“You already know you are a dead man. Your wounds will take you to your grave all too soon,” Zorasch the Conqueror sneered. “Tell me who are you and where you learned to fight as you do.”
Zorasch jerked the warrior by the hair and stared into his face with bright, hard eyes. The man glared back at the Conqueror with silent contempt.
“You have had a devilish kind of luck against me. Just when we were about to capture you, two or three times in fact, a herd of sheep or a flock of birds came across our path and delayed us enough to let you get away. How did this happen? Were you somehow responsible?”
Guards brutally ripped the mercenary to his feet by his own dark burgundy staff laced behind his back and inside his elbows. Zorasch moved to confront him.
“Once, the horse of my captain reared as he led a charge against your fortification. It fell and the charge broke in disarray around it. The horse was a veteran of battles and the surest of all our mounts. Did you make this happen?”
Zorasch flourished as a cart-sized man with wagon-sized thoughts. Ever since childhood, he aspired to a station beyond the limits of those around him. Perhaps his small size and the mockery of it drove him. Maybe a desire to rule and reign over others as servant to none propelled him.
Born nameless to an unknown mother in the streets of Yarlach, the westernmost city in the land, he somehow endured after her death as a child of the streets. Fleet of foot, nimble of mind, and strong of will, he became a young king of thieves. He ruled among fellow cutpurses and villains. Then, seeing the grandeur of a military commander leading his victorious troops through the city, Zorasch’s mind opened to opportunity.
His place at the pinnacle of petty thieves would not satisfy him for long. Sneaking often into the garrison, he spied upon the inner workings of the troops. Their systems rewarded the courageous and the capable with promotions and power. But, underneath this outward show, the scheming could prosper as well. With his experience in rising among thieves, he conceived of possibilities for his abilities here. Leaving behind the scoundrels of the streets, he joined the army.
Now after years of conniving, chicanery and combat, he commanded a fierce host of troops intent on achieving their leader’s thirst for mastery over many.
The swarthy-skinned Conqueror smashed a gloved backhand across the soldier’s face but he offered no response.
“You are a brave and resilient man but we can wait for your tongue to loosen before you are put to death. I have discovered a way to make even the most resolute tell me what I need to know."
Zorasch nodded to Balaach, the dirty, hooded man standing just behind the prisoner and his guards. He opened a dark green vial and poured its contents onto a stained rag. As the guards lifted the warrior off his feet by the staff, Balaach pushed the rag against his mouth and nose. After a few moments of struggling, the body slumped and the guards lowered him to the ground.
“He ssshould be ready to ssspill his ssstory in ssseconds, my Emperor,” hissed the hooded man.
“Spare me the adder’s voice, Balaach. I tire of it,” Zorasch sighed.
The warrior stirred in a few moments and appeared to regain consciousness. The guards yanked him to a sitting position. Zorasch squatted before him in keen intensity. As the mercenary’s eyes cleared, Zorasch began his own interrogation.
“You are a courageous warrior. Tell me your name and where you come from.”
While his ambition soared, it never blinded Zorasch to basic realities. Without some advantage unavailable to others, he might as well desire the power to fly. He needed a weapon, many weapons.
In various expeditions in years of warfare, Zorasch fanatically studied the tactics and weaponry of his opponents. When he found something that made a real competitive difference, he reviewed it, refined it, and then made it part of his command. He proved relentless in securing the best equipment for his forces and tireless in his own study of the art of war. He also learned how to reward and motivate men who would follow him wherever he led them. They carried banners, shields and tunics emblazoned with the crowned head of a regal dragon. He made sure his troops carried into battle the best arms money could buy, cleverness could steal, and fraud could commandeer.
The warriors of the hills of Morrock wielded swords of a light, but strong metal no one else possessed. They forged the metal into two-handed broad swords with power to hew down a wrist-sized tree in a single swing. Once Zorasch subdued the hills of Morrock, he wrested the secret of their steel from their smiths. Used in the lighter curved sabers of the Yarlach tradition, the alloy made blades of both durability and speed that cut through their enemies like lightning in a dark night.
