go, go!” he shouted.
Wasting no time to gather his weapons, Aezubah pushed the sword back in its sheath. Turning on his heel he quickly began disappearing in the forest, followed by those of his men who were sane enough to obey the order. Those who lingered behind would in the very next moment be engulfed by a raging wave of hatred and grief that was to sweep the ranks of Nekryans.
Diovinius carefully placed his dead wife’s head against the decorated wall of the coach. He rose slowly to his feet, his fists tightly clenched and his bloodshot eyes looking for her murderer. For one moment he caught Aezubah’s gaze through the trees and the King’s eyes narrowed in hatred. The thug disappeared in the next moment, but many of his comrades had left behind and they were the first to feel the wave of fury that overwhelmed the King.
He wrenched a sword from the soldier nearest him and leapt forward, roaring like a wounded animal. On his way he passed the stunned Yanush who dropped his shield to the ground and stood motionless and overcome with grief and guilt.
Then Yanush, too, succumbed to hatred. Losing composure for the first time in his career, he voiced a vicious war cry and drew his weapon. He slew the thug with whom he grappled before and then followed the King and joined him on the path of destruction.
The remaining soldiers seemed to wake as well. A horrific yell escaped their lips and they raised their weapons again, attacking the remaining assassins with such fury and hatred that within moments they tore them apart on the tips of their blades.
Unsatisfied and yearning for more blood, they followed their crazed King, a silver-clad madman, into the forest in pursuit of the murderers. The ancient Nekryan forests filled with the cries of dying thugs; the insane screams of a King mad with grief; and the vengeful and guilt-stricken shouts of soldiers who had failed to perform their duty.
The place of battle was left empty save for the two carriages, several coachmen who worked hard to ease the frightened horses, and a handful of servants and pages who gathered around the body of their young Queen and wept. They raised her off the ground and placed her inside a carriage, on silken sheets, where she lay motionless, her eyes open to the world but glazed over with the mystery of death.
Her young face was pale and twisted in pain. Her lips were closed tightly as if to keep the last breath from escaping her lungs. Her fists were clenched as when she tried to cling to the life that the spear tore away from her. Her features were full of the fear of the pale face of death, a fear known to all living creatures save the immortal gods.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala