The minaret could be seen from dozens of miles off. It hurtled towards the sky – a thin spike of stone, narrow and full of green, greasy light, it scraped the sky and threw a dim smear across the belly of the clouds.
As they wound their way over the hills, the two travelers suddenly crested a tall ridge and there it was, the city of the mad king, and the minaret dominated the small freehold. It was monstrous, like some thrusting phallus of a sleeping god in the throes of a lusty dream.
They struggled to tear their eyes away from it. It was like choosing not to view the face of God.
With sweating, straining grunts, the travelers barely managed to lower their eyes, the effort was painful, and one of them cried aloud with the effort. After a few minutes of hard breathing and a low chattering between them, they wiped the tears from their eyes and began walking again.
The slope suddenly plunged downwards, leading them inexorably towards the crumbling gate of the city. A half-built ring of stone had been thrown up around the minaret and some 400-500 buildings that crowded its feet. The whole place was lit up with yellow lantern light and the eerie luminescence of the minaret, bathing the whole area in a queasy blue glow. The travelers scanned the city with curious eyes. They had come so far to see the king, so far and so long, with many lost friends and companions haunting their steps.
As they drew nearer they could see the city was abuzz with frenetic activity. People were running through the streets, many hundreds of them, in nearly all the streets; like a termite’s nest, kicked.
They heard shouting too, and screaming. They heard laughter and throats filled with song; the rhythmic thumping of drums and the tinny bleating of horns and other noisemakers. They heard rants, and demands, exhortations and condemnations.
As they approached the gate, they found the walls unmanned, the gates ajar, the entrance completely unguarded. Just beyond the gate the courtyard was full of activity. Men and women (no children, strange) were everywhere, some many thousands. Couples were strewn across the ground and leaned up against walls and pillars, wantonly screwing. Others were eating lustily, great tables had been dragged into the streets and feasts laid upon them. Everywhere people were running, some clad in armor and fully armed, others stark naked and painted with strange patterns. They all babbled to themselves or to others, groups had their voices raised in unison, chanting scraps of doggerel or new ephemera, the nonsense-couplets of children and madmen; still others were slapping paint on the wooden buildings of the city, while others used chalk or simply scratched graffito onto the half-stacked walls.
The travelers paused, daunted. This seemed a place of dreams, or nightmares, they could not decide for themselves. They had no idea where the old king dwelt. They could wander for hours or days without finding him, so varied were the temptations and obstacles before them.
They spoke briefly to one another in the shadow of the gate. They were not fools, nor cowards, and they knew that their mission was one of great importance, something they could not simply ignore or walk away from. They debated and argued for nearly half the night. Suddenly they found a common mind. They would run through the city and speak to no one who did not look sane. It was laughable, to be sure, but at least it was a plan. It would get them moving.
They entered the gate. They began to run.
At first the crowds in the courtyard lunged at them. Voices called out to stop, introduce yourselves, welcome seekers, wait who are you, do you want to eat, hey handsome want some fun, and they ran.
The streets were as chaotic as they expected. Thousands ate, screwed, fought, gambled, argued, yelled, screamed, destroyed, preached, bargained, challenged, lamented, and rejoiced in various states of undress, mostly, although body painting and tattooing seemed to be a favorite – crazy geometric designs that forced the eye to slide away or risk madness.
The travelers were confronted many times, by men and women alike, and although they managed to stave off sexual and material temptations, the challenges by combatants were hard to ignore.
They fought several times, quick scrappy affairs that left their challengers bleeding in the streets. No tripped-out, drunken-half-dressed was going to stand up to the two travelers. They moved and fought and thought and spoke as warriors trained. They had no rivals in this strange place. They ran.
The sun began to touch the sky and the travelers had found refuge on the roof of a large wooden building near the foot of the minaret. They were resting and sharing some food, trying to get a sense of where they had come from, drawing in the dirt with a stick, and one of them spoke softly in the dawning light.
“If this is the center of the circle, then we need to be here”, and he touches the crude map with the stick, “not here, which is where I think we are now.”
The other nods and says in a sharp twang, “We have t’be close t’here, Rankin, otherwise we couldn’t see the base of the tower, yeah?”
Rankin turns his head, looking hard over his shoulder at the massive slab that supports the weight of the monumental spire, and then shrugs, saying, “True, but we could be anywhere along this line”, and he scrapes a furrow in the ground dirt, obliterating a few of the lopsided “buildings” that Gerromaan had drawn earlier. “and not realize it. The old man has to be in one of these larger buildings, but damned if I know how we’re going to figure it out. We haven’t seen one single person who looked like Watch or Army, and I doubt if there are any people here who aren’t completely fuckin’ mad.”
Gerromaan grunts and spits, making a pool out of one of the smaller buildings on the map. “Agreed, pek, I think this place is cursed. Timsah-qaadesh. A place of demons.”
