ANCIENT SHADES



ANCIENT SHADES, by James Lecky:

Although the admission pains me, I must confess that, under certain circumstances, I am a man for whom the goods of others become a temptation.

Had I given myself more time to think – or if I had not foolishly accepted a pipe of kif from my gambling companion Abel al-Hazzad earlier that evening – I might have simply made my way home.  But I had accepted the pipe of kif, and subsequently lost heavily at dice to a Dimashqi merchant, and in the city of Al Mazhar the lighter a man’s purse the fewer his friends.  Or perhaps it was frustration and damaged pride that spurred me on, if only to prove to myself that my skills were still sharp and my hands as quick as ever.

It was under such circumstances that the purse of the fat man in striped robes became an irresistible temptation

And so it was that I allowed myself a moment of indiscretion; a feigned stumble against the fat man and the deed was done.

“A thousand apologies to you, brother,” I said. “I am clumsy tonight.”

“Not at all, friend, the fault was mine. Ma’assalama.” Go in peace.

A moment later and I had vanished from his sight, into one of the many narrow alleys that twist away from the street of Arsal’an.

The purse was lighter than I had hoped for, containing only a few copper pieces, but at least I had assured myself that ill luck rather than lack of skill had been my undoing that night. One item, though, made up for the somewhat niggardly aspect of the stolen purse. It was a large, heavy coin, the silver as thick as my index finger. On one side there was the image of an eagle, so finely and delicately rendered that each feather was a work of art in itself.  On the other was the face of a handsome young man with flowing hair who wore a horned helmet pushed back from his forehead. It was from no kingdom I knew, but worth enough to make my larceny worthwhile and assuage any sense of guilt that I might have felt.

“You,” a harsh voice behind me said. “The coin. Hand it over.”

I turned, with my best smile upon my face and my hand upon the hilt of my sword. Two brigands, robed and veiled in the fashion of western nomads, stood before me, long knives glittering in their hands.

“I fear you have mistaken me for another, friend,” I said.

“We saw you take it from the scholar,” the taller of the two said in a deep guttural voice. “Hand it over. Now.”

“And if I do not?”

“Kill this idiot, Johann,” the other brigand said. “Do it quickly, we have wasted enough time.”

The long knife flashed towards me. The man named Johann was quick, agile and filled with murderous intent. Against many men that would have been enough, but against me – Tulun of Birjand – it was somewhat inadequate.

My sword left its scabbard in the blink of an eye. A moment later Johann’s knife, together with the hand that held it, was lying six feet away. As he opened his mouth to scream I reversed my blade in a glittering riposte that tore though his ribcage and ended his life in a bright flower of blood.

“Now, my friend,” I said to the other. “The choice is yours.” I flicked Johann’s blood from my blade with a quick movement. “The hour is late and I would as soon be home as kill you.”

His gaze flicked from my sword to his dead companion and back again. “May you burn in hell, Hanif.” His decision made, he turned and ran back the way he had come.

“The Rightful loves a prudent man!” I called after him, then I turned my attention to the dead brigand before me. He was not a nomad, that much was clear as soon as I pulled away his veil  – blue-eyed, hair and beard golden, his pale skin bronzed by exposure to the sun. A Nazarani, and this far eastward? Odd indeed. But more curiously there was a mark, like a squat figure of eight, carved into the flesh of his right cheek.

I hefted the silver coin in my hand. A valuable piece, certainly, but not so valuable that a man should have been willing to kill – or gamble his life – for it.

“You have a tale to tell, my friend,” I said to the helmed young man on the coin. “And since you cannot speak, I must find someone who can.”

The fat man, then. The scholar that the Nazarani had spoken of.

*

       Chance had taken me to the city of Al Mazhar and good fortune kept me there. I had arrived as an almost penniless ghulam, with nothing more to my name than my sword, horse and a little plunder stashed in my saddlebags – fresh from Prince Nazir al Din’s disastrous winter campaign against the eastern kingdoms of the Khasarans. Within weeks, however, thanks to the patronage of men such as Abel al-Hazzad and my own natural talent with games of chance, I had begun to live in the style to which I wished to become accustomed.

I rented a modest yet comfortable house in the northern quarter of the city and settled into the life of a professional gambler. Dice, knucklebones, chess and even the occasional horse or camel race served to fill my hours and soon all memories of bloody battles with fearsome Khasar warriors were pushed to the back of my mind. And although my middle years would see me return to the lands of the Khasars and Tarsa, I was content, for the time being, to let those wild and barbarous peoples carry on their wars without my assistance.

