Wisdom From The Ashes
Part One – The Sorrow of His Heart
A faint breeze stirred at the red dust of the arid lands. Withered and parched trees and shrubs clung to a precarious life amidst the hills that rolled down into the lowlands to the east, where drifting deserts spread, fingers of windswept sand snaking their way up into valleys and washes, drowning all that they came across. Long abandoned farmsteads lay scattered across the lower slopes of the hills, their fields now buried beneath the encroaching sands and the buildings half submerged as the deserts continued their remorseless drive towards the west. Soon they would crest the hills like a wave and spill down into the lands beyond, sweeping aside the last vestiges of humanity.
A lone figure stood at the top of the broken ridge line that marked the heights of the range of hills, staring out over the arid desert lands. The rising sun had just started to stain the lands a deep red and the horizon glowed like molten bronze poured out.
The figure was tall, very tall, and of a massive build from the tip of his head with its sweeping horns all the way down to his cloven feet. The sun stained his white hide almost to the colour of blood. Across his broad back was slung a heavy maul, the head made of a cylinder of carved green stone through which the thick handle ran.
The minotaur shifted his weight on his hooves, staring blankly ahead, almost as if he was gazing at nothing in particular but was merely passing the time, waiting. His right arm was twisted up tight against his body, the flesh wasted away, while his fingers curled up like withered claws. His shoulders seemed to stoop and his body was listless, the once formidable and tireless energy he possessed now gone.
Concern wracked Abasan as he watched the solitary figure of Nhaqosa from a short distance away. Dark of hair and thin of face, he wore a worried look. Never before had he seen the giant minotaur in such a state, so lethargic and bereft of purpose. Always he had been full of fire and life, never surrendering, no matter the odds arrayed against him. Not until now. Not until they had come across the dark crystalline tower in dead land, and the creature of shadows that had lurked within. Not until the obsidian sword that had withered Nhaqosa’ arm, and with it seemingly his will to live. All men had a breaking point, Abasan knew, yet somehow he had never thought that he would have seen the minotaur reach his.
The encounter had been weeks before. Abasan had done his best to hold the band together, but he knew he was no leader, not the way that Nhaqosa had been. It was a daily struggle to keep them unified and he feared that it would all come crashing down in disaster upon them soon enough.
“Come back to us, Kwaza.” The words were earnest, whispered quietly beneath his breath.
A short and slender woman walked up from the camp where the band rested, coming up to join Abasan in his vigil. Her hair and skin and eyes were dark, while the scars she had earned in the fighting pits in part marred her exotic beauty, a visible reminder of the ordeal she had undergone. They all had them, the scars that came from when they had been gladiator slaves, though not all scars were as obvious as her, or even physical. Niati seldom spoke of her past and was for the most part grave in her appearance, seldom laughing or even smiling. She shared Abasan’s look of concern as well.
“How is he?” she asked, looking over towards Nhaqosa.
“There is no change,” Abasan told her, a deep resignation in his voice that was also reflected in his eyes. “He is the same as he has been all this time.”
“This can not go on,” Niati said, resting a hand lightly on Abasan’s arm. The man nodded, though his features softened at the touch.
“I know, but I do not know what else to do. His body goes on, but his mind? It is mired elsewhere, lost to us for now.”
He turned away from Nhaqosa to look back to where the rest of the band camped, in the wash of a dried out creek o the reverse side of the hills from the desert. They were hard faced men and women, no two alike in the composition of their arms and armour or culture, dusty and weather beaten but grim of purpose. Their numbers had fallen to just a dozen of those who had escaped the gladiatorial pits alongside Nhaqosa following the events of the crystalline tower, depleted by battles as they had crossed the ravaged, broken and dying lands of what had once been a mighty empire.
That had been until the met the man Zethar and his small band of outlaws and rebels, a tired and dispirited group. Zethar never spoke of what had happened, but his men did. His story was one that Abasan had heard similar of many times of late. He had been a simple farmer, toiling in the fields to try and provide for his family.
Then Harmur had come with his men, a bandit who had made himself lord of the region through brutality, taking to calling himself King of the Red Hills. He had raided Zethar’s farm ad the man had been powerless to resist as his wife and son had been slain, and his daughters dragged off, never to be seen again.
Somehow Zethar had survived. While many others would have been broken by the ordeal, it had awoken a deep rage in Zethar instead. He had taken to the hills and raised arms against Harmur, forced into a life of outlawry. Such had been his exploits that he became a rallying point for other desperate men and women who had likewise suffered at the hands of Harmur and his followers.
