Far away, beyond the Mountains Of The Moon which touch the sky, lies the land of Eternia. A great and ancient land it is, and from its iron-hard soil empires have risen and crumbled to dust, only to rise again.
Two nations now ruled in Eternia; one was the mighty Kingdom of Light, with its soaring white-walled cities studded with towers blue as the sky, great and prosperous cities which clung to the mountains and stood sentry over valleys and rivers. And in its halls and markets was delight and enjoyment, for the people knew that they were mighty and good, and that they had the wiles of the mightiest of mages at their beck and call; and, more, that they had the gods themselves on their side.
On the arid plains around the fringes of eroded plateaus clung the Shadow Land. Its towns were festering mazes of mud-bricked walls and streets of rammed earth; and in them teemed its people, short, broad, and ugly, with their grunting language and barbaric manners, so unlike the tall, graceful citizens of the Kingdom of Light. And so savage were they that they acknowledged not the gods of the Light, and indeed had turned their backs on them for all time to come.
On the Crystal Throne in the Great Palace in the Capital of the Kingdom of Light sat the King Naftali. Young and handsome, gifted as a genius from mythology, he held the favour of all the gods, and his people loved him almost to the point of worship; but he was a troubled man.
So he called his advisors around him, white-bearded men and silken-tressed women with skin smooth as porcelain and eyes filled with the light of knowledge, and he told them that he was sore troubled.
“What ails you, O King?” they asked.
And the King Naftali responded: “Last night I had a dream, in which I was carried out of my body and to the highest peak of the Mountains Of The Moon, Taviv, whose tip pierces the sky. And there I saw, seated on its summit, the gods of the Light, dressed in blue and white, and the blaze of glory from them was so strong that I had to avert my eyes. There were Burion and Mayan, Geir and Megin; there were Seres and Yabin; and, between them all, there was the great Father God, Terzl himself.
“ ‘What do you want of me, gods?’ I asked, and they replied, in unison:
“ ‘The barbarians of the Shadow Land are offensive in our sight. They do not acknowledge us, and they do not acknowledge you, who stand in our favour and who are our chosen to rule over them. Go you forth and destroy them, for if you do not, we will withdraw our favour from you, and in time the Shadow Land will destroy you.’
“Then the Father God Terzl spoke alone: ‘There will be those among you who think that the Shadow Land barbarians are not your enemies; this is folly, and folly is insupportable in the sight of the gods. Act without mercy against such folly.’ And in a trice I found myself back in my bed, and the morning light was streaming into my eyes.”
So spake the King Naftali; and the advisors murmured among themselves. “It is true, O King,” one said eventually, “that the barbarians grow more numerous by the day, and that they refuse to acknowledge our divine right to rule over them, just as they reject the gods of the Light. Long ago we sent armies against them, and drove them from the mountains and the verdant valleys to the fringes of the arid plains; but there they have stood fast, and, try as we might, we can drive them back no further.”
“And,” added a woman advisor, whose name was Ayet, “there are those among the people who have lost sons and brothers, fathers and sweethearts, in these wars, and who murmur that those lives have been thrown away. They say that the barbarians, ugly and uncouth and repugnant though they be, are no danger to us, and that we should leave them alone to their destiny as we pursue ours.”
“That is folly in the eyes of the Father God himself,” the king replied. “And he ordered me, in his own words, to act without mercy against such folly. Go now with soldiers and make an example of these people. Cleanse their sins with their blood, so that the Kingdom of Light should see no more such as them till the end of time.”
“The problem remains, O King,” the other advisors continued, after Ayet had departed on her holy mission. “Try as we might, our armies can drive the barbarians back no further. Although our soldiers are the finest the world has ever seen, and the barbarians are only a rabble, they still hold out against all we can do.”
“The Father God and all the gods will help us,” the King Natali declared. “This time, we will send our armies against them, and they will sweep the barbarians from the land until only their blood is left drying on the stones.”