Rankin checks himself. Gerromaan was a good soldier, a good friend, but he was the most superstitious dickhead he’d ever met. He held his tongue and changed the subject. He said “Whatever, but we need to either move fast or somehow lay low until tonight, I don’t want to be moving around down there in the daylight. Who knows what the fuck this place is like then. We could be surrounded before you could say wallak-tidish, ya know?”
Gerromaan snorts, “Pek, we could have been taken down at any moment in the last four hours, don’t you know that? They let us pass by. Even the fights we had, those qalim had no chance, and they knew it, don’t you see that? They wanted to die. I could see the fuckin’ crazy light in their eyes. This whole place is mad, don’t you see?” Gerromaan got to his feet and nearly shouted in Rankin’s face, “Fuck the mission, Rankin, fuck the world, we’ve got to get out of here, don’t you see? Before its too late!”
Rankin stood in one clean movement, his long-dagger held reversed in his grip, the blade at the throat of his friend, the other hand on the back of Gerromaan’s head. “I think its already too late, old friend. The madness has gripped you! All this way! I can’t lose you now! GERROMAAN! Listen to me! It’s not real, dammit! Gerromaan!” Rankin shook him furiously, and a tiny line of blood appeared on Gerromaan’s throat as if by magic.
Gerromaan’s wanted to run, more than anything he had ever wanted before, but he knew that if he so much as twitched, he would be dead as dogshit. He licked his lips, his mouth was so dry, so dry, and he could feel his heart racing out of control as fear gushed into every pore in his body.
He had to get out, there was no room for any other thought. His mind rabbited into a million escape scenarios as his eyes were drawn up and away from his friend’s angry gaze; up to the minaret, the beautiful minaret, tower of unearthly beauty, wasn’t it so beautiful, filled with a heavenly light, such a wonder, and his grew soft and moist as he fell in love with the colossal tower, the spire of impossible height, the minaret of madness.
Rankin saw all this of course. He knew Gerromaan was gawking over his shoulder at that damned abomination. The needle of stone that defied his training, his experiences, his imaginings. He knew that Gerromaan was lost. He would have to go on alone. But he owed it to his friend to give him a death that had some honor. Some meaning. But how? If he could only snap him out of this, they could search that large building over to the east, the one that he could see even now, they would find the old king, deliver their message and get the hell out of there. If only. But how to make Gerromaan see? He heard his friend’s breathing calm, felt his pulse slow as the rapture overtook him. What would Gerromaan do next?
He had no time to decide, because he suddenly felt Gerromaan’s pulse shoot up, his breathing ramped up and his muscles tensed, and as he shifted his gaze back to his friend’s eyes, he could see the frenzy in them, the adrenaline turning the pupils to pinpricks of cold, black light. He whispered “Uttatenyay, ullum shaqqay”, “Forgive me old friend”, and pulled the dagger across Gerromaan’s throat, stepping back and away from the arterial spray and the collapse of his friend’s body.
He sat with Gerromaan until it was over. He did not cry, his training would not allow that much emotion, but he did feel a grey pall descend over him, like a wet and clammy fog in his mind, and he felt a great silence around him. He took Gerromaan’s dulah-utep, as tradition demanded, and left the rooftop as the sun finally filled the sky with light and heat.
To his amazement and utter shock, the streets were quiet. The “citizenry” had disappeared indoors or at least out of the main thoroughfares, and he was able to make his way to the large building that he believed might by the home of the king quickly and quietly. He saw the people everywhere, asleep in great dog piles, dozens of them curled up together in alleyways and under porticos and atop roofs much like the one where Gerromaan had met his fate.
He was tired, but not exhausted. He had no sleep last night, but that was not unusual and he felt that he would be ok if he could just see the king and maybe grab two hours of shuteye.
Soon the large building loomed before him. He pushed open the great double doors and saw half-a-dozen people asleep in a narrow hallway that ended in a staircase leading upstairs. He stepped over them gingerly, as one would a slumbering chamber of wolves, and made his way up the wooden stairs.
At the top was another narrow hall that ended in a large door. Beside him were two more doors, each unremarkable. He ignored these and lightly ran down the hall towards the large door. It was unlocked and well-balanced, because it swung open smoothly to reveal a vast hall that was furnished with dozens of crude wooden benches and tables. A couple of dozen sleeping people were spread upon the tables, benches and floor. Cats, dogs and rats all sniffled among them, eating scraps from last night’s feast. To his immediate left another staircase leaped upstairs. He crept up them, leaving the dining hall behind. A wide corridor greeted him, flanked by many doors and interspersed with iron sconces, all unlit. At the far end of the corridor were two soldiers, armored, armed, and more importantly, awake.
They snapped to attention at the sight of him and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally,” he thought, “someone in charge. Maybe this is the king’s hall after all.”
The guards began approaching him. He stood, relaxed, and called out “Halloo and good meetings, loyal kingsmen. I have come many thousands of leagues to meet with your king, and was feared I would never find him. It is good to –“ and here he broke off as he saw the faces of the guards.
They were upside-down.
