Jul 28, 2009
Costantinopolis, Byzantium. Anno Domini 1472.
My Dear Father,
This battle is lost. For weeks, we have attempted to stave off the onrushing Ottoman horde but, our time, now, is at an end and the Holy City of St. Constantine, already in flames and stinking of death, will certainly see their depredations.
In truth, here, on the battlements above the Gate of St. Gregory our defenses have been solid and, were you here, you would have marveled at the stout determination of these Germanics who are my colleagues in the fight; with arrow, pike and battle axe they have repelled every assault ladder that has fallen against these walls leaving many a Heathen skull split. They require little but bread and beer and they have no fear of Death. They have a saying which fires them and brings them also much humour: 'When Death comes, I will wring Her neck, too'. They have saved us many times.
Our archers are mostly Flemish and some Basque mercenaries. They have devised ingenious methods to quickly modify the long arrow used by the Turks, so that, we return their own but become useless for them to use against us. They work in lines; the back line displaying the shield to protect the archer in front and our rain upon the Horde is near continuous.
The situation at the Roman Gate is much worse and, so I hear, also of that by the Gate of St. Antonius. They are near to breach and these sickening Turks now flood the ramparts like swarming flies. It is only time, minutes or hours, before they can descend, cut the mechanism, and open the Gates to the masses beyond...
“Stow your sword under the oil-cloth when you ride, boy!”
“Yes, Father, I know”.
My war-horse snorts and shakes his massive head and mane, the harnesses jangle, but he is as still on his hooves as a block of stone.
“And when it rains, put your shield over the horse's arse to protect the planking or it will get the rot!”
“Yes, Father, I know that, too”, I answer looking down at the old man from my mount. He looks up at me from the one good eye that is left to him and mumbles.
“Aye, I suppose you do or, at least, you should by now”.
My father turns away and gazes down the road that leads to the village. There are flag bearers down there and the sound of horses and the clank of arms reaches us here in the space before our small castle. A royal blue flag is approaching.
I remember, as a boy, when my father returned from the successful defense of Costantinopolis, honoured by the previous King, himself, but remaining only part of a man. His right eye was gone, taken, they say, at the end of the pike of the blood-thirsty, Suleman Ibn al-Rashid. When he had fallen, an axe had cleaved off his left arm at the half of the forearm. It was only by the heroics of Count Glastonbury that he had lived to see the sun rise the following day.
His appearance terrified me but also taught me the real result of battle. With half of his sight and his body unbalanced, he still taught me sword-play soon after I could lift the light, pine replica. He taught me to ride proudly and to hold a shield to defend myself.
The rider with the blue flag thunders to a halt and salutes.
“I have come from the King's Army and seek the Lord Buchan to join forces against the Ottomans at Costantinopolis”, he shouts. There is a moment of silence and, respectfully, I wait for my father to answer. He turns abruptly and strikes the side of my leather-clad leg.
“Well? Answer the King's Call, boy!”
The moment is small, almost imperceptible. My father has recognised that his time is gone; his battles are finished and, now, it is I, Geoffrey, filius Antonii, who will travel as a Knight of the King as the new Lord Buchan.
“I am Lord Buchan. I will answer”, I pronounce.
The rider nods. “My leige”, he answers and turns his mount to lead us to the gathering troops.
I extend my gloved hand to my father and he takes it tightly in his. He nods.
“Fight well, son”, he says, “and with honour. Come back with your shield or on it”.
“I will do honour to our family, father”.
I nudge my mount into movement and, when I look back a moment later, my father has entered the castle and the massive oak door slams shut.
... The Roman Gate has fallen. The City is breached.
The Ottoman machineries, assault towers and manganels, have now drawn closer and their missiles, ablaze with the Greek Fire, are landing far within the walls sending the people running like panicked herds of sheep.
We will leave the men we can spare here above St. Gregory and rush to the battle on the other side of the City to do what we can – if only to cull their numbers but they are many. Still, these Germanics are hungry for the scent of Turkish blood.
We are sending two courageous riders from the City by the St. Sophia Gate toward the sea to carry the news. My man, Gabriel, is one of them, a hearty fellow who learned to ride faster than the wind on the moors of the north-country.
Father, if this letter ever comes to your hand, know that we defended the City to the last man and, be it the Grace of God, our souls will be received to His bosom and all of Heaven will sing our praises. We have no fear and our souls are at peace.
May God Save and Protect you, Amen.
Filiam tuam, Goffredi,
That it is a don-jon there can be no doubt but, it is like none that I have seen in my life. The walls are straight, finely hewn in stone and dry. The mattress, when I shift, sending daggers of pain through my body, is fresh straw, smelling of meadows. There are glimpses of a man and then he is gone. I sleep again.
