Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Man of Iron

by Rick Hannah




CHAPTER 1


The Prince of Many Lands stood at the edge of the blasted earth and stared in awe.

As far as the eye could see nothing lay before him, but a black desert. Behind him were the ramparts of the jungle, teeming with life. Some of it was deadly, twisted life, especially this close to the radioactive wasteland.

The prince found his voice. "I had not known it was so vast."

Next to him stood his most beloved uncle, Mombi, his mother's oldest brother. He was dressed, much as the prince was, in his traveling clothes, a leopard skin mantle, black fur of the anku sleeving his arms, sturdy vest and trousers of cowhide, sandals made from ironwood. He bore a small headdress with black ostrich feathers as befitted a noble of the House. He carried no weapons, but a knife, the hilt carved from rhinoceros horn and coated in gold.

The prince bore a sword and, instead of the headdress, a slender crown of iron. A large diamond centered in it, crudely, to remind the bearer to be a humble man. But around his wrists were many rings of gold and he wore around his neck a golden pendant in the shape of a lion.

Flanking these two and dressed in green homespun, were the most prominent scholars of the court, Lasangoma and the woman, Sipho. Sipho was the elder of the two, leaning on her staff, wrinkles radiating from her eyes and lips and broad nose, her hair short and white. Bright patterns zig-zagged on the robes of both scholars. These were not random, but held meaning and power. The common people called them wizards.

"Of course, my Prince," Uncle Mombi swept out an arm. "From here to the sea, there is nothing but this."

The prince, from his lessons, knew the sea was fifty miles away due southeast. He tried to imagine the people who had lived there, his ancestors. What had happened to them 2,000 years ago? How many had died from the plagues or the wars before the fiery missiles fell? The prince was an educated man and knew the Ravaging had occurred over many years and not in a matter of weeks. He also knew that the people who lived in Afrique were spared the destruction that rained down on others. But then, what man had not destroyed, the god Daxo in his wrath had finished. He had taken up his hammer and folded up lands like tin or dashed them beneath the waves. Nowhere, as far as anyone knew, escaped the Ravaging.

Lasangoma gestured behind them. "When I was here five years ago, the edge of the jungle was over there." "Yes, said Sipho, "the jungle advances."

"That is a good thing, yes?" asked the prince.

"Yes, my Prince," replied Lasangoma, as if he were talking to a child.

The prince pointed. "I see movement."

"Ants," replied the uncle. "They thrive there, and raid into the jungle." He looked at his nephew. "They grow bolder and their raids take them farther from their homes." Uncle Mombi may have been talking about ants but his words carried a deeper meaning.

"We will have to destroy them," the prince declared. He had seen such raids. The advance soldiers for their marches were almost two feet long, the mandibles the size of a large man's hand. If that were not enough, they wielded stingers that could kill any warrior, given enough strikes.

His uncle allowed himself a slight smile. The prince was 16, handsome, a fine warrior and intelligent, but now that he was about to become king he seemed to be trying out imperial declarations. He had been doing so since the death of his father, but only against situations that did not involve people. The prince was not a confrontational youth and was loathe to give offense unless angered. And he was slow to anger. Gentle, some said.

It might have been expected; the land had been at peace his entire short life. Since the king's death, the province of Mutarr had been threatening to leave the empire. Her warriors, disguised as bandits, had been crossing the border and preying on the people of Isongo. And, before he was anything else, the prince was Prince of Isongo. The youth had made no such declarations about them.

The prince had had many brothers and sisters; would that one of them had lived. A plague had killed the last eight years ago.

"What about the giant, white worms said to live there, the ones with human arms and faces?" The prince kept his gaze on the desert.

This brought scarcely concealed chuckles from the two scholars. "They would have to compete with the ants for space. Does that seem likely?" asked Lasangoma. His voice held a trace of contempt. Such a tale was a peasant's tale. The prince had always spent too much time with commoners, at play with servant's children, trying to learn pottery from the court potters in the village, including such men and women and their brats on his impromptu hunts. The king had loved him and indulged him.

"No," answered the prince, reluctantly, "I suppose not.

