Rabu, 18 April 2012



by A. J. Cooper

An Avenger or Destroyer? Sometimes it’s hard to discern the difference.

Angrok pitched back his warhammer, swung it hard at the Spider Priest, and sent Yama’s head – separated now from his body – hurtling into the wall. The Destroyer strode over and grabbed the grisly trophy by its greasy hair. I stood behind him and nodded in approval.

“Satisfactory, my lord?” I asked the hero of the tale who had listened in silence as I’d read to him my latest entry.
Angrok pondered a moment, then looked me in the eye. “So I am to be the Destroyer in this telling, eh, Marcellus?” His smile was grim.

“As the chronicler of your adventures, I must make certain…judgments, my lord. Are you not known by such a title among the princes of these desert kingdoms?”

“I am indeed, but this particular matter was motivated by vengeance, as you well know.”

This was true. Angrok killed the high priest of the spider goddess Nekra to avenge the death of Tiana, a victim of the eight-legged gods of Khorthaire. I thought he would continue his lecture, instead he said simply, “Do not neglect to pay homage to the young girl and her sacrifice when you conclude your account.”

“It will be so recorded,” I assured him.

“Then let us be on our way, my friend.”

Friend. Two years as his traveling companion, and I still cannot say if I am truly Angrok’s friend. Or if he is mine. I admire him greatly, respect him profoundly, and term him the Avenger when the story warrants, despite his reputation to the contrary. His enemies are quick to denounce him, but no one questions his power or prowess. Let history judge him, I say.
The route we were traveling was unfamiliar, at least to me. Angrok exuded such confident determination whatever the destination, that if this were a novel path for him one would never guess it. With Khorthaire many leagues behind us, we wound our way through the northwestern desert lands known as the Barrens of Bajir. Our destination was Bezakirah, home to two rival Houses, each laying claim to the region but neither completely able to subdue it. Eventually, we came upon a wooden signpost pointing to a nearby town.
You are entering Bezakirah, the City of Deep Waters
Birthplace of Mali, the Prophet of Mazdah

The land was still baking under the setting sun and I thanked the good gods that the night’s coolness was drawing near. I was sweating heavily, and my water skin had but a few drops remaining. The promise of drinking deeply at the wells of this desert oasis soothed my soul.

“Our purpose here, my lord?” I asked Angrok as I stopped in front of the sign and sucked the last bit of moisture from my pouch.

“Judgment,” he answered ominously, and continued walking, not waiting for me to finish my feeble attempt at refreshment.

I hurried to fall back in place by the Avenger’s side, always but one step behind my leader. Each firm stomp of his iron-shod feet subdued the ground beneath them. Even the sand fleas and gnats, which chewed at me constantly, were afraid to pester him it seemed.

The city’s brick protective wall was rather shabbily constructed. Perhaps it had been breached at one point and the people’s hearts just weren’t in the rebuilding of it. Our pace quickened and we passed through the wooden gates. They were open and unguarded. Bezakirah was strangely silent under the fading sun, and the hazy orange light bouncing off the buildings cast an eerie spell over this desert outpost.

The buildings we passed were square, constructed of sundried brick and covered with a thick layer of plaster. They would have been bright white with regular care and cleaning, but the sun-hardened dust darkened them so that the town was the color of muddy water. I hoped the wells of Deep Waters weren’t similarly polluted.

Nothing stirred as we made our way along the main avenue toward the town’s center. Angrok and I were silent as well, but when the street opened wide to reveal the village square, I couldn’t help but gasp. The packed dirt at our feet was moist and deeply stained with blood. Throughout the square were broken chariots and dead horses and camels. Atop these were bodies pierced with spears and arrows, and parts of bodies sliced and strewn everywhere. Market stalls, once filled with dried figs, raisins, and pomegranates, seeds and grains, and spices from the Far East, lay overturned, their wares mixing with the mayhem that recently occurred there. Already, the rotting smell wafted in the thick, irritating heat. Angrok took it all in without a word.

Suddenly, a man in a loose brown and black robe bolted into the square from a western alley. He was a wiry man with dark skin and a clean shaven face. He saw us and waved excitedly. “Thank Mazdah!” he cried as he ran up to us. “Are you Angrok the Destroying Avenger?”