And so the armies of the Kingdom of Light set forth, the sun glinting on their helmets and off the blades of their spears; the earth trembled under their marching boots and the iron-clad hooves of their horses; and many a maiden thrilled with joy to know that her sweetheart was among them, gone to fight a holy war on behalf of nobody less than the gods.
And the armies of the Kingdom of Light fell upon the Shadow Land, and they turned the sky red with fire; but instead of fleeing or begging to surrender, the barbarians rose up in vengeance from their festering towns and their teeming slums. And when it was over, the blood was indeed drying on the stone; but most of the blood was the Kingdom of Light’s own. And many were the flowing tears of maidens whose sweethearts would return to bed them no more.
Then the advisors returned to the Great Palace, where King Naftali sat on his Crystal Throne; and deep was their gloom, because they had failed the command of the gods, and the failure meant that the favour of the gods would forever be forfeit.
But the King Naftali rose up from the throne and chided them. “Do you give up so easily?” he asked. “Our armies have failed, but they have only had steel and fire on their side. Go now to my mages, and see what their magic can create. Go now to them, and have them forge for us a hero, one who can scatter the hordes of the Shadow Land as so much chaff before the blowing wind.”
So the advisors went to the mages, with their steaming cauldrons and their astral charts, their waxes and their potions, and they put to them the king’s command.
And the mages took their magic, and from among them created a Hero.
Tall he was as the mightiest oaks in the mountains, and mighty as the rocks that made the walls of the cities of the Light. His face was as a crag of granite, his eyes as twin stars blazing in the night. When he walked the ground trembled as at the tread of warrior hosts; and his strength was such that he might tear asunder the earth and let it swallow up the waves of the sea.
And the magicians came to him, and forged for him armour from the endless vaults of their magic; it was white as the snows, light as the air, and yet strong as the very towers of the Light, which had stood for a thousand times a thousand years. They forged for him a helm that was like unto an eagle’s countenance, with a visor hooked like the predator’s beak, and with gloves that were supple as leather yet strong enough to be unharmed by the hottest fire. For his feet they made boots that bit into the hardest stone and turned it to dust, so that he might never fear to tread on the most treacherous of surfaces. They gave him a shield, which was as big around as a chariot wheel, and which could turn aside the thrust of the strongest spear, and shatter its tip beside. And then they made for him a sword, so huge that only one as he might ever wield it. It was blue as the ice and sharp enough to cut the northern wind; and they called it Eitan. And so Hero was born.
And the King Naftali and the mages and the priests of the gods came and blessed Hero; and he saluted them and left the cities of the Light the mountains and the valleys behind, and stalked out on the arid plain, to bring to the Shadow Land the wrath of the gods. And the people of the Light rejoiced to see him go forth on his mission of vengeance.
And Hero fell on the barbarians of the Shadow Land, and began to lay their cities to ruin; the streets ran with their blood, and though their armies sallied forth in their multitudes, they were as nothing to him.
And in the dark and noisome Hall of Peoples in Azag, their capital, the chiefs of the Shadow Land came together to confer, and worry and despair was in their eyes.
“We have little enough,” they said, “and we would be content to live on that little; but it seems that even that is too much to allow us. For this Hero the Light has thrown against us destroys our armies with no effort, and then lays ruin to our cities, and crushes our women and children under his boots. We have done all we could, but we can do no more.”
But one of them, a young chief called Hollah, spake out: “There is still one thing we have not tried, that is open for us to do; the Black Woman who lives on the shores of the Lake of Despair can help us.”
“The Black Woman is a witch,” the others objected.
“The Light is working magic against us,” Hollah replied, “and our flesh and blood, no matter how valiant, is powerless against magic. The only way to save our people is to use magic in return, and but for the Black Woman, magic we have none.”
So the chiefs sent Hollah to the Black Woman who lived by the Lake of Despair; and after a perilous journey he arrived at that dreadful place, ringed by hills black as night, with water so deep that no bottom had ever been found to it.
The Black Woman lived in a hut on the shore, a hut that was as though part of the living rock; and, humbly touching the earth before the door in obeisance, he begged her leave to enter.