For the second time that month, the perpetual cloud cover parted. The afternoon sun punched poisonous rays down on them, lighting the desert with spots of dull yellow. The prince felt his skin burning. Their entourage behind them, 20 warriors of the elite Lion Fangs, stirred uneasily. Some tried to edge back under the shadows of the jungle canopy without appearing to do so. A barely audible murmur came from them.

"Perhaps we should return now, my Prince?" suggested his uncle.

Sipho did not wait, but spryly stepped for the shelter of the trees, drawing her hood up as she did so.

"Yes, of course," replied the prince. He had been curious to see this desert for himself, but everyone knew prolonged exposure to the sun would cause the skirt. There was nothing more to see anyway, though the prince imagined the steam now rising from the black sand writhed with restless ghosts.

They only lost one man on the return journey to the city of Isongo. An ibawu swept one of its long arms down from the tree branches and hooked a warrior at the base of his skull with a scimitar talon and carried him off before anyone could do more than raise a spear. The warrior did not scream in pain or fear, proving he indeed belonged among the elite.

CHAPTER 2


That night the prince attended a Gifting Banquet in his honor in the hall of the great palace built by his grandfather.

There was more food than he had ever seen. Dagoba porridge and avompi worms, goat stew, racks and legs and livers of beef, tomatoes, onions, and gourds were fashioned into more dishes than he thought possible. And there was plenty of beer to aid the digestion.

Everyone who mattered was there. Everyone was aglow with the warm light of the huge brass lamps hanging from the ceiling. To his right sat his second uncle Bogana (the Stern One) along with his favorite wife and the prince's several cousins. The prince of Namba and his wife, son and daughter, took Uncle Mombi's normal place on the prince's left. They had arrived early in the capitol for the prince's crowning next week. The two scholars, the commanders of the Lion Fangs and various generals dotted the remaining spaces around the enormous table, together with select members of their families.

Across from the prince, in fact, was Ishelda, the comely daughter of his general, Korando. She was an old friend of the prince, and there were still hopes he would marry her. Everyone knew, of course, that the prince had had for a lover since childhood, Sanal, the son of another general. Sanal sat across from the prince even now, another seat down from Ishelda. Various, more minor nobles sat at two other tables of smaller size running at right angles down from the prince's table.

Towards the front of the hall were two more, parallel to the main table. At one sat the children too old to run and laugh with the other children along the flagged floor.

At the other, sat warriors.

These were mercenaries, respected by everyone for their prowess, but segregated, so different were they. They looked different, their features a trifle more narrow, their coloring a little lighter than the norm. Their hair was short and they wore identical colors of blue, white and red with a distinctive white star on their chests surrounded by a circle of blue. They were the Exiles, the Orphans, the Abandoned, the Outsiders but they called themselves the Brotherhood of the White Star. And a true brotherhood it was; they did not allow their women to fight.

Their personal names were different; their attitudes were different. They spoke a language of their own and two secret languages besides that no one could begin to decipher. They had a streak of independence that brooked no encroachments and a penchant for boisterousness and strong drink. Still, they had served the crown faithfully for decades. People said they were descended from foreign troops stranded far from home during the days of the Ravaging. Disliked and always under suspicion, they would long ago have been eradicated were it not for their unity and martial abilities. On the battlefield, they were brave beyond belief, steadfast, disciplined and deadly, and had earned a reputation as unpredictable and clever in warfare.

The prince, in what seemed his open way, had always been friendly with them, but, in recent years, he had begun to express his mistrust of them. Seeing, he said, in their otherness, a fertile ground for conspiracy. Some of his generals had always thought so.

The hall was a cacophony but he could still catch a few words of a song they were singing.

Once we had a king
Who ruled from overseas
Until that day we said no more!
And rose up off our knees!


After the meal came more singing and dancing. The adolescents marched in their own pageantry. The warriors of the Lion Fangs, leaped and whirled their spears and rattled mugs with their deep chants. Then came the storytellers and their praise poems recalling glorious victories and worthy rulers.

General Usotho, the youngest man to ever hold that rank at 28 years of age, watched the prince during one particular poem. It was a new work and detailed the king's last great campaign against the upstarts of Mutarr, but only after first detailing the old king's kindness and reluctance to enter into war.

Usotho narrowed his cat's eyes and glanced at Lasangoma. The scholar smiled thinly. It appeared the prince was impervious to the implied criticism.