The archers of Pastre slaughtered a battalion of the Yarlachian army in mere moments. Their bows discharged twice the power of any the Conqueror previously encountered. Pastre lived free and independent for hundreds of years until Zorasch captured a Pastrian bowman and tortured the secret of his people’s weapons from him.
Conquest of the world at large proved different from any previous battle or siege, however. Zorasch needed an armament that would fight before his armies arrived on the battlefield. He sought an advantage that would daunt and terrify the minds of those anticipating his attack.
The poison produced its potent effect. “Name is Felmack. I have no home,” the weary warrior croaked with an accent from the East. His face, set taut and defiant just moments before, slackened now. His eyes misted in stupor.
“What is your heritage? Where did you learn to fight and lead as you do?”
Felmack struggled weakly again but the poison loosened his clamped jaws. Guards behind him kept his head upright with gauntleted hands clenching his sweating hair. The Conqueror’s piercing eyes bored into the conquered’s dull ones. At length, he croaked as Zorasch bent near. “I’m of the family of Whelt. Trained in the way of the warrior.”
The reputation of the family of Whelt for bravery and battle skill resonated among armies of various lands. Zorasch’s interest in the wounded man soared.
“Who did this training?” he asked, licking his lips expectantly.
“My father began it,” Felmack whispered. “But I’ve learned war … from … others.”
“What is it that you have been trained to do?" Zorasch leaned even closer.
Felmack’s face twisted and twitched. An inner will battled with the powerful drug. His body began to writhe and beads of sweat rolled from his forehead. Zorasch pulled back and the guards grabbed the staff and forced him belly-down to the ground. A wordless cry welled up in him as his turned, tortured face scraped in the dirt.
Gently Zorasch touched the warrior’s arm, knowing the way of the poison. His manner and speaking became more compassionate. “Felmack, be at ease, we’re not your enemies. We’re here to help you with the pain. It must be terrible to always wander as you have. It’s been lonely, this life you’ve lived. Let us be friends. We can help.”
“I’ve no friends … only my duty." A glob of thick white saliva formed at the corner of his mouth as he moved his parched lips. “The Whelten warriors serve a greater purpose … than friendship. We live to fight … against evil.”
“There’s evil abroad, it’s true,” the Conqueror agreed. His voice dripped with empathy. He wiped away the saliva from Felmack’s lips. “We fight against it, too. Tell us how we can be as strong as you are.”
Felmack struggled to speak, “I ... I cannot. I can only tell an heir of Whelt." With this painful admission, his will seemed to stiffen and he slipped nearer to unconsciousness.
Zorasch hesitated. What should I do now? he wondered, lowering his head in thought. Then, he stood and walked away from the prisoner, removed his royal robe, and tied back his black hair. When he returned, he walked with a different gait, youthful and unsure. Raising his voice to a more immature pitch and mimicking the eastern speech Felmack used, he began again. The guards looking on were startled at the transformation. Zorasch the Conqueror became a youth of the East before their eyes.
“Felmack of Whelt?” Zorasch the pretender asked urgently touching Felmack’s back tentatively. “I’ve been searchin’ for you for a long time. My father’s trained me in our family’s way as much as he’s able. He’s sent me to learn a warrior’s lessons. Will you be my master?”
Aroused from semi-awareness and allowed to move more freely, Felmack shook his head in confusion. Once again, he groaned and thrashed against his restraints. Zorasch untied Felmack’s bloody wrists and signaled to his men to release their hold on the stave, lift him onto his back and move away.
“Are you alright, master? What can I do to help,” inquired Zorasch, the master dissembler, as he gestured silently for a drink for the captive. “Here, drink this. You’re wounded.”
Felmack thirstily drank from the offered cup, holding shaking fingers against it in Zorasch’s hands. “Where’ve you come from, lad,” he croaked.
“I’m from the mountains of the East,” Zorasch deferred. “More to drink?”
“No, I’ve but little time left. Are you truly of the Wheltenkin?”
“Yes. Are you dyin’?" Zorasch attempted to distract Felmack from asking a testing question. “Your wounds’ve soaked your tunic. Can I make you more comfortable?”
“No, lad, I can feel death coming to me." Felmack hesitated, and then whispered, “If you really are from the family of Whelt...”
