Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Through Seven Stars

by Evan Sehr


Ojin stood at the base of a spiralling stairway, each step as tall as his waist: a remnant of ancient times, when gods and men lived side by side. He was an old man with a face like the side of a mountain, battered by the wind and creased by the rain. His eyes were wide and set deep in his head, gazing out at the world like wolves from a cave. The teeth he still had were large and conspicuous, and his lips peeled back in a perpetual grimace, as if his skin was too tight on his skull. His hair looked as though he had never cut it: wild and filthy, its gray mass fell down his back and past his waist, knotted and clumped together in some places and in others smooth and even. It was tied back from his face with twine made from grass that grew in a place far to the north.

Ojin was wearing rags gathered about his frame in the semblance of clothing, and clutched something with his clawlike fingers: something as long as one of his spindly legs, something wrapped in rags as he was. He set the thing on the first step before him and began his ascent, laboriously hauling himself over the lip of the first stair, then working his way to his feet, picking up the thing and shuffling to the next step.

It was afternoon, but the sun was merely a glow that peeked from behind roiling clouds. The air was humid and rain was on the way.

That was fine: Ojin could stand one more storm before the end. By the time he stood up on the tenth step, he was panting, and he stopped to survey the ruins below him -- the stairway being the only structure that had thus far resisted the ravages of time and the steamy climate, winding around a tower that reached up as far as Ojin could see and was hundreds of paces around at its base.

The city that the tower survived had crumbled in some untold eon past, and all that remained was massive blocks of black stone that were scattered, half-sunk, in the jungle floor's slimy green morass -- and yet, the jungle's vegetation never fully reclaimed the land where the city stood, as if held at bay by some force, or by nature's own terror of what had stood there. The ruins were a scar carved into the face of the earth: a derelict memory of a time perhaps best forgotten.

Ojin was not concerned with the ruins or their past. He was thinking of his childhood village that used to stand like a sheltering tree on the plains of his homeland, and the day that Hroth of the Skaelings began his conquering march south.

The Skaelings were a brutal race from somewhere across the sea who worshipped strange gods, the likenesses of which they carved into white-wooded trees that they carried as totems. Hroth arrived under one such totem: a demoniac raven carved in jagged, splintered lines that were filled with black soot. He and his warriors were like nothing the plains-folk had ever seen: swathed in the furs of predatory beasts alien to the plains and bearing weapons forged from iron, when the plains-folk had only bows for hunting, and these with stone arrowheads.

The slaughter was only stayed by the Skaelings' need for captives to feed their hungry gods -- Ojin and the other children of his tribe were rounded up after their elders were massacred and penned like cattle, then dragged out one or three at a time to lay before Hroth under the baleful gaze of the raven totem while he opened their rib cages with an iron knife.

Ojin was no stranger to the slaughter of animals, but the shrieks of the boys he had played with around the village were still fresh in his memory. He also remembered one more thing, a small detail perhaps, but one that he had fixated on as he stared at the Skaeling chieftain through the crudely hewn bars of his pen, constructed from the few wooden posts from the village that had not been burned: Hroth always dipped the green, fang-shaped stone he wore around his neck into the boys' blood as they died. He did this dozens of times, and in Ojin's mind this was significant. Indeed, he had seized upon it as some crucial ritual, something Hroth or the raven or maybe something else needed and hungered for.

He was climbing again, having reduced the navigation of each step to a mechanical process: place the rag-wrapped thing on the next step, hoist himself up on its lip with his skinny arms, then swing a leg over the edge and roll over, gasping -- then sit up and do it again. His palms were already bleeding from the roughness of the stone, and he was not yet halfway up. The sinking blocks of the ruins that had seemed so titanic were growing smaller, even as his joints began to swell.

Ojin had escaped the Skaelings when one of the larger boys had fought back when it came to be his turn at the totem. Two of Hroth's warriors had seized him and dragged him to the gate, and he had started bucking and screaming, his eyes rolling in his head and his lips tinged with frothy saliva.

In the ensuing chaos, Ojin had slipped out and hidden in a corpse-pile until dark. He had fashioned a knife from a flat stone he recovered from the muck at the edge of a watering hole -- as had been the practice of his people before their extinction -- and dragged the edge across his scalp until it was raw and hairless, promising that while Hroth still lived, he would never cut his hair again.

His hair had grown since then: it grew over his ears as he trailed the Skaeling warriors on their southward march, razing other villages and cutting more captured children. When Ojin dared, he crept close enough to watch Hroth as he killed: always opening the chest, then -- glancing about as he did so -- thrusting the green stone into the blood.

Ojin bore witness to Hroth's crimes but knew that he was too weak to attack the chieftain and his warriors. When his hair began to trail down his back, he gave up on following the Skaelings and instead began his search for some god that would grant him the power to kill his enemy. It was then that he heard the rumors: a sword, it was said, had fallen from the sky, the metal from which it was forged having flown through a seven-starred constellation in a meteor before crashing into the earth. Seers claimed that, because of this, it was destined to kill all conquerors. Ojin wondered if it would kill a butcher, even as he chased stories of the blade and eventually seized it for himself where it had been abandoned in the tomb of a king who had claimed the thing was cursed.