Others were not. Uncle Bogana frowned at the story-teller.

Afterwards came a singing of the new prophecy, a prediction of a "Man of Iron" that would come and conquer the whole of the continent. Of course, most people, especially those that loved him, chose to believe this referred to the prince. Usotho thought that idea ridiculous. He chose to believe, and others supported the idea, that it referred to himself. After all, he was brilliant, he had a gift for command and he was not burdened with the softer emotions. Conquering people sounded well and good to him.

After these festivities, A narrow table was set up across from the prince and a line formed by those bearing gifts. The prince exchanged chairs with Ishelda, and everyone on that side turned their seats outward. Then, the procession started. The table's surface was soon covered.

There was jewelry of gold and silver and set with diamonds and red diamonds and black diamonds. Weapons piled on top of weapons, mostly ornamental or ceremonial daggers. There was one sword that looked to be of a serious make and there was another that gleamed like charred silver. The bearer announced it was made of steel taken from a raid into a dead city. This last came from Namba and the prince turned in his seat to raise his mug to the prince of Namba behind him, who smiled faintly and bowed his head.

There were gifts from family members, from men who owed him allegiance, from ambassadors of member states, Moshco, Tanzan, Shaba and Mutarr.

The Mutarran's every move and every expression were scrutinized, but he gave no cause for offense and his gift was substantial, a three-foot tall statue of the late king. Frozen in marble, the king stood, about to hurl his spear. He was older here, a hero to the last as he stood during his last battle against the sea raiders in the east of Tanzan, his last action in the field. The spear was gold, and coated in gold were the leopardskin mantle, the hilt and sheath of his sword and various royal ornaments. A genuine diamond nestled in the iron crown, a tiny facsimile of the one the prince now wore.

Of course, after this, the prince would have a short parade of people from the villages to traipse through in their bare feet and present their best homespun. Everyone here used such cloth; it was the proximity that bothered them.

Lastly, there emerged into the light a man who made the crowd murmur like summer insects. He was a very white man. He moved back the hood of his travel-stained robe and revealed ashen blond hair. He smiled at the prince.

"My Prince, I apologize for my appearance. My name is Ashal. I have traveled far to be here tonight and found no time to pretty myself on the road." His bow took in the other partiers as well as the prince. "I bear a gift from someone you once knew and he commanded me that I should put it into your own hands."

The prince smiled, looking at those about him. "Come forward," he commanded. The man did so. Any man here within reach and several who were not could take the stranger down if he made so much as a threatening twitch. The prince was unafraid. The man radiated benevolence. At least, the prince thought so.

The man bowed a knee.

"Rise, rise," said the prince. "You have traveled far, you say?"

"Indeed, yes, my Prince," he replied, standing. "From Europa."

There was an audible gasp from the audience. Europa was a land that existed for these people mostly in fable and speculation. Intermittent contact had only recently begun along the empire's west coast. The two scholars sat up in interest, Sipho, being quite drunk, trying blearily to focus on the stranger.

"Indeed?" asked the prince. "That is a far journey and a dangerous one. It is a wonder that you are here. You must stay awhile and regale us with stories. After you have rested, of course."

The man bowed his head, his hair glowing in the lamplight. "Indeed, my Prince, I am commanded by he who sent this gift to serve my Prince for as long as he will have me."

"Ah. And where is this gift?" asked the prince. "It must be small as I do not see anything." He smiled broadly to indicate no genuine criticism.

"Indeed, my Prince is wise," replied the other. He reached into a pocket of his robe and withdrew a jewel, suspended on the end of a thin, black leather thong. It gleamed liquid black, but a closer look revealed it was threaded with veins of red. It was about the size of the tip of the prince's finger and shaped like a teardrop. The prince reached out, the scholars behind him craning their necks for a better look. The stranger dropped the jewel into the prince's palm.

"My most important charge is done," the stranger pronounced with a sigh.

The prince eyed the strange jewel as it spun. "And who has sent this gift?"