My master lifted an iron-clad hand – it seemed more in warning than in response. I unslung my crossbow and waited. The stranger’s eyes bulged in elation. “I have heard many stories about you, O Great One! You have the strength of ten men! You’ve wrestled elephants and won. You freed the Sultan of Bajir’s daughter from the dragon Belial but refused her kiss of betrothment. And what is more, no one has seen your face.”
Angrok stared at the man coolly from behind his iron helmet and said nothing.

“Forgive me, Great One. I am Zahir, servant of Jabbar, ruler of House Moezin. He bids you welcome and invites you to banquet with him to discuss…er, certain matters.” Zahir waved at the desolation. “As you can see, The City of Deep Waters desperately needs your help! House Altir – may Mazdah strike them! – is responsible for this brutality. They massacred the followers of our noble House this very day! We beg of you, O Great Angrok, we beg of you…”

“Take us to Jabbar,” Angrok said. The man twisted in delight, running and pointing back the way he had come. “Thank Mazdah!” he cried, as he disappeared ahead of us into a dusk darkened alley.
We were ushered into the banqueting hall of House Moezin. A massive table on a raised dais spread lengthwise before us. At its center, facing us from across its solid frame, sat Jabbar, the supreme ruler of his clan. He wore shimmering robes of white cloth, as did the rest of his family who fanned out on either side of him. At the far end of the table, featured prominently upon a large bronze platter, was a roast pig surrounded by steaming vegetables. Evidently we’d been invited to a celebratory feast.

“Welcome good men of the desert,” Jabbar said without rising. “Your presence at this table is most fortuitous. Please.” Jabbar indicated chairs opposite him.

Angrok acknowledge this with a slight nod and we stepped up to our seats. Zahir also sat on our side of the table, but in a place furthest from the food. The sweet, smoky aroma of roast pork caused my stomach to grumble. I accepted a glass of wine from a kitchen servant while Angrok waved it off.

“House Altir is a thorn in the side of all good men,” Jabbar said, without preamble. “They are promiscuous…extravagant…improper. They worship the slut-goddess Isa, though they insist on residing here in Bezakirah, the birth city of the Holy Prophet Mali.”

At the sound of the prophet’s name the diners lifted their hands and shouted, “Praise Mazdah!”

Then an elderly woman spoke, presumably Jabbar’s mother for no other woman would have ventured such impudent words and tone. “We know all that,” she growled. “Give the Destroyer proof of their treachery so that we might dispatch him and his companion in blood vengeance and so restore honor to House Moezin.” That she spoke of Angrok and me was clear enough, though I noticed she refused to look in our direction.

Jabbar continued, unperturbed. “I sent a servant to eavesdrop on their goings-on last night. I’d heard rumors of some…plan to attack us.” Jabbar stared at some indiscernible spot behind us. “He was returned to us, thrown at our door, sporting a quiver-full of arrows as payment for his services.”

“But we sent him to spy! Did he not deserve to be punished?” exclaimed Zahir, who immediately cowered upon speaking thus.

“Quiet, Zahir!” said the Moezin leader. Jabbar tore his eyes from his servant and smiled at us. “So we repaid them in kind. Their highest ranking servant, Salah, we kidnapped and killed, thus returning an eye for an eye. It is the law of the desert, do you not agree Lord Angrok?”

“But Salah el-Altir had nothing to do with the assassination of our servant—”

“Shut it, Zahir!”

Jabbar half rose from his chair while his servant scrambled behind his, like a dog expecting a beating. I marveled at Zahir’s insubordination, but as a guest in House Moezin I made no comment nor did Angrok show any reaction.

“I admit we may have paid back more than an eye for such an act of disrespect,” the clan’s leader conceded wryly. He winked at my lord as if this were some inside joke among sultans.

Zahir screamed hysterically, “You mean you slashed Salah to pieces and sent him back to House Altir in segments. Just like you—”

This time Jabbar flew to his feet and, crying out in frustration, grabbed his spear and arrowed it straight through Zahir’s heart. The thin man gasped, looked wild-eyed at the wooden pike buried deep in his chest, and slumped out of his chair, gushing blood on the dais.

