The Back Catalogue – 3rd Time

Another story from those days of yore when I wrote more fiction than I do now.

THE WARLORD’S TALE

Know that the writer of these words has sat at the feet of the philosophers in the Great Square of Shand and conversed with the wise men of the Elder Kingdoms. This tale then is neither the idiotic maundering of old age nor the idle fancy of untutored youth, but the simple truth.

Now in a time long ago, the warlord Ar-Djake gathered his armies and went up against the land of Tomaar. The hosts met on the desolate plain of Zoke and at the end of the day the warlord stood victorious. By his own hand he slew Vate the King, and fifty thousand, the cream of Tomaar, lay dead upon the ground for the vultures to pick at their bones. His chief captain brought the triple diadem of Tomaar and placed it on the head of Ar-Djake, so that all the land proclaimed him King.

Ar-Djake vowed that he would build a great city on the plain of Zoke to thank the gods for his victory. It was to be the most wonderful city in the entire world, so that all who visited it would marvel at the power of Ar-Djake, the King. The city was to be more glorious even than distant Shand, and it was to be called Ar-Djake in honour of its founder, so that his name would live forevermore. The most renowned architects and engineers and builders in all the land were summoned to the court of the King, and half a million of Tomaar were enslaved so that Ar-Djake’s dream could be made reality.

Of all the buildings in this city of wonders Ar-Djake decreed that the most magnificent was to be the temple of his patron, Ar the God of War and Warriors, who had granted the King victory on the bloody field of Zoke and a hundred other battlegrounds, by whose grace he ruled over Tomaar and the lands beyond. This temple was to be the largest building ever fashioned by mortal hands. Its spires were to pierce the fabric of heaven and its walls were to be lined with beaten gold and encrusted with precious gemstones. At the heart of this edifice was to be a shrine, dominated by a giant statue of the War God hewn from a single block of white Parian marble, which had been hauled from far off Colande at the cost of a king’s ransom. Only an artist of genius could be entrusted with such an important work, and so couriers were sent at the King’s command to scour the four corners of the world in search of Andelfji, the legendary sculptor who had fashioned the awesome statue of The Trix, which overlooked Shand’s harbour in the days of that city’s greatest glory.

Andelfji came in the twelfth year of the city’s construction, and many who had eagerly awaited his arrival now shuddered at the sight of the sepulchral sculptor. Unnaturally tall and gaunt, he was dressed entirely in black, a patchwork of rags and tatters that resembled funeral cerements and gave off an unwholesome odour. What little could be seen of his skin was covered by a fine network of veins, as if the man had been turned inside out. His bloodshot eyes seemed to look right through whatever they focused on, as if he saw something more, something else, and no-one could long endure that damning stare. Accompanying the sculptor was his assistant, a mute and hideously deformed dwarf whose facial features were always concealed by a leather mask.

Ominous signs and portents were seen throughout Tomaar that year. Fiery comets chased each others’ tails across the night sky. Infants were found murdered in their beds, the young bodies horribly mutilated. Falls of blood were common and watchmen reported sighting strange creatures on the outskirts of Ar-Djake at night, neither man nor ape but a terrible amalgam of both life forms. A mysterious plague that made men’s bodies rot and fall apart while they yet lived struck down a full third of the King’s work force as the physicians stood by helpless. The superstitious whispered that the Dark God had at last woken from his aeon’s long sleep and his minions now stalked the land.

Andelfji was seldom seen. He worked alone, slept in the temple behind barred doors and ate his meals there. Only the sculptor’s assistant and the King himself were allowed to intrude upon the artist’s solitary strivings. Ar-Djake spent long hours closeted alone with the sculptor and began to neglect the duties incumbent upon his high office. The King’s manner was greatly changed. Often at night he went forth in disguise, to consort with whores and quaff immense quantities of wine in the lowest taverns. His steely sinews were replaced by fat and the mighty warrior who had strode the battlefields of his youth like an angry lion remained only as a memory in the hearts of those who loved him. An inner fire seemed to consume the King. Many thought that Andelfji had cast an evil spell over Ar-Djake, but none dared to speak this opinion aloud for fear of the King’s spies who were always abroad and faithfully about their master’s business.