"Your old friend and teacher, whom you knew as Arquazel." The exotic name produced a louder murmur than his appearance had. Everyone knew that name, the name of an ancient hermit who lived in the jungle surrounding Isongo. And everyone knew that the Prince had visited the old man for years, beginning when he was quite young. They called him a wizard, a necromancer, a healer and a wise man. But those close to the family heard that the Prince would emerge from those visits with wistful eyes and strange questions.

And then, four years ago, everyone realized the man was gone. No one knew why.

The prince looked up, his eyes alight. "Indeed? Truly? Then you must stay. You will be an honored guest." Without further ado or questions, the prince placed the thong around his neck.

As Ashal knew he would do.

The formalities done, the party became a roar of song and conversation and laughter. No one noticed the stricken look on the prince's face at one point before he retired. It was only a flickering moment, but after that, he did not laugh and smile as much.

And he knew, by the end of that night, that the conspiracy was wider than he feared.

CHAPTER 3


That night the prince lay in his bed alone, having refused all entreaties, even Sanal's.

Especially Sanal's.

He had met with a trusted general briefly, secretly, and then dismissed him.

As he slept, he came upon Arquazel in a dream.

The wizard appeared to be lost. All was mist around them. The old man saw him and his brown face screwed up into a frown. "Mbala?" said the old man, using the prince's given name. "Why are you here? Are you dead?" He looked around. "No, no, I see you have wandered in your dreams." He sounded genuinely relieved. "Your spirit flies far tonight. Let me see...you have the Tear!"

It took the prince a moment to understand what the wizard meant. He looked down, reaching for his chest. The jewel was there, glittering.

"Good," the wizard muttered softly, stroking his short white beard. His white eyebrows moved like caterpillars writhing in the sun. He seemed older than the prince remembered, more so than the gap in their acquaintance should account for. He bore his staff--now looking like an ordinary black stick, and visibly leaned on it. He seemed very tired.

"Oh, but I'm afraid it's all too late, you see," said the wizard, abruptly. He seated himself on a rock that had not been there before.

"What's too late?" asked the prince.

"The plans!" the wizard answered. "Or rather The Plan. Too much has gone wrong. Too much was out of my control. And my enemies..." For a moment the old man's brown face flushed darker in anger. The prince resisted a temptation to step back. "They will come for you, all of you, eventually," his face now sad. "You must unite! You must discover your abilities!" Then, he paused and shook his head. "No, it's too late, too late. Samar is dead, Arexa fights for her life in Catalon, Erith in Briton faces a sorcerer with a Tear!"

At that last, the wizard shouted the word, outraged. "A Tear! Stolen from your sister in America!"

Now, the prince did take a step back. The wizard seemed mad, babbling nonsense. Of course, he had always talked obscurely and mentioned times and places and events the prince had never heard of but he had never seen the old man angry before. What could he possibly mean by "sister"? The prince's last sister had died four years ago. And he mentioned Amarca, the ancient name of the most hated and feared place on earth, the insane people who lived there blamed for the beginning of the Ravaging.

"I'm sorry, Mbala. Truly," the wizard said. The sorrow in his voice was worse than hearing his anger.

"A plan, wise one?" asked the prince. "What is this plan?"

"Was, Mbala! Was!" the wizard became agitated again. "Mankind is going to destroy itself! Finish the job, as it were. The world is becoming more hospitable. Mankind has reached the point now that they will tame the wilderness again! And multiply! And then they will recover the old technologies and destroy themselves! Finally! Over! Done! Fini!" The old man snapped his long fingers. The prince saw sparks fly. "We thought we could forestall this. What foolishness. We fought our war for the right to return to the surface and we found worse disaster than we had predicted. And we found power. And then we fought amongst ourselves over this power. There are few of us left now, on either side."

The old man looked at Mbala with his strange blue eyes. "We created you and your siblings to stop this. You had to rule with an iron hand. You had to leave your lands and conquer!" he said, warming to his subject, sweeping out a gnarled hand. "Twelve Alexanders the Great! Twelve Napoleons! Conquer the world and stop the madness!" He looked at the prince sadly again and then looked away. "Those names are meaningless to you. So much is lost..."

"But we must stop this if we can," declared the prince.

"You will be hated, Mbala! Children will curse your names! You must keep men and women from knowledge now hidden. Do you understand what that would entail? Force, Mbala! Can you do that?"

