“So, Hugh,” said Zeke, “Tell me about yourself.”
“What is there to tell?”
“Where do you come from? Who was your family? What drives you as a person?”
“My mother was a sea nymph, but we fled the shore when I was very young and settled down in a valley near a stream that was fed by Mount Chandra. There, I guess I just had a typical childhood, being raised and educated by those my mother brought with us. I learned math, several languages, history, and obviously how to work metal.”
“And your father?” asked Zeke.
“He left before I was born. I’ve never met him, but he was a cyclops, also. My mother hardly ever talked about him.”
“So,” Zeke paused here, choosing his words carefully, “What motivates you? What are you all about?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You don’t seem to want anything.”
Hugh just walked along silently for a bit, before asking, “What should I want?”
“Money, fame, women… men…”
“Is that what makes people happy?” asked Hugh.
“I imagine many people think it will, but it’s always people who don’t have those things that are so sure you need them to be happy. I have all three… and I’m happy, but not because I have them. I am happy because I because I don’t want them.”
“Is it so hard to believe I want nothing?”
Zeke laughed. “Actually, yes. It takes quite a bit of effort and discipline on my part to maintain control over my desires. You, on the other hand… it seems to come naturally to you.”
Hugh shrugged. “I guess I’m lucky, in that regard.”
They reached Hugh’s home, and Zeke followed him inside. They sat on benches in the garden under the moonlight.
Zeke looked around, smiling. “I don’t say this with any envy, but not even my home has a courtyard.”
“Is that what this is?” asked Hugh.
“Yeah, and the columns constitute a colonnade, forming a tetrastoon, which is a four-sided peristyle around the inner court.” Zeke looked over at Hugh, “I studied architecture, though I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve studied almost everything just enough to understand what it’s about, but not enough to be good at anything.”
“Okay. I’m not going to bullshit with you, Hugh. Both of us are above it. My father has known since before you came that you are the only hope for the city.”
“How is that possible?” asked Hugh.
“He sent an envoy to Tauron to consult the sibyl months before, and she was quite clear. She was asked how the city could stop the Otros, and her reply was:
‘When strangers arrive
Of substantial size
It is best if you treat them with courtesy
While they are allies
The city survives
Their departure will lead to catastrophe’
“So you see… he had been looking for you,” Zeke continued, “Even though he had no idea what you looked like. And here you are, the savior of the city, and my father will do anything to keep you here. And I mean anything… he would never want me to tell you this, but there have even been discussions as to how best to keep you here, either through coercion or sheer violent force.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Hugh.
“You deserve to know, and I don’t think you plan on leaving. If you had any interest in returning to where you came, you wouldn’t have risked your life on the battlefield for us. I think you want to stay.”
“I don’t,” said Hugh.
“This is a wonderful place, but I prefer more solitude.”
“I’m sure we could grant you a small estate outside of the city, it could be quite isolated.”
“I guess,” Hugh said.
Zeke stood up and walked completely around Hugh. When he was standing in front of him again, he stopped and, without facing him, asked, “What is it, really? What makes you hesitant to stay?”
Hugh sighed and looked down at the ground. He kicked at a clump of grass. “My mother told me I was destined to topple empires. I have spent my entire life avoiding civilization, and now… I fear that my actions are going to bring about great chaos.”
Zeke faced Hugh and put his hand on his shoulder. “Who’s to say which prediction is correct?”
“What if they’re both correct?” asked Hugh. “What if I am destined to be the cause of this city’s fall by having come here and have you depend on me? What if my very presence here has doomed this place?”
“How long does your kind live?”
“Sometimes 800 years or so,” said Hugh.
“And how old are you now?”
“I’m 50, for a few more months anyway.”
Zeke smiled. “There will be plenty of time for you to topple empires. In fact… what if you bring about an end to the Otros?”
“Who are they, anyway?”
Zeke walked over to the pond and sat on a rock, looking into the waters. “Far to the south, beyond the point where winter become summer and summer become winter, there is a land of mountain steppes and grasslands. For centuries, the people there supposedly lived like beasts, moving from place to place like migratory herds.
“One day, the chief of a small tribe was murdered, and his family was left to essentially fend for themselves. The young children, no older than twelve, hunted for their food. The younger brother was killed by his older brother one day when arguing over who made the kill on a small weasel. This gave the older brother rights to his father’s inheritance, as it passes to the youngest son in their culture.
