Yesterday I promised a story, even though there’s no Kudzu update to be had. So, here’s one with a bit of an odd narrative structure (and thus a difficult sell…).
This is the Tale My Father Told
by Bernie Mojzes
The air ruins it.
Otherwise, it’s not so different, here in this pitiful outpost at the furthest rim of the Empire, from the land of my birth. These hills are cold and barren, your mountains in the north even more so, and the winter wind is brutal and deadly. The sheep and goats outnumber the people, and outsmart most of them, too. The people are poor — farmers and herdsmen just trying to get through another year. Even your kings are poor. I never felt this homesick when I was in Rome, or as at home.
Except for the air. Everywhere here, it smells of brine, like the sea that batters these shores. Maybe it is different, further inland.
Put aside your sword, boy. You’ll find no threat in my home. Here, let me pour you some uisge. I wish I could offer you a proper drink, but I haven’t seen a worthwhile plum since I got here.
U Zdravje. Or as you Scoti say, Slainte Mhath.
Eh. Don’t rush me. I’m an old man and I deserve some respect, even if I am just a slave. And I have a few things yet to teach you before your overeager friends take my head.
Come, child, walk with me. Bring the bottle. Bring two.
What are you looking at, boy? The fighting’s over. You don’t want to involve yourself in what comes next. Come along, this way. Let me tell you a story while we walk.
This is a tale my father told me, an old, old story of my people. I did not understand at the time, and I am not sure that you are ready to understand. But perhaps now is the right time to tell it to you, and you will understand when you need. How did it go? Ah, yes.
A long time ago, in a kingdom very near here…
Nje. Don’t interrupt. That is how the stories of my people all start. A kingdom very near here. Maybe it is on the other side of the forest. Maybe it is on the other side of the world. But maybe with the Romans, the other side of the world is now very near here. Otherwise, we two would not be talking now, yes?
A long time ago, in a kingdom very near here, there was a great and wise king. When he was young, he was a hero, fighting many demons and dragons and other evil creatures. He was such a great hero that even great Svarog looking down from the sky noticed his deeds.
Svarog is a god of my people. You would recognize him, I think, though you would call him by a different name. But what is a name worth? The Romans say that God gave to Adam the right to name all the creatures in the world. But when has a god given a man anything of value? Not without taking something of greater value in return. Never mind the names, eh, and listen to the tale.
Svarog wished to reward the young hero for his great works, and he granted him one boon. Whatever he wished, his greatest desire: he had just to ask. But the hero had no great desires to fulfill. He had no need for riches, for he was already rich, and he had no desire for a woman to make his wife, for he had already found the girl whom he would marry. So he decided to save his wish for later, when his need might be greater.
In time, the hero became king, and he took the woman as his queen, and had two strong sons and a beautiful daughter. His kingdom was blessed with fertile lands and good weather, and soon it was the greatest and richest kingdom in the world.
Ah, but here we are, already.
They call it Hadrian’s Wall. Names again. Named it after Emperor Hadrian, who ordered it built after he met some of you folk. Wise man, some say, but he’d have been wiser if he fled back across the sea. The wall runs from here all the way across your dismal little island to Coria and the Sea in the East. They’re great builders, the Romans. The best, except for maybe the Egyptians. Did I ever tell you about the years my master was deployed to Egypt? Ah, well, then I won’t bore you with it now.
Where was I? Ah, yes. Hadrian’s Wall. It is truly a masterpiece. You people have been throwing yourselves at it for a couple hundred years, and only now have you finally breached it, now that the Empire has lost interest in these Isles. Come here, lad. Have you seen the wall from this side?
Yes, up here. Mind your step, it’s been a while since anyone’s tended the mortar, and there are more than a few stones loose. Up you go.
There. That’s your Caledonia out there, as far as the eye can see, and farther. Land of the Scoti and the painted ones, the Picts. Cold and brutal, and full of crazy, half-naked barbarians and savage, ancient gods.
And all that stands between us and them is this pitiful heap of rocks.
Yes, I said ‘us,’ for you stand here with me staring at the abyss at the edge of the Empire, and together you and I are ‘us,’ no matter the paths we took getting here, or where our paths take us tomorrow. Right now, we are here, together.
Come along, child. I’ve been your teacher these last five years, and just because you’ve killed off the man who sold your father my services doesn’t mean I’m done teaching, or that you’re done learning. Everything before was just preparation. Your real education begins today.
I was maybe your age, maybe a little younger, when my own education began. When the Huns drove us out of our village. We followed the river until we found a new place to build. Then the Huns came again, and drove us out again, right into the arms of a Roman Legion.