The prince considered this. "I don't know," he finally admitted. "But, if the survival of all mankind is at stake..."

"Pfft," uttered the wizard, almost comically. "No one will believe that is your motivation. They will see you as red-handed oppressors. Absolute dictators. And why?" The wizard leaned in at him. "Because you will be!"

The prince stood mute, trying to make sense of it. He did not question the veracity of the dream. He had met his ancestors in dreams before; why not a wizard?

"Still," the old man mused, "It wasn't meant to last forever. A couple of hundred years, at most. We just need time, Mbala. Time to mold mankind."

The wizard stood up suddenly from his rock. He peered into the void with wide eyes. Then, he turned to the prince and said, "I think you should wake up, now."

The prince's eyes popped open.

He sat up in bed, the wizard's last words echoing in his head. His heart raced with fear. His head snapped around. There was a scratching sound at the great mahogany doors that led to the balcony, closed now in the cool of the night. The wood creaked and began to split near the latch. He sat frozen in horrid fascination. The latch popped off and shot across the room.

The prince moved. He had brought the Namban blade, the one composed of Old World metal, to his room. It lay propped up against the wall by his bed. He grabbed the hilt and with shaking hands tore away the sheath and stood on guard. He was thinking, sadly, that he had grossly overestimated the time he'd had left.

The balcony doors swung open silently. A black shape strode into the room, its steps audible with weight. Moonlight streamed in around it. It was covered in black hair or was it spikes? Its head was like a wolf's in shape, although the eyes looked all too human. Its legs were like a bird's and ended in talons like an eagle. A spiky tail waved behind it. It advanced and howled.

It was nothing of this earth. The horrible stench wafting from it proved that not even the radioactive ruins could have produced this monstrosity. It was nothing less than a demon, summoned from the outer dark by someone to not just kill him but to torture his soul.

He found himself outraged that they would use sorcery against him. No one used magic in war; not even in assassination. To even talk about such a thing would result in immediate execution.

The thing took another step. Energy burst around it. It ululated in pain.

Now, we shall see, thought the prince, how effective a defense Sipho has woven around my bed.

The thing raised a hand and pushed. The light blazed and sparked. For a moment, the field held, but then the thing exerted its strength and pushed through. The light flared and died.

"Guards! Guards!" the prince cried.

The thing gathered itself and pounced. The prince readied a deathblow, prepared to make the taking of his life as hard a bargain as he could, futile as it was. His new sword bit into the thing's shoulder. It howled in pain, but it felt like he had laid an ax into a tree. The prince readied himself for death, expecting to be bowled over, disemboweled, beheaded. But the weight of the thing vanished. It landed behind him. The prince only felt bone-chilling cold and the miasma that assaulted his senses. The demon struck the wall, rattling a shield that hung there.

It had passed right through him. The prince looked down at himself; he was unharmed.

The demon growled and leaped at him again. The prince, still stunned that he was alive, brought up the blade and staggered back. The demon's jaws enlarged like a snake to swallow him. Again, he felt the chill and again the demon fell past him. And now the prince felt something else: great warmth spreading into his chest, dispelling the cold and infusing him with energy.

He realized it was from the Tear he still wore.

There had been a hammering at the door for some time, he noticed. Men shattered the lock and burst into the room. They stopped and stared in horror at the demon. It ignored them. They made ready to charge, to place themselves between the monster and the prince, but the prince held up a hand to stay them.

The demon was studying the prince, blinking. Then it straightened and began to transform. Smoke rose from it, light split its body into fiery fissures and flame blossomed from its mouth and the wound in its shoulder.

"Hold!" cried the prince to the warriors.

The demon leaped at him again. The prince stood with closed eyes, calm.

The noisome creature passed through him again as if one of them were made of moonlight. The prince barely felt the heat. The warmth from the Tear overrode it, sweet and red like a ripe fruit to a parched throat.

The demon turned, facing the prince again. Its form wavered as it changed back into the wolf-ape-bird thing. It moved in a blur for the balcony and was gone.

The prince turned to look at the men in his bedroom. "Captain DuCane," he greeted one of them with a nod.

The captain of the Brotherhood of the White Star nodded in turn. "Milord."