Zorasch acted at once. He jumped up with great excitement. “Felmack, soldiers are coming with torches. What should I do?" He gestured to a guard to wave a lamp back and forth behind his head.
With glazing eyes squinting at the light, Felmack’s voice became urgent and intent. “Come here, lad. You must leave me now and save yourself. There’s a cave north of the ford of the river where I’ve hidden some of my belongings."
A spasm of pain shook through him. “Look upon the hillside where a huge blackened stump juts from a slide of rocks. The cave’s fifty spans to the right of the stump, hidden by low trees. There you’ll find what will train you more in the Whelten way. Now go! Run, lad. Don’t let them catch you.”
Cradling Felmack’s head in his hand and continuing his role, Zorasch said, “Thank you, Felmack. I’ll not fail you." The dying man emitted a shallow breath and Zorasch lowered his head to the floor of the tent and moved away, smiling at his success.
Zorasch went in person to the cave, unattended by all but his most trusted guards. There, deep in the darkness cast away by torchlight, he found a cache of weapons and a strange box hinged in steel and sealed by a snarling lion lock. Returning all to his tent, he pried open the box and found a book giving him the secret advantage he needed.
The book described Words of Power. These words and the power behind them could confuse, distract, and even control men and beasts. Somehow, his particular intelligence connected with what he read. He learned of the people who originated them and mastered them. They used their powerful influence to dominate the land many generations before.
Zorasch became adept with the Words of Power. His mind incorporated them into his thought processes. Even as they turned the people who originated them to violence, he became driven to force the world to cower under his gaze.
He became fascinated with the effect of the Words on animals. Starting with small beasts, he worked within the limits of their wills and his own growing abilities to turn them to his purposes. Snakes were particularly susceptible to his Words. Soon thereafter, he learned that predators and plunderers of carrion would serve his purposes well. As time went on, however, his attention focused upon larger beasts. When he mastered bull elephants and jungle cats, Zorasch the Conqueror, attacked his next target.
The battle would be over before it advanced very far.
Crows erupted from the trees surrounding the city of Massehelm and wheeled over its rooftops. Surveying the opposing army’s defenses, the wiry Conqueror stood in his stirrups and unleashed Words of Power. They surged over the ground and up through the feet of his elephants. Like a roiling sandstorm, the beasts charged over the field in front of the town, heedless of arrows, bones, and lances launched at them.
Men mixed with bales of straw and lengths of timber cartwheeled into the air as the trumpeting troop shattered their perimeter. The few wailing survivors crashed down in tangles of broken limbs and crushed ribs.
With his stallion rearing and screaming, Zorasch hurled additional Words. Sides heaving like bellows, the massive creatures shuffled meekly back to their handlers. As the dust settled, he wielded Words again to order tigers to leap from their cages toward the city. Their roaring terrorized the remaining defense. They clawed across the field of battle and began to mutilate any man in their path. When their impact reached its peak, he recalled them and they returned to their cages mewling like tabby kittens for their mother’s milk.
When signaled, foot soldiers advanced from the flanks. Cries rose amid the rumble of their marching feet. Then, cavalry swooped into the space vacated by the retreating cats. With curved sabers swinging like scythes through a wheat field, they moved into the city streets eliminating any resistance.
Balaach approached the Conqueror’s horse. The stained sleeves of his robe covered his hands and his eyes peeked from beneath a hood that masked tattoos and scars on his filthy face. “It’s finisshed, sire. Massehelm’s yourss!" His voice hissed in his short sentences.
Fixed on keeping his companies of animals in check and his battle plan in order, Zorasch concentrated too intently to hear. His eyes bored into the backs of his soldiers as they clambered over the remaining barricades and stomped into the city searching for plunder and prey.
“Your majesty,” the man hissed. “Will there be ssservice for me amidsst the ssurvivorss?”
At last, Zorasch squinted down at him. For a long moment, he recalibrated his vision, focusing on this irritating interruption. “Balaach,” he said at last, “I know it serves your purposes when you interrogate or terrorize, but can you not leave off every ‘sss’ with me? I have told you this before!" Shaking his head in disgust, he turned back to the battlefield.
