Authors: Karen Miller
Tags: #Mythology, #Magic, #Science Fiction, #Horror, #Paranormal, #Fantasy, #Epic
Godspeaker 3 - Hammer of God
“Dmitrak.” Dmitrak kept his gaze pinned to the conquered harbour of Jatharuj, where the warships of Mijak clustered thicker than ticks on a goat. It was the time for highsun sacrifice. Ant-people swarmed down there, gathering for blood, his warriors and his slaves and all the godspeakers the empress insisted must remain. The township was over-ripe and full to bursting. Half its surviving original inhabitants had been sent to other conquered settlements, just to make room for Mijak's warhost.
My warhost. I am their warlord, they belong to me.
He did not turn. “Vortka high godspeaker.”
“Warlord, you are absent from sacrifice.”
He shrugged. “So are you.”
A sigh. “Dmitrak…”
“Did the empress send you?”
“The god sends me, Dmitrak.”
“Too busy to come itself, high godspeaker?”
“Dmitrak!” Vortka's voice grated with displeasure. “You desire another tasking, is that why you spit your words in the god's eye, do you think the god is blinded by words?”
Dmitrak swung round sharply enough that the silver godbells in his scarlet godbraids woke from slumber, clamouring his anger. “I am weary of taskings, Vortka. I will have no more of them.”
“It is not your place to decide who is tasked, warlord,” the old man said, severe. “It is not your place to say ‘I will not come to sacrifice’. You are the warlord. Your place is at the altar when the god receives its blood.”
He turned back to the wide, shallow harbour and the wider ocean beyond it. Yes, I am the warlord. I am the god's hammer, I can strike down a godspeaker if I wish. Be careful, old man. “My place is where I say it is.”
“Your place is where the god puts you, Dmitrak,” said Vortka, his voice cold. “By its want, you are its hammer. For as long as the god sees you and no longer than that.”
Old man. Old fool. Like the empress he clung to the hope that one day the god's other hammer would return.
“Zandakar is gone, Vortka. Zandakar is most likely dead. I am the only hammer in the world.”
He almost choked on the name, to say it aloud. Thinking the name made the world shimmer red. Rage shivered a harsh keening from his godbells. His skin felt hot, his blood surged hot in his veins.
He was my brother; he turned his face from me. How dare he do that? How dare he dare?
So much time gone by, and still he could weep and kill to think of Zandakar.
“He loved you, Dmitrak,” Vortka said. His voice was cracked and chasmed with pain. “Your brother loved you. How can you doubt it? The world saw his love. He loved you in the god's eye.”
Why would Vortka say such a thing, did he think talk of Zandakar would please Dmitrak warlord? He had never said such a thing before, they had never talked of Zandakar. Nobody dared talk of Zandakar in his hearing.
You defend him, Vortka? You defend him to the man he wronged most? Tcha, you are blind, you tell yourself lies.
Vortka's defence of treacherous Zandakar pricked him to speak, when silence would be better. “He loved his stinking piebald bitch more.”
“And for that you tried to kill him?” said Vortka, angry again. “Aieee, warlord, you do not understand. A man may love a brother and also a wife. Even if—” He sighed, a sound of sorrow. “Even if the wife was a mistake. He loved that wrong woman, he did not stop loving you. He begged I never tell the empress you attempted his life, he spoke of you every highsun he was kept by my hand. Grieving and desolate, sometimes close to losing his mind, still he thought of you. Warlord, you should have a softer heart.”
Dmitrak raised his right arm, let his gold-and-crystal fingers fist. Summoned the power so the crimson stones glowed. “You should guard your old man's tongue, I will burn it in your mouth if you do not take my advice.”
Vortka sounded sorry again. Sorry, but beneath the regret a thread of fear. Good.
“You cannot hate forever,” said the foolish old man. “Hate will shrivel your heart, it will poison your godspark.”
Dmitrak grimaced into the wind. The high godspeaker was wrong, hate was more potent than the date wine of Icthia. Hate filled a man's belly, it strengthened his bones.
“Tcha, Vortka, you are stupid. The god hates. The god hates its enemies and tasks me to smite them, the god hates demons and weaklings. I am its hammer born to break them apart.”
“The god hates its enemies, yes,” agreed Vortka. “If we see the god in our hearts we must hate its enemies also, this is a true thing. Dmitrak, Zandakar was never your enemy.”