I purchased slaves and concubines and took to dressing in the fashion of the western nomad chiefs; black silk shirts and loose cotton trousers with the legs tucked carelessly into elegant red leather boots. My wealth was displayed ostentatiously, carried upon my person – as rings, bangles and chains, the gold coins that decorated my baldric– and my natural swagger became more pronounced as I strutted through the streets, savouring the admiring glances that were cast my way.

Naturally, I was forced to use my sword once or twice on the sort of low fellows that plague well-to-do gentlemen, but other than that life was peaceful.

Until the night I robbed the scholar.

*

He was not difficult to locate, Al Mazhar is a small city of less than eight thousand souls and my contacts among the gambling fraternity were more than willing to assist my search in return for letters of credit. His name, it transpired, was Ikrimah ibn Dabir, late of the Levant and recently arrived in the city

I found him the next morning, sitting in one of the many eating places that line the central square of Al Mazhar, slurping upon a pomegranate and sipping hot tea from a glass. He looked troubled, constantly running a podgy hand across his face, stroking at his scant beard.

“You are the Levantine scholar.” I said, sitting at his table without invitation.

“Ikrimah ibn Dabir at your service,” he said. “And who might you…” a flash of recognition, quickly replaced by a mixture of anger and fear. “You! It was you who robbed me.”

“A hundred thousand apologies, my friend,” I said, dropping his purse onto the table. “A momentary indiscretion, I assure you, nothing more.”

He snatched the purse up and opened it, drawing the silver coin out breathing an audible sigh of relief as he did so.

“To whom do I owe my thanks?” he said. His eyes narrowed as he spoke, taking in my appearance – the fine clothes and jewels and, most of all, the sword on my hip.

“Tulun of Birjand at your service” I replied. “Do not concern yourself, my friend, I mean you no harm.”

He touched his fingers to his forehead in a small salute. “You have my gratitude, Tulun,” he said. “May I offer you tea?”

“Gladly,” I said. “And perhaps an explanation of why the Nazarani have come to Al Mazhar.”

A deep frown creased his brow. “You know of that?”

“I know that a man died when he tried to take the coin from me. There is a tale behind this business, Ikrimah. Tell it to me.”

He studied me for a moment, weighing up his options. In truth, I did not look like the most trustworthy of men, but there was a mystery here and one which I burned to know more of.

“I mean you no harm, Ikrimah ibn Dabir,” I said again. “I swear it in the name of the Rightful.” And in those days when a man made such an oath he was taken at his word.

He looked around, as if expecting Nazarani warriors to erupt from every corner. “There is a tale, indeed,” he said. “But this is hardly the place to tell it – somewhere quiet would be better, I think.”

“My home is not far from here.”

“Very well. Lead on, Tulun of Birjand.”

*

We sat in the spacious living area of my home while two female slaves – Nitya and Sajani – fussed over us. When I was sure that Ikrimah had settled, I dismissed the women and said:

“Your tale, if you please, Ikrimah.”

He sat back in his seat and nodded.

”I am a scholar both by profession and inclination, my life has been dedicated to the pen and to unravelling the mysteries that surround us.” He took the coin from his purse and held it up to the light. “Mysteries such as the one held here.” He flipped it towards me and I caught in deftly in my left hand.

“A thousand years ago there lived a man named Sekundar – the man who’s face you see on this coin – sometimes called The Accursed, sometimes Dhul-Qarnayn, The Two-Horned One.

“He was the greatest warrior of his or any other age and before his death he carved an empire that stretched from the Mare Nostrum in the west to the Indus in the east. Think of that, Tulun, one man holding the world in the palm of his hand. And when he surveyed his empire, Sekundar wept bitter tears because there where no more worlds to conquer. All this before his thirtieth birthday. When he lay dying, his generals came to him and asked who should be his heir. ‘The strongest’, he replied and then the life went out of him.

“They buried him in secret and the records of his final resting place were destroyed – even the slaves who carried his body were blinded and their tongues cut out so that they could never tell. In the aftermath of his death a terrible civil war tore Sekundar’s empire apart and in less than a generation it had crumbled to dust.” He sighed a little. “It is always the way, is it not, men would rather destroy than build.”

“What has this to do with the Nazarani?” I asked.