Rankin stepped back and drew his weapons, his bladder giving way in his breeches, a feat not accomplished since he was three and came across a black wolf in the forests near his father’s house in the Kangari Mountains. Luckily his father had been only a pace away and dispatched the beast with a well-placed arrow. His father was long in the grave now, and Rankin was alone. “If only Gerromaan hadn’t –“, he thought, but stopped himself.
The guards were upon him. He fought. Though the guards were obviously trained, they were still no match for Rankin’s training. He put them down quick and stood over the bodies, chewing a thumbnail and nervously eying the door at the far end. He spat out a chunk of nail and whispered “olo qassay” before stepping down the hall, his weapons sheathed again, his manner calm and measured.
At the door he stopped to listen. He heard naught, as expected. He pulled the door open and looked inside A voice greeted him.
“Come in come in, before you kill more of the king’s subjects.”
Rankin stepped inside, one hand on his weapon and saw a curly-haired man in green robes seated upon one of three ornate chairs that sat on a long step below a large throne that could only belong to a king. The man smiled at him, showing perfect teeth and his blue eyes flashed in the sunlight that was streaming into the chamber through tall windows on the flanking walls.
“I apologize for the reception, it is still early days and much is out of our control.”
The man gestured Rankin to come closer and the warrior did, despite his mind screaming NO!
“That’s better. Let’s have a look at you. Ah yes. You are here with a message for King Merriweather, aren’t you.” Rankin found himself nodding, his tongue frozen fast to the roof of his mouth. “I’m afraid you’ve come a very long way for nothing if you expect to deliver your message in person. The king sees no one.” and the man’s voice became cold and hard when he said this, and Rankin felt himself step back against his will, so compelling was the man’s tone.
“I am minister Greylock, one of three trusted advisors to the king and you will deliver your message to me or not at all.” The man’s eyes were upon him, unwavering, and Rankin tried to peel his tongue from the dry cavern of his mouth, and stood working his jaw when Greylock suddenly jumped up and clapped his hands, saying “But how rude of me! You have come many leagues and must be weary with fatigue and hunger. Sup first and then we will talk.”
The room filled with nude servants, men and women alike, all very comely, bearing platters of food and flagons of water, ale and wine. Rankin ate and drank like a man condemned. Greylock reappeared and took a seat at the end of the table, pouring himself a glass of wine and said, “I see you appreciated our hospitality most generously. The king will be pleased.”
Rankin only nodded and smiled, and began to clear his throat to speak when Greylock spoke again and said “If you wish to rest, I can arrange rooms for you. Companions too, if you like,” and several of the servants reappeared behind from archways behind the minister, men and women both as the minister continued, “depending on your preference, of course. You must be very tired, especially after your large meal.”
Rankin shook his head and cleared his throat again, wanting to protest, to explain that his message was most urgent, his mission clear, and started to mouth a few vowels when the minister smiled at him and stood, saying, “I will see to it. We will speak in the morning.” The minister disappeared out of a side door and the servants stepped forwards, smiles lighting their faces, and Rankin stood, shaking his head, his voice finally returning, sounding like a croak from the throat of a man who had been dead for a thousand years. “No. No. No thank you. Please leave me alone. I must speak with the king or Greylock or one of the other ministers. It is most urgent!”
The servants stopped moving as one. One said “You do not desire us?”
Rankin shook his head again, furiously, “No! No! I do not desire you! I must speak with the king or his ministers! Please!”
The servants did not speak again, but left the room immediately, all by different doors, of which there were many, Rankin noticed, he did not seem to have noticed them before, but the room was surrounded by doors. Which one had Greylock left by? He could not remember. He was so tired now, from the food and the drink and the heat of the room. Why was is so hot? There was no hearth here, so why was he so hot? Had he been drugged?
He stood up suddenly, feeling a queer worm of fear wriggle in his belly. What was this place? Was everyone mad here? He turned in a circle, panic splashing his guts. Which door had he come through? How did he get here? He lunged for the nearest door. It led off down a corridor, with a few doors lit by torches hanging in sconces, but no staircase down. He slammed the door and felt the sweat pouring down his face.
His vision began to blur. He groaned. He had been drugged, the treacherous bastard!
He suddenly fell down, his balance gone to hell. He lay on the floor, panting, feeling a spreading pain begin in his stomach and radiating through his arms and legs. The pain doubled. It doubled again and he screamed. He screamed and screamed until he passed out.
The minister returned to the room some time later. Rankin still lay on the floor, unmoving.
A servant kowtowed on the floor in front of Greylock. “What shall we do with him, Master?”
The minister smiled and said “When he awakes, let him out of the palace, of course. His life is his own now.”
The servant nodded his head and said “Of course, Master, and what of the other one?”
Greylock said “The minaret has taken him, he will be of no more trouble.”
The servant nodded again and said “Of course, Master, as you wish.”
Greylock dismissed the man and took a seat at he table, resuming the glass of wine he left earlier. He tilted his chair back on two legs and waited for his newest convert to arise.