Zandakar again! Was the old man eager to lose his tongue? “Did I ask you to come here and grind your teeth on that name? I think I did not, Vortka. I think you think I will not smite you. I will.”
“You smite where the god wills, you smite nowhere else,” said Vortka, once more severe. “You are warlord, you have power, you have less power than the god. I am Vortka high godspeaker, I am in the god's eye. You will not smite me, Dmitrak.”
He looked over his shoulder. “No? Then why are you afraid?”
Vortka met his stare, unblinking. “Why are you, if Zandakar is gone?”
A hot pain stabbed through him. Sometimes at night, if he was not sated with female flesh or date wine, he dreamed of his brother, of the days when they were friends. He remembered laughter and horse races and the feel of a strong, warm hand on the back of his neck. Sometimes he woke from those dreams wet with tears.
Weak men weep, I am not weak. I am Dmitrak warlord, the god's hammer, doom of demons.
He shifted till he stood sideways to the harbour. “When does the god say we must sail from Jatharuj to this island called Ethrea?”
“Not yet,” said Vortka.
Not yet. Always the same answer. “The slave sailors talk of trade winds, they say the trade winds are weak. They should not be weak. What does the god say to you in the godpool, Vortka? Why do the trade winds lose their strength? We cannot sail to this Ethrea if the winds are too weak to fill our sails. The slaves cannot row there, they will die in their chains.”
“The godpool is godspeaker business, Dmitrak,” said Vortka. “It is not for you to ask or me to answer.”
And what did that mean? Did Vortka not know? Did the god not tell him why the winds had grown weak?
If Zandakar had asked him, Vortka would answer.
“My warhost grows restive, high godspeaker,” he said, thrusting aside the sour thought. “Icthia is conquered. The lands behind it are conquered. The world lies in front of us, out there—” He waved an arm at the gently seething ocean. “My warhost trains newsun to lowsun, it knows these boats, Vortka, it knows how to sail. We are in the world to kill demons for the god, there are demons in Ethrea. Why are we still here?”
Vortka's godbraids were as silver as his godbells, they were weighted with amulets so his head was heavy to turn. His scorpion pectoral clasped ribs bare of flesh. He was an old man, older than the empress, but an agelessness was in him, as though he could never die.
He would die if I killed him, if the hammer struck him he would die.
Vortka's sunken eyes were bright with anger. “Dmitrak, you tempt the god to a great smiting. You are its hammer, you make no demands. The warhost is in Jatharuj until the god says it is not. Do you say to me you will tell the god what it desires?” His hand lashed out. “Tcha! You sinning boy!”
Dmitrak stared at him, his face stinging from the blow. He did not need to look to know his gauntlet had caught fire, that power pulsed from his blood to the red stones, making them glow, waking in them their yearning for death.
Why can he strike me when I cannot strike back?
Suddenly he was a child again, cowering before the empress his mother, stinging from her careless blows because he danced too slowly in the hotas, because he slumped astride his pony, because – because—
Because I am Dmitrak, I am not Zandakar.
The rage had died from Vortka's lined face, the heat in his dark eyes had cooled to – to – pity.
“You are the god's hammer, you are in the god's eye,” said Vortka. “You serve the god, you serve it well, do not tempt it to smiting. Do not let anger lead you astray, Dmitrak. The empress needs you. She will not admit it.”
Aieee god, the scorpion pain inside him. I am a man grown, I need no bitch empress to need me. He let the gauntlet cool, pulled the burning power back into himself. I need no brother, I need no-one. I am the hammer.
“Dmitrak warlord,” said Vortka. “The warhost looks to you, you are its father and its mother and its brother. You must come to sacrifice, you must kneel for tasking, you must be Mijak's warlord as Raklion was warlord before you.”
He felt his lips thin to a sneer. “Not Zandakar?”
“Zandakar…” Vortka looked away, to the ocean, to the horizon at its distant edge. A terrible suffering was in his old face. “Your brother lost his way, Dmitrak. He was a great warlord until he was not, and when he was not the god smote him for his sinning. There is no mercy in it for the weakness of men. Sinning men die, how many times have I seen this? Sinning men are broken, the god hammers them to pieces. Are you stupid, Dmitrak? Do you think the god will not hammer you?”
If he said no Vortka would strike him again. Vortka was not Nagarak, fierce tales of Nagarak lived long after his death, but still Vortka was fierce in his own way. He was fierce for the empress, he breathed the air for her and for Mijak.