“It is said that two things await the man bold enough to enter the tomb of Sekundar – the wealth of an empire and the knowledge and power to carve one of his own. The wealth of an empire, Tulun, does the prospect not interest you? I acquired the coin a year ago in the southern city of Ul Bathur, purchased from a destitute merchant who thought it nothing more than silver. But I recognised Sekundar’s face when I saw it and knew the true value of the coin. When the God-King lay dying, he gave each of his generals a token – a coin emblazoned with his emblem that he said would light the way to his resting place.”

“I do not like this mystery overmuch,” I said.  “The city of Al Mazhar has grown comfortable to me, and exchanging my happy life here for an empire would seem a poor way to treat the fate that brought me here.”

“But what are your feelings regarding gold and silver?”

I could not prevent myself from smiling. “I like them very much.”

He paused, debating whether to continue or not. Finally he said: “Certain markings on the coin led me to ancient scrolls and passages – particularly the writings of Abd-el-Hazred, The Mad Prophet.”

“I have heard of Abd-el-Hazred,” I told him. “His stories are nothing more than tales to frighten children.”

“Oh, no, my friend, they are more than that. They are a key to the past. Not histories, but parables. Within them I believe I have found the whereabouts of Sekundar’s final resting place. The Nazarani believe it also and have been hunting me for that knowledge.” He sighed heavily. “Loquaciousness has ever been my downfall – for what scholar worth his vellum hoards knowledge – a word in the wrong ear has set them at my heels.”

“I can hardly blame them,” I said. “The wealth of an empire would be more than worth the effort of catching one fat scribe.”

“It is not the wealth they seek, Tulun. These Nazarani are not men such as you and I, they are fanatics, a small but uncompromising sect who style themselves as The Brethren of the Sword, defenders of their noxious faith. They cut runes into their own flesh, what ordinary man would do that?”

“Men have their reasons for all things.”

“That is so,” Ikrimah said. “Their leader is a man named Volker Paulas.” He spat discretely. “He believes the legends implicitly – it is Sekundar’s knowledge and power that he seeks.” He paused again.” But why should worthier men not seek and take it instead?”

I knew the Nazarani of old, of course, what warrior did not? They were a wild, tenacious people and in the years since they had come from the west they had carved out their kingdoms with steel and blood, slaughtering thousands in the name of their murderous faith.

But recently the armies of the Truly Faithful had begun to press them hard, snatching away a province here, a city there. The great battles of Inab and Harim had seen the Nazarani armies left in bloody tatters, but like a wounded lion their claws and fangs were still sharp.

If Ikrimah was correct – if the legends and stories were true – and the knowledge and power of Sekundar lay in his lost tomb why should they not seek it out?

But then, the world is filled with myths and legends; men will always search for that which they cannot have and waste their lives in the pursuit of dreams, no matter how dark.

“You weave a fine tale, Ikrimah,” I said. “Worthy of Scheherazade herself. But it will take more than a little blood and silver to turn my head.”

“You do not believe me?” he said, aghast.

“I neither believe nor disbelieve,” I told him. “But my life here is good, comfortable, why should I gamble it to chase ancient shades?”

He opened his mouth to protest, then said: “Indeed, why should you?”

“You are welcome to stay here tonight as my guest,” I said. “It is the least I can do. A small recompense for my earlier transgression.”

“The Rightful blesses those who are penitent. My thanks to you, Tulun of Birjand, in the morning I shall be gone from here and neither I nor the Brethren will trouble you further.”

 “Let us pray that it is so.”

*

That night, as I lay in Nitya’s arms, a sound awoke me.

At first I thought it nothing more than a dream. Then I heard it again, a rough whisper drifting up from the garden in front of my house.

I rose and looked through the window at the birth of a new day. Spring had come early that year, the mulberry trees were already beginning to blossom and the bright dawn streets were filled with a fresh scent from the numerous orange groves that dotted the city.

In the garden below I saw furtive figures moving towards the house. As I feared they would, the Brethren of the Sword had come in force – in Al Mazhar every scrap of information, no matter how trivial, is for sale. A wiser man would not have offered Ikrimah ibn Dabir hospitality in the face of such an enemy, but then wisdom has never been one of my virtues.

I dressed quickly, slipping my baldric over my shoulder and making sure that the sabre was securely in place. I placed a dagger into each elegant red boot top then woke Nitya with a soft kiss.

“Are you leaving?” she said, her voice still befuddled with sleep.

“I fear so.” I looked down at her – she was a pretty young girl from the Indus, as warm and willing a bed companion as any man could wish and in my own selfish way I cared for her greatly.

 “What is the matter?”

