“Volka warriors are made of hardened stones. When we walk upon the mud caked earth, the very soil shakes to its core. We march for days on end, without complaint and without regrets — for we live for war. We nourish it; cherish it; die for it. Imagine yourself as an arrow readied for the bow. One day you will be a weapon capable of piercing through the enemy,” his father had said, before he had died on the battlefield, as a stray spear pierced through his one remaining right eye and jutted out the other side.
Morahn had cried that day, great wracking sobs that contorted his body in grief untold, until his father’s body was lit upon the funeral pyre. “Look at him, they said, so devoted to his father. He has the makings of a fine warrior.”
Morahn was the only one who knew the truth of it. His father rarely spent time with him and was always moving from one battlefield to another. His father’s only aim had been to enlist him in the army when he reached twelve, which was only a few days away. When his father did not jump up and daub his clothes when lit on fire, Morahn was sure that he was finally dead. Then the tears stopped. Play-acting was over.
War held no fascination for him. In fact, he loathed it to his very core, and soul. He never understood why men wanted to see another’s entrails upon the ground. He tired of the mindless conquests, destroying cultures instead of learning from them, of extending the blade instead of the hand of friendship. They made him sick and left him with a tortured conscience. It made his guts churn that their tribe thrived upon the spoils of others.
His mother had re-married again after the one month grief period. It did not surprise him. He had seen her rutting with his eventual stepfather, Celbahr, months before his father’s death. Celbahr, for his part, was keen to ignore Morahn and more focused on producing his own progeny. It suited Morahn just fine.
Morahn did not take part in the coming-of-age ritual among the tribe, a prerequisite before venturing out for battle. Nor did they expect him to – except his mother. She knew that he loathed fighting, but still felt that he should follow his father’s footsteps to honor his memory.
Morahn suspected that his face stirred up memories of his father – something she could do without. So, he rarely kept home and she was busy with her new married life, and soon they were content to ignore each other.
Years passed, and in the year of Conquest 916, of the month of Capricorn, Morahn returned home following a little voyage to the nearby stream. He ran his fingers through the scarce stubbles around his chin, and could hardly believe that he was already twenty-one.
The door was open, and after getting inside, he closed it behind him. Then he set his rucksack down, and was only then aware of the eerie silence that pervaded the entire household. Outside, he heard signs of stamping feet and ruckus leading towards the direction of the market.
He usually ignored the mundane excitement of the crowd, but today, something was different. There was a cold chill around his nether regions and he felt unease as a black crow perched on the windowsill and cawed as if to draw his attention.
He scrambled up, scooped his rucksack, and ran out heading towards the bazaar. As he drew near, he saw that most of the houses on either side of the street were similarly open and deserted. Then he reached the market, and at the edge of his vision, he could see a thronging crowd gathered in a tight circle towards his left. There were hoots and whistles as he inched forward, squeezing his way through the packed crowd.
Morahn stopped at the edge of the ring, and his heart hammered against his chest. He was nauseated and felt as if he would throw up. He took a deep breath and pushed his way in. There were few protests, but people lent him way on seeing his face. He was surprised. Usually they were hostile towards him in his village.
At the far end of the makeshift arena stood a huge dais covered with an orchid carpet. The sky was clear blue and the afternoon sun skewered the audience with prickly heat.
‘Silence!’ a heavy voice boomed through the uneasy whispers and irregular chatter.
All the sounds ceased like a snuffed-out candle. The mob looked at the platform with renewed interest. Morahn could recognize the voice anywhere. It was his stepfather, Celbahr.
What he is doing here?
Then Morahn’s eyes popped and his throat bulged as his gaze fell upon the two fighters who stood in the arena, and warily circled each other. Each of them had a sinuous dagger with sharp edges that glimmered through the dust raised by the sand underneath. One of them was his mother, Chrysies.
‘We all know what we are here for. For those of you who are not aware -’ Celbahr’s eyes seemed to rest for a moment on Morahn, ‘– we are here to settle a dispute. A dispute borne concerning the chastity of their respective husbands,’ he concluded, as if the battle was going to be fought for the freedom of a nation rather than a petty verbal dispute.