“That’ll shut you up,” Jabbar hissed.

“Enough!” cried the old woman. “Bring in the wellspring bowl.” A young servant girl immediately left only to return a few moments later with a large white ceramic vessel. Obviously long dedicated to some ceremonial purpose, the bowl was chipped, its scars interrupting its green painted rim in several places. Jabbar’s mother took the empty basin and set it at the table’s center.

Family members gathered close while Angrok and I remained where we were, the container having been placed in front of us. The elderly woman took two jars of water brought out by two other servants and filled the ceremonial urn. Grasping the sides, she shut her eyes and chanted a series of verses I thought might be from some ancient scripture. Suddenly she stopped and looked at us and said, “Out of the wellspring of the past, come visions of truth.” She then commanded Angrok and me to peer into the deep waters before us.
The vision we saw was of soldiers streaming from House Altir. Their compound took up two full city blocks, and rose much higher than the buildings surrounding it. On the outer walls of their massive House were mosaics of Isa, the goddess of dance and sensual love, as well as depictions of white tigers, her token animal. The sun was streaming into Bezakirah from the east while their warriors marched to the town square, to the very market we’d come upon earlier that evening.

A group of worshipers, followers of Mazdah and members of House Moezin, were there, kneeling in a corner of the courtyard in prayer. At the conclusion of their service, others began entering the town center. Nobleman, merchants, and villagers mingled together in trade and conversation unaware of the threat bearing down upon them.

Swiftly the soldiers burst into the square, upending stalls and wagons of goods – grapes and melons, fresh figs and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Most of the people scattered, and the armed men let them go. But the soldiers began to circle the worshipers who were huddled together now, weaponless and frightened. They systematically slaughtered the innocent members of House Moezin, slicing limbs and decapitating heads and tossing them throughout the square until blood soaked the earth.
The vision faded.

“The wellspring bowl has revealed to you their treachery,” Jabbar’s mother stated. “Now, Destroyer, bring judgment on House Altir. By Mazdah’s wrath we seek blood vengeance and implore you to destroy completely our bitter foes.”

During the vision I had sensed a change come over Angrok and so I was alert to any subtle movement he made. His normally silent demeanor was now deadly quiet, and I slid my hands to within easy reach of my weapons. Angrok rose slowly and I with him.

“What say you Lord Angrok?” Jabbar prodded the iron clad warrior by my side. “Is this not a clear case of provocation? Our numbers are obviously depleted, therefore we call upon you to fulfill the desert code of honor and bring judgment on House Altir.”

“House Altir must indeed own its role in this ongoing rival between your two clans,” Angrok agreed. “But it is not their treachery today that will be judged.” Suddenly Angrok drew two long, sharp sabers from the serpentine engraved scabbards at his side. In one fluid motion I grabbed my crossbow and packed on a bolt.

“What betrayal is this?” Jabbar yelled as he likewise raised a sword and rose to face us. “Guards! Seize these infidels!”

They did not get the chance. We immediately broke from the table and met their attack with death blows. Four or five guards dropped before they could put up a defense. The family members scattered while the servants screamed and ran ahead of us on our way to exit the hall. Jabbar had escaped through a back entrance, but I could not concern myself with him as more soldiers made their way into the hall to block our path.

Several guards in leather vests came at us. A bolt from my crossbow pierced one’s heart and he dropped to the ground. His light animal skin armor stood no chance against the sheer mechanical force of my weapon. While I renocked my instrument, Angrok dashed forward and sliced off two heads in two clean strokes. As the dismembered heads hit the ground, my master let out a mad, bestial roar. With animal-like frenzy we hacked our way out of House Moezin and found ourselves on a darkened narrow street that led back to the market.

“Marcellus,” Angrok shouted as we ran along the mansion’s outer wall, “do as I say. Take a torch to that hay cart there, then meet me in the square.” A cart stacked high with hay sat unattended against the residence of House Moezin. I took a torch that had been lit at sunset to illuminate the alley and tossed it onto the flammable pile. The hay instantly caught and blazed into a towering inferno. Sparks flew onto the building, caught at the wood and thatch of an upper story veranda and began to smoke and crackle.

