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Four: The Years 590-605 afe

Four: The Years 590-605 afe

How Lonely Sits the City

Loves torn from him, Varth grew bitter. He decided to pursue a course that had long been in his mind. Once the harvest was in, he visited his priestly teacher, engaged the man as agent in the sale of the farm. The money, with that left him by Royal, he buried near the river. Then, carrying a few belongings in an old leather bag, he moved into Ilkazar.

Soon there was another beggar among the city’s many, this one brighter, studying, studying—yet unseen, for no one spared an urchin more than a glance. He grew lean and ragged with time, and wiser.

Still he remained silent: and strange. Older persons grew uneasy in his presence—though they never knew why. Perhaps it was his cold stare, perhaps the way the corners of his mouth turned upward in a ghost-grin, revealing his canines, when the future was mentioned. There was something in his gaze which made adults look away. He seemed a hungry thing thinking of devouring them.

However, his strangeness attracted waifs like himself. They treated him with respect and awe their elders reserved for the Master Wizards and King—and a king he soon became, of a shadow empire of beggars and thieves who found his mastery profitable. Looking like a small, skinny idol, he held court in a corner of Farmer’s Market, by his directions gifted his followers with unprecedented wealth.

But those followers, no matter their admiration for his leadership, found Varth’s nighttime undertakings disquieting. He often wandered the Palace district, studying the castle of the King, or the homes of certain powerful wizards. And he never missed a witch-burning, though his attentions were seldom for the condemned. His eyes were always on the black-hoods, and the wizards who came to see “justice” done.

What justice this? In a city made great by magic, ruled by magic—no matter the King’s disclaimers, his policies, and those of the Empire were determined by manipulating sorcerers—why should there be witch-burnings? What power had the witch that so terrified the warlock?

There was an ancient divination—Ilkazar, from King to lowliest beggar, had rock-hard faith in necromancy—which promised city and Empire would fall because of a witch. The Master Wizards reasoned that a dead sorceress could do little to fulfill the prophecy. Therefore, summary execution was ordered for any woman even mildly suspect (or with some bit of property a wizard wanted—for all a witch’s property went to her finder).

Varth, with earnings from his beggar empire, went to certain wizards and bought knowledge. In the guise of an eager, voiceless child, he wrested many secrets from many sorcerers. They found him an amusing anomaly among the young, having fallen, like men less wise, into the habit of classing children with other small pets, as sometimes amusing, sometimes bothersome, but never, never interested in matters of weight. They were old men, those wizards, and had forgotten what it was like to be young. Most men did. And so, during his visits, Varth became privy to secrets that would have been kept carefully hidden from older men.

From wizards, and from priests whose interest had been stimulated by the reports of his old tutor, Varth received an unusual education. He nearly laughed the day he learned of the divination that had caused his mother’s death. He later learned that she had died to provide a covetous sorcerer with a ready-decorated home, and King Vilis with escape from problems personal, political, and financial.

Someone discovered him weeping one night. Thenceforth he wore a new name: Varth Lokkur, the Silent One Who Walks With Grief. He became an actor, this Varthlokkur. Using pity for his dumbness, he bent strong men to his will. Wizards taught him. Priests took him to their hearts. He made his followers want to aid his secret purpose. They were certain he had one. He became one of Ilkazar’s best-known children, and one of its most intriguing mysteries.

One day some priests got together and, hating to see the boy’s mind wasted, decided to sponsor his education. But when they went to tell him, he was gone. He had chosen twelve companions and departed the city. Where had he gone? Why? The priests were disturbed for a while, but soon forgot. There had been something unsettling about him, something they preferred not to remember.

Lao-Pa Sing Pass lay two thousand miles east of Ilkazar, the only means of crossing a huge double range of mountains, the Pillars of Ivory and the Pillars of Heaven. To the west lay city-states, small kingdoms, and the sprawling Empire of Ilkazar. To the east was Shinsan, a dread Empire feared for its sorcery and devotion to evil. Butting against the western slopes of those mountains lay the fertile plains of the Forcene Steppe, ideal for grazing. But the nomads shunned it. Too near Shinsan…

From Lao-Pa Sing, on a spring day many months after Varthlokkur had abandoned Ilkazar, a child of twelve came riding. He was no native of Shinsan. His skin was western white sun-browned, not the natural amber of the east. On his face expressions fought: horror of the past and hope for the future. Free of the pass, the boy halted to make certain he still bore his passport to freedom. He drew a scroll from his saddlebag and opened it, stared at words he couldn’t read:

To King and Wizards of Ilkazar:

My wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.

It was signed with a featureless oval sigil.

The message stirred little interest in Ilkazar. There was some grumbling about the audacity of the sender, but no fear. The messenger didn’t name the country whence he came.