Balaach cringed at the rebuke like a kicked dog. Moderating his sissing tone a little, he responded, “I’m ssorry, ssire. It’s ssomething I was sschooled to do.”
“Well, you must be ‘sschooled’ to be lesss sso,” Zorasch muttered, emphasizing his own s’es. Then, shouting out for the captain of his personal guard, he ordered, “Halzan, take this hissing snake away and lash him again.”
Meanwhile, Zorasch spurred his mount. Together, they plunged down the slope, keen to enter the site of their most recent conquest. His mind filled with the blood scent of victory--the freedom to do what he wished to do, to those to whom he wished to do it; to conquer and subjugate until all fell humbly at his feet.
The road from Massehelm bore a thin stream of fleeing people. Watching them go, Zorasch lifted his bearded chin toward them. I will let you leave, he mused. You will fight my battles before me. Wherever you go, people will fear the coming of the Conqueror!
Zorasch confirmed the frightening power of his new weapon. Words of Power would enable progress toward the next stage of his conquest - the rich cities of the East.
Autumn-haired Marta sat on the bench coiling sections of carded fleece into a basket at her feet. Her daughters, Windle and Reetha, did their share while sitting on the single porch step. They spun the delicate goats’ hair into yarn, dyed it in beautiful hues, and then wove it into finished work. Traveling merchants regularly passed through their village just to buy from them. Their baskets filled as each prepared their share.
“Mother?” asked Windle, turning her teenaged freshness toward her mother’s mature but unlined face, “When do you think Warrick’ll return from the Mountain.”
Now alone after his father, Falcon, died of a long festering battle wound, Marta’s son, Warrick, herded the goats, the source of the fleece they worked.
“At this time of year, he generally comes back after a fortnight,” Marta responded. A memory of the sound of goats bleating and jingling their way back to the farmstead behind her husband and her son flashed quickly into her mind. Has it been so long that Warrick’s been working by himself? she thought. Over a year?
Windle looked up to the mountainside. “Warrick spends longer up there without Father,” she said. “What do you think he’s doing?”
“It’s hard to say,” Marta answered.
With the morning’s labor done, the three hitched their pretty, plump mare to a cart and traveled toward Wheltentown. They purchased food in the village a few times a week.
As they drew the cart into the single street of Wheltentown, villagers were huddled around the Tavern Fountain. Their voices rose and fell with concern. Marta saw her flour-faced friend, the baker, on the fringe of the crowd and guided the cart toward him. “What’s happened, Nathan? What’s everyone so worked up about?”
“There’s news from Massehelm,” he said. “Terrible news of the capture of the city.”
“Capture? How? By whom?”
Nathan turned from the gathering to Marta, resting his hand on the rump of the mare. “Remember those stories of a Conqueror who’s been attacking cities far to the West and North? Zorasch? He’s started to move easterly. His soldiers ransacked and burned Myrna, and the merchant there’s telling us about his attack on Massehelm. Man’s been here most of the morning.”
Leaving her mother and sister to talk with Nathan, Windle leapt from her seat to learn for herself. She glimpsed Warrick’s best friend, Barin, resting on a bench next to the peddler. Her eager curiosity swallowed her usual shyness around him. “Barin? What’s he saying? What’s going on?”
The burly boy turned away from listening and grinned at her. “Somewhere between the fog and the grog, as they say, the man’s been scared out of his wits, seemin’ly. He’s sayin’ this Conqueror’s attacked Massehelm with creatures of legend! Imagine such a thing! I didn’t think the Tavern’s brew was that potent!”
Scowling, Windle turned and moved closer to the merchant. He appeared to be enjoying the attention of his audience, emphasizing his tale with a shake of a nearly empty tankard.
“Yes, t’was a sight more frightening than you can picture! The man sat on his horse on a hill high above the city with his troops ready to swoop down. Then a strange sound seemed to pass over the earth and elephants stampeded toward the defenders. Elephants! It was horrible! They crashed into and through barricades like a flash flood. Men died on their tusks and under their feet.”
“El’phants?” shouted an adolescent farmhand standing close by. “What’s an el’phant?”