There came a time when only the head of Ar remained to be chiselled from the marble and the dignitaries and ladies of the court were permitted to view that great statue for the first time. In stunned amazement they gazed at the faithful likeness of their sovereign in full panoply of battle and wielding a mighty broadsword. As one the horrified captains and ministers begged Ar-Djake to desist in this terrible act of blasphemy for all their sakes, but the King stood firm against their clamour. The representation of Ar should resemble him down to the very smallest particular. Thus did Ar-Djake set his face against both the gods and men.

Andelfji locked himself in the temple, denying even the King entry. He worked all through the day and long into the night. The constant clink of his sculptor’s tools chipping away marble echoed preternaturally loud through the halls of the neighbouring great palace and all who heard that fateful sound shuddered inwardly.

That night a storm like none ever known before raged over all Tomaar. Great battalions of cloud swept in from the east obscuring the face of the moon with their dark mass. Rain lashed down and jagged streaks of lightning rent the night air. The people shivered in their tiny houses and huddled together for warmth and comfort, while the land itself seemed to buck and heave beneath their feet like a tormented creature in the last extremities of death. Just before dawn the storm broke suddenly. An ominous quiet hung over the benighted city of Ar-Djake and then shattered as a blood curdling scream rang out from the environs of the temple.

The members of the royal court ran out into the suddenly calm night, many of them still dressed in their sleeping garments. The great temple door stood barred against them and no-one answered their hammered demands for admittance. Taking command the Chief Minister summoned a dozen guardsmen with a stout battering ram to force entry. The metal reinforced wood resisted the ram with a baleful groaning, like a lost soul in agony, and then gave way abruptly with a mighty crash.

Just inside the door the party stumbled over the recumbent body of Andelfji’s assistant. There were signs that the dwarf had been involved in a fierce struggle. His robes were torn and bloody. In his hand the dwarf clutched a dagger of curious design, its hilt adorned with arcane symbols and the saw-toothed blade stained bright crimson. A rope burn or cut encircled his bull neck and at one place there was an indentation whose shape resembled that of the King’s coronation ring. The Chief Minister dispatched several guards in search of Ar-Djake and then reached over to remove the dwarf’s mask, but before he could tear it away the creature’s body crumbled to fine powder in front of their eyes. A gust of icy wind seemed to blow over them from out of the shrine, followed by another appalling scream.

With the Chief Minister at their head the bravest members of the party pressed forward into the sanctuary, nervous fingers dancing close to sword hilts. The statue of Ar stood as before, but now it was surmounted by a human head, the flesh and blood image of the King himself. Slowly the soldiers and courtiers shuffled forward, scarcely daring to breathe, and then Ar-Djake’s eyes flickered open freezing them all in place. His cracked and bloodied lips parted to whisper barely audible words in a hideous unknown tongue that scorched the souls of all who stood close enough to hear, so that afterwards their sleep was always troubled by vague and nameless fears. Finally Ar-Djake screamed, a sound to chill the blood in human veins and break the spell that held them all motionless. His head fell forward and toppled to the ground, at last devoid of the unholy life that had animated it.

At that moment several guards burst in to report the discovery of Ar-Djake’s headless corpse in the royal bedchamber beside the obscenely mutilated body of his favourite concubine. Those first upon the scene claimed to have seen a head of white Parian marble atop the King’s bloody neck, but carved in a visage that was inhuman and terrible to behold.

And so a new King came to reign in fabled Tomaar and the statue of the God of War was destroyed at his command. Though many sought him no trace of the sculptor Andelfji was ever found. Ar-Djake’s head was burnt after ritual purification and the ashes were scattered far out at sea. The room containing his body was walled up, its whereabouts forgotten by all. His name was cursed the length and breadth of the land. The city that had been his dream was left unfinished and abandoned by the royal court for cheerier climes. It became a lair for jackals and their sinister brethren, werecreatures of the night.

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