It was madness. Morahn could hardly believe the spectacle before him. They were barbarians, all of them, fighting over petty arguments.
His mother was standing there, her brown freckles made beautiful by the soft, violet eyes set against her angular face. Her dark, curly hair was swept behind in a tight ponytail and he could see the onset of faint age lines spreading from the corner of her mouth. She was a natural warrior and stood her own… however, the woman opposite was nothing short of humungous.
Morahn recognized Lilith by the bulging biceps that rivaled almost any man in the village, except her shaggy husband. Her hair was shaved, and a sharp canine tooth curved out from her pursed mouth lips. Her eyes were hard set and her stance indicated that she was not new to the arena. She held the dagger almost as an afterthought, and cracked her knuckles once, the sound ominous and crunchy.
Celbahr’s voice rumbled on. ‘This will be a one-on-one fight till one of them is not able to continue anymore or dead. Any interference from outside will result in death. We all know the rules. Let’s get on with it.’
‘Wait!’ Morahn yelled, and everyone looked at him. ‘This is wrong. I apologize for anything my mother might have said.’
Chrysies did not glance once at her son. She simply shook her head and kneaded her forehead in frustration.
Morahn rambled on. ‘Please… this does not have to be like this. This creates enmity within ourselves, don’t you see? We are building walls within our own tribe.’
‘I see we have a philosopher among us today,’ Celbahr laughed, his body bent-double as he would fall over at the slightest nudge of wind. Others snickered and sneered at him. Morahn hoped the mood had lightened, but when everyone came around, the murderous look did not leave their eyes.
‘As I said before, let the duel start.’
The crowd cried out words of encouragement at the combatants to gouge the eyes, to sever the kneecap, to lope out the tongue as long as it was not their own.
A gong rang out, and Chrysies swished past, drawing first blood from Lilith’s arm. Lilith held her arm and grinned, cheering Chrysies to come get some more. Morahn’s breath was subdued and sweat trundled through his rolled-up sleeves. The battle raged on. The women were cutting each other and blood fell in copious dollops on the ground, and mixed with the mud.
Daggers flashed, and sunlight glinted at the edges of polished blades. Lilith was on full frontal assault. She launched a vicious attack, and her left arm pirouetted close to Chrysies’s belly. At the last moment, Lilith twisted and drew upwards, connecting her fist with the jaw, and her opponent’s head snapped back. Chrysies staggered behind, her legs becoming jelly, and wobbled back into a heap at the corner of the human made ring.
The mob went berserk. Lilith wiped her mouth on her shirt sleeve and flashed a provocative smile at Morahn, who felt more helpless than ever before in his life. He spotted Celbahr standing at the podium and his steel grey eyes betrayed no emotion within them.
He is already making plans to get his next wife.
Chrysies was stunned and made a half-hearted attempt to stand up. Her legs betrayed her as she was deposited right back on the powdered sand. She barely held the dagger and a cut above her brow bled into her right eye.
He made a feeble attempt to get over inside the arena, but was pushed back. Abruptly, his vision was blocked by a black man with shaggy white beard caked with half-eaten sweets and crumbs of bread. The top of his head was tonsured and his grey-white hair clung to the head like a wilting crown.
‘Good fight, no?’ the man grunted, and took a large bite from the sweet roll in his hand. The man was almost seven-foot-tall with broad shoulders that dwarfed the boy and blocked the view of the arena.
Morahn did not reply and squirmed to find a way around, but the man’s vice grip on his shoulders wouldn’t let him go. ‘Move away,’ he threw his arms and flailed at the man in a hopeless attempt. The man did not budge an inch.
‘My Mother is dying out there. I need to see.’
‘Hmm…I thought your Mother was fighting, lad. Did you already decide the outcome of the fight? Are you a clairvoyant?’ the man said, with a mischievous twinkle at the corner of his eyelids. ‘Or perhaps you already gave up on her? Is that so?’
Morahn’s breath was shallow and his arms were licked with sweat. The crowd was cheering now, and Morahn became tensed. He removed the fishing knife he kept at his side and charged. The man swatted away the knife hand and lifted him up like a petulant child. Morahn looked around but no one seemed to notice the giant in their midst.