Running at full tilt I caught up with my lord at the city center where he was instructing the startled residents. “Be quick. Take what is most valuable to you and flee Deep Waters. Do not look back. The city is doomed, I assure you,” Angrok boomed. To me he said, “We go to the Citadel of Mazdah. Jabbar will have sought sanctuary there.”

Angrok led the way to the Citadel, evidently familiar with the layout of this town from before the time of my association with him. We reached the building and Angrok shouted up the tower’s height. Jabbar peered down on us from an upper story window. His voice was defiant. “You’ll pay for this treason, Angrok! You are fighting the wrong House.”

“I am fighting the House that slew the innocents in the market today,” he roared back. Jabbar’s eyes widened at that statement, revealing the truth of Angrok’s words. While he gawked at us a bolt from my crossbow flew and snagged his shoulder, knocking Jabbar back inside the room.

“Damn,” I growled.

“You’ll get more practice,” Angrok responded. And together we bashed the door open and entered the Citadel.

Heedless of what we might encounter, we smashed and kicked our way through the rooms in a furious fever. Priceless urns and ornamental plates were sent crashing into countless pieces. Screaming like some mad half-beast, the Destroyer came upon more guards and slashed them to death before they could react. I redeemed my earlier near miss with some well placed arrows.

When the lower quarters were taken, I dashed after my lord as he ran up the stairs. Four more soldiers stood before the door that led to Jabbar. They were frozen in terror. Angrok leapt for them like a tiger out of some sweltering jungle. He brought his blade down to chop one man in half; twirling around, he sliced the necks of two others. Angrok lunged and stabbed at the last man with such force that he split apart. His rage was ruthless, omnipotent, and total.

A woman screamed at the end of the hall and rushed to a window where she looked back at us with terror and dove to the ground. I heard a loud thump and thought surely she had jumped to her death. Meanwhile, the scent of smoke reached my nose. The city was beginning to burn.

The door before us splintered as Angrok turned his mighty rage against it. Inside, the dark-skinned Jabbar was lying on the floor. He had yanked my crossbow bolt free of his shoulder, and his white glimmering tunic was saturated with blood.

“Mercy! Mercy!” Jabbar pleaded. “How did you know? How did you guess…?”
Angrok dropped his swords and walked over to Jabbar’s prostrate body. He towered above him like some iron clad god.

“Your witch-mother did indeed reveal a vision of truth from the past. But the vision of House Altir’s attack was of many months ago at the height of the growing season. Strewn on the ground were grapes and figs and melons. But now the harvest is over and in your market stalls today are raisins, dried figs, and various nuts and seeds. With your slaughter this morning Moezin more than repaid Altir for their vicious deeds. Your plan was to trick me into exterminating your enemy completely.”

Angrok picked up Jabbar by the neck who merely blubbered his confession. My master growled, “I will not be manipulated by a flea-bitten would-be sultan.” And without further comment, Angrok bashed Jabbar’s head against the wall until he was dead. He then tossed the Moezin leader’s lifeless body out the window, disposing of it like one would a filthy rag.
We surveyed the burning city from a safe distance. Its homes and temples and village shops were engulfed in flames. I could yet feel its heat on my face; sweat rolled down my neck and chest despite the chill desert air. I glanced sideways at my master. Angrok the Destroyer, I had called him once. But now I truly knew him as such. No longer the Avenger only, but also an obliterator – the enemy of sultans, lords, and kings.

As we walked off into the night, Angrok remained silent, his iron-lined feet conquering the ground before him with each step he took. By morning, there would be nothing left of House Altir or of House Moezin. Was he right to bring down the city in such a manner? I had my doubts, but let history judge him, I say. One thing I knew, this was not the end of his journey or of mine. Those iron-shod boots would one day tread again upon petty kingdoms and corrupt principalities, destroying or avenging as he judged fit.

Original Fiction © 2011 A. J. Cooper

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MENGUAK TABIR SEJARAH NUSANTARA by Ejang Hadian Ridwan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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