I hear the slight movement of metal upon metal in some strange mechanism; my eyes fly open and I attempt to rise but the pain is there, like the crash of a shield into my chest. I fall back, weaker than a woman or a child. The door, carved in diverting, curling lines and figures of cavorting beasts, opens silently; a bearded head intrudes.
“A salam-alekûm”, comes a strange musical voice. He is a Turk. He enters the room, coming toward me.
“If you have come to kill me, then have the honour to give me a weapon to defend myself!” I shout, but the sound, to my ears, is no stronger than that of a bleating lamb. He stops and then a smile spreads across his mouth, showing large, white teeth.
“I am Abdullah Mansûr”, he says, “I did not know, when you came to me, which was your language. I apologise”. I stare at him, bewildered.
“I am a Physician, sir”, he says, cautiously approaching. “Allah, praises to His only Prophet, made me a Physician and so, by my vows to Æsclapius and Ippocratis, I am not able to kill. It is my place in the world that Allah, Great is his Prophet, has made for me”.
“What manner of sorcery is this?” is the only response that comes to me. He kneels beside the bed and I hear a splash of water above my head. He lifts an ostrich-shell beaker to my lips. I turn my head away.
“Drink, friend”, he pronounces in his strange, high voice, “it is cool water!” My lips are caked, dried; my tongue swollen in my mouth. “Just a little”. The first drops fall on my lips and, compelled, I drink, desert-starved. After I am sated, he removes the cup and then sits on his haunches looking at me.
“How do you know my tongue? And when will you kill me?” I ask feeling the refreshing coolness of the water in me. “I am not afraid”. He smiles again, benign and open.
“I have known many men of your country and studied, also, their words. William of Okham is one of your greatest countrymen. That is how I know your tongue. As to killing you, the honour of that rests only with my King, Suleman Ibn al-Rashid, a warrior of Allah, peace be to his Prophet. Until then, I will cure you for your body is much injured”.
“Ibn al-Rashid lives still? How can this be?” The smile on the face of Abdullah Mansûr fades and his glance falls sidelong toward the door before responding.
“My Master is...”, he hesitates, searching for a word and then concludes, “protected”. He is thoughtful for a moment, silent and then brightens.
“Until you are called to him for your sentence, let us attend to your body and your Christian soul, such that it is. I have here a small gift; it is Biblos, the word of your Christian God”. He removes a small, leather satchel from his shoulder and, inserting his hand, withdraws it clutching a tiny, leather volume with beautiful gold-embossed design. “This is for you”, he says, extending his hand toward me. I receive it and, for a moment, our hands touch. He smiles, showing broad white teeth.
My fingers, made clumsy by disuse and pain, difficultly manipulate the small book, but I open the cover and fight to focus on the spider thin handwritten copy within: 'In principit, Deus creavit terram et cœlam..' Exhausted by the effort, my head falls back on the bed.
“Your strength will return in time”, says Abdullah Mansûr. He shakes his head sadly. He takes the Biblos and places it on my chest and then places my hands over it. “Now, I will attend your wounds”.
He begins to work, now silently, now singing softly in his strange tongue and, when he speaks, it is unclear to whom he is speaking. He begins, using tiny gold forceps, to remove a stained dressing from my leg.
“It was, they say, the fodder of Legend.” His voice is soothing and lulls distantly. “A man possessed of the power of Allah, who stood below the Roman Gate and fought like a Giant though his Comrades had all, but few, been cut down. He stood at the head; his sword ran with blood as did the ground below his feet. Still he fought, his sword was Vengeance against all who drew within its radius and, when the bodies without heads piled high, he stepped forward to a clear space and continued. Continue he did; through the day and the night, and then the day again with only three behind, but mere men, exhausted, their taste for blood gone and their swords falling to their sides”.
He continues to work, changing dressings and putting cooling salves on my wounds. His beard is braided after the Persian fashion and, occasionally, he stops, contemplative, his hand stroking the thick, black braids and then he falls again to his gentle cures.
I know naught of what he is speaking for my memory of the battle below the Roman Gate is gone. I should have died with my men. I remember only the arrival. We left the archers and mercenaries along with a small group of Germanics at St. Gregory. Then, descending to the street below with about 75 Germanics, we found what horses we could and, riding in 2 or 3 on the back of one caballus, we galloped like the Furies themselves, to reach the other side of the city and join the battle. On our arrival, we could see that all was nearly lost; the Ottomans were a flood, rapidly overcoming the forces of the Holy Army. I consulted with Adolphus; yes, a Germanic, but a man of some discipline and knowledge. We devised a 'diamond formation', working tightly and shoulder to chest, to leave no man, only the sword arm exposed. Our swords and axes worked in alternating waves; first to the head, then the gut, then low to lop off the legs. I found some archers and sent them to the rooves to soften the enemy onslaught. I took the point, and we rose, step by step, upon the rubble of the crumbled gate. When one of our men fell, he would be trampled over and a man from the inner formation would take his place. After a time, my eyes stained and stinging with blood, my nose full with the smell of split entrails, I failed to remember more.