For a year they had haunted the hills, striking down against Harmur, and his rule, becoming a terrible thorn in his side. A vast price had been placed on Zethar’s head, yet none would betray him.
The luck that had long protected them could not last for ever. Eventually Harmur had been able to track them down to where they laired, and launched upon them an overwhelming assault. Bravery and desperation counted for much, but against the heavy armour and weapons that Harmur’s mercenaries used, they met their match. Most of the outlaws were slain in fierce fighting, only a handful escaping to the hills with Zethar, hounded all the way towards the deserts.
It was during that flight they had come across Nhaqosa’s band, a week earlier. At first some tension existed between the two groups until one of the outlaws had spotted Nhaqosa. The fame of Yahalat Tamar, the Noble White Bull, had travelled ever ahead of them, even to those parts. Zethar had been overjoyed to meet the minotaur.
That had not lasted long. Abasan had watched as Zethar grew more disappointed over the days that followed as it became apparent to the outlaw leader that the legend did not match the reality while Nhaqosa remained in his deep depression.
Abasan began to slowly walk back towards the camp with Niati. As was becoming more regularly, Zethar was in the middle of an impassioned speech. He wasn’t actively seeking to preach discontent, yet the effect was the same.
“We are heading nowhere,” he was saying loudly when Abasan reached hearing range, “Nowhere but into the lifeless deserts.” Zethar stood the middle of the camp, one hand in the air. “There is no need to go into them as they will come to us in time. We should be turning back towards the west.”
“Into the Red Hills?” one of the men in the camp asked. He lay on his back with his head resting on his pack while tugging at the corners of his droopy red moustache. Lakach was one of the old hands of the fighting pits, a small and wiry man who had been condemned to die as a gladiator for, or so he claimed, simple poaching. Abasan had always suspected that there was more to it than that but he liked the man enough not to press the issue. There were few of them that didn’t have dark secrets that they wished to forget; the past was a place few wanted to dwell on anymore.
“Yes,” Zethar replied, his eyes burning with a fierce and fiery zeal. “Even if the Yahalat Tamar can no longer fight, the mere whisper of his name will stir the hearts of the people and make them rise up and join our cause. We can tear down Harmur’s tyranny and hold him accountable for his many crimes against the people he has brutalised.”
“Then what?” Abasan asked as he entered the camp. Heads all turned around to face him. “We take over and rule in his stead? Someone has to rule, else another tyrant is just going to come along and seek to conquer the region for his own pleasure.” He had seen it all before, too many times. The old Empire had not been without its faults but it had at least brought a sense of stability and peace to the lands. Since its fall, nothing had remained to impose civilisation across the lands. Now it was a case of the strong taking from the weak with none to oppose them.
“If we must,” Zethar replied, the tall and dark eyed man staring down at Abasan. Abasan couldn’t help but admire the man, with his sorrow filled dignity and his perseverance in the face of all that had happened to him, but admiration or not, his was a course of action that Abasan could not agree with.
Abasan shook his head. “These lands are dying. This world is dying. Just look around you. The Empire has fallen and all that remains in its wake is ruin and desolation. The deserts ever grow, eating away at what little fertile lands remain, while drought ravages the rest. There is nothing left for any of us here.”
“Where else is there to go?” Zethar challenged.
“There is a better place. The Kwaza will lead us there,” Abasan told him, his loyalty to Nhaqosa unwavering. Despite the minotaur’s current state, Abasan did not doubt for a moment that he would fulfil his vow.
“He is not leading anyone anywhere,” Zethar pointed out. “Look at him. He does not even know where he is anymore. At least here he can do some good and help those suffering unjustly. Is not that what the Yahalat Tamar is known for?”
Abasan was about to reply when all eyes turned from him to look behind him. He looked about as well, to see Nhaqosa had returned from where he had been watching the sun rising. Silence fell upon the camp, tense and uneasy,
Nhaqosa removed the maul from his back, using his good hand, making no sound. He let the maul drop to the ground before slumping down alongside it.
“Kwaza?” Abasan said to him. For a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of a spark in Nhaqosa’s eyes, a touch of the old fire returning but then it was gone. Nhaqosa lay down, turning his back to the camp, almost curled up in a ball.
Abasan averted his eyes from the sight. The sorrow in his heart was almost too much to bear.