12. Children of My Father

Hormud heard a gabble of voices, the whisper as his words were translated, and Ostromo’s pleading before the bear throne. He ignored it all, kept his eyes focused above Aosoka’s head, until one of the red guards returned with such a whip as he demanded. The spear points ringed him in and Hormud was marched away again through the perfumed court where the priest of ears laughed his senseless laughter beside the pyramid, then through the fur hung antechamber and out into the broad avenue before the palace. Despite his efforts his feet stumbled where there was nothing to trip him, and the hand which he forced to grip the whip almost lost its hold a dozen times. Beside him, Ostromo scuttled and danced ahead to peer up into the cracked and bloodied darkness that was Hormud’s face. His voice was a constant thin complaint.
“You do not trust me, Hormud, yet I have done what is necessary. Had I not ordered you bound they would have killed you where you lay, stricken on the road by the magic of the Tinsunchi. Had I not spoken the language of their masters, they would not have obeyed even me. So, master, you have me to thank for this chance your magic will surely seize.”
“So you believe in my magic.”
“Have I not linked my fate with yours?”
Hormud snorted. “Or the throne ordered it against your will. Best for him that he doesn’t swallow that ruby.” Hormud’s gaze ranged the throngs of the avenue and the eyes of its people were bright and coquettish upon him. Overhead, the sun bore down on them all, and the pricks of spears turned Hormud in through a columned facade and down a flight of stone stairs so that he confronted a narrow door of bronze. At his side Ostromo yelped in Tinsunchi.
Leaning in close and low, the wizard said “I have gained you some moments for your spells, master, weave them strongly or we both will die.”
Hormud grunted and took the whip in both of his awkward hands, and felt his blunt fingers without power.
“Tie this about my wrist with the knot I will teach you. As you love you worthless life make it strong. Then, in the other end, but close to that knot, make a loop as the horsemen do. I shall weave my own spells—” He threw back his head and begun to roar out in a great voice, a mocking song once used to taunt his people:

“On Chorazin Rock lives the coward,
Whose cowardly lord teaches them
“Do not hesitate, pull off quickly,
While their decedents riddle the ground——”

The spear guards eyed him suspiciously and made curious signs with their hands as they warded off his spells. His voice deepened and he chanted on, pausing only to admonish Ostromo.
“Tighter or the Heaven-Bear will bite you off at the shin.”
Hormud took the loop in the hand to which it was bound. It was a small loop, not big enough to fit around a man’s head, and Ostromo stared at it with reverent eyes.
“I shall weave more spells for you, master, while you fight,” he said softly, still looking at the knot. “Together, our might of magic—”
Hormud snorted, shook the leather loop above his head and picked up his chant, now in the language of the southern cities, letting the chirruping lilt further confound his guards.
“See me, you men of my father. See Hormud fight your battle for you. See him crush the Heaven Bear as only a true horse son can. See him shake the roots of the bear throne.”
He finished and spat upon the earth. “I am ready”.