“When a man can no longer live, he must die”. Abdullah Mansûr speaks softly, intruding on my reverie. “You will live”.
“Where are my comrades? Can I see them?” I inquire of this man whose gaze is benign and almost angelic.
“Oh no, my friend. That is quite impossible. They have already been given to my Master for his justice. But that is of no consequence now; savour the words from your Biblos, to nourish your soul”. He gently covers my hand, resting upon the Biblos, with his. “Once you are strong, we will speak of other things”.
With those words uttered, he rises from his haunches, taking his satchel of tools, and departs. I hear the mechanical device of the door click softly and, then, silence and sleep.
The moon is waning. Thrice, from the small window of my cell which, in the morning, catches a fresh and invigorating breeze, I have seen the moon wax full and then subside. In that time, under the cures of the gentle Abdullah Mansûr, I have grown whole again, the pain gone from my body and my leg, where the meat was cleaved from the bone, now able to support my weight.
Abdullah Mansûr is my only companion here and my affection for him has grown, like that of a man for a younger and smaller brother; when he helps me to stand, sometimes he giggles like a girl, for I rise beyond his head by a cubitus or more. It saddens my heart that, since he will not receive the Word of God, he will go to Hell. Still, once he is gone from my cell, I pray to St. Domenicus, who sits at the hand of our Holy Mother, so that, perhaps, if she is so moved by his intercession, she will turn her face in supplication to God and He will pluck a meritorious Heathen from the Pit.
He also brings me the food that has restored my strength; dates, dried camel meat and roast fowl, bitter tasting draughts, and strange, delicious fruits, unknown to me, whose origins in the Orient he explains.
Whilst I eat and, sometimes lingering long after and into the evening, he tells me of his country, the people there and the strange customs they use. I oblige with tales of my far-off England; the nobility of it's people and the way we choose to live which is right for us. Sometimes we laugh, the sound loud in the stone confines of the cell, finding that people the world over, so different in language, dress and thought, might also behave equally as the stubborn mule, the shrewd fox or the stupid goose. He recounts to me the tales of the beautiful Scheherazade and her wisdom and cunning before the evil and jealous Sultan; I resolve, silently, to record these to memory for their ingenuity.
Tonight, the Biblos in my hand is closed, the embossed gold design now worn away by my rough hands. Instead, the Word unfolds in my head as I watch the moon on her nightly path across the sky and I pace my cell, the only sound that of my leather boots creaking with my movements. Today, when Abdullah Mansûr arrived, he was sullen and delivered to me the food, carefully wrapped in palm leaves, without the usual blessing in his language.
“You are silent, my friend”, I suggested to him. “Perhaps you are troubled?”
“My heart is heavy with sorrow”, I heard him say, his voice faint, although he pretended to be busy hanging some aromatic herbs by the window.
“Will you share your sorrow and unburden your heart?” I inquired. He shook his head and the rope continued to miss the nail there, embedded in mortar. His hands trembled. I left the food on the bed and rose to assist him, whereupon he backed away, stumbling against the wall and the green bundle, in a cloud of perfume, fell to the floor. I crouched to retrieve it and, when I rose, my arm absently extending to hang the bouquet, his dark eyes looked up at me, wide, overcome with emotion, and he tugged anxiously with both hands at his braided, black beard.
“Come”, I said, “sit with me”. He resisted. My hand, as large as his whole shoulder, spread across his back and I guided him gently. He perched on the corner of the bed like a songbird ready to take flight. I sat and continued to eat. His eyes darted around the cell searching for something to watch.
“It is the will of Allah”; he finally spoke.
“The will of God is not a burden to the heart”, I suggested. He sighed and then regarded me.
“I may not deceive my Master”, he said, his chin sinking upon his chest.
“True, that does not bring honour”, I answered, finishing my food and wiping my fingers on the rough palm leaves.
“Christian friend”, he said to me, “my cures for you are done. You are now strong. This I have reported to my King, Suleman Ibn al-Rashid”.
I knew the day of my sentencing would come, yet, perhaps, I believed it would not. The idea of my head on a pike or my body hanging from a wall, plucked by ravens and vultures, does not appeal to me. I nodded, feeling no malice toward the kindness and wisdom of this little man.