Nje. It’s all right. I got to see the world. I’ve seen temples built of marble as white as the purest snow, and of the blackest obsidian. I’ve seen the pyramids that rise like mammoth gods from the desert floor, older than time itself. I’ve studied in the Library in Alexandria. I met Sophia.
Ah, now there’s a story I’ve not yet told you. Her hair was black as night, and fell to her waist. She had a gap between her front two teeth that made her whistle when she spoke. Her name means Wisdom, and I was so young, and so foolish.
Here, sit. My knees are weary, and we’ve got as good a view here as anywhere else.
So tell me, boy. What do you see?
Yes, yes, of course. Luguvalium in flames. Have I taught you these five years so you can be an idiot? Then don’t tell me what any idiot can see. Tell me what you see. You’ll be king soon enough. Show me you’re worthy of it. Most people decide what is important, and then see only that. That’s backwards. See everything, then decide what is important.
Ah, yes. Better. The black rocks, wet from the melting ice. The first sprouts of spring pushing through the earth. Almost time to sow the fields. The bodies. Too many to count? When you’re king, you’ll have no choice. Yes, now is the time to mention the fire. And that building on the left? You are not seeing wrong. Your people and the surviving Britons and Romans are working together to save that building. The seed for this year’s planting is in there. If that building burns, next winter will kill more than this battle has.
And it will burn, unless they can find a way to pull the very sea to their aid.
Pass the bottle, child. There’s a cold wind come down. And you have so much to learn.
Come. This way.
If you were king, would you execute the man that set the fire that burned the storehouse?
Yes, I know he was acting on your father’s orders. Will that matter come February? Wouldn’t he then be just one more mouth to feed?
I’m not asking you what your father would do. Your father doesn’t matter.
Ah, here we are. Here’s where your men first overran the Romans. This man here, his name was Telerius. He had two wives and five children. One of them is old enough to fight, barely. Your age. He is also my student, but on the Roman side of the wall. I don’t know what’s become of him. As for the others, what will you tell them, when you are king, and winter comes? ‘We must feed our warrior who burned the seed, so you will have to starve?’ How about this man here? Don’t look away. What was his name? Faolan, yes? Your friend Tynan’s father, if this feeble, old mind does not mislead. And Faolan’s family? What happens to them now?
Do you have any idea how dependent you people have become on Roman grain?
Why do I keep asking you these questions? What did I tell you about observing everything? Didn’t you see the blood? Didn’t you see your father press his hand to his gut, and favor his right side? Could you not see Her shadow on him?
Come, boy. Tomorrow you will be king, but today you are still my student. Let us leave this spot. There’s too much blood here for my tastes. Leave this place to Her.
A great victory? Haven’t I taught you to count?
Once upon a time, the Emperor stationed a full Legion in Britain. Six thousand men. What was left guarding this post? Just over half a Century? Perhaps eighty percent of those slain. I counted forty dead Roman soldiers, and maybe a dozen held prisoner. How many Scoti died today?
There are many tales of such ‘victories.’
My story? Ah yes, my story. I almost forgot. Where was I? Hmm. Boy, dragons, king, rich. Yes, I remember.
The king ruled wisely and well for many years, and his kingdom prospered. The neighboring kingdoms, which were not so lucky, nor ruled so wisely, grew jealous. And one day, when it was least expected, they waged war.
The battle was long and bloody, but at the end the king won the day and drove the attackers away. But the king’s rejoicing was short-lived. Soon, the battalion commanded by his eldest son joined him. Their banners were lowered, and they carried the king’s son on a stretcher. He had been mortally wounded, and none could save him.
As the king grieved for his eldest son, the battalion commanded by the king’s second son returned. Their banners also were lowered, and they carried the king’s second son on a stretcher. He too had been mortally wounded, and none could save him.
The king brought his dying sons back to his castle so that the queen and his daughter could make their farewells, but as they approached, they saw smoke on the horizon. The enemy had sent a company of men to flank them and assault the castle directly. The guards had been killed, and the castle set to the torch.
The queen ran to the king as he approached. “They have killed our daughter,” she cried.
Some victory, eh?
So what happens now? You’ve taken Luguvalium, and you’ve lost half your men doing it. What happens when the Romans send a larger force to retake it?
Or what happens if they don’t? And you’re the king left here, looking back over the wall into Her realm? Remember. Anyone sitting on this side of the wall is one of ‘us,’ part of the Empire. It matters little where you came from or what your intentions were.
No, this was a war that you could never have won. The Empire is never defeated. The Empire never goes away. The Empire is eternal. Oh, Rome will abandon these isles soon enough; that much is clear even to the Romans. But you’ve lived under their shadow for hundreds of years now. The idea of the King of Kings is here, and that idea will live forever.
