Saturday, November 21, 2009

"A Child of the War God" A Short Story

This is a short story I wrote decades ago. It was published somewhere (I forget where) and was to be part of my short story collection that never happened when the publisher keeled over before it could go to press.


By James Robert Smith.

Copyright 2009.

We hold them in our grasp

and we mold them

and they have no choice.

—Akhita, wife of the great emperor.

The teacher gathered the young sons about him: and he told them this history as they sat in a field of wheat, the group of them overlooking the Great Sea.

Sometimes, in the scheme of history, monumental things occur close upon the heels of another. So it was in the land known as Mangrove in the time of your own grandfathers. Three great things occurred in quick succession there, in that country of wide plains and sheltered bays. Three great things that brought many lands under the yoke of Mangrove and the world under the tread of its armies, and worse; and out again.

First, from a minor dukedom in the hills that border its rich fields, from a place that Mangrove's kings claimed only as an afterthought, came a little known royal son: Jarrad. His father was a weak and silent link in the chain of holy blood. More ambitious dukes and princes who were hungry for power did not covet his poor lands. So it was that few knew his name or his reputation when he came to be counted among the highborn sons of the kingdom. But when he at last came to Mangrove the City, all soon knew him.

Physically, he was a giant, so his ability as a soldier was second to none. No other could quite handle the great swords and axes as well as he, and no one could best him in single combat. His record in military contest was unblemished.

But he was a giant in more ways than merely size. If he knew how to handle a sword, he knew better than anyone how to wield the small armies that were his father's bequest to him. Within a week of the old duke's passing, he was quarreling with his royal neighbor—within a week of that, he was at war; and in another week brought down the castle of his rival, its master's head at the end of a long and bloody pike. The neighbors to the east and south of the defeated duke looked with worried eyes at the hungry Jarrad who, for now, seemed ill at ease to sit and enjoy such a small conquest for one with such great ambition. Soon they did more than look; they began to mutter amongst themselves.

A giant in size, a giant in tactics. And, woe to the plotting dukes, Jarrad yet proved them midgets in the art known as subversion. Not only did he prise apart the loose coalition of royalty that sought to put an end to this upstart, he soon had them quarreling among their own numbers. So, while they fought their aimless skirmishes, his new army rode strong into their disorganized midst and put them down, swallowed them up. Where one head had graced a single pike, now there were six shafts of iron-tipped bronze dripping royal blood upon the fists of the captains in whose tight grips they were carried.

So it was that a giant soon had made a single county of all of the duchies that had been the kingdom we knew as Mangrove. So it was that the king of that place looked to the borders of the rich lands that were his, from the towers of his castle on the high cliffs above the calm, green bay full of his ships. He looked and saw the approach of the new pretender who was come to topple him out of the high place and take the crown and the throne and make a fresh king—a king named Jarrad.

There was a battle, for great things do not come easily. But in the end, Jarrad stood on the parapet overlooking the rocks far below and the merchant navy that floated on the calm water. It was Jarrad who himself lifted up the struggling form of the old king and threw him off where the little man was dashed to pieces on the earth's jagged teeth, there where the waves pick at them.

A giant was now king in Mangrove. Other kings looked in fear instead of calm amusement at Mangrove's ambassadors and with some envy at the modest wealth of the place. The giant was yet hungry, and they were afraid.

Where there had been a great fleet of merchant ships plying the eastern seas, Jarrad added to it a formidable navy that equaled the merchant ships in number and which brought his armies to lands that had once traded in peace with Mangrove or competed with that land. The sandals of his armies ranged far and conquered all. Within a small span of years, Jarrad had an empire that reached as far as any ship had yet sailed, that held within it all that was worth having and some that was not; that enthralled the people of many cultures and races. Only a giant could have stood at its head: Jarrad.

The next greatness was that Jarrad fell in love. Or, rather, he loved a strange woman and their union produced a son.

Jarrad's advisors did their best to tout him away from wedding the woman he chose. She was Akhita, whose name in her native tongue means, "freshly picked rose." Jarrad had been struck at once by her almond-eyed beauty when she was sent to Mangrove as an ambassador by her newly cowed father—he who had lost all his armies to those of Jarrad. But she was not of Mangrove, not of his own people; and worse, she did not worship at the altars of Morn, the one true God. Jarrad's whisperers-at-ear could not convince him otherwise; and the priests were most displeased by this strange and foolish choice of a wife.