“My Heathen friend”, I answered him, “only the Hand of God can produce, in a man, the gentleness of the Lamb and the Wisdom of the Prophets”. He grimaced briefly but allowed me to finish. “I am forever in your debt and will carry your name upon my lips when I return to my God”.
He quickly gathered up the remains of my meal, closing the package with papyrus chord, and then stood to leave. I stood to greet him.
“Friend”, he said, his voice broken, “my Master will come to you to mete out his Justice. I bid only that the glory of Allah will shine upon you and light your path to peace, be it His will”.
He took my hand, clasped in his, and pressed it to his chest where I could feel his heaving emotion; my own was no less. Then he was gone, leaving me, in silence, to the fate that awaited me.
The boots, heavily resounding in the stone hallways, are not those of a mere man. When they stop, the door fairly bursts wide and the dark figure enters with a blast of chill, night air. My fist tightens over the Biblos.
“Geoffrey, Lord Buchan”, comes a hollow voice like thunder, “I am Suleman Ibn al-Rashid. You will walk with me”.
Suleman Ibn al-Rashid turns from the cell with neither word, nor glance toward me. His frame fills the space of the door and his black, gold-edged cloak billows in the dank air that spills around him. He moves like a shadow into the dimly flickering, torch-lit corridor. I am compelled to follow.
I glance briefly at the space that, for months of solitude but for the attentions of Abdullah Mansûr, had been my home and my prison. My eye falls upon my own cloak, neatly folded, by the foot of the bed and I reach for it. It swirls outward, flashing red, and then settles across my shoulders revealing the emblem of a Knight of the King with its griffin rampant; I will proceed to my sentencing with the honour of a Knight and, my Biblos, I conceal beneath the folds of my doublet. So readied, I hurry from the cell, following the sound of heavy footfalls in the corridor.
He leads me, nary acknowledging my presence, up a stairs and then another. We arrive to a broad, double doors where windows are carved with the forms of the star and crescent of these people. He throws them wide and, suddenly struck dumb, I find myself, after time too long, in the open air of a grand, pillared, garden courtyard in plain sight of the majesty of God's Spheres which spin overhead. I pause, unable not to look, breathing in freedom.
Al-Rashid stops in his stride to turn, his head cocked slightly, studying me. His voice, when it comes, is distant and low, like wind in a well: “Mark well what you see, Geoffrey, son of Antonius, for your time is short”, and these have the effect on me as of river-run in winter. I avert my eyes from the Heavens and face my nemesis, seeing him clearly for the first time.
He is an enemy to be respected; a man of stature, breadth and power made more imposing by his dress. On his head he wears a black turban, wrapped in a conical fashion and, from this, down his back, is a cascade of tightly curled, ebony-coloured hair. His great cloak, covers a black satin shirt, unlaced across his chest which, of skin, is pale, powerfully muscled and covered by a strange bestiary of colours pressed into the skin; I recognise dragons and demons of Oriental design. His voluminous pantaloons, also black, slip inside high black boots. The only other spot of colour upon him is a broad, scarlet sash about his waste from which dangles a dangerously curved, bejeweled scimitar in its sheath.
To regard his face, however, is to feel one's courage flag and threaten to flee; it is hard, angular, bearing no touch of the softness of humanity. The lips are dark around a mere slit of a mouth and, his eyes, though they watch, unblinking, if they ever lived then they have ceased to do so now, for they are expressionless, dull orbs immobile in their sockets; a masque of Death.
I look away, shaming myself for the trembling fear which rises in me – fear for my immortal Soul – and then stare back, challenging that gaze which would blight a fertile field or send and entire village to a tormented rest.
“What manner of death have you chosen for me?” I inquire, impassive, and draw my cloak around me to display its colours.
“Death does not exist, Lord Buchan”, he answers, a contemptuous emphasis placed on the name of my House, “it is, instead, the manner of your continued life which we will now discuss”.
“I will be slave to no man, al-Rashid”, I pronounce with the pride instilled in me by my father.
His laugh contains no memory of humour. “Indeed, that would be so”, he concedes and then adds, “come a little further”, and vaults his back to me. I scan my surroundings for sign of some manner of weapon but, alas, the torches, mounted high in iron fixtures upon the columns of the place are beyond my reach. I follow him but my eyes continue to pry in the shadows.
We rejoin upon the centre of the garden and, there, I see, is designed a meeting place with chairs of various designs, large and small, ornate and simple, spaced about comfortably. In other circumstances, it would be a pleasant and tranquil place for a man to take in the words of his council - even on the most dire of notices.