Empire is not like a nation. Remember this, boy. It is not a tribe, or a tribe of tribes, or a country of countries. It is a tapeworm that feeds on our minds. You’ll never be free of it. And every segment you cut out just grows to infect another victim.
Perhaps it will be the Scoti. Perhaps you yourself will unite your tribes and lead them to victory over the painted ones and the Southlands, and perhaps even across the sea. The thought has crossed your mind already, I see. Or maybe the Britons will rise up to fill that role as the Romans abdicate, and one day a great British Empire will dominate the world.
You laugh. The Roman’s slaves, become rulers of the world? But who better than a slave to learn his master’s ways?
Leave it to them, child. There’s more honor in being a slave than a slaver.
Help me down here, boy. Its time for you to meet someone. Yes, yes. Someone on ‘your’ side of the wall. I’m old, but I still have my wits about me.
Who? Heh. An old friend. A very old friend indeed.
Of course it’s not safe.
You know, the wall does look more imposing from this side. Mind you don’t step on poor Eadan there. Or Osgar.
You’re surprised that I know their names? For five years I have been visiting your people, and you think I’d not notice who is there? Slaves and kings have one thing in common — neither is ever really free. Neither has the luxury of not paying attention. An oblivious slave is a dead slave. The same is doubly true for kings.
Tell me, who was the first to fall? Ah. The horse boy. Corc. Pity. I liked him. He was always very kind to a feeble old man. Show me, child. Show me where he fell.
It is time to finish this tale, I think. Where had I left it? The daughter. Yes, the daughter had been stabbed and burned, and was dying. I told you this already, yes?
The king’s daughter lay in the rubble of the castle’s gate, in the shadow of the great arch. This was as far as the queen could drag her, away from the flames that consumed the castle. She was not yet dead, but there was no saving her.
“Look!” the people cried, and they pointed to a figure who crouched, perched atop the ruined archway, watching the king’s daughter. Waiting for her to die.
Yes, child, you are right. We are near. I can feel Her. There. Feeding.
Look at Her. Is She not terrible? Is She not beautiful?
In the land of my birth we called her Morana. You have another name for Her, I think, but it is not so very different, is it?
Tell me, child, do you pity poor Corc? Or do you envy him the honor? By tonight, tomorrow at the latest, you will wear your father’s crown. And your father? Will you give him to Her? Or will you try to save him, to give his soul to the Roman God? Will you stay here and rule, and stretch your kingdom across this island? Will you embrace Empire? Will you take up the cause of that which builds beyond reason and decays from within? Or will you go back to your sheep and your mountains, to your petty regional squabbles? Which darkness will you embrace?
My tale is not yet done. I had wanted to finish before we found Her. Please forgive an old man’s wandering wits. But I must finish. Listen.
The king stood over his dying daughter, and drew all his authority to him. “Morana, this is my kingdom, and my word is law. I forbid this.”
The Demon Goddess laughed. “You are a leaf,” she told him, “already beginning to brown, a withered flower, already gone to seed. They are mine, and in the end, so are you.”
The king heard her words and knew they were true. But his daughter lay at his feet, gasping her last breath, and his two sons lay nearby, the last of their blood draining from their wounds. He turned his eyes to the sun, and he cried out. “Svarog, you have promised me one request! I call on you to grant it now! Drive the Demon Goddess from my kingdom, and banish her from it forever!”
Svarog looked into the eyes of his old friend, and he said, “You do not want this thing. Choose something else.”
But the king’s reason had left him. “This is what I choose,” he said. “Give me my due, Lord Svarog, or be made a liar and cheat.”
Svarog blinked his great eye, and for a moment the world was black, and when it was once again light, Morana had gone.
From then on, it was always summer. Nothing died. The crops grew and grew, producing harvest after harvest, until the Earth itself grew weary. No wound would slay a man. No disease, however terrible, would kill him.
One day, the king gathered his wife to him, and his two sons and his daughter, and all of his subjects who were not too ill to walk. And he raised his eyes to the sun, and he cried, “Great Svarog, please, I was wrong. Lift the ban.”
“Do you know what you are asking for?” Svarog asked.
The king kissed his children, doomed by his foolishness to be forever dying, but never dead. “Yes,” the king said.
And Svarog blinked his eye.
This is the tale my father told me, and this is the tale that I have been given to tell you.
Go to Her now, child. Introduce yourself. Do not be afraid. She is not here for you, yet.
Soon it will be your time to make choices. Best to know Her before then. Best to know her well.