And worst of all for the holy men, the new queen believed in foreign philosophies they believed it was better Jarrad not hear, let alone consider practicing. These organs of the Church well knew the danger of their king coming under the influence of thoughts that might dissuade him from further pursuing the policies that had now made a world power of once modest Mangrove. They were afraid of her; and fearing her, their hatred followed soon on the heels of that most malignant of human emotions. The priests did not like her, and they did not like the teachers and attendants she brought with her from her native land.

But, there was nothing they could do to stop this folly. Jarrad was at the height of his power, and the people of Mangrove loved him so there was nothing he could do to make them cross at him. Great riches flowed into the kingdom—the crumbs of the wealth that fell from the tables of the fat merchants and royal families made even the average citizen of Mangrove rich by the standards of other lands. The priests could not dissuade the king, and so they were left to convert the beautiful Akhita to the ways of God, Morn.

As it happened, the holy men needn't have worried over her, for with the first child to be born of Jarrad and his lovely wife, the burden proved too much for her. Akhita died in childbirth, leaving Jarrad with a son, Prince Nita.

Ah, the priests now smiled their reptilian grins in the privacy of their own company. They were rid of the infection, and now Jarrad could once more be turned to new conquest and new loot to decorate the halls and troves of Morn's temples. In the main, a bishop arose from their midst, a certain Albinus, who spoke his twisted prophecies into Jarrad's ear and waited for him to react to them in military ways.

But nothing came of it. Jarrad retired to his ancestral home in the darks hills of his father's holdings, and he did not go out with his armies to raid far lands as in other days. He only went back to where he had come, and there he seemed merely to be idle, rarely venturing out, even to Mangrove the city, where he had left his generals in charge to see to the maintenance of his empire. The priests, with Albinus at their head, were uneasy in this new entropy to which they were not accustomed after all the years of so much wealth flooding into the kingdom. They grew angrier, and in their anger, the plotting began.

Albinus sent out his weasel spies, and this they told him:

"Jarrad sits at the feet of foreign philosophers and learns of ways of life that shun conquest. Akhita may be dead, but her influence lives on. For Jarrad seems determined to live life as she would have had him live it, and raise their only child in the ways that molded her own soul into the one with which Jarrad fell so in love."

The chief priest listened, and the spies could hardly tell that he ground his teeth at their words. He asked them more. And what else, that he might use it against Jarrad, or turn him once more to the ways of old?

"There is little else, holy man. Save that he loves his son greatly, so much that he spends his days with him."


"The boy is not healthy, as most boys are. His left foot is misshapen so that he cannot run, and his right arm is partially withered so that he cannot grasp the lance, nor throw the spear."

There was a gleam in the eyes of Albinus that frightened even these corrupted spies who had seen much and done the deeds of snakes.

"But Jarrad loves him more than you would imagine. As one who once loved the mother from whom the child came. He shows no anger at the boy's shortcomings and carries him wherever they go.

"And he holds him just so."

The spies beheld again the gleam in the bishop's eyes; they trembled.

The third greatness, the damning one for Mangrove, now came.

No king had ever risen without the aid of his god. Jarrad was no different from any other king in this respect and had always acknowledged the guidance of Morn in his own rise to power and in the bestowing of the greatness that had come to Mangrove. And so, while Jarrad languished with his son in his native hills, he looked on from time to time with little interest as the Church and its bishops began to exercise the offices of that body. Jarrad noted only in passing the gradual return of near-forgotten traditions and barely practiced religious law—it was like the slow creep of patient vines up a granite wall. Such old practices were in keeping with the teachings of the Books of Morn, and such had been good for the nation, and for him. He merely nodded his approval as edicts were carried to him, going back to seats of power with his great signature scrawled broadly thereon. Jarrad had never denied Morn his due. Jarrad had never taken back his own word.

For years, the king lived in the castle of his father, guiding his son and being guided by his love for the boy: a love for his wife that yet lingered. He rarely stirred forth, doing so only for certain functions of state and to see that skirmishes with small armies on the empire's borders did not ignite into any embarrassing wars. Occasionally, Jarrad had been known to send down decisions of diplomacy rather than of war, of political solutions rather than those of a military nature. Grumbles began to filter up out of the enclaves of the Church, and the agents of Bishop Albinus began to stir.