He choses a large seat, fit for a creature of his size and, then pulls his cloak about himself, such that, the impression becomes of a black shrouded corpse. “Sit”, he says, impassively; neither invitation nor order.
“I will stand before my enemy”, I retort, and gather my cloak around my body to guard against the still, penetrating cold that seems to gather wherever he ceases movement. Those still, parodies of human eyes fall on me.
“Your injured leg is weakening. I see it tremble with fatigue”.
It is useless to lie; “That is true”, I respond. A manner of sigh escapes him, which is, to my ear, not unlike the rattle of Death.
“A wise Warrior knows when is the time of rest and when is the time to tense for battle; you have demonstrated your knowledge of Battle”. A pallid hand emerges from the folds of his cloak and gestures slightly to a robust, leather-padded chair to his left. I concede to his compliment with a bow and to the unspoken invitation. I sit, gathered among the bright crimson of my own cloak.
A silence descends between us, dispelled only by the sighing of the fruit-laden garden trees in the night-time breeze and the gentle splashing of water which erupts, nearby, from the palm of a dancing faun - frozen in white marble, mid prancing step.
“What question would you ask me, Geoffrey, son of Antonius, that is not in regard to the parlay which we will make? Choose your question well and I will speak”. It takes me only a moment to reflect and then the question slips, whispered, from my lips.
“What is the nature of the curse that has brought you, hence, to this visage?” If it is a laugh that comes from him, it resembles no more than wind through a fetid churchyard.
“You play well at cards, Lord Buchan”, he responds but, this time, there is no contempt, only hollow thunder. “What do you know of the Ancients?” He pauses and makes no gesture, but the air and space around him seem to draw my attention back to the fountain. “How many years has this image of a mythical creature?”
“My knowledge of the years is slight”, I respond, truthfully. “I know that the ancient Romans were wont to produce such fancy”.
“Yes, the Greeks, long before - they, too, had knowledge of the Forms”.
Suddenly, before he responds, a horrifying beast appears from the shadows: a black wolf, massive, primed with muscle and as large as a man, approaches on steady, silent paws. It's eyes glow red in the torchlight and its teeth shine, lips curled back, from a muzzle large enough to take a man's head or leg. I tense in my chair, unarmed and helpless, as the creature draws nearer to us, seeming ready to spring.
“Demosthenes! Recline!” says Suleman Ibn al-Rashid simply. The creature, to the eye of man, scarce less than a Dæmon, responds and, I note, bewildered, seems to nod, acknowledging the will of the master. The beast lies at his feet; become as docile as a pet with eyes drooping in sleep.
“Ah! The creatures of the night”, he says in my direction, although those expressionless orbs in his head neither fix nor stray from me. “Are they not beautiful?”
“It is a terrible creature”, I acknowledge and slip back in my chair, slowly.
“We were speaking of the Ancients”, he resumes, “who knew of many things that are, in this Age of Man, lost”.
Suleman Ibn al-Rashid, gazes for a moment with empty, black eyes, toward the stars which adorn the firmament and, then he begins to speak, recounting his story.
Battle (V): Suleman's story.
“You, Lord Buchan, confess little knowledge of the years. Mine own knowledge of the years is like that of the lines of my own palm. Time, to me, is like a moment and, a moment, like the eternity which is my life.
“For you, I know this well, for it is the essence of your brief passage through time, the battle in which I took the eye of your father was long ago. That same battle, in which your King's Army drove us back from the walls of Costantinopolis, well, I may be, returning from it only now. I thought, in that instance, your father to be worthy of the parlay which we will soon have, but he fell and so I now speak to his son.
“My war is not with Christendom but with all the sons of Adam and all the daughters of Eve, for war it is that the children of God have made on those of my race since time began. My heart is blackened with hatred for your kind and I will not rest until I see the last man fall, the last womb barren and the last souls shrivel to dust and God will know his mistake in allowing this war to begin.
“In your pathetic jealousy of us, from a time when you were little more than mere animals with no knowledge or wisdom but to kill, you have hunted us until but few remain. Still, you do not understand that no child of God has brought knowledge into the world for your existence is too short; we did it all and, in return, we have died at your hands; our heads rolling and our bodies given to the flames of the pyre. The one who you call Iesus Cristos, a fool but for the nobility of his intention, was one of our number who dared bring a message of peace to Man. I told him it was battle for no gain. You saw fit, first, to kill him and, then, to usurp his message to justify your actions. Recounting it alone inflames my hatred so greatly that I would gladly cleave you to pieces now and feed you to this night-wolf which reposes at my feet. However, this parlay will happen, yes, as, perhaps, you are worthy and, I will hold my passion in check long enough to answer your question.
