Death To The Beast|
Summary: sometimes, a glorious victory can leave a bitter taste.
There was a
silence in the mūmakil pen that even the heavy shuffling of giant,
soft-soled feet did not break. The animals were quiet, at peace with
their own destiny, so very unlike those who would have the honor to
ride their large backs into battle on the morrow. Kārna watched the
imposing shapes from the opening in his tent and closed his eyes, inviting
some of that calm into his own body.
All round him,
the night flared up with scarlets and yellows, the brightly colored
tents of the camp filtering the flames of the bonfires as his comrades-in-arms
celebrated their upcoming deaths and following ascensions to the City
of their forefathers. Wine, red like blood and bitter like dishonor,
flowed from their cups to their lips - and often down their necks, smudging
the war paintings that already adorned their chests. They drank to celebrate,
yet there was a frenzy in their thirst that seemed to contradict any
pride or eagerness they could have felt.
been told ever since he was a boy that such an end was the only one
a man should crave to die in battle at the end of a more skilled
opponents sword, in the midst of a heap of dead foes; he had trained
along with the other boys of his tribe so he would be worthy of meeting
it. But deep down inside, he had always known he was a coward, a worm
in the heart of a perfect apple for Kārna did not want to die.
No glory was bright enough, no afterdeath feast so enticing as to offer
a better alternative to who and what he was. He simply wanted to live
- and to live simply. His aspirations were not of fame and victory.
Today he could
see that he was not so different from the rest of the warriors after
roar of the celebration behind him, he crossed the shadows between his
tent and the pen, calling to his mind the memory of his departure and
the image of his mother, old and so frail in her bright blue dress bought
with the coin of his prestige. He remembered the tears in her kohl-rimmed
eyes as the other women of the village held her back from embarrassing
herself and her son. How she had wailed, raising her hands to the sky
as she called the gods to witness her anguish! Kārna had left without
a word, as a man should, without a glance back. It was not a war of
his choosing - he doubted that even the ḥakīm of their village
knew the tenants of the conflict - but though a free man, Kārna could
not have abandoned his herd.
mūmaks been watered? he asked a passing boy, dark-haired and golden-skinned,
the thinnest of all.
Water was scarce
in these lands, but Kārna had seen to it that the rations were defined
in favor of the steeds rather than the riders. No need to waste such
a precious resource on the men, who could drink in abundance and never
see their thirst quenched anyway. Let wine sate their earthly appetites,
he thought with a touch of disdain.
lord, the boy said, bending in two and showing his bony, scar-littered
back in case Kārna was displeased with his reply. He was not a slave,
no matter what rumors went about the tribes of the land and their sources
of income; only someones son, someone too poor to pay for his training
as a warrior. The boy would submit to the beatings and humiliations
willingly as part of his service to the tribe before he earned his place
and his weapons, biding his time before he was strong enough to kill
his way to the top. Kārna himself still bore similar marks, despite
his early calling.
and his fathers father before him, had been tabib men
gifted with an affinity to animals, be they big or small. Hārmo, his
grand-father, had been a falconer, training his birds of prey from the
moment they were mere hatchlings, and loving them perhaps even more
than his own wife, from Kārnas grandmothers words. Hukārn, his
father, was a horse-trainer; but those hot-blooded beasts had never
found their way into the sons heart. No, Kārna had been enraptured
with the tranquil strength of the mūmakil from the very first time
he had seen one.
He could remember
the day as if it were the present, the dust lifted from the ground by
the hot desert winds, the flapping of colored strips of fabric that
adorned the market they were decoration and ware at once, for what
better demonstration of their beauty could there be? The air was heavy
with the smell of spice and men men, pressing him from every side,
shoving him aside in their hurry across the crowded bazaar, yelling
out prices above his head and waving their arms in enthusiasm or anger.
The market was very small, but from so close to the ground, it had seemed
enormous to little Kārna. He had searched for his fathers hand,
yelling his name in the same manner his mother often did when she caught
him sneaking out from the house after dinner. And suddenly the crowd
had parted, and he had seen the beast.
above the stalls and even over the low houses huddled together in a
circle around the marketplace. It stood, flapping its wide ears idly
to chase the flies away, completely unbothered by the ruckus and the
heat. Tusks and spears of bone grew from its face, just like that wooden
pick that Kārnas father liked to chew on after dinner, pushing it
from one corner of his mouth to the other. It was fearsome and fascinating;
little Kārna had thought that it could swipe the whole crowd off its
feet should it decide to, and trample them all on a whim. Never before
had he felt so small.
A man had approached
the animal and ran his hand up its leg, then patted the giant knee with
a frightening familiarity. The beast let him touch it, big black eyes
filled with intelligence understanding the pact between rider and mūmak.
And Kārna knew then that this mans power was greater than any warriors;
for they wielded only weapons, while he held mūmakil under his command.
The crowd had fallen silent, a word whispered amongst them carried by
the wind: mahūd.
Today it was
him, the trainer and driver of the magnificent war-beasts. His was the
honor and the power, and the privilege of the wise animals company.