"The child has been a cancer," Albinus was heard to mutter. "But it has been twelve years since his birth. It is time for the boy to be a man." His robed minions stared up at him, waiting.

"A man, as Morn instructs the son of a king to be a man."

That smile.

When the ambassadors from the enclave of Albinus delivered the communication from the bishop, Jarrad was with his son. The boy was sitting at the feet of his father, reading to him from a book of poetry written by his mother. The boy's words were sweet to the king, and the child's accent hinted of Akhita's vanished voice. With the boy still reciting, Jarrad received the message and absently unrolled the scroll to see what new bother the chief priest was disturbing him with that day.

Peering up from his reading, Prince Nita saw the pale and frozen mask his father's face had become. His recitation was stilled. "Father?"

"Albinus." The name was clipped off of the king's tongue like bad meat by a butcher. The scroll in Jarrad's gigantic hand vanished as his iron bar fingers clenched, his bearlike palm consuming it. "Albinus," the name hissed out, and the holy man's priests drew deep for the courage to stand fast and await their king's reply, hoping that it would not come in the form of angry steel.

"What have these men brought that has angered you?" Nita had risen from where he sat; looking at the paper that was slowly being swallowed by Jarrad's great and fleshy hand. The boy was stunned as his father, fear written on the king's face, stood suddenly and strode to the child, taking him up in mighty arms that could snap the spine of an ox.

The king lifted the boy, and he held him just so, betraying his royal facade with short, soft sobs.

Prince Nita's gaze was drawn to the scroll that had fallen to the marble floor. In the language of the church: ‘A Call for the Trial of Manhood, for the Successor, Prince Nita’. An old and ancient tradition not required of the sons of Mangrove for generations. But old traditions had returned to the kingdom during the ministrations of Albinus. Jarrad himself had approved them to placate the Church and his people.

Jarrad sobbed. Prince Nita, despite the embrace of the giant, shivered.

He came out of his castle in the dreary hills of his father as an addict from his pipe dreams. But this illusion had lasted for more than a dozen years, and the expression that was etched on the emperor's great head was filled with rage borne of resignation; there was none of the bewilderment of the awakening opium fiend in his eyes. Jarrad had fooled himself into believing that the wealth and power his armies had won had also won for him a measure of security and protection from the responsibilities his people expected of him. And he had been fool enough to think that his station had provided for himself and his heir a measure of exemption. He came out of his castle and down from his hills, and although he held no more of his silly delusions, he was filled with a fire of anger, of hatred for those who had dashed his reverie.

At first, he had denied that the prince must bend to the will of the bishop. Gathering the few advisors he yet trusted, he conferred with them and went over and over the options that were open for him and for Nita. Each time he proposed a solution to the problem, his studied men dashed his hopes, told him that the boy had to endure the trial and prove his manhood and thus his worthiness. It all fell back to the edicts and Jarrad's foolish mark placed upon paper for all to read.

In Jarrad's long absence at the literal head of his armies, the frontiers had grown restive and the little uprisings more frequent. So the people of Mangrove had become more xenophobic, especially under the aggravations of Bishop Albinus, and the idea of a prince tainted by foreign blood did not appeal to the masses who filled Mangrove's cities and fueled its industries and manned its machinery of war. Jarrad, giant though he was, found himself stuck. He had resigned himself to the inevitable, and took his son to the capital of the nation so the trial could take place, knowing the boy could not pass it.

In truth, the trial was a simple thing. Most of it took place under the watchful eyes of teachers, of tutors who had been with the prince many of the years of his short life. He knew the history of his father's land, the ways of its folk and the legends that were regarded as truths by the people of Mangrove. Part of the trial was an examination of Nita's knowledge of the teachings of Morn and the prophets the god had spawned. In this, too, the youth proved himself worthy, even though none other than Bishop Albinus posed the questions himself. Nita was a deep one, and he did not falter at the problems presented to him nor fail to reason as one who followed Morn.

But the third prong of the trial was a physical one. Still, it was a rare boy who could not pass it. Thrust and parry. Run and throw. Proof of manhood.