Instantly, above him, trumpets blared and the narrow door before him swung wide— Hormud stalked through with Ostromo scuttling at his side, mumbling his charms, but keeping close. Inside the arena Hormud halted and heard the roar of a myriad voices beat down upon him, and his beard thrust fiercely. How many times in far lands had he heard the roar that greeted the gladiators? Yet he stared not up at the sea of waiting faces, but swiftly eyed the narrow circuit of the arena. It was no more than a pit among banked seats, but the barriers were high and for this moment he was alone with the wizard-priest beside him. Almost, he had reached out to wring that wry, treacherous neck, but Ostromo began to scrawl cabalistic figures in the sand and Hormud shrugged and went on in springing strides, feeling the good stretch and pull of muscles in his thighs— and stumbling with his wooden feet. He cursed, paused on braced legs, to press his forearm against the amulet about his throat.
“Now, Father,” said Hormud reasonably, “I know that my vow lacks fulfilment. A hundred thousands to bow before you, I promised, if needs be I must slit all their throats to bring them to reason. Fifty thousands I gave you at Turghol, and here, Father, are another fifty thousand. But they will be stubborn, you understand, and unless I conquer this Heaven-Bear they send against me, these idolators will never see the light of reason.” He grinned and his dry lips cracked with fresh blood as he smiled. “So, Father, if you want a kingdom that will praise your name carved out of this heathen land, lend a little help now.”
Hormud rolled his shoulders and his arms swung at his sides, one with the leather thong knotted hard about his forearm and carrying the loop, his other flexing with slow tension. A murmur rose from the banked throng above and he saw that a bronze door had swung open and through it, ponderously, shuffled the very grandfather of bears. Though massive, his sides were gaunt, his small eyes vicious with hunger and, when he saw Hormud, he reared on his hind legs and so towered above the barbarian’s head, letting him see the great girth of the beast’s chest, the power of the short, massive forelegs with their sabre claws.
Hormud delayed a moment there in the middle of the arena. “As you see Father.”
He looked down at the loop of woven leather on his wrist and then at the bear across the arena. Slowly then, on his stumbling feet, he marched toward the bear that sat on its haunches like a man, fanning the air with his paws to suck in the scent of this man that came towards him so boldly. And the bear uttered a roar that drowned all other sound.
The barbarian did not waver in his forward stride. He heard the thin chanting of Ostromo’s spells, louder since the murmur of the spectators above him had ceased, replaced with the breathless blood-hungry wait. Eyes never shifting from the bear, now mere feet away, Hormud gathered his strength as a man might suck in a great breath and leaped. With a shout that rivalled that of the beast he hurled himself squarely into the embrace of the great Heaven-Bear.

