The village has been subdued, Most Excellent One.” The rider bowed low in his saddle. Behind him black smoke ascended in a thick, dark column to be scattered by the wind blowing in from the sea. His sorrel pony jerked its reins and tossed its head, its hide besmeared with soot and dried blood. “There was no resistance.”
Savage eyes watched the messenger from beneath the rim of an iron helm ornamented with black plumes that fluttered like wings in the wind. The warlord said nothing, but turned his horse and started slowly away. The messenger spurred his mount forward and drew up beside his departing commander. “Something has displeased you, my master?” The question betrayed apprehension.
“No, it is well. Our task is complete. I will return to the ships; you will accompany me. I may have need of a messenger.” He lifted himself in his saddle and called to several riders who waited a little distance apart. The riders held their helmets under one arm and stared impassively ahead at the smoke curling upward.
“You four”—the commander gestured with his gauntleted hand— “stay with the men and occupy this place. You others will come with me. We ride at once. Follow.”
“But what is to be done with the prisoners, Most Excellent One?” called the messenger after the dark retreating form. The warlord did not turn nor look around, but the messenger heard the words drifting back to him.
“Kill them,” his commander said.
The room hung heavy with the pungent fragrance of burning incense, and clouds of aromatic vapor drifted about the great figure seated on a throne of silk cushions. Tiny colored birds fluttered and chirped in cages nearby, their songs accompanied by the soothing notes of a flute.
Presently, the tinkling ring of a chime sounded in the passageway beyond, followed by a rustle of clothing. The gigantic form seated on the throne appeared to be asleep, for he did not move or acknowledge the intrusion in any way; the huge head rested heavily on the thick neck rising from massive shoulders and a great barrel chest. The meaty hands clasping one another in the wide lap remained motionless, thumbs pressed together.
“Immortal One, I have news,” said the minister who had just entered so quietly. He waited on his knees with his forehead pressed to the floor, hands thrust before him, palms upward.
“You may speak, Uzla.” The voice seemed to fill the small room, even though the words had been spoken quietly.
“Your warlords have returned. And they bring tidings of victory. The cities of the coast are subdued.”
“Has a suitable residence been found for me?”
“Alas, no, Immortal One, these were but small villages, and none possessed a dwelling worthy of your being. For this effrontery the villages have been burned and the ashes scattered, lest the sight of them displease you.”
Nin the Destroyer looked darkly upon his most trusted minister. “This land will feel my wrath!” he shouted. The birds trembled in their cages, and the music stopped. Uzla, the prime minister, cowered below him on the floor.
“The wretches of this accursed land speak of many castles in the north, and one in particular which may serve your needs while you sojourn here to subject this land to your will.”
“What is the name of this palace?”
“It is called Askelon. It is the city of the high king of this land— one known as the Dragon King.”
“Ah,” said Nin softly. “The sound of these words pleases me. Say them again.”
“Askelon is the home of the Dragon King.”
“It will be my home, and I will be the Dragon King. This pleases me. I have never killed a dragon before—have I, Uzla?”
“No, my Deity. Not to my knowledge.” He hastened to add, “That is, unless in a previous life, of course.”
“Then I will look forward to that event with anticipation, and I will savor the moment of its accomplishment.” He stood slowly. “Now, where are my warlords?” Nin asked, his deep voice booming.
“They await you on the beach,” replied Uzla. “I will summon them.”
“No, I will go to them. They have achieved my desires and will be rewarded by the sight of their god drawing near to them.”
“As you command, Great One.”
Uzla bowed again and raised himself from the floor. He turned and withdrew to the hall, clapped his hands, and shouted, “The Deity walks! Kneel before him, everyone!” He went before his sovereign, clapping his hands and shouting the warning. Nin followed slowly, balancing his immense bulk upon ponderous legs.
As they reached a short flight of stairs that led upward to the deck of the palace ship, Uzla clapped his hands again, and eight attendants brought a throne on poles. They placed the throne before their king, and he lowered himself onto it. Then, straining every muscle, the chair bearers climbed the steps, careful to keep the throne level, lest they incur the wrath of their temperamental god. Soon they moved out upon the deck.