“In the language of these Turks, we are known as 'Ghoul'; in the language of the Orient, 'Kuang-shi' and, in the languages of the North as 'Wampyr'; the names are as many as your languages and all tainted with your hatred and fear. We are the Immortals, as old as the world itself.
“The first of our number was born near the beginning of time when the world was young. His name was Baël; he lived in the land between the two rivers, near the Garden of the Creation. When the angel, the brilliant and shining Lucifer, was cast out for the 'impudence' of seeking more knowledge of the mind of God, he fell from Heaven and collided with Baël who was transformed by the contact with the immortal angel who is our father. Baël discovered that, by consuming the essence of living beasts, the blood, he too was become immortal. He used his power for good: teaching the men of his town the habits of beasts so they could hunt, eat, and be strong; the ways of plants so fields could be sown with wheat; and the movements of the stars so men could know the right timing of all things. Baël created two children only: Cronos and Sophia.
“After many generations, the people grew jealous of his immortality and arrogant of their own frailty in the face of time; they killed him, cutting his body open so the blood of this noble creature spilled like a river. Then they exalted him as a god; such is the perversion that exists in the mind of man. His children fled to the Orient where I was created by my mother, Sophia, long ago.
“However, peace was not to be found among men. Cronos invented the symbols you call writing and showed them to people so that they could record their history and transact business. He was cut to pieces by a mortal who was his friend and then they revered him as Osiris. My mother, the wisest and gentlest of all creatures, discovered the powers of certain plants to heal wounds and cure sickness so that people could see their children grow to be strong adults. In the end, people wanted only the secret of her immortality and, in their heartless efforts to gain this knowledge, they also made her to pieces and then revered her as Isis.
“Ah! Whither this mad arrogance that is the mind of mortals where due reverence is found only in Death?
“I fled to the isolation of company with few mortals and created many children. I sent them into the world in search of a place where we could be at peace but, alas, their fortunes were similarly dismal. I received word from the children of Cronos, my cousins, and from my own brothers and sisters, that they fared little better.
“It was then that the hatred for man began to burn in me, first, a flagging ember and then growing to a roaring flame; a desire to see the end of man and the end of God's 'Noble Experiment' – for man has no nobility, only the power of destruction. I became a warrior.
“My battles have been many and I seek out the strongest; my powers bolstering their successes but my own desires take no side in battle. I desire one thing only – to kill and trod upon your dead – be they man, woman or child, I care not. You will fall and I will live.
“Now, Lord Buchan, you know my tale; that of the years that are upon me. I can see by your expression that your horror consumes you. Have you no words? Speak, for then we will parlay and decide you fate!
Battle (VI): Parlay.
Suleman Ibn al-Rashid falls silent, his pale, angular face and the black, emptiness of his eyes turned in the direction of Geoffry of Buchan; Geoffrey's expression, indeed, reveals his turmoil and horror at the history just recounted.
“You, then, are instrument of the Dæmon; an abomination before the Eyes of God”. Suleman snorts in disdain.
“That is your response? I had hoped to expect better from you but, I am far too old in this world to be mindful of such things. So be it. It is time to parlay”.
“What are your terms?” responds Geoffrey, fearful of the conditions to be presented but desirous also to proceed to what fate God would dispense to him before this hideous spectre.
“This is simply done. For two nights, I had the pleasure of watching you in battle below the Roman Gate; your skills are alike to few I have witnessed before. Therefore, the terms will be these: we will do battle, you and I; the winner will live and the fate of the vanquished will be to the mercy of the victor. Do you accept?”
“I have no sword by which to defend myself. I cannot accept these terms”.
“Turn from your place. You will find, appended to the column near behind you, your own sword, restored and strengthened by the skills of my master metal-smiths to its original condition. It will not break in battle; on this you have my word”. Geoffrey rises from the leather padded chair and walks in the indicated direction, his red cloak swirling about his boots. The sword is there in its scabbard. He retrieves it from an iron hook and withdraws the weapon, hefting it and testing its balance; it is like an old friend and, as promised, it seems solid, the scars of battle polished away.
“And if your word is a ruse?” he answers the ancient Being that still sits calmly, illuminated by stars and flickering torchlight.
“Then I will forfeit”, responds Suleman Ibn al-Rashid frankly. “I have no need of victory by deception, Geoffrey, Lord Buchan. I am eager to do battle with a worthy opponent. That is all”.