A year later, another youth, eyes haunted and riding as if fleeing a devil, bore:

The King and Wizards of Ilkazar, who falsely judged the woman Smyrena:

They have sown the wind and shall reap the whirlwind.

This was signed with both the null and a stylized mask of death. It caused more thought than had its predecessor, for the messenger admitted he came from Shinsan. The records were examined, the story of Smyrena exhumed. Her son hadn’t shared her fate! There was apprehension, and talk about the old prophecy.

But nothing happened and all was soon forgotten—till the year ended and a third messenger came. Then others, year after year, until King and wizards believed. They bought assassins (even the power of the wizards of Ilkazar could not breach the necromantic shield about Shinsan), but the blades went astray. No man was fool enough to enter Shinsan.

Riches do not profit in the day of wrath.

There were twelve signs beneath the twelfth message, each a promise. King and wizards tried to convince one another that their powers were sufficient to the threat.

In the thirteenth year a young man departed Shinsan, eyes almost as haunted as those of his predecessors. He crossed the Forcene Steppe, paused at Necremnos on the River Roë. He found Ilkazar’s legions in the city and on the Steppe to the east. The Empire had grown during his absence. Necremnos was a “protectorate,” the protection accepted as an alternative to bloody, futile war. Ilkazar, with its combination of magic and military excellence, was irresistible.

Pthothor the Bald, King of Necremnos, was wiser than his subjects suspected. He knew of the weird of Ilkazar, and had divined that the Fates would strike during his reign.

Varthlokkur spoke with that King concerning the death of empires.

At Shemerkhan he found a ruined city, strongly occupied, starving as its people turned all their effort toward meeting the demands of Ilkazar. Varthlokkur spoke with the King, then rode to Gog-Ahlan.

He found another conquered city, worse than the last. For resisting too long, all honor had been raped away. Her once proud men were permitted no income save what their women could earn serving the lusts of occupying soldiers. Again Varthlokkur spoke with a fallen King, then rode on.

He crossed the passes west of Gog-Ahlan and turned south into Jebal al Alf Dhulquarneni, a black region, subject to no King. Eventually he reached the valley Sebil el Selib, Path of the Cross, where the first King-Emperor of Ilkazar had trapped and crucified a thousand rebellious nobles. There he made camp and his preparations.

A few days later, he entered the city that had given him life, and so much pain. At the gate he was met by wizards awaiting the annual message, which he refused to hand over to anyone but the King. It demanded the death by burning of Vilis and seven times seven of Ilkazar’s wizards as atonement for the crime against Smyrena. The demand was refused, as expected. The message ended with promises of famine and pestilence, earthquakes and signs in the sky, the appearance of enemies countless as the stars, and was sealed 13.

The seal remained cryptic for a time. Once the mystic number was noted, however, the wizards concluded that their enemy had been among them. They searched the city, but he was gone. They searched the Empire and still found nothing. Fear haunted their councils. Yet nothing happened. Or so it seemed for a time.

The fall of Ilkazar, as recorded in The Wizards of Ilkazar, a dubious and doubtless exaggerated epic of King Vilis’s end, which opens:

How lonely sits the city

that was full of people!

How like a widow she has become

that was great among the nations!

Barbarians harried the borders of the Empire. Unrest grumbled through the tributary states. The armies were decimated and demoralized by a strange plague. A star exploded and died. From Ilkazar itself a dragon was seen crossing the full moon. An unseasonable storm wrecked shipping in the Sea of Kotsüm. Trolledyngjan pirates raided the western coasts.

And the song says:

She weeps bitterly in the night,

tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

she has none to comfort her;

******line lost******

they have become her enemies.

Tributary states rebelled. Entire armies were surprised and overwhelmed. Ilkazar’s moneylenders grumbled because loans to the Empire were not being repaid. Those who dealt in booty murmured because there were no new conquests. The people muttered as supplies grew short.

The King, in the traditional manner of politicians, tried to stem gloom’s tide with speeches. He promised impossible things that he apparently believed himself…

But he couldn’t put the rebels down. They were too numerous, in too many places, and their numbers daily grew—and ill fortune invariably dogged armies sent against them: floods, spoiled rations, disease. And with each rebel victory, more conquered peoples rose.

A whisper, dark, disturbing, ran through Ilkazar. The city would be spared no agony when the foreign soldiers came. The people fled—until the King declared emigration a capital offense. Fool. He should have rid himself of their hunger.

There was no native crop that year. Rust, worms, weevils, and locusts destroyed everything. The only food available was that in storage and a dwindling trickle of tribute.

Though in dread of the wizards of Ilkazar, the rebel Kings, and barbarians after spoil, gathered and united against the Empire.

Says the poet:

Happier were the victims of the sword

than the victims of hunger,

who pined away, stricken

by the want of the fruits of the field.

The hands of compassionate women

have boiled their own children;

they became their food

in the destruction of her people.