“Only that I am a fool.” I kissed her once again. “Wake the other servants and if you hear the clash of steel lead them from the side doors.”

She held my hand tightly. “Take me with you.”

I shook my head. “There will be much danger, little one. Do as you are told and do not follow me.” A final kiss and then I left her side.

I moved silently towards the room in which Ikrimah slept. The voices outside, although still little more than whispers, had grown in intensity.

“Wake up,” I hissed. “We have company.”

Ikrimah awoke instantly. “So soon? A thousand apologies, Tulun, for bringing misfortune to your home.”

“He who honours the Rightful should honour his guests,” I told him. “I have horses outside, can you ride?”

“What choice do I have?”

A harsh cry rose from the garden:

“Come out, you Hanif bastards! Give me what is mine or I swear by the Almighty that I will put everyone in this house to the sword.”

“I know that voice,” the scribe said fearfully. “It is Paulas himself.”

It was then that I heard the tinkle of breaking glass and smelled the first acrid wisps of smoke.  Evidently they meant to burn out us.

“Stay by my side, Ikrimah.”

Downstairs, the rooms were already filling with smoke – oily torches had been pushed through the broken windows, igniting the expensive rugs and tasteful furniture. I muttered an eastern curse under my breath then plunged out of the back door, sword in hand, heading towards the small stable at the end of the courtyard.

There were three armed men in my path, blocking the way to the stable. Surprise allowed me to take the first with a single blow that all but took his head from his shoulders. Behind me I could hear startled screams as the fire began to take hold and I offered up a swift prayer for Nitya’s safety.

I shouldered a second man aside. As he fought to regain his balance, I was gratified to see Ikrimah plunge a small sharp dagger into his breast – the scholar’s skills extended beyond parchment and pen, it seemed.

The third Nazarani was a tall, burly man with flame-red hair and a rune carved deeply into his forehead. He was a skilled swordsman and I lost valuable moments as we parried and cut across the tiled courtyard. Then the fury rose within me, I took my sword in a two-handed grip and battered his defences aside, pitting brute strength against skill and cleaving his skull open. As he fell I vaulted over him and pushed open the stable doors.

Once inside I chose two horses – a fine-boned grey mare for myself and a chestnut gelding for Ikrimah – there was no time to saddle the beasts, we simply climbed onto their backs and urged them into the dawn light.

There were men streaming into the courtyard, at least a dozen  – too many for my blade. In their midst was a tall, grey-haired warrior whose eyes burned with madness and whose face was marked with a myriad of runic scars. A red cloak, decorated with the same symbols, covered his clothes.

“Take the fat one alive,” he barked. “Kill the rest.” This time I knew the voice too – Volker Paulas.

As he spoke I saw Nitya emerge from the house. Her lustrous eyes were red with tears from the smoke and she groped her way blindly.

Paulas turned smoothly, drawing his longsword and cutting her down with two swift blows.

I think I screamed. The sound startled the already skittish mare and the animal plunged forward, breaking through the ranks of the Nazarani and scattering them.

And then we were past them and onto the streets beyond, galloping pell-mell for the Northern Gate. I turned and cast a glance back at my home – the flames had already taken hold and black smoke billowed from the doors and windows. I swore by the dark gods of my ancestors that I would have revenge for this day.

*

Once outside the city gates we rode north, pushing the horses hard. There was no sign of pursuit as yet, but I had little doubt, and to be honest a great deal of hope, that this matter was far from ended.

Despite his portly frame, Ikrimah proved himself to be a fine horseman, leading the way as we thundered across the plain towards the Zagros Mountains.

Just before noon we encountered a small band of nomads and after a little haggling I persuaded them to sell us saddles and other provisions. The price was extortionate – costing leaving my baldric as nothing more than plain leather – but I paid it with scarcely a grumble.

I am a man who is used to death – I have seen it in all its shapes and forms, from the battlefield to the fever houses – but the sight of sweet, gentle Nitya, cut down as if she were no more than a diseased pariah-dog, left me numb with rage and my mind wound down to the memory of her death again and again.

“What nature of men are they, these Brethren of the Sword?” I asked Ikrimah as we sat resting in the shade of a stunted willow tree. “Does life mean nothing to them?”

“Every human being is bound to taste death,” he replied.

“Do not quote the Book at me, Ikrimah ibn Dabir,” I retorted angrily. “Its words give me no comfort.”

“Forgive me, Tulun, I did not mean to make light of your loss. But can you see now why we need to deny them Sekundar’s tomb? What kind of an empire would a man such as Paulas build?”