‘Do you wish to save your Mother?’ the man asked.
‘Let me down…’ Morahn wriggled against the grip, and was tossed casually to the ground.
The man bent down and whispered, ‘This is the last time I am going to ask you lad, do you want help? If not, tell me, and I will not waste my time any further.’
‘I love her –’ Morahn started, but the giant was already walking away.
‘Say no more kid, but you owe me one. Remember that. You owe old Grostrik one.’ As soon as the man stepped back, Morahn saw that his mother was badly wounded and limping towards the crowd – towards him, arms outstretched. But they hollered and pushed her back inside.
‘Mother!’ shouted Morahn, but his voice was lost in the crowd.
Lilith advanced forward like a predator toying with its prey. She drew the knife across her tongue and licked the blood. Her hands hoisted the knife upwards and she grinned back at his Mother. His Mother looked at Celbahr, but there was only contempt in his eyes. Then his step-father started to descend the steps, leaving his mother to her fate.
The memory hitched itself forever into his head, only to dislodge itself into recollection at the most ill opportune moments for Morahn, later in his life.
Morahn did not remember much of what happened next. He only remembered Lilith slip her arm behind, her hips swaying with the motion, and plunging the dagger towards his mother’s neck.
Then there was a flash and whiteness exploded at the end of his vision. It was as if the whole world had come to an end.
Morahn groaned and rolled over to his side. A searing pain spread from his legs towards his hip. At first, he had no idea how he came to be there. Then, his mind cleared and he shook away the rubble that clung on his body.
Lightning flashed overhead, and thunderous clouds had gathered around the arena. Branches of jagged white spears sped down and devastated the market grounds. Banners and tapestries caught flames that spread quickly to the nearby shops.
A scream resounded through the arena as Lilith fell backwards kicking up dust motes of sand pushed by an unseen assailant. The dagger slipped from her hands and disappeared. A mass of swiveling sand swept up Lilith and crashed her against the far wall of the nearby timber shop. Heavy winds blew across the arena, and scattered the gathered horde. People covered their faces and rushed towards shelter.
For some reason, the wind did not bother him or his mother. She sat dazed and a faraway look descended into her eyes.
‘Mother!’ he cried and shuffled across the sand to hug her. His mother still looked at something else. She was still watching the podium where his step-father had been moments before.
‘I’m here for you. Don’t worry,’ Morahn re-assured her and slowly pulled her up.
She snapped out of her reverie. ‘You are a cursed child!’ she cried out. ‘You brought this… You have brought a curse upon us all.’
Morahn blinked his eyes. He was surprised.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You gave in to him, didn’t you? Years before, when I was but a teenager of your same age, the same man came. He offered to help me.’
‘You saw him….’ Morahn said, and felt a hefty weight in the pit of his intestines. ‘And what did you do?’
‘Of course, I refused his offer. He was talking about changing the destiny… the fate of our tribe. To bring an end to wars, you see? I told him to save himself and never meet me again if he valued his life.’
‘Do you think all of this… is good?’ Morahn questioned her, a weary concern settling over his shoulders. ‘We are thieves, slaughters… and murderers! Is this life?’ he spat a gobble over on the gilded silt below.
His mother was silent and he sensed her uneasiness. ‘I see that the man has corrupted you Morahn. It was bound to happen after your dishonored your father’s memory.’
Something gave in him…within his heart and soul. He ran his tongue on top of his empty gums where he lost the tooth a week back.
He hated this…all of it; the constant scuffles; war; famine; diseases; the mindset of his people; the selfish pride;
‘I see that you have not changed Mother. Do you think Celbahr cares whether you live or die?’
‘As well he should not,’ his Mother retorted back, ‘I failed him. I was weak. I must gain his confidence back. It could take weeks… unless –’
Morahn cut her off mid-speech. He had heard enough.
‘I should have left long back, Mother. I kept thinking that you were different… different than any of these mindless savages. But you are not. I was wrong. I bid you goodbye. One day I hope… I hope that you change for the better.’