He was nearing the top of the tower. His lungs burned, and the hot, damp air rasped in his throat -- even the coming dark, for the sun was falling from the sky, was slow to dampen the jungle's heat. He ached to his bones, and only the knowledge that the end was very near empowered him to continue the climb. He could hear something over the wind now, guttural voices that rumbled and boomed like thunder: voices of men who were also something else. The voices spurred him on, his heart quickening as he rolled to his feet and climbed the last few steps. His enemy was close.

And there he was. The top of the tower was flat, like a vast altar upon which all the bloodstained enterprise of humanity could be offered up to the gods or devils who dwelled in the sky. A pyre burned in the middle of the plateau, and Hroth stood, his arms extended to each side as if in welcome, staring out at the encroaching night.

He still dressed in the Skaeling way: a shaggy fur was draped over his shoulders, its claws forming a clasp in front of Hroth's chest, and his face was the same as it had been when he had massacred Ojin's village -- dark and broad, untroubled by the killings wrought by his massive hands. He was at least a head taller than Ojin, and he was not alone: several other Skaelings stood with him, talking and laying out more furs to sleep on. The green stone still hung from his neck.

Clutching the rag-wrapped thing in his hands, Ojin shambled toward the fire. He could barely stand after his ascent, but with his quarry so close at hand he could not wait and gather himself. He felt the lure of destiny pulling him forward, toward whatever end the night would bring.

"Hroth," he made to call, but his voice failed, robbed from him by the humidity.

The Skaelings had not yet noticed him.

"Hroth!" Ojin shouted, and the Skaelings one and all started, then turned to regard him. He must have seemed a pathetic figure: an old man, wretchedly dressed, in a forgotten part of the world to avenge a forgotten evil.

Hearing his name, Hroth took a few steps toward Ojin. His blade, a double-edged sword with a long hilt that Ojin could not have even lifted, hung in a scabbard clasped to his leather belt. It stayed there. "Who are you?" he asked, in a southern dialect. Ojin understood him perfectly well. He had travelled far.

"I have come here to kill you, for the death of my village and the blood on your hands."

Hroth's eyes widened, but the corners of his mouth suggested amusement rather than shock. A chuckle rose amongst the other Skaelings. "Hroth refuses challenges from no man or god," Hroth said. "You will die, old man."

Ojin unwrapped the thing in the rags, revealing the destined sword. There was nothing about the blade to suggest its origin; it was a bar of silvery metal, sharpened on both sides and tapered to a point, its tang bound in a hilt wrapped in the rough skin of some aquatic animal. Ojin pressed the hilt into his bleeding palms, holding the sword in front of him, on his guard and ready for the last fight of his life.

Hroth came at him without drawing his own sword, striding forward as if he were made of metal himself. His eyes were still wide, now with the anticipation of killing.

Ojin thought that they glinted in the flickering firelight like one of the hunting cats that prowled his homeland. When Hroth got close enough, Ojin struck with all of his might, swinging the silvery blade at Hroth's throat.

Hroth stepped into the cut and seized the handle of the sword, catching it and holding it, pinning Ojin's hands.

Ojin struggled, feebly, but Hroth's grip never faltered.

His face was very close to Ojin's, and he was smiling. The Skaelings behind him snickered: who was this foolish old man who had come all this way just to die? Then Hroth shoved Ojin with his free hand, sending him sprawling three paces backward.

Ojin fell on his backside, still clinging to the sword. This was not the way he had imagined things. This was not the destiny that Ojin was promised. Struggling to his feet, Ojin felt pain that permeated his entire body, seeming to pulse with his fluttering heartbeat. Hroth beckoned him, and Ojin tensed his grip, then took a few sluggish steps at his enemy with the sword raised to strike.

It was too slow, of course, and Hroth swatted the strike away and pinned Ojin's arms to his side with a bearhug, lifting the old man off his feet. Then he walked to the edge of the plateau. "That was pathetic," Hroth spat, his breath sour as it violated Ojin's nostrils. "Your courage has brought you to death. The jungle will feast on your corpse."

Ojin could not answer -- his breath was gone, choked from him by Hroth's powerful arms. He felt distant from himself, as if someone else were about to be hurled from a tower to join the ruins in unhallowed demise.

Hroth twisted at the waist and hurled Ojin over the edge, the Skaelings cheering at the spectacle.

Ojin barely resisted, but he held tight to the destined sword and its point went up as he fell, raking Hroth's chest not even hard enough to draw blood -- but catching on the cord that bore the green stone around his neck.

The cord snapped, and the stone fell after Ojin. Hroth grunted, and this time the wideness of his eyes was shock: he reached for the stone and nearly fell himself, but missed it even with that desperate effort. As Ojin passed by the lip of the plateau, he saw something on Hroth's broad face that he had never seen before: fear. And silhouetted by the light of the pyre, Hroth looked somehow...smaller.

Ojin closed his eyes and felt the air rush by him, his mouth open wide and his arms splayed out. Then he and the green stone struck a segment of ruin protruding from the muck like a meteor falling to earth.

THE END


© 2011 Evan Sehr

Bio: Evan Sehr is a student of creative writing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. He spends my time practicing archaic martial arts and blacksmithing as a way of feeling connected to the men and women who have come before him.

E-mail: Evan Sehr

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