Two more attendants waited on deck with large shades made of brilliant feathers. As soon as Nin’s chair emerged out upon the deck, the huge, burly head was shaded from the bright sunlight of a beautiful summer day. The attendants swayed under the weight of their burden, but proceeded down a long ramp that had been erected out over the shallow water from the palace ship to the shore. The ramp terminated in a platform on the beach, forming a dais from which Nin the Destroyer could command his subjects.
At the sight of this procession moving slowly down the ramp, the four warlords dismounted and drew near to the dais, prostrating themselves in the sand. The chair bearers reached the platform and placed the mobile throne squarely in the center of the dais, beneath a broad canopy of rich blue silk. Then they withdrew to await their king’s command, kneeling with their faces touching their knees.
The blue silk ruffled in the soft sea breeze. Above the dais, gulls wheeled in the air and shrieked at the spectacle below. Nin raised his hands and said, “Arise, my warlords. You may look upon your Deity.”
The warlords, clad in their heavy armor, rose stiffly to their feet and stood shoulder to shoulder before their patron.
“I have seen your victory from afar,” Nin continued. “With my own eyes I witnessed the flames of destruction. I am well pleased. Now tell me, my commanders, what is the strength of this land? Is there an army to stand before the Destroyer’s blade?” He looked at the four fighting men and nodded to one of them who stepped forward slowly. “Gurd?”
The warrior struck his heart with his closed hand; the mailed fist clanked dully upon the bronze breastplate. His long straight black hair was pulled tightly back and bound at the back of his head in a thick braid.
Quick black eyes set in a smooth, angular red face watched Nin closely. “I have seen no soldiers in the south, Immortal One. The peasant villages were unprotected.”
The warrior advanced. His gleaming head was shaved completely bald, except for a short bob of hair that he wore tied in a tight knot. On his cheeks and forehead were strange blue tattoos, and a ragged scar streaked from the corner of one almond-shaped eye to the base of a thick, muscular neck. “In the north we encountered no soldiers, Great One. The cowardly populace fled before our arrows like leaves before the storm.”
“Luhak,” called Nin, and the third warlord stepped forward.
Luhak touched his bearded chin with a brown hand. His head was covered in a helm of white horsehide that sprouted a short plume made from a horse’s tail at its crest. He was tall and lean, and when he opened his wide mouth to speak, a row of pointed white teeth flashed.
“I encountered but one village in the mountainous interior of this land, named Gaalinpor,” the warrior said. “No army could cross those mountains in surprise. We may turn our eyes elsewhere.”
The last warlord, a towering black man whose features were hidden beneath the veil that covered the lower part of his face, revealing only his large, dark eyes, took his place beside the others. His head was encased in a horn-covered leather helmet, and he wore a breastplate made of flat disks of horn that had been linked together with iron rings. A long red cape fell from his shoulders to the heels of his black boots. At his side he carried, as they all did, a curious curved sword with a thin, tapering blade honed dagger-sharp on both edges.
“And I, too, have seen no soldiers. The villages offered no resistance, the blood of the stubborn ran red upon the ground, and their ashes ascended to heaven in your honor, Immortal Nin.” With that the black warrior touched his forehead and bowed low.
“What land is this which builds no walls around its cities and leaves the small villages unprotected? Here is wealth for the taking, my warlords. We will push north to Askelon, and there I will establish my palace, so that I may be comfortable while bringing this land under my rule.
“Go now and bring me word when the castle is mine, that I may come at once and take possession of what I desire. But do not make sacrifice of the king. I will have that pleasure for my own; his blood will flow for me alone. Hear and obey.”
The four commanders saluted Nin and backed away a few paces. Then they turned, mounted their horses, and galloped off together. Nin clapped his hands, and the attendants sprang forward to begin the laborious process of carrying their god back up the ramp and into the magnificent palace ship.