His mother paid him no heed. She was already trotting back towards one of the unburnt shops – probably to take shelter.
A man around these parts was not measured by the good deeds but by the number of fingers he strapped on his necklace. He had to change it. There would be a way and he would find it. But not from here. Here he would be an outcast – he would go to the City of Caledon, and learn.
He looked back one more time to have a last glimpse and stopped dead on his tracks.
His Mother held something in her hands. Looked like a battered club… No, it was one of the logs that must have fell during the fire that broke out. There was a menacing grin spread from one corner of her mouth to the other. She advanced forward towards a figure lying prone on the ground, propped up against the corner of the wall.
The figure was battered and one of the arms was crushed underneath the fallen rubble from the half-collapsed wall. Morahn recognized Lilith from her ornate shoulder pads sticking out of the ground.
Lilith stirred, and flakes of stone dislodged around her. She gasped for air and her whole-body shuddered and convulsed in pain. One hand was propped up against her side to stem the blood from leaking out. Her tunic was ragged and torn, revealing muscled thighs and a left arm that disappeared under a mass of rubble.
His Mother was laughing now. ‘How does it feel…bitch?’ his mother said, and Morahn ran back.
He saw the same bloodlust on his mother’s eyes, the same grimace, and the same exultation Lilith had sometime before. Her eyes turned to slits and she looked like a coiled viper about to strike down its victim.
Lilith mumbled. ‘Wha…. zzure…’ Her brain was addled. The rocks had done that. They had compressed her head, and dizzied her thoughts.
His mother’s smile widened, however, as she brought up the log over her head.
‘No! No…. Stop it!’ he shouted, and his mother stopped in mid-swing. She turned and regarded him with a contempt look.
‘Go away. You are my son no more. You have brought destruction upon our tribe communing with dark forces.’
Morahn caught her shoulders. ‘She is defenseless and you are trying to kill her. I saved you…’ he urged, and for a moment his mother’s eyes went mellow, but the aggressive look again came back. She spat on the ground.
‘What do you expect me to do? Cower like a dog, and become your slave?’
‘You don’t have to do this,’ he said.
‘She tried to kill me before, didn’t she? I am just trying to get even. Is that so bad?’ she said, and Morahn glimpsed a faraway look in her eyes, and an anticipation brimming at the pit of her stomach.
‘No Mother,’ he protested vehemently, ‘I don’t think you are looking for revenge. You relish the prospect of killing someone — any person down on their luck. You enjoy the power you hold over their life and soul,’ Morahn said.
‘I think you like to… kill.’
His Mother’s features softened a bit, but she still held the log aloft. She softly ran her tongue around her lips and her loose hair billowed to and fro swayed by the whims of the wind. ‘Move Morahn. I have to finish the job.’
Lilith had come to her senses – at least partially, and started to dig her paralyzed arm out from the debris. Her wide, round eyes showed surprise at the sudden turn of events. One moment she was holding the knife, the next moment she was the victim.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ Morahn said and tried to gently pry the log from her hands.
Chrysies’s shoulders sagged against his neck and she breathed out the tension welled up inside her.
Morahn could still sense the unease within her, struggling to take control of her senses, and he could almost feel a caged, bloody beast prowling inside her.
Lilith slumped against the wall unable to free her crushed hand. She sat there with a resigned look, and watched as the weapon was drawn back from her opponent. Perhaps the kid was going to finish her, she thought and closed her eyes, awaiting the killing blow.
It never came.
There was a clatter as the weapon was thrown to the ground. ‘We need to get away,’ he whispered, as he inhaled her comforting aroma and the slight rose smell that always tailed along with her. ‘This place -’ he swallowed, ‘- is not right. It’s not home… it is not safe. You know what I mean. I think tha-’
He never got to complete the word. The air whooshed out of him, as he doubled over clutching his gut, and fell on the ground. He could still feel her clenched fist that barreled against his stomach.
His mother towered over him, and bent down on her knees. Her voice was raspy and harsh against his ears. She grabbed hold of his hair and pulled his head up. ‘You are not right in the head… The old monk played tricks with your mind and you fell for it. I won’t. Now watch as I show you the virtues of a true Volka warrior.’
