(By Juan Cole)
The Fall of the New Year Throne
(To read this sword and sorcery novel as it has unfolded before this installment, click here)
The enormous serpent sunned itself on an outcropping of rocks, its cavernous maw smelling humans. It had not fed for weeks, and the water buffalo it had gorged on over a month ago was now chalky bone dust and drying jerky on the desert floor. It was hungry, and could foresee that the humans would walk into its lair of their own accord. They smelled desperate. They reeked of disease and reptile venom, and it knew that like seeks like.
Zohak, astride his black Iranian steed, lifted the hood from the falcon’s head, as it perched on his gold-and-red leather glove, and with a flick of his wrist sent it soaring into the lapis lazuli sky. It quickly reached its hunting height, and with unblinking eyes surveyed the atmosphere’s nether regions for game. For a moment the falcon ceased flapping its wings, gliding in the warm breeze like a spearhead.
It plummeted without warning, descending with outstretched claws on a dove. The white, plump bird veered, just escaping the tridents the falcon had aimed at it.
The russet predator checked its headlong descent, gaining altitude again as its prey put on speed, resuming its journey north, where there would be trees and cover. The hawk positioned itself once more above and ahead of the frantic ivory figure.
Then it dropped out of the sky and collided with its prey.
In a whir of savage lust it pecked at its eyes, tore the feathers from its pinions and wings, grasped at its neck.
The dove, its battered head bright as Mars and one eye hanging out, struggled loose and plunged toward the beige sand. Just before impact, it spread its scruffy, chalky wings and sped along only feet above the grit, probing desperately for a crevice in the rare outcroppings of black rock where it could hide. The barren pebbles and smooth volcanic stones refused to shelter it. Frenzied, it soared north, hoping the edge of the desert was near.
The stalker descried it again and bolted after it with sure, rapid strokes of its auburn wings.
The dove espied its tormentor above it, and veered again.
The falcon, relentless, swerved as well, then swooped. Its eager claws found the delicate neck as it slammed into the smaller bird. The neck snapped, and the bundle of white energy and dread went limp and flaccid. The victor extended its dark bronze wings and flapped them robustly, to regain height and control with the added weight of its prey. Once it hit its stride, it beat the air easily with firm strokes, like an ethereal oarsman ferrying a soul to the netherworld.
The slack dove thumped into the sand in front of Zohak’s horse, and the falcon proudly sought its perch on his shimmering glove. Zohak pulled the velvet hood over his bird’s upright head, tying the drawstring with one hand.
“It was too easy,” Zohak lamented. “The dove was injured early on.”
“A swift, clean kill possesses its own sort of beauty.” Asharidu squinted at the prince in the bright morning light.
Zohak’s mount shifted on its hooves in the sand, and he grimaced.
“Yes. I’ve felt pain and weakness ever since that misbegotten demon bit me. A lightheadedness comes and goes. Your salves helped for a while, but even they never effected a cure. The long journey alongside the caravan to the land of the Medes, and the return on the back of the manticore was hard on my leg. ”
“I have been meaning to suggest a remedy to you, but hesitated lest I be misunderstood.” Asharidu leaped down and bagged the dead game, slinging it behind Zohak’s saddle with the rest of the morning’s catch.
“I could hardly misunderstand being healed.” Zohak’s eyes narrowed as he studied the Babylonian’s fluid face beneath the fez. His small, dark eyes continually shifted their focus, darting here and there, as if on the lookout for an assailant. His beard was was braided into separate rows. His nostrils curved up on either side of his sharp nose. Short and slight, he stayed in motion, if only by tapping his thumb with his forefinger. Some of the Utu tribesmen, for whom the ability to remain completely still was the test of a hunter and warrior, disliked his tics and avoided him except when they fell ill.
“It is just that the treatment is, well, unorthodox.” Asharidu remounted his steed with the awkwardness of the city bred.
“I am becoming impatient. It has been months, and I should be back to full strength. The accursed wound still leaks a bit, as well. It should have healed by now. I even wonder if I was off my game in guarding the caravan and failed because of this injury. There is something unnatural about it, as though it is more a hex than a dragon bite.”
The Babylonian nodded. “You are already making a beginning. You recognize that something is not as it should be in your body.”