“A few years later, he was captured in a raid by rival tribes and tortured for months. His head was placed between two boards that locked together with a hole for his neck, so that his hands could not even reach his face. He had to beg others to feed him and if no one obliged that day, he would go hungry. He was thirteen year old. He escaped with the help of a guard who had known his father.
“At sixteen, he married the daughter of a nearby tribe, as had been arranged by his father before his death. Shortly after the marriage, his wife was captured in another raid and sold as a sex slave. He hunted down her captors, personally executed all of them, and rescued his wife.
“He then spent the next couple decades working to unite the tribes of his region and defeat all those who refused to join him. He has a reputation for being cruel, but it’s my understanding that he is exceedingly fair, and that he’s quite generous with his allies.
“He held back incursions by great empires from that region of the world, then after securing peace at his borders in the south, he moved north. He conquered countless tribes, clans, villages, and cities. After ruthless insider political maneuvering, he also managed to be named Karn, which is like their version of a King, or perhaps more like Emperor.
“But he wasn’t content with sitting on some throne and ruling his already vast empire. He remained with his army, appointing his closest friends and children to administer his Karndom while he went out to expand it.
“And he did. His empire is arguably larger than any the world has ever seen, and our little city is the only thing in his way from taking out the greatest threat to his continued expansion.
“No one knows exactly how fast his army can travel, but considering he got here a week earlier than all our reports projected, I would say he’s just a short five day ride from the capital, and from here, with access to our maritime trade, he could easily mount a successful siege on Kole. If Kole falls, our entire continent is bound to crumble before him.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he could conquer the rest of the Kolish cities without shedding another drop of blood if the capital falls. They say the ground itself shudders when his army passes, either out of fear or just from the sheer force of all his horses. No one wants to face him, not even the Austerians, and since they aren’t geographically in his way, they don’t have to.
“He says he only wants to pass through, but everyone knows that any city he ‘passes through’ becomes his. He will expect tribute money and access to our resources in exchange for being left alone, and he might put a puppet ruler in charge of our city.
“He will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. A man that accustomed to success does not accept failure. He will keep coming back, just as they say he did with the Quadrifortica at Marnassus. Four walls, each of them taller and stronger than our own… and he took the city after just four years. The city had withstood sieges of over ten years before that.
“By the end of his siege of the city, most of the inhabitants were dead from starvation or disease. Those who were left were said to look like walking skeletons. The city burned for weeks, and now all that is left is a burned out husk surrounded by four enormous, crumbling walls. That tends to be the fate of those who cause him difficulty.
“He fights for one cause: to conquer the whole world. And if ever there was someone who could do it, it’s him. His army… well, I don’t have to tell you, but his army is incredibly disciplined and effective. He has taken cavalry warfare to a new level. They say his army eats, sleeps and even fucks on horseback.
“His men use bows that are more powerful than any bows we have, and they even have armor better than any we have. They have some sort of light but incredibly effective scale armor worn not only by their soldiers, but by their horses, as well. They have a kill to loss ratio greater than any army in history. They’ve reportedly slaughtered thousands in some attacks without losing a single man.
“And yet… out of all of that, the thing I find most amazing is that he has thousands of wives, and even more children. He doesn’t have a wife in every village, town and city, he has a dozen.
“That is Jengo, who all but single-handedly united a divided people into the most fearsome fighting force, ever. He’s more than just a military genius, he’s also a master of logistics, espionage, and politics.”
Zeke looked to Hugh, who just sat there silently.
“He’s coming back, Hugh. We’re going to have the wall complete, but he’s going to come at us with everything he has, and it’s not going to be two days of fighting, it’s going to be weeks, months, even years of siege warfare. This last encounter… that was just him seeing what we have. He was sizing us up. I don’t think he counted on you being there, but next time he will expect you. You can bet he’s thinking about how to defeat you right now, as we speak.”
“That’s not a comforting thought,” said Hugh.
“Good, you should feel uncomfortable knowing that. Maybe it will give you the impetus to think about how to get him before he gets you.”
“Or it will give me the impetus to leave, for my own safety.”
“You’re not going to leave, Hugh, we both know that.” Zeke stood up and began to walk out. He turned at the edge of the courtyard. “Have you ever given up on anything, or anyone, in your life?”
Hugh just looked back at him.
Zeke smiled. “Don’t forget, there will be people coming by to set up for the party in two days. Good night.”
To be continued…