“So I must go chasing ancient shades after all,” I said.

*

It was no accident that Ikrimah had led me north into the Zagros. As we rode he told me more of Sekundar the Accursed and of his own journey to the province of Al Mazhar.

“In his writings Abd-el-Hazred makes mention of a city ruled by a two-headed god, a god who sought to bring the world under his own shadow. He named it Altair Madinah – the City of the Eagle – and claimed that it lay on the very edge of the world. And when the god passed from this world to the next, this was where he was laid to rest. But if a man was to take the right hand of Sekundar in his own, as Abd-el-Hazred claimed, the power of Dhul-Qarnayn would be his to command.”

Night was falling as we reached the foothills. Before us, the mountains stretched in either direction as far as we could see. Above us, the snow-capped peaks stood in silent watch, growing dim in the twilight.

“The very edge of the world,” Ikrimah said. “Or so Sekundar believed.”

“And what do you believe?”

“That Sekundar’s tomb lies somewhere in these mountains.”

I almost laughed. “So what do you suggest, Ikrimah? That we ride the peaks and valleys until we stumble upon it? The tomb has been lost for a thousand years, what makes you believe that we can find it now?”

“Only this.” Ikrimah said. He opened his fist and I saw the coin there, resting on his palm. The metal had begun to glow, almost imperceptibly but undeniably, radiating with a soft blue light. “Sekundar said that the coins would light the way to his tomb.”

I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. At best, I distrust magic; at worst I fear it. True, its dark influence over the land was beginning to fade as True Faith replaced the ancient gods, but there were still many who practiced the old ways.

“We are playing a dangerous game, my friend,” I said. “And one which we may be wisest to abandon.”

The fat man shook his head. “I fear it may be too late for that.” He stared past me, towards the darkening plain.

I turned in my saddle and followed his gaze. At first, I was unsure what he was looking at. Then I saw it. A line of torches, at least a dozen of them, moving steadily towards us like fireflies in the gloom.

“Evidently, the Brethren of the Sword think the game worthy of the risk.” Ikrimah said softly. He tugged on the reins of his mount. “We can lose them in the mountains, I think. Even they cannot track us there.” But there was doubt in his voice.

We turned our horses and cantered farther into the foothills. Neither of us spoke, each man lost in his own thoughts.

Despite my trepidation, I once more allowed Ikrimah to lead the way, and he in turn permitted his path to be dictated by the glowing coin. Behind us, still distant but continuing to follow with unerring accuracy, the torches bobbed in the darkness.

The air grew colder and thinner as we moved upward, riding along narrow paths that had remained unseen and unused for centuries. It took every ounce of my skill and concentration to keep the mare from stumbling and I was soon covered in icy sweat from the effort. My fine clothing was hardly suitable for such conditions and I admit that I would have traded my remaining wealth for a warm cloak. Once, far behind us, I thought I heard a scream – the final utterance of a Nazarani rider as both he and his horse plunged from the pathway and into the darkness below – but it may just have been the wind howling through the rocks and boulders.

At last we crested a final ridge and allowed the horses and ourselves to rest for a moment. 

The mountains still stretched in front of us; and beyond, gently illuminated by the clear light of the waxing moon, I could just glimpse the plains and valleys of the east, the same harsh and unforgiving land that had given birth to me. The whole world, as far as the eye could see, looked cold, bleak, yet beautiful. The coin in Ikrimah’s hand continued to grow brighter and brighter, casting deep shadows onto his face.

“We are very close,” he said, peering into the darkness. Then he urged his horse forward again, along downward sloping pathways so narrow that we were forced to dismount and lead our horses, all the time whispering reassurances to the nervous, frightened animals.

At length we reached the broad base of a valley and remounted our animals. As we rode I gradually became aware of a change in my surroundings. The dark shapes around me were more regular than before, large rectangular blocks, ravaged by time and wind but nonetheless with the unmistakable stamp of the mason’s hand upon them.

“The City of the Eagle,” Ikrimah whispered, and there was awe in this voice.

By the light of the moon, I glimpsed of the glory that had once been Altair Madinah. Although scarcely one building remained intact I could trace its broad streets, broad enough for an army to march upon, here and there the remnants of a fresco upon a crumbling wall, a mute testament to the artists who had created it. But it was a dead place. The hand of time – rather than the hand of man – had laid waste to it, a thousand years of wind, rain and snow had scoured away its former glory.

“Our journey is almost at an end, my friend,” Ikrimah said. The coin pulsed in his hand and from somewhere in the dark peaks its call was answered. A gleam of light, bright as the North Star.