The pain of it was made worse by the publicity of having the last trial in plain view of the vulgar many who filled the amphitheater where it was held. Nita was small in the simple cloak he was made to wear. His right arm, like a pale stick newly peeled of its bark, was evident to the crowds who had come to see the young one show his mettle. He was not allowed to wear a shoe or a sandal, so that all eyes saw that his right leg ended in something more like a lump than a proper foot. The prince failed so that the sheathed blade struck him more often than he was able to fend it off. When he tried to throw the spear, it went wide of the targets, and his score was quite poor. And the boy did not, could not run.

He was no warrior, this frail child. Alas, he was not, in the eyes of Morn, a man. He could not be allowed to take the throne.

It was not enough that this son of Jarrad would not be allowed to succeed the father. No. Albinus now asked for the final judgement of the trial: that the boy be put to the sword so that no faction could later claim he was worthy, that the boy might be used to usurp the throne for some future puppetmaster. The sentence was passed, and a date set so that the realm could be rid of the threat.

In the castle above the bay, Jarrad raged and gnashed his teeth and wanted nothing more than to rend the bishop head from body, to mash the priest’s brains to suet and drag his filthy body through the streets at the end of a long tether. But he could not do that. To do such a thing would be to spit in the face of Morn, and that the people would not allow. Even Jarrad could not stay his armies and his folk if he were to so insult the will of God. He had no choice but to allow it. There was nothing he could do. Nowhere to run.

When, at last, the time came, Nita spoke. He was, as he had proven to Albinus and the priests, a true scholar of the teachings of Morn. So it was that he made a legitimate request.

"I ask," the boy said, "that the blow be made away from the prying eyes of our people, and that it be struck by Jarrad, my father and our king."

Though the request angered Albinus, he relented; for indeed it was legal, and he could not risk a refusal. He himself had wished to do the deed, and now he was robbed of it. Still, he was mainly content, for soon his king would be rid of this taint, would once again place himself at the fore of the conquering army; and Jarrad might be tempted to take a queen born of Mangrove and give the kingdom a proper heir, one more tractable to the ways that Albinus interpreted the words of Morn.

It happened on a holy evening, the sun gone to a ruddy glow in the sky above the sea. Jarrad and Nita made their ways down the granite stairs carved into the steep cliffs below the castle, going slowly down and down until they found themselves on the tide-wet sands, waves slashing noisily between the rocks. In earlier years, on visits to the city, the two had sometimes gone there, the boy riding high on the giant's broad shoulders. They walked together now, side by side.

And though the king would have waited until the last moment, when the sun would come rising over the craggy peaks behind them, Nita would have none of that. He knew that his father's love might make him falter, that he might fool himself into thinking the two of them could somehow escape. "It's time," the boy said.

Hating Albinus, his kingdom, his people, Jarrad unsheathed the great sword that hung at his thigh. The cold steel of it hissed in the salt air as he slowly drew it free. Loving his son more greatly than can be imagined, he lifted the boy up in his great left arm.

And he held him just so.

The boy sighed once; and the giant roared back at the sea, silencing even the waves.

In the morning, Albinus and the soldiers from his enclave descended to the beach to make certain that the deed had been done. He came with the others upon the scene, and it was more than any of them could believe.

Jarrad, like a fallen oak, lay stiff and dead on the bloody sand. Upon his great breast, cradled there like a babe, was the prince. The king had stabbed them both, the broadsword piercing their hearts, pinning the two of them together.

In a short time, the enemies of Mangrove learned of the death of Jarrad and knew that nothing less than a giant could hold together such an empire. Within a handful of years, the greatness of Mangrove was shattered. The kingdom was a quickly fading memory, cut up into independent lands once more, with minor duchies writhing amongst themselves like maggots in a rotting corpse.

And Albinus never saw the end of it. For his enclave had been overrun by marauding barbarians, and the bishop was stuck like a bug to a great wooden wall where he was jabbed with pikes and made to watch the rape of his priests. There, he was forced to await the ravens who soon came to land upon his bare and blistered shoulders, where they plucked out his staring eyes.

At the very end, he saw visions of Jarrad, and heard the voice of the little man who had shamed him, fooled him, won at last...

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