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Death To The Beast


Animals of Middle-earthSummary: 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.

Kārna had 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 opponent’s 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 all.

Leaving the 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.

“Have the 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.

“Yes, my 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 someone’s 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.

His father, and his father’s 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 Kārna’s grandmother’s words. Hukārn, his father, was a horse-trainer; but those hot-blooded beasts had never found their way into the son’s 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 father’s 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.

It towered 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 Kārna’s 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 man’s power was greater than any warrior’s; 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 mūmak’s eyes, and perhaps the heart in his chest also beat in rhythm with the animals’.

Kārna let him stay.

oOoOo

His mūmak 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. Kārna’s 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 animal’s 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 battle.

The mūmakil 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.

The mūmak 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.

Suddenly, the howdah shook, tilted to the side, and Kārna found himself sliding off the mūmak’s 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.

They crashed 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.

Cowards. 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.

oOoOo

Another clean kill.

The oliphaunt 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 beast’s head in its fall.

This had been the last oliphaunt of the Haradrim army.

Cheers sounded 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…

“That still only counts as one!” bellowed a familiar voice, and Legolas turned around to see a disgruntled Gimli challenging him with a stare.

He smiled, 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.

Legolas remembered 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 people’s 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 price.

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