He struggled to get free, but was quickly pushed down, and her knees ground against his shoulder blades digging in deep.
‘You shamed me today. The sacred ritual of Hrasnke was broken, and now the god of war, Ankthu, demands retribution. He longs for the blood which he rightly deserves. And, he will get it, one way or another.’
With that she released her hold and pounded away. Morahn’s vision was temporarily blurred by the onslaught of fresh water underneath his eyelids. He blinked his tears, and started up. Then he screamed as his mother grabbed the fallen log, and stepped up near the fallen woman whose eyes were closed and brought it down with a sickening force.
There was a sickening crunch as the skull caved inward and the Lilith’s eyes shocked open for the last time to look at the world, and her breath wailed out in a final wheeze. Her body spasmed involuntarily – the final death dance.
Her eyes stared at his mother, and gradually slid down accusingly towards him. Then they glazed out, looking through him and her body became still. Thick, red blood spread out around her and congealed to dark crimson.
Morahn opened and closed his mouth, but his throat welled up and no sound came out. He stared at his mother whose clothes were splattered with red, then the dying woman, and stood up. He tried to hold his body erect, but his knees were wobbly and treacherous.
Just like that, a life was extinguished right before his eyes. And he could not do anything about it.
He groaned and made tight fists in both hands. A jolt went up his spine as his mother walked towards him – her smile victorious as if justice had been served.
‘Do you see now? It’s that simple. Our tradition is very important. And besides, that woman had to be taught a lesson, don’t you think?’ She made to ruffle down his curly hair but he stepped back.
‘You are a murderer…. bitch’ he said, and his mother flinched back.
‘So, the devil still has you in possession. We’ll have to take care of that,’ she said, and advanced forward. ‘Come with me. I will take you to the witch doctor.’
‘No,’ Morahn twisted away from her, ‘You are the witch, mother. Not just you. Our entire tribe. You are the weeds that need to be plucked out from the ground,’ he brayed out.
‘You are only interested in killing, plundering and moving out, not caring about the people who lived here or the lives we ruined. We call ourselves “Warriors” but what we are is really a bunch of pathetic, blood-thirsty hoodlums and thieves.’
‘I am going to the king and going to turn myself in. And I suggested that you do the same.’ He turned his back, and started walking away from the village.
Then he looked over his shoulders. ‘Even if you don’t… I will put all of you where you belong -’ He flourished his hand as if encompassing the entire village, ‘– In a prison cell.’
He resumed his walk, and heard a creak and a swish, and out of an intuition ducked down. The battered log passed through where his head was moments ago, and drops of blood spilled from it.
‘Ankthu will be pleased to have a second sacrifice…’ his mother growled and swung the log in a second attempt.
And she stopped mid-swing, and went down like a chopped tree. Her eyes looked disbelievingly at the fishing knife projecting above her knee cap at an odd angle, its serrated edge glistening chrome as the sun’s rays touched it. She made a feeble attempt at pulling it out, then moaned pitifully and mewled like a baby.
‘I must have killed you when you were born, you piece of shit. You are no son of mine. I detest you, and curse you to rot in hell.’
Morahn pitied his mother as she rolled back and forth in bouts of pain. ‘If I rot in hell, Mother -’ he gently whispered, ‘- you will be there alongside me, with our entire tribe.’ He quickly pulled the knife, and staunched the squirting blood with a makeshift cloth ripped from his shawl. Then he produced a packet of gauze from his satchel and bandaged the wound with medicinal herbs.
‘It will heal within two weeks. I hit the place just above the knee. Remember… it’s always easier to create the wound than heal it.’
Her body shutdown with pain and she became unconscious. The storm had died down, and people started coming out on the streets. They would find her soon. With that thought, Morahn walked down the trail he was familiar with his entire life. This time, however, he was walking away from the tribe. The evening sun came up and showed the winding paths through the trail.
The Old wizard watched him descend, and played a soft tune through his puckered lips. His tonsure was the color of pale moon, and he gently tugged his flowing beard immersed in deep thought.
He hoped that he was right about Morahn – for his sake and that of the world.