He could chase away anyone who intruded onto his territory, guarding
his knowledge and skill jealously, and the mūmakil would approve. As
he entered the pen, breathing in the welcoming silence of his herd,
he saw the skinny boy hide behind the wooden door, his large black eyes
shining in the firelight that filtered through the planks. Those were
a mūmaks eyes, and perhaps the heart in his chest also beat in rhythm
with the animals.
screamed in pain, and Kārna grit his teeth as the sound pierced him
better than an enemy arrow. The hurt animal responded only reluctantly
to his commands, the bond between them still unbroken but wavering,
as if the mūmak wanted to convey the reproach of having been led to
slaughter by someone he trusted. Kārnas heart constricted at the
thought of betraying the sacred trust it had gifted him with; he pulled
on the leather straps that tied his wrists to the rings set into the
animals ears, trying to steer it away from the heat of the battle
below. But the beast resisted, knocking the horse riders off the ground
in one powerful sweep of his tusks, cleaning the earth from those small,
swarming things. It trumpeted in triumph and anger, and Kārna felt
the fear subside, his heart swelling with pride; but the joy was short-lived,
as arrows rained down on them both.
The grey, dry
skin of his mūmak was perspiring blood, and he could feel the same
cuts on his own skin where fate had brushed his cheek, reminding him
of the pact. He would die with the animal, for his existence had no
other purpose. He twisted in his seat at the front of the howdah
and looked around, searching the fields below for the outcome of the
were falling; one after another, their riders panicking or dead, pierced
by those same arrows. He saw the beasts tendons slashed to bring
them down to their knees and give the enemy at least a small chance
at victory. The horse riders surrounded the wounded animals at once,
stabbing them to their death like a swarm of ants. Only thus could they
hope to win, only through treachery would the herd fail. Cries in his
back told him that many arrows had reached their targets inside his
own howdah, but Kārna cared little about those men, concentrating
on the surge of rage he felt at the thought that such magnificent beasts
would be taken down with sticks.
A scream of
defiance tore from his throat as he tugged on the leather straps; the
mūmak understood his intention, called out in unison to his voice.
Kārna felt the beast rear beneath him in challenge to all the enemies
below. The mūmak rose on its hind legs, and Kārna was flying. They
were Men of the South, proud and strong. They would not surrender to
any lesser creature; and if death was the only road from this battlefield,
then they would take it together.
charged, taking Kārna with him into the heart of the battle.
Each one of
their steps was a deathly strike, each swing of the tusks added dozens
to their score of dead enemies. And each heartbeat that passed demonstrated
their glory and their prowess, engraving it into the memories of the
weak-spirited ones. Kārna thought dazedly of the tranquil life he had
yearned for, of the quiet days, taking care of the herd and perhaps,
one day, a woman to help him with the task. The prospect seemed so flavorless
now, but who would see to the mūmakil after his death? Kārna had no
sons; the line of tabib would end with him, and so would their
traditions and lore.
howdah shook, tilted to the side, and Kārna found himself sliding
off the mūmaks back along with it. He relinquished the reins so
that the rings would not be torn from its ears and watched as the straps
fell onto the blood-marred skin, his own hands still outstretched and
helpless. The fall was long, his insides and his whole body unnaturally
light. The mūmak turned its head towards him in incomprehension and
disappeared from his sight.
to the ground, himself and the warriors trapped inside the howdah,
his bones mashed into shards upon impact, driven into every organ by
the weight of the muscle. He choked on the scream of agony and on the
blood that welled up in his throat. From the corner of his eye, he saw
his mūmak slide to its knees, a golden-haired silhouette riding it
to its death.
He felt his body lurch one last time. Cowards. Kārna looked at the
sun that shone above them, felt the warm wind on his face for the last
time; but he could not go in peace. There was no honor in this kill.
May that archer be shamed forever for his treachery, he thought before
the sunlight dimmed in his eyes, and may the glory of this death be
denied to him.
drew its last breath, and the warm air filled with the smell of beast
and blood engulfed Legolas, blowing his hair out of his face. It sounded
almost like a sigh, a sound of disapproval and disappointment, as if
the beast expressed its contempt until the very last moment of its life.
Legolas stood, unmoving, before the carcass, his bow still clenched
in his hand. He watched the massive flanks that rose no more, the grey,
dry skin now covered in dust and the tusks that reached a height above
his own from beneath the earth that had buried the beasts head in
This had been
the last oliphaunt of the Haradrim army.
in the background but he was forgetting to listen. There was something
sad about the scene before him despite the pride at having put an end
to the havoc such a beast could wreak, something evanescent and now
almost gone, and he was certain that should he look away he would forget
only counts as one! bellowed a familiar voice, and Legolas turned
around to see a disgruntled Gimli challenging him with a stare.
yet his heart remained heavy, like a passing cloud that blocked the
sun before the light could filter again through its shadow. He would
not argue with his friend, and concede the last word to the dwarf. What
could he say? The life he had taken was that of an animal, and mortals
were yet to judge it equal to their own.
when his father had spoken of those lands to the South, of their customs
that had seemed so very strange and intriguing to the elfling he used
to be. He recalled the tales of the mahūd and their unquestioned,
primitive connection to their oliphaunts, realizing now how alike it
was to his peoples affinity to their forest. How often had he vowed
to die defending those woods rather than see them fall into enemy hands?
How often had he feared that everything he knew and loved would disappear
in the war?
This had been
the last oliphaunt of the Haradrim army, and Legolas remembered how
rare they were supposed to be. Everywhere he looked, he could see the
carcasses of the other beasts, slain, butchered for revenge and in battle-brought
excitement maybe had they been the last of their species.
He cast a last
look to the dead oliphaunt before joining Aragorn and Gimli near the
gates of the city. No, he would not argue with Gimli about the score,
just as he would never boast with the difficulty of this kill. The beast
was dead, and their side was winning, but he could not forget at what