11. Aosoka

They dragged Hormud though a hall draped in the same patterned cloth of the city, and came to a courtyard that was cool beneath the high reach of green trees and the spray of perfumed fountains. In its midst was a small white pyramid and from it mounted a slim pillar with a golden ladder, on top of which was a light with all the blinding agony of the sun. He was forced to turn away and instead rest his eyes upon a man in a long scarlet robe who knelt over a small fire burning on the step of the pyramid. Attached to the mans head were huge, tufted fans, which gave the impressions of ears. The man coughed and laughed by turn but there was no mirth or humanity there.
“Surely they mean those ears for an ass.”
No one answered him, but the red warriors shuffled uneasily as if expecting something for a long moment. When this moment did not come, and the strange man ignored Hormuds remark, they quickly took up the lance once more and continued to drag him, causing him to clench his eyes at the wet pain of his raw back. They left the courtyard and, through high bronze doors, entered a hall where the drapes were a gauze of gold. His captors now alternatively crawled flat on their stomachs or paused to bump their heads with a dull thud against the stone, dragging Hormud now flat along the floor, feet first. And thus he came before the throne of the Heaven-Bear.
The man who sat upon it was obscenely fat with painted red lips and black grease about his eyes, he toyed with his hair, hung in long, oiled ringlets falling about his shoulders. He wore a curious smile as he looked up to see the injured Hormud, as if expectant. And following his gaze, turning from beating his face upon the floor, was Ostromo. Hormud sent his hoarse laughter upward towards the golden beams of the ceiling.
“Not even the marble can beat brains into your skull.”
A shout of anger burst from the guards about the bear throne, their shields clashed against golden armour and they started forward with spear points flicking out, but the man on the throne lifted a ringed hand, clattering like some shamans chimes, and the guards fell back. Hormud tried to spit in their direction but it came out as nothing but a dry hiss. He felt the dull touch of metal against his swollen hands and feet before they fell limply to the ground, the eager blood pressing into them was agony beyond bearing. His lips shrank back from grinding teeth and he bent his stiff knees and drove his body to lift itself upon them. With pain wracked fingers he rolled onto the bend of his his elbow the lance that had carried him so long. He took the butt in the grip of his two elbows and by that crutch, he began to lift himself, hands flapping uselessly. The flat broad muscles quivered on his shoulders and the cords of his neck gouged out hollows in the flesh while darkness wheeled and the throne room blotted out but slowly he brought himself upward, forcing his limp feet under him while his wounds burst with the effort leaving dark bloody smears on the white marble. Slowly, while his elbows held their grip upon the lance, the bowed power of his shoulders straightened. His limp head lifted, ragged but dauntless, and put his eyes directly upon the king.
Hormud let his crutch clatter to the floor and laughed. Though twisted and broken, his voice carried mockery, “Come, vast one, pass judgement on your simple subject.”
A shivering moan lifted from the guards, they understood his defiance but not his words. Ostromo twisted his face from its place against the marble so he could see the barbarian to make grimaces of pleading silence. The Heaven Bear twirled his thick fingers through his oiled hair, gently touching the circlet around his head, working his fingers along to touch the giant red ruby serving as its centre piece, carved in the likeness of an upright bear.
Silence fell as the ruby was plucked free, so that all the was left was the sound of Hormud’s breathing, too heavy and wheezing, and the distant tinkling music and a womans voice in a language he did not understand. The air was sweet with incense, warm and sickly. The king nodded gently and his eyes went lingeringly over the thews of Hormud’s now sagging body and he clapped his hands tightly together.
Behind the throne the curtains of golden gauze swayed and three creatures appeared. The first was all black, so much as to be a hole in space, with the head of a bear, stars glinting distantly in his unfathomable night. The second had the head of a snake and his robe was a crystal green in whose depths a black smoke swirled. But the third wore scarlet, and was clearly a man, though his face was obscured by a head dress of vast golden ears that shone with a blinding light.
At their entrance, one of the guards prodded the kneeling Ostromo with his spear point and the little wizard began to babble feverishly in the tongue that Hormud did not understand, except that the often repeated sound presently told him that the king was Aosoka. When Ostromo fell silent, Aosoka lifted the fillet from his brow and put the gleaming ruby into his mouth and pronounced judgement in a lisping voice. Ostromo knocked his head three times upon the floor and faced Hormud with triumph baring his rotted teeth.
“Know, slave,” he said, “that because of tyour boasting, and because Aosoka is the all merciful and all knowing, the compassionate—”
“Your tongue is too long”, Hormud said softly, “presently I shall shorten it.”
Ostromo’s face twitched. “Get of wind devils,” he spat, “You have won through me, your friend even in this hour, a chance for your life! You will match your strength with the Heaven Bear— but without weapons.”
Hormud looked down at his swollen, useless wrists, at the oozing ankles and at knees that he kept from quivering only with a will greater than his strength.
“Why, surely my friend. Why, surely. Lead me to this Heavan Bear of yours and I will shake the throne on which Aosoka sits so that he topples from it and bruises his fat body. I ask only this, friend, that you should enter with me. I will need your mighty magics.”
Ostromo’s yellow skin turned ivory and his voice became a whine in his throat. “Already, Hormud, master, Aosoka has ordered this thing. I will work my small spells. One more thing I have gained you, you need not meet the monster until-”
Cymbals clanged and from the walls horns wailed dimly while Ostromo shivered and cast his eyes down. “That, master, is the Hour of the Dog. In one hour, when the trumpets sound again-”
Hormud’s great shaggy head was thrust forward and his shoulders arched. He looked down at his hands, of which his utmost will contrived merely to crook the fingers a little. Soon they would stiffen and the hours of torture would drain his racked body.
“It is too long,” he said, his hand before his face extending and contracting, “My magic wants but short space and needs one thing for its working. Find me a braided whip with a tip that has often tasted the flesh of these red jackals about me, and at once will conquer this Heavan Bear. I have spoken.” He folded his arms to hide the growing tremors. “See to it, slave.”
He stood on braced legs, with a proud head tipped back so that his eyes lifted above Aosoka on his golden throne, and hummed through his nose in the tuneless drone of his mothers.