The merchant took one last drink from the tankard. He looked over the brim at the questioner in disdain. “Have you never heard of an elephant, lad?" The youth shook his lowered head. “An elephant’s a massive, leathery beast from the dry lands of the West,” the traveler continued. “They’re the size of a cottage with legs like tree stumps and a body larger than your ox. On a huge head, it carries ears like broad wings and two spear-like tusks jut from its mouth. And when they charged the city, their trumpeting nearly deafened us.”
Thirstily, he looked around him. Fixing on Barin’s broad face, he ordered, “You there, boy. Fetch me ‘nother drink. Talking’s thirsty work!" With no thought of Barin, he dropped the tankard on the packed dirt.
Barin grumbled as the man looked away and began speaking to the crowd again. Then, rising to his feet, he picked up the empty mug and entered the tavern.
By now, Windle sat on her heels at the merchant’s feet, enthralled by his story. “Then what happened?” she asked.
Smiling at her, the merchant said, “Well, my pretty young miss, I wish that was all of the tale. After the elephants smashed into the city, they turned and rumbled out the way they came. We could hardly believe our eyes and ears at what happened next." Relishing Windle’s intentness, he paused for a breath or two until she rose to her knees, pleading for him to continue.
“I don’t know what you call a herd of tigers, but that’s what attacked the city next. Like a black and orange blizzard howling and growling, they dashed into the city. Soldiers turned and ran over each trying to get away. Most of ‘em didn’t.”
Windle’s green eyes bulged from her head. “Tigers? Tigers! Were they ‘commanded’, too?”
The merchant nodded and continued, “By the voice of Zorasch the Conqueror. I don’t know how he did it, but I saw and heard it m’self. And from what I’ve heard, Zorasch and his army’s headed this way. To your village and over the Mountain to the cities of the East.”
“Here?” protested Nathan and others in the crowd. “Why here? To our tiny village?”
“Oh, your village’s just a bump in his road. They say it’s the rich cities of the East that lure him. He’ll move through here quick as a flash flood and then over the Mountain to conquer ‘em.”
Just then as worry ran through the villagers like a summer cold, Barin returned with a tankard overflowing with foam for the merchant. “And how’re you here tellin’ us then?” he asked as he handed the drink to the merchant, disguising a sly smile.
The storyteller looked at the bear-like boy and then at the tankard. He reached up to grasp it, knocked a bit off his game by the question. “Why, I was leaving the city as the army approached. Watched the attack from the road on this side of Massehelm.”
Barin cocked his head, encouraging the man to drink and said, “And lucky for you not to be stomped by elephants and gobbled up by a tiger." As the merchant brought the foamy head to his lips, Barin slipped back into the crowd.
“Pwaaaa!” spewed the merchant as he blew suds from his mouth showering Windle and others close by with dishwater. “What’s this then?" He stood up too and spilled the tankard down his chest and into his lap. “Where’s that big lad! Look what he’s done to me!”
Driving back to their farmstead, mother and daughters each rode lost in their thoughts.
Marta urged the mare forward with a slap of the leads on its rear. “Windle, this’s terrible news! I hope Warrick’ll be home soon.”
“Why, Mother? What could Warrick do about it?” responded Windle.
With a twist of her lips, Windle thoughts turned to how Warrick and her father were often alone. She idolized her father and tried hard not to resent the time he spent with Warrick. Didn’t think I knew about what they were doing all those summers, she humphed to herself. All those cuts and bruises on his hands. And then, those arrows with spiral fletchings and Burgundy Wood shafts.
Sniffing as they jostled along, she thought, Hiding in the tack room during the winters making them. Father trained Warrick to it all, but what good will it do him. Warrick’ll never be a warrior! Who would he fight? Zorasch and his army? Alone?
She considered again her brother’s long shanks and sinewy arms. Once, some months before her father sickened and died, she overheard him talking to his son in the tack room of their barn. The sound of clacking staffs drew her to them just after she returned early from a trip to the village with her mother and Reetha. The rapping of wood against wood stopped as her father said, “Lad, you’ve mastered that block with that turn of your wrist. Good work!”