Geoffrey reflects while concealing his thoughts with artful movement of the sword in the air before him. He considers the possibility of victory against this ancient and base creature; larger and stronger than himself and with an experience in battle like that of no man. He can feel his own weaknesses; his arms not used to the weight of his sword and his injured leg, healed, but unsure in the exertions of battle. However, the terms are fair; he has but little choice to retain honour. He sheathes his sword and returns under the torchlight.
“I accept your terms”, he pronounces slowly and fixes Suleman Ibn al-Rashid. “Stand to”, he says, raising the challenge.
“Delighted that you accept”, he answers, his voice like the growl of mad dog. He rises from his place and, with a shrug, his black cloak falls behind his shoulders. Geoffrey does likewise. The fearsome, curved scimitar is drawn out and presented. The fire hardened steel gleams.
“To the victor”, says Suleman Ibn al-Rashid in battle stance. Geoffrey draws his sword and similarly presents it.
“To the victor”, he answers, his eyes fixed on the expressionless face; that of the creature who, in only moments, could have the power to conquer and take his Soul. So standing, in silence and waiting for attack, they are not the words of challenge that echo in Geoffrey's mind but the voice of his father.
“Defend yourself”, his father had said, his sword held high before him. Geoffrey, at twelve years, struggled with the weight of his own sword and lifted it in both hands. His father's sword had descended like lightning, knocking Geoffrey's aside. A moment later, his father's sword had landed heavily, broadside, on his shoulder.
“You've gone to meet the Virgin Mother, boy”, he declared. Geoffrey reddened in shame. “Never watch your enemy's weapon. Watch your enemy's eyes, boy”, he declared. “Again. Defend yourself”. Geoffrey focused on his father's face and deflected the first blows. The sword landed, again, painfully, on his shoulder.
“In battle you don't have a cat's lives, boy. Think! What is my schema?” Geoffrey thought carefully and then responded.
“Three from the right; the third is low. Then, one from the left and up”, he suggested, unsure. His father grunted, pleased with the detailed observation but unwilling to show it.
“Every warrior has a schema. They will always return to it: learn it quickly and, by the Grace of God, you might live to see another battle. Again!” Their swords collided, crashing metal on metal, sending the chickens scurrying away in the courtyard, flapping their useless wings, clucking and panicked.
Geoffrey did not win that day or the next. The day came eight months later: his sword landed heavily and awkwardly on his father's shoulder, slicing into the fabric of his coarse wool shirt. His father sheathed his sword and then his fingers went to explore the unraveling twill. He nodded, accepting the touch.
“If you want to kill me, boy, make certain the blade finds bone”, was all he had said and walked away. Geoffrey knew he had won his first battle. There were many more but, none would compare to the battle of this night; a battle for his own Immortal Soul and the right to vanquish the ancient enemy of Man, Suleman Ibn al-Rashid.
Battle (VII): The Final.
The two opponents stand motionless, poised in anticipation, muscles drawn tight, with their weapons raised: one, an English Knight, Geoffrey, Lord Buchan, battle hardened but weakened from injury and a long convalescence; the other, Suleman Ibn al-Rashid, an Immortal, touched by Evil and poisoned by hatred. Their duel will allow for no truce or withdrawal.
It is Suleman, the ancient Turk, who strikes first. The bejeweled scimitar flashes, slicing downward toward the chest of his opponent. Geoffrey's eyes, immobile on the horrid visage of his foe, catch the movement before it begins. He steps backward and his sword descends from the left, deflecting the heavy blow. He takes advantage of the scimitar thrown wide and launches to attack. His sword, the beaded handle grasped in two powerful hands, swings back toward his enemy's gut. It does not find flesh but, instead, the scimitar is there blocking him. The two weapons crash together sending sparks skittering across the floor.
The Turk is immediately on the attack again. The scimitar, seeking to cleave flesh, chops at the air in a rapid volley and Geoffrey's sword, heavy in his arms, returns in defense, blocking and deflecting, although, each time, the blade of the scimitar, honed finer than a barber's rasor, seems to arrive closer to his neck, his shoulder, his sword arm.
“I fear this battle shall not be long to its resolution”, says Suleman, taunting.
“Then I will gladly, as my last act, take your arm and lead you to Hell, myself, in defeat”, responds Geoffrey and their weapons clash again filling the courtyard with the echoing sounds of war.
Geoffrey concentrates counting the movements, like steps in a court dance, knowing that missing even one will mean the feel of steel, like ice, biting into his body. The slice toward his chest comes again, narrowly deflected, and he dives to attack only to find the scimitar there blocking his advantage.