We rode towards it through a serpentine pathway of huge rocks that took us below the valley – a maze so intricate that, had it not been for the guiding light before us we might never have found the way. And there, in a gorge with walls so smooth that they must have been chiselled flake by flake from the living rock of the Zagros, stood a huge mausoleum. The final resting place of a god – or a man who believed in his own divinity. Its tiers rose into the night sky to challenge the surrounding peaks, its marble pillars bathed in an eerie blue light that cut through the darkness.

The mare moved nervously beneath me, pawing at the ground and her flanks trembled as she sniffed the air. Then I smelled it too, a whiff of corruption carried on the clear mountain breeze, and as we approached the mausoleum steps the smell became stronger, like the stink of blood and filth in the aftermath of a battle, gone almost as soon as it had been registered.

We dismounted and stood before the massive iron-shod doors.

“This is a foul place, Ikrimah,” I said.

He nodded. “Aye, Tulun, if it were not for Paulas and his followers I would leave at once.”

“The time for regrets has long since past,” I told him. “But with the grace of The Rightful we may yet deny the Brethren what they seek.” 

Ikrimah stepped forward and placed his hand upon the mausoleum door; at his touch an intense blue light flared from the coin, dazzling us both. I cursed and instinctively grasped the hilt of my sword.

When the light had dimmed enough for me to see clearly again the door lay open, leading the way into the interior of the mausoleum.

We entered an antechamber that was breathtaking in its beauty. The floor covered with intricate marble tiles, the ceiling set with topaz and opals and the walls decorated with perfect carvings of wild roses. An ornate door, made of dark wood and decorated with tiny bas-relief depicting scenes of ancient battles, showed the way into a second, even more beautiful, chamber, illuminated by brilliant moonlight filtered through a myriad of small diamond windows. .

We stepped inside cautiously, our soft footsteps echoing around the high vaulted ceiling. The light of the coin glittered from gold-leaf, from silver busts, from sapphires, rubies and a multitude of other precious stones that decorated the walls and floor. On the far wall an image of Sekundar himself, wearing a two-horned helmet and rendered in tones so lifelike that I almost expected him to step down and greet us, dominated the chamber.

And there in the centre – more beautiful in its simplicity that the surrounding treasures – an alabaster sarcophagus.

“Sekundar Akbar,” Ikrimah whispered – Sekundar the Great – and the echo was like a roar of victory.

With trembling hands we pushed open the lid of the sarcophagus. It crashed to the ground with a sound like thunder, and when the dust had cleared we stared down at the body of the God-King, but whether we trembled with fear or excitement I cannot say.

The passage of ten centuries had not touched Sekundar’s earthly remains. His handsome face was unlined and his long golden hair still shone; only the pale waxy pallor of his skin belied the illusion of life. He wore the robes and ancient bronze armour they had interred him in –  a short sword lay by his left side and a dagger by his right. In stark contrast to the surrounding wealth, his weapons and armour were plain and unadorned, the equipment of a warrior rather than a king.

“He once held the world in his hands,” Ikrimah said, reaching down to touch the cold, dead face. “Perhaps he will again.”

But something made him hesitate. Something in the cruel cast of Sekundar’s lips, perhaps, or in the fetid air that felt almost palpable, despite the spacious grandeur of the mausoleum.

“Can you feel it, Tulun, can you feel his power?”

 And indeed I could, radiating out from the stone tomb in cold waves. A power that no mortal man could contain and that had destroyed Sekundar himself in the prime of his life.

Almost unbidden, the words of the Book sprang to my lips: “Do not seek to rival the power of The Rightful.”

Ikrimah turned to look at me and I could see the fear and uncertainty in his face.

“But the power can be ours, Tulun,” he said. “Sekundar’s legacy can be ours.”

“Sekundar’s legacy? And what is that?” I said furiously. ”A forgotten city and a forgotten name – all his power and wealth could not save him or his empire. He died as all men must.”

“But the Brethren…”

 “Aye, the Brethren. I will meet them with my sword – what other choice is there?”

“We can run, hide in the maze until they pass – it is Sekundar they seek, not us.”

I shook my head. “You said it yourself, Ikrimah – what kind of an empire would Paulas build? Besides, there is a debt of blood owed here. Ask any man and he will tell you that I always collect what is owed to me.”

I walked into the antechamber and stood staring through the mausoleum doors.

“This is madness, Tulun,” Ikrimah said. “You cannot hope to kill them all.”