“Well, Father, it’s about time,” Warrick countered. “How long’ve you being teaching me to do it?”
“Long enough, but not enough,” Falcon said. “The time’ll come when everything I’ve taught you will seem too little.”
“But why, there never seems to be any threat to us.”
“One never knows what the future brings, Warrick. Particularly to one of our family.”
“I don’t understand. What’s so important about the five of us?”
“There’s more to learn about our family than I’ve yet taught you. More to learn when the time’s right.”
Framing his next comment as respectfully as he could, in spite of his frustration, Warrick said, “You say that to me often, Father, but the time never seems to come.”
“I want to be sure you’re ready, lad. First the skills, then the understanding of when to use them.”
Warrick grunted and they began sparring with the staves again.
Windle touched her mother’s forearm as she came back to the present. “Mother, I know Father taught Warrick to be a warrior,” she said, not wanting to draw Reetha into the conversation. “I saw and heard more than they ever thought I did.”
As she turned to look into her daughter’s face, Marta said seriously, “I suppose it’s not a surprise that you know that. You do learn what you want to learn.”
“But what was it all for? And why was it always a secret? Why wouldn’t Father include me? I just learned about it from Warrick.”
Marta guided the mare down the lane to their cottage. Stalling, she pulled back on the reins as the animal started to prance toward her feed.
“Mother!” shouted Windle. “Why won’t you ever tell me anything?"
“Windle, please be patient. You’ll come to know what you need to know in due time.”
“That’s what Father always told Warrick, Mother! Both of you’ve been keeping secrets from us forever!”
Taking a deep breath, Marta stopped the cart in the yard in front of their cottage. She tied off the reins on the brake and stepped down. Young Reetha leaned over and she lifted her off the seat and lowered her to the ground. Then, with a shake of her head, she said to Windle, “This news of Zorasch might make all the difference, dear one. This may be the time for revealing what we’ve hidden from you for so long.”
“I’ll believe it when I hear it,” sighed Windle as she jumped to ground and stalked off.
Marta thought, Windle’s getting even more feisty as she comes of age!
Marta scanned the foothills of the Mountain above her. As the evening angle of sunlight began to change the colors on the slope from green to rose and amber, she thought of Warrick and how news of Zorasch could impact him. Turning to Reetha, she said, “Little one, would you carry these cabbages into the cottage? I’ll be in in a moment to help you and Windle make dinner.”
The girl hefted the bag of vegetables off the ground with hunched shoulders and bent elbows and took them inside. Soon Marta stood alone with her thoughts and her work. She unharnessed the mare, curried her, put her out to pasture, and pushed the cart out of the way to the side of the barn.
Perhaps it’s time to tell Warrick and Windle who we are, Falcon, she mused, continuing her on-going conversation with her late husband. Whether they’re ready for what comes their way, it appears a great evil’s heading toward us and as Whelts we’ve a duty to deal with it.
She dipped her hands in the rain barrel at the corner of the house and washed with handmade goat milk soap before turning to the porch. Rubbing her hands briskly to dry them, she resolved to find the right time and way to begin.
I’ll tell Windle to hold onto the story of Zorasch until Warrick gets settled back with us. We’ve got to be careful with these young ones, don’t we Falcon? Even if they were born for such a time as this, there’s no reason to overwhelm them with dire news and even more dire burdens. They’re so very young!
While they rode in the jostling wagon, Reetha played with her beloved doll. Part her mother’s creation and part her father’s, she treasured the figure of a girl they fashioned for her. She fingered the smooth wooden legs and arms and combed the thin yellow strands of yarn forming her hair.
Listening to Marta and Windle talking, Reetha wondered what caused the tingling feeling that ran up her back into her own thick blond hair. It was like this when Papa got sick, she mouthed to her doll. I started feeling like something was coming. Something that’d make everything different." With a tiny forefinger, she traced the carved face. “I hope it isn’t sad this time. Sad like Papa dying.
For Reetha, while she could not understand the threat of Zorasch and his army, the prickling impression continued to play up her spine.
Oh, dear, she thought. This’ll be another sad time. Windle’ll keep me up tonight, talking and talking about today and showing that red color around her even in the dark.