That was as much of a bow and an honorific as the prince could expect. DuCane's full lips spread into a small smile beneath his aquiline nose. "We were delayed, milord. We lost a man."

"The Lion Fangs?" asked the prince.

"They are holed up in the west wing of the palace in their quarters, milord. I don't doubt that, were you to show up and wave that great pig-sticker about, they will surrender. The plot has failed."

"Indeed, it has," murmured the prince. "It was a good farce we performed, eh, captain?"

The captain replied, "Indeed, yes, milord."

"The farce may be over," said the prince. "Now, the drama begins."

A mile away, in the vast basement below his home, the wizard Lasangoma paced. Occasionally, he would stop and peer into a lump of crystal on his ancient desk.

Three men shared the space with him.

Uncle Mombi said, "What is the delay, old man? You required us to be witnesses. When will there be something to witness?"

Next to him was his son, Alonye, of an age with the prince. Next to Alonye was General Usotho.

The wizard looked up in irritation. "The old bitch Sipho has set up a barrier, a ward spell in the prince's room."

The other three exchanged looks. "Is that a simple precaution? Or have we been exposed?" asked Usotho.

The wizard made ready to answer, then glanced down at the crystal. A look of terror slowly crawled across his face. "Oh," he muttered. "Oh, no..."

He sprang to a nearby shelf. He began frantically pawing through the various jars and crocks there. Finally finding what he sought, he moved to the center of the room as he carefully opened a large black pot. He extended his hand and his staff flew to him from the desk to smack into his open palm.

A loud crash sounded against the door that led to the basement, startling the other three conspirators.

"My friends," said the wizard, as he dipped the end of his staff in the crock, "we are undone." He began drawing a small circle around himself with the liquid from the pot. It looked like a mixture of blood and milk. Again, some force boomed against the door. "The demon has been summoned to take a life," continued Lasangoma, his voice shaking despite his calm words. He quickly drew small symbols within the circle. Finished, he stood straight and said to his fellow conspirators, "He could not take Mbala's. And he will not have mine."

Realization dawned on Usotho's young face. He drew his sword and began to shout a warning when the door burst open and the demon leaped in, shrieking.

It went straight for Lasangoma. Energy and light flared around the wizard. The demon, checked, hardly paused. It whirled away from him and went for the nearest man standing.

Its purpose was to kill without leaving a mark, and so it did not rend Uncle Mombi. It seemed to reach into the man's barrel chest. Mombi screamed and tried to back away, but the light went out of his eyes like a blown-out candle. And then, worse than seeing his viscera, the two remaining conspirators saw the demon remove his hand and out came a squirming thing that seemed to be made of smoke and light and squealed with Mombi's voice. The demon turned to them, still holding the Mombi-thing as light spilled from it like blood.

The two conspirators, in spite of themselves, cowered. The demon howled and slowly dissolved away as if it were never there.

Alonye cried out, "Baba!" and ran to his father's unmarked body.

"General Usotho," said Lasangoma, quietly, still standing within his circle. "A fugitive life is no life for a child, do you agree?"

In answer, Usotho brought his sword down into Alonye's neck as he knelt, weeping.

CHAPTER 4


Several days later, during the height of the coronation ceremonies, a bent old woman made her way down the road leading east.

She was not alone on the road, but she was the only one heading out of the city. She carried a staff and a backpack. She was very dark, with all her facial features seeming to screw up into the center of her face.

Abruptly, she realized that the people were clearing the way before her. She looked up and saw a man blocking her path. She stopped. "Greetings, Captain DuCane, mongrel dog!" she said.

Captain DuCane of the Brotherhood of the White Star nodded in the old woman's direction. He had his heavy short sword in his hand, the blade resting in his palm, his white cloak billowing out behind him. He was alone. "Where is General Usotho, old man?" he barked.

The old woman threw up her knotty arms, raising the staff above her head. Her form seemed to melt and it was Lasangoma who stood there. "He betrayed me and left me. I wish you luck in finding him," said the wizard.

DuCane brought his sword up. "For your crimes, old man, the sentence is death, and I am the executioner." He stalked forward.

"Fool!" cried the wizard. "And a fool for a prince who sent you! I will shrivel your heart like a burning flower!" The wizard raised his staff and cast lightnings at DuCane. People nearby scattered, screaming.