“I do not wish to kill them all,” I replied. “Only Volker Paulas.  For Nitya, I will see him dead.”

Ikrimah looked out into the night. Rivulets of sweat ran down his forehead and cheeks and his eyes were wide and glassy.

“I cannot stay here, Tulun,” he said. “Forgive me. Some men are born lions and some are born jackals, I cannot help what I am any more than you can.”  He laughed bitterly. “Too afraid to take Sekundar’s power, too terrified to deny it to others, and too weak to avenge innocents – do not think ill of me, my friend.” 

I could easily have cursed him then. Had it not been for Ikramah I would never have known of Sekundar, my life would have continued in idle comfort and Nitya would have lived, but then equally I could have cursed myself for the light-fingered foolishness that brought me into his sphere. Why then not curse the fates or even the name of The Rightful Himself? If I have learned one thing in my life it is that we do not choose our paths – rather they choose us – and we must travel them as best we can.

 I took his hand in mine. “A man may live without a brother but not without a friend. Go in the name of The Rightful, Ikrimah ibn Dabir.”

He left the mausoleum and mounted his horse, then rode off into the night without looking back, quickly lost to sight in the twists and turns of the stone maze.

As I waited, I said a prayer for forgiveness – I am a man who has sinned time and time again – stumbling only slightly the over words that I had not spoken properly since I was a child in Khursasan province. My mouth was dry and my hands were slippery on the hilt of my sword.

And then I saw the Nazarani, approaching at a steady canter with Volker Paulas riding at their head.

I had misjudged their numbers, but not by much. Including Paulas there were nine of them – the treacherous mountain paths had claimed the others – grim, scarred men with murder in their eyes.

They dismounted at the mausoleum steps and drew their swords. Paulas saw me and smiled coldly.

“You are the one who killed my men.”

“I am,” I replied. “And if The Rightful wills it I will kill many more.”

“Where is the scribe?”

“Gone.”

Paulas laughed, a short barking sound with no humour in it. “He was wiser than he looked,” he said. “Wiser than you.”

“The Rightful grants wisdom unto whom He wills,” I adjusted my grip on the hilt of my sword.  “But I regret that wisdom was not one of His gifts to me.”

“You are a brave and skilful man, I grant you that. But brave men die as well as cowards.” He climbed the steps towards me and I moved backwards into the doorway of the tomb.

“You cannot deny me my destiny.” The scars on his face were a livid white and specks of spittle flew from his twisting mouth” The Almighty wills it and I will it. This land will be mine, body and soul. Sekundar’s empire will be mine!  Ikrimah led me to the Zagros and Sekundar’s light led me here – what is that if not fate?”

“Insanity perhaps,” I said.

Paulas motioned to his men. “Kill him.”

They came upon me in a flurry of steel. My position in the doorway hampered them, forcing them to attack two at a time – it was hardly a great advantage, but it was the only one I could gain.

I killed the first with a furious downstroke and the second with the return strike. The others fell back, their swords levelled, eyeing me cautiously.

They attacked again. I opened the throat of a young dark-haired knight with a casual flick of my blade. A sword flashed down at me, I parried it and stuck another knight in the face, my beringed fist cutting a shallow path across his cheek. As he staggered back I thrust my sword through his body – but to my horror he grabbed the blade as he fell, cutting his hands to the bone and pulling the sword from my grasp.

As I backed into the tomb the others rushed forward, screaming fierce cries of victory that rebounded from the walls and ceiling.  I dragged the daggers from my boot-tops and howled my own battlecry in return.

I deflected one blade, then another, backing away all the time. A sword struck my arm and I felt hot blood gush down my wrist and onto my fingers. Finally my back was against Sekundar’s tomb, the stone cool against my body; for a long moment, time appeared to slow and I saw every detail of my surrounding with a strange yet vivid clarity. The scarred faces of the Nazarani seemed somehow beautiful now, the dust on their clothing formed wonderfully intricate patterns and the light that bounced from their swords was more vivid than anything I had ever seen before – they are strange, the sensations that a man feels when death is about to spring upon him.

A sword hilt slammed against my chest and a blade cut into my thigh, but I scarcely felt the pain. Then, as if from a great distance, I heard another battlecry and the sound brought me back to my senses.

Ikrimah ibn Dabir, clutching the sword of a fallen Nazarani and yelling at the top of his lungs, rushed into the tomb swinging his stolen blade left and right.