The battle continues and hours pass beneath the impassive gaze of the stars overhead on their eternal revolutions. Geoffrey wonders, his fatigue mounting, if the Divine Beings of Heaven look down, their forces gathering in protection of his Soul, but the distraction of reflection has its immediate toll. He steps back, avoiding the scimitar which whistles through the air toward his neck and his boot catches against a garden bed; his balance is lost and he falls backward, arms flailing and his sword thrown wide in abandon. The expressionless, death-masque face of the ancient Turk looms before him, the scimitar poised and ready to kill.
“Prepare to meet thy God, if you make it, Lord Buchan!” The words are ejected like venom from the mouth of Suleman Ibn al-Rashid; a condemnation to the Pit, or worse. Geoffrey counts beats in his mind - the beats remaining to his heart and the beats of the last dance step left to him. The scimitar falls, deadly fast.
Instead of attempting to roll away to unsure safety, Geoffrey launches himself forward, beneath the arc of the scimitar toward the legs of his opponent, his sword arm trailing the weapon behind. The scimitar grazes the back of his head and first blood is drawn; a piece of his scalp flies away and lands limp on the cobblestones. Undaunted for the pain, Geoffrey continues on his trajectory, connecting with the hips of the tireless Creature, driving forward with the impassive inertia of his own warhorse. His sword arm rises as Suleman, his balance gone and falling, reacts, and redirects the scimitar toward Geoffrey's back.
They fall together, the cobblestones rise rapidly behind Suleman's back and Geoffrey knows that, in the impact, the scimitar will find his flesh, his bone and the pulsing organs within that give him life. He flails outward with his left, pushing with all his force against the stony arm wielding the scimitar. His own sword arm swiftly cocks at the elbow and the blade flashes before his face. The two collide on the floor and the end-game plays out swiftly.
The scimitar finds his back, slicing the flesh neatly away from his ribs, launching volleys of pain but avoiding deeper penetration. Instead, Geoffrey's sword, driven by the fall, lands against Suleman's neck and bites deep, opening the throat. The scimitar clatters to the stones. The ancient Being gasps.
Geoffrey, his strength almost gone, clambers over his foe to gain a position of force and gazes into Suleman's face. He pushes the sword deeper and the wound gapes open; white cartilage, split flesh and severed vessels vomiting a fountain of dark, fetid blood. The smile upon the blood tainted lips of the wampyr is one of perverse victory. Geoffrey watches the flow of blood, confused and awed by the Creature's response.
“You... have won...”, come the words formed amid bubbles of blood exploding from the mouth.
“Your fate is sealed; go hence unto it. Repent of your Sins and you may yet find the Kingdom of God”, responds Geoffrey. Suleman shakes his head weakly and speaks briefly.
“You have... won... my future... and my past”.
The words are scarcely uttered when the arms of the Creature lock across the back of Geoffrey's neck, their power that of twin beams, drawing him forward. The scent of rancid blood fill his nostrils and he quickly vomits the meagre contents of his gut before his mouth makes contact with gaping wound in the Creature's neck. He retches and fights to withdraw, clawing, while the stinking, viscous blood fills his mouth and nose. In the end, his strength gone, his will sapped by the unrelenting force of those arms across his neck. He drinks.
“Do you require my attentions, Master?” says Abdullah Mansûr. His hands are folded in supplication beneath the braids of his black beard. His body trembles. I gaze upon him with new eyes.
“No, Abdullah Mansûr. Thank you. These scratches will heal without your attentions”. Beside me the night-wolf glowers, eyes red with flame and I caress its massive head. “Have my men clean away this carcass”, I order him and gesture toward the wretched, liquid, black-shrouded remains upon the cobblestones. “I will keep the scimitar. Then call my generals to me; we will move upon Antioch this very day”. The small man nods, seeming close to tears. He moves to leave.
“Abdullah Mansûr!” I call to him. He cowers. “Do you have family here?”
“Yes, Master”, he answers, close to a wail of grief. “I have a wife and three beautiful children here in this castle”. I nod.
“Do the tasks that I have commanded of you; then, take your family and flee to the edge of the Earth so that I may never encounter you again while you live. Do you understand?”
“Yes, kind Master”, answers Abdullah Mansûr and then he is running from the courtyard and I am left in silence but for the water spattering from the palm of the dancing faun.
I have time to reflect before my generals join me in conference. The panoply of History spreads out before me in memory and I see it all: the insults and the degradation; the thievery and dishonesty; the horrid throws of death among the flames of the pyre. My animosity is complete and consuming; Man can have no worse enemy.
I will live and they will die before me. Just as Geoffrey, Lord Buchan is dead within me there is a new being born; I will be known as the Enemy of Man – Hostis Generis Umanis – and they will know what is my wrath until the last one falls, screaming, before my sword.
The character of 'Hostis' was originally created by my friend 'circe'.