Captain DuCane came on, smiling, unaffected. "I was sent by a king!" he growled.

The wizard's eyes grew wide and staring when he realized his death was upon him. DuCane brought his sword down between the old man's raised brows and split his skull to his teeth.

The warmth of the Tear borrowed from the prince spread on DuCane's chest like a woman's hand made of cream.

General Usotho was never found and indeed, made good his escape.

Another day after the execution of Lasangoma, Mbala lll, king of Isongo, sat before his former lover, Sanal, in a small chamber of the jails beneath the old fortress.

This was a comfortable room, clean, with a table and two chairs. His new commander of the guard, Captain DuCane, entered with him along with his new advisor, the strange, white man named Ashal. They stood behind the king, expressionless.

Sanal would scarcely look up. But he mumbled, "I do not know why I am here. I had nothing to do with anything."

"If you lie to me again," said the king, dispassionately, "you will be beheaded without further ado,"

Sanal remained silent.

The king slid into the chair opposite Sanal. "When I learned Uncle Mombi was a part of this conspiracy, I was shocked and saddened. I loved him. I knew he was disappointed in me, but I always thought I had his affection. And so I began to wonder what could have turned him against me." The king leaned forward now, folding his hands across the table, his rings glittering. "You told them about the lions, didn't you?"

Sanal nodded mutely.

"You told him we were out hunting," continued the king, "and that five of them took us by surprise and would have killed us both, but I stopped them."

"Yes, Kose," murmured Sanal.

"And how did I stop them, Sanal?"

Sanal hesitated, and then said, "With your mind, Kose."

"With my mind. Desperate I was and afraid. I did not know if I could do it, but it was either that or death. I reached into their brains with my brain and stopped them. Long enough, at least, for us to get away." The king's voice sank to a fierce whisper. "And so Uncle Mombi, straight as a spear, knew I was a mutant!"

Sanal broke into sobs. "Yes, Kose!" he blubbered. "I told Alonye and he told Uncle Mombi!"

"Yes, Alonye," said the king, leaning back. "Would you like to hear how I knew you had betrayed me?"

"You read my mind," replied Sanal, bitterly. The king snorted. "If I read men's minds I would not have come so close to death! You know that I cannot."

Sanal merely nodded. "No. You told me yourself."

Sanal looked up in surprise.

The king smiled coldly. "At the Gifting Banquet. There was much laughter at our table, wasn't there? And every time I looked at you to share a laugh at what someone had said you were not looking at me. You looked at Alonye."

The king sat up again. "It was a small thing, the sort of thing you never notice, simply a normal interaction between friends or lovers. I never thought much about it," The king's voice grew thin. "Until it was absent."

Sanal's eyes grew wide and he looked at the floor trying to remember. "Oh, yes." said the king. “You were a poor choice for a conspirator, Sanal. You had not the intelligence to guard your face. Doubtless, you were besotted with your new love."

"They threatened me, Kose," said Sanal pleadingly. "They threatened my family."

The king nodded. "At the end of that feast, because of you, I knew many things I did not before. I knew people were involved whom I did not suspect. Including Uncle Mombi."

"There is one thing more you should know, Kose," whispered Sanal. "When your mother lay dying she spoke in her delirium that you were not the king's son. Mombi was there. So were the scholars."

The king did not express his surprise. He shrugged. "She was delirious, as you say."

Sanal nodded and then bowed his head. "Mercy, Kose."

The king stood. "More than you deserve. My new advisors think you should be beheaded with all the rest. But, no. You will have your right hand removed so you can never wield a sword with that hand against me. And you will be escorted to the northern borders and released. And let me never see your face again!"

The king turned to Ashal. "I believe my generals await me, yes? Mutarr has been sticking her nose up in the air. Time we spanked her."

The king swept from the room.

Sanal cradled his right hand and sobbed.


THE END


2017 Rick Hannah

Bio: Rick Hannah is making arts & crafts with his wife deep in the heart of Texas. He is also writing. His latest story to see print is “The Hissing of Summer Rogues”, in the anthology Barbarian Crowns ll, featuring his hero, Rodero of Zingara.

E-mail: Rick Hannah

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