They wheeled and headed for camp and breakfast. Inside Zohak’s tent a slave-girl brought them broiled dove-breasts, then a drink made from yoghurt. Asharidu gazed appreciatively at the pert face and the bare breasts, round as pomegranates, of the serving girl, and watched her knee-length dark brown hair sway over her shapely buttocks as she left for the slaves’ tent.
“You have good taste in slaves.” The wizard smiled.
“She is yours.” Zohak waved his hand absently.
Asharidu nodded his gratitude. He moved back from the large bronze tray, having eaten his fill, and wiped his greasy hands in his curled beard. “About your cure.”
Zohak looked up sharply. “You have my attention.”
“You may have to brace yourself for it.”
“I do not have a reputation for a weak stomach.” The prince sat up stiffly, feeling the blood in his cheeks.
“It involves the principle of fighting like with like.” Asharidu grimaced apologetically.
Zohak’s mouth dropped open for just a second, but he recovered as quickly as he could. He suspected the wizard had seen the reflex, since he had been trained to observe. “What do you mean?”
“We must go reptile-hunting. We need eyeballs and testicles in particular. And we shall also require some human hair.” He smiled broadly, jerking his thumb in the direction of the slave tent. “Did you not think hers was getting a bit long?”
Zohak frowned. “This sounds more like the dark sciences than medicine.”
Asharidu threw his head back and laughed with both lungs. “A common layman’s misconception. There are no dark sciences. The sciences are simply means of controlling nature and contrary spirits. Control can be exercised for good or ill, but no difference exists in the means, in either case.”
“I will not have human material used! The daughters of God have forbidden it, Utu tribal custom forbids it.”
The Babylonian pursed his dark amethyst lips petulantly. “Well, perhaps a substitute will work. A clipping from your horse’s tail, for instance. But I can guarantee nothing in that case, for Lamashtu may not accept it. We shall simply be conducting a trial, with yourself as the subject.”
Zohak, his face still burning with emotion, scowled as he put weight on his leg to stand. “A trial, then. We shall have to hunt the reptiles this morning, before Mirdas gets back, so we can avoid raising the old goat’s suspicions. He, at least, is unlikely to appreciate the difference between white magic and black. And he will be in a rage over our losing the caravan.”
The two men brought Zakira along for their trek into the desert. As they knelt behind an outcropping of rock on the sizzling sand, nearly blinded by the forenoon sun, Zohak suddenly spotted a sluggish lizard in a crevice. In one smooth motion he lifted his dagger from its leather scabbard and pitched it back-handed at the creature, which attempted to scurry, its bright green tail curving rapidly first to the left, then to the right.
The dagger pierced its scaly hide and clanged against the rock face, then both fell to the sand, the reptile squirming on its back. Zohak’s mind flashed back to the scene of the monitor thrashing on its back at twilight in the gully, but he shook his head and shuddered. He and Asharidu approached the foot-long dying beast. Zohak reached down toward it.
“No! This kind is poisonous!”
The thing wrenched its neck and struck at Zohak’s outstretched hand, its teeth sinking into the flesh.
The wizard tossed his own dagger, the point pinning the writhing reptile’s neck to the crusty sand below. Its scales glinted in the sun as it shuddered and began to yield to death.
Zakira took his hand. “Master, we need an antidote. The venom will not take long to paralyze you.
“Camp is not far. I’ve been snake-bitten before.”
“Watch out!” Asharidu shoved his shoulder and Zohak rolled away from the rock, his warrior’s instincts taking over.
As Zohak came up, dagger in hand, his wounded leg on fire, he heard a hiss, and came face to face with a white snake whose head was as twice as big as a man’s. It glided over the rock against which he had been resting, and curled itself in front of him, its eye sockets rising to the level of his own.
Zohak’s eyes bulged and he almost dropped his dagger. The serpent was skeletal. No scaly skin enveloped its form, no muscles or ligaments connected its endless vertebrae. Its ivory bones looked as if the sun had bleached the dead animal for years. And yet it slithered in the connected manner of the living. Its monstrously long fangs came right up to its upper jaw bone, and its deep, black eye sockets stared blankly yet with a malign intelligence.
Comments and suggestions on the installments are welcome, but they should please be constructive. Commenters relinquish the rights to any ideas they express in the comments section, which become the property of Juan Cole. Presumably they want them incorporated into the final work, and they might be. The novel is copyright by Juan Cole, 2014, and may not be mirrored or reproduced without express permission from the author.