He will choose her over me, he will never see she is used up. He is blinded by Hekat. He is blinded by love. Does he think I am blind, I cannot see it? Zandakar blinded, Vortka blinded, love is a blinding thing. I keep my eyes.
“When have I not served the god, Vortka?” he demanded. “Cities are rubble because I serve the god. Blood flows like rivers because I serve the god. My blood boils and burns me because I serve the god. I sweat newsun to lowsun because I serve the god. I live in its eye, the god is all that I see. But you stand there and say I do not serve it? Tcha!”
Vortka looked at him steadily, hands relaxed by his sides. In the bright sunshine his stone scorpion pectoral glowed. “You do not serve the god if you keep from sacrifice, Dmitrak. You do not serve the god if you say ‘I will not be tasked’. Pain keeps your heart pure. Pain purges your godspark of sin. Pain keeps you in the god's eye, it sees your pain and knows your obedience. In your cries it hears your love.”
He had cried in tasking so often the god should be dead of his love by now. He had been tasked from small boyhood more times than he could count. Breathe too deeply, too often, the empress sent him for tasking. Dance too swiftly, too slowly, the empress sent him for tasking. Speak too loudly…speak at all…the empress sent him for tasking.
If I had died in the godhouse she would not have shed a tear.
That should not matter, he should not care if she cared. Yet he did care and it burned him, as the god's power burned him when he set his gauntlet on fire.
“When you kneel for tasking,” said Vortka, “your warhost sees you serve the god, your warriors know their warlord is seen, they know their warlord is in the god's eye. Can you look in my eye, Dmitrak, and tell me it does not matter?”
Aieee, tcha, it mattered. It mattered but he hated it. “If they are truly my warriors they know I am their warlord, they know the god sees me,” he retorted. “Am I a child or a slave to be beaten, Vortka? I think I am not. Task the empress, not me.”
“The god tasks the empress every day, Dmitrak,” said Vortka. “That is the god's business and mine, you have your own business to think of. The warhost will not linger in Jatharuj forever. Do you wish to sail to Ethrea with your godspark in doubt?”
When he was a child the godspeakers tasked him, not kindly, but knowing he was a child. He was a man now, he was the warlord, he was the god's hammer. The godspeakers thought he would not break.
Every tasking he feared to prove them wrong.
He turned away from Vortka and stared at the clustering boats, at the sunlit water, at the ant-people scattering. Highsun sacrifice was done. Now the iron tang of fresh blood was on the salty breeze. His warhost would be looking for him, with fingers of light to fill there must be training, they could not stand idle. The empress was right about that much at least.
Vortka was right also, though it galled him to think it. The warhost is a beast, it must stay tamed to my fist. It must have faith in him, believe in him. It must believe, never doubt, he was in the god's eye. He turned back. “No, high godspeaker,” he admitted, grudging. “I would not sail to Ethrea with my godspark in doubt.”
“Then you will come to lowsun sacrifice, warlord,” said Vortka, in the voice he used for the god's pronouncements. “And after you have drunk blood for the god you will kneel for the godspeakers to task you. You are the god's hope against the demons infesting the world. You are the empress's hope. You must not fail.”
He stared down his nose at the high godspeaker. “Fail? I am Dmitrak warlord, I am the god's hammer. Where Zandakar lost his way I have stayed strong.”
Vortka nodded again, his expression cautious. “You have.” Like a fish in muddy water, pity stirred again in his eyes. “But true strength lies in knowing when to bend before you break, warlord. You have pride, it has saved you, it might not save you forever.”
Why do you care, high godspeaker? You love Zandakar, you love Hekat. You do not love me.
He frowned. “Yes, Vortka.”
Vortka looked around the bare hilltop where they stood. Now his expression was puzzled, as though he searched for something. The sky was above them, the harbour below. Beyond them stretched the ocean, blue and deep, the greatest test the god had sent its chosen people. What was a desert of sand when the world contained deserts of water to drown them?
“What do you do here, Dmitrak warlord?” said Vortka, almost whispering. “Why do you so often come to stand on this hill?”
It was far from the township. It was dry land, no water. The breeze was cool, it soothed his skin. It made his godbells sing like sweet birds. Until recently the empress came here, this hilltop pleased her, but she came no more. The walk was too tiring. She needed to rest.