Nobody had ever seen the Black Woman’s face; her body, from her head to her feet, was draped in black; only her pale hands, restless as the winds, moved ceaselessly as she listened impassively to the young chief.
“You will have what you need,” she said eventually. “Go back to Azag, and tell the other chiefs that help is at hand. Go now, and until you enter the gates of Azag, do not stop, and do not look back, no matter what. Go.”
So the chief Hollah touched the ground before the Black Woman’s feet once more, left her and the Lake of Despair behind, and made his perilous journey back to the city. And all the way he heard another set of footsteps behind him, almost at his shoulder, so that it was all he could do not to look behind him. But he remembered the words the Black Woman had said, and not once did he stop or look back, until he had entered the gates of Azag; and then for a moment he could not look back even had he wanted to, for Hero was striding towards the city, his mighty sword Eitan in hand.
And the chiefs came to Hollah, their eyes filled with hopelessness. “Our nation’s destruction is upon us,” they cried. “If Azag falls to the Hero of Light, all is lost for us.”
But the chief Hollah entreated them not to lose hope. “The Black Woman promised us that help is at hand,” he said. “Indeed, something followed me all the way from the Lake of Despair, and now waits outside the gate.”
“Let us go and see, then,” said the chiefs, and followed him to the gate of the city; and there they saw what had been following Hollah all the way from the Black Woman’s house on the shores of the Lake of Despair.
It was in the shape of a man, but a man of a sort as none of them had ever seen; of only a little above medium height, he was clad in a tunic of white that fell to his knees, and a short jacket of ochre. His head was swathed in cloth, so that of his face only his dark eyes were visible; and he had no weapons that they could see, not even a spear; all he had was, in his hand, a strange instrument of wood and metal.
And the chiefs looked at him with astonishment and despair; for Hero had destroyed entire armies, and this was just a man, and not even a warrior in armour, or a giant as big as the one coming across the plain. “Hero will destroy him without a thought,” they said. “The Black Woman played us for fools.”
But Hollah, although as filled with doubt as any of the others, touched the ground before the strange man in salute. “Do as we requested the Black Woman that you should do,” he said.
And the man looked at him out of his dark eyes, and looked at Hero striding at Azag across the plain; and then he went out to meet Hero.
And Hero saw him coming, and laughed loud enough to shake the sky and bring stones tumbling down from the hills. “The barbarians of the Shadow Land have run out of armies,” he taunted, in his voice loud as thunder. “They can only send one man out to fight the gods of Light.”
And he lifted his visor, like the beak of an eagle, and peered at the man walking towards him across the plain; and, laughing once more, he raised the mighty sword Eitan towards the sky. The sun flashed on it as bolts of lightning, and the wind hummed and sang around it as in the broken sockets of dust-smeared skulls; the sword sang of death, of all the blood it had split, and in promise of the blood it would drink now; and Hero’s boots crushed the plain to dust, as onward he came, roaring a song of battle that would make the blood thrum in the most placid heart.
And then the man in white and ochre with the cloth-swathed face calmly raised his rifle and shot Hero, once and precisely, right between the eyes.
“What was it like?” the Black Woman asked afterwards, when the man in ochre and white had returned. “Did you have any trouble?”
“Did you expect me to?” the man asked, with a smile.
“No,” she replied, with a smile in return. “If I had, I’d have gone with you.”
“Exile in this time and place does have its benefits,” said the man, and held out his arms. And the woman came to him, and held him tight.
And, meanwhile, the vengeful armies of the Shadow Land, Hollah at their head, fell upon the Kingdom of the Light, and laid it to waste. And the Crystal Throne was broken and its fragments ground to dust that blew in the wind through the emptied halls of the Great Palace of the Light.
And the favour of the gods was forever undone.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017
[Based on a dream of the author’s.]
[*Yes, the man in white and the Black Woman are Colin and Rose. Yes, they are.]
[*Yes, the man in white and the Black Woman are Colin and Rose. Yes, they are.]