There were armies before Ilkazar, well-fed armies high with the destruction of Imperial legions. They flaunted their fat herds before the watchers on the walls. Within the city, rats found dead sold for a silver shekel each, rats taken alive brought two. People feared the dead ones. They presaged plague.

The dogs and cats were gone, as were the horses of the King’s cavalry and the animals of the Royal Zoo. Rumors fogged the air. Children had disappeared. Men in good health were fearful they would be accused of cannibalism. Sometimes those who had fallen to disease were found with flesh torn away, perhaps by rats, perhaps not.

The siege progressed. One day a horseman came from the encircling camps, a grim young man, frightened of the city and the sorceries within—sorceries held at bay solely by the skill of one lone man trained by the mysterious Tervola and Princes Thaumaturge of Shinsan. He delivered a scroll. Someone observed that it came on the date of anniversary for previous messages. It restated Varthlokkur’s prior demands, with one significant addition: appended was a list of names of persons to be sent out of the city, and before whom the King was to abase himself.

Vilis had become more amenable. Five days later there was activity on the city walls. The Kings and generals of the rebels, dressed in black, on black horses, with black banners flying, advanced upon the city, stopped just beyond bowshot.

As the sun reached zenith, seven groups of seven tall poles were raised atop the wall. To each was bound, soaked in naphtha, a Master Wizard. The King himself bore the torches that lighted the fires. There was a long period of silence. No cloud marked the sky. All things of earth seemed poised, waiting, uncertain. Then smoke wisped toward the watchers. The stench of burning flesh distressed their horses.

The Silent One betrayed no emotion. His victory was not yet complete.

Once the fires finished their work, the gate opened, and emaciated, wretched people stumbled out. In full view, the King knelt and kissed their dusty feet as they passed. They were few, all who remained of those who once had lent aid to, or had given kindness to, an unhappy orphan. One was a man in tattered executioner’s black, another was an aged sergeant. There were priests, a handful of minor sorcerers, and a few withered prostitutes who had once provided a little mothering.

The gates closed. Varthlokkur waited. The sun moved west. He sent a rider. “Where is the third penance?” the rider demanded.

“You’ve taken all I can give,” King Vilis replied. “My power and my Empire are dust. That is cruelty enough!” He seized a bow, shot at the messenger, missed.

“Then all Ilkazar will die!” The rider fled.

Varthlokkur sat silently for a long time, considering. He had made promises he had hoped needn’t be kept. He didn’t want anyone but Vilis. But there were Kings accompanying him who depended on his word.

Those Kings waited. The city waited. Varthlokkur reached his decision. He raised his right arm, his left, and invoked that which he had kept in waiting, the power no accidental sorcerer ever had mastered. So imperceptibly that only the horses noticed at first, the earth began shaking. The Kings were awed by Varthlokkur’s Power. An earth-marid, a King of earth-elementals, reputedly unmanageable save by supreme masters of the eastern sorcery, was answering his summons.

The trembling grew to an earthquake. The city gates collapsed. The poles with wizards toppled from the walls. Spires and minarets shuddered. And the shaking grew. Great buildings fell. The thick wall, Ilkazar’s most solid construction, began to crumble. Varthlokkur’s arms ached with the effort of holding them upward, motionless, and with the Power flowing through them. Yet he held them high. If they fell prematurely, the earth-marid would abandon work as yet incomplete, and Ilkazar would retain sufficient might to make the assault terribly costly. Fires appeared and spread. Dust from falling buildings joined their smoke, darkened the sky. A great government building slid into the Aeos (which entered Ilkazar through a huge, unbreachable grill), damming it, flooding part of the city.

Varthlokkur eventually was satisfied and allowed the earthquake to die. He loosed his human hounds. The warriors met little opposition. He himself led the Kings to the Palace.

They found Vilis seated amidst the ruins of his citadel, rocking and drooling. He clutched a crown to his chest and sang a childhood song. Soldiers hastily cleared rubble from a corner of Execution Square. They recovered a carven stake, set it up, and bound the King to it. Brands arrived. Varthlokkur stood before Vilis, torch in hand.

His followers expected him to laugh, or brag about this fulfillment of vengeance, but he did not. They expected he would now speak, for the first time in decades, and say something like, “Remember my mother in Hell,” but he did not. When at last he broke the long silence, he said only, “You have made me lonely, Royal Ilkazar,” and cast the torch aside. Head bowed, he turned and walked from the city slowly, leaving mercy or its lack to his followers.

The poet, hardly impartial, ends with a bitter curse upon Ilkazar, damning her for all eternity. But, before he finishes, he does, briefly, indicate that he understands why Varthlokkur cast the torch aside. No one else then present, and few scholars since, did so. The destruction of Ilkazar and its King meant Varthlokkur had lost his only true companion of fourteen years’ purpose. Behind the mask of victory had lain a defeat.

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