The fury of his unexpected attack shook the Brethren of the Sword, throwing them into disarray. I saw one man go down under the whirling blade, his face a mask of shock and blood, as another turned to face the danger he died with my dagger in the back of his neck.

I shouldered one of the Brethren out of my path and bent to snatch up a sword, slashing at the unprotected legs of another of my attackers with it – he tumbled like a felled tree.

For a long moment the sound of steel against steel continued to echo around the tomb and when it faded I stood facing Paulas and his remaining comrade. Behind them, panting heavily and bleeding from a gash across his forehead, Ikrimah slumped against a jewelled wall, the sword loose in his hand.

“It will not end this way,” Paulas said. “Destiny will not allow it.”

I could feel my strength beginning to fade – the wounds in my arm and leg draining my last reserves of energy – but my hatred for the man still burned fiercely.

“Then come and meet your destiny. Volker Paulas,” I said.

I killed his comrade with one stroke then turned to Paulas.

He batted my attack aside with contemptuous ease. The strength drained from me and I fell to my knees, cursing my treacherous limbs and struggling to rise again.

For the second time that night I awaited death.

 But it did not come, Paulas strode past me to the open sarcophagus, sheathing his sword as he did so. I forced myself to my feet and lurched towards him.

“He held the world in his hands and reshaped it to his will,” Paulas said in a harsh, reverent whisper. “And so shall I.”

He reached into the sarcophagus and took Sekundar’s hand in his own. He closed his eyes and threw back his head, waiting.

Nothing happened.

No blinding light, no surge of power, no tearing of the fabric of time.

 Nothing.

  He turned, staring at me with mute incomprehension, his lips forming a question.

 “This is for Nitya, you Nazarani bastard.”

I lunged at him, calling upon the last dregs of my vitality, and put six inches of steel through his chest. He died choking on his own blood.

Then I slumped forward, catching the rim of the sarcophagus to steady myself. The handsome, cruel face of Sekundar the Accursed stared up at me, still perfect, still untouched by time.

I touched the cold skin of the God-King’s face and part of it came away under my fingertips; then the expert mask that he had worn for a thousand years cracked into fragments and flaked away revealing the mummified flesh beneath.

Ikrimah came and stood beside me. “He was just a man, after all,” he said, his voice full of wonder. “The legends were just as you said, Tulun – nothing more than ancient shades.”

The smell of blood hung heavy in the air and the last fading echoes of battle drifted though the mausoleum, a litany of death and destruction.

I wanted to laugh, to cry, to say or do something to warm the ice in my soul, but it was too cold, too deep.  “Aye,” I said. “Nothing more.”

*

 When dawn came we mounted our horses and rode away from the tomb of Sekundar and the City of the Eagle. Neither of us spoke until the ruins were far behind us, lost once more in the twisting peaks of the Zagros.

“You saved my life, Ikrimah, and for that I thank you,” I said.

“What else could I do?” the fat man said. “There comes a time when even a man such as myself must stand against evil. How many more innocents would have died under the sword of Volker Paulas?”

“All that gold, all those jewels,” I said. “It seems a shame to leave them behind.”

 “Ride back, if you wish.”

 I lingered over the thought for a moment. Chasing Sekundar’s legacy had caused me nothing but grief and pain; I wished to put both him and it far behind me. “I think not. There is ill fortune in Sekundar’s wealth. It brought him no peace, and he was a god– what good would it do mere mortals such as you and I?”

  “You are a wise man, Tulun, wiser than you look.” He took the coin from his robe and hefted it in his hand. “Let other, more foolhardly men search for it if they wish. For my part I shall return to other, safer, mysteries.”  Then, his decision made, he flung it from the mountain path and we watched as it fell, glittering in the warm morning light.

  “And what of you, Tulun, what will you do now? Back to Al Mazhar?”

 I thought of the ruins of my home in the northern quarter, of Nitya and the others, all dead because of my actions. “No – nothing remains for me in Al Mazhar.”

 “Where then?”

“North, perhaps. Or south – one direction is as good as another.”

 When we reached the foothills I took his hand in friendship and farewell.

  “Go in the name of The Rightful, Ikrimah ibn Dabir.”

   “In the name of The Rightful, Tulun of Birjand.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

James Lecky is a writer based in Derry, N. Ireland. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in a number of publications both online and in print including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Sorcerous Signals, Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction, The Phantom Queen Awakes, Through Blood and Iron and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. His random musings on a variety of topics can be found on his blog Tales From The Computerbank (http://jameslecky.blogspot.com/).


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