The Coward of Klis
Lately, I’ve been really interested in people. Well, I suppose I’ve been interested in people my whole life. We travel to see different places and better understand the people in those places. So, as you may have noticed from the Forever Below piece I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m trying to do more character studies in historical time periods. Many of these pieces are strange and somewhat broken, much like we humans are. I’m hoping to turn these into much larger stories in the future, but for now, you just get short stories:
The Coward of Klis
A bead of sweat drips from my forehead, carving a path over my skin as it descends down my arm to the bowstring pinched between my fingers. The air becomes dry and I take it into my lungs with shallow, infrequent gasps. Through the slits of the stone walls, my eyes try to make sense of the enormous black shadow growing across the valley. As the rich, green earth is absorbed by the black, I know that death has come for us. The captain cries “Hold!” once more as the shadow creeps closer, every advance causing my heart to beat faster in my chest. My eye looks down the shaft of the arrow as the shadow begins to stretch and bend around the base of the mountain. I wonder what the men around me are thinking. Do they know we will die? Are they prepared for death? Do they know what they have done to God to end up in such a place? My focus shifts as the shadow turns into a billowing cloud of smoke, and visions of my childhood begin to play before me.
My mother stands by the kiln and wipes the sweat from her brow. Her hair is tangled and bunches around her broad shoulders. She spits onto the floor and curses at a man who is two coins short of what he owes. She raises the hammer into the air and the small man backs away and runs out the door, nearly knocking my small body to the ground. She wraps her rough, callused hand around my arm so tight that I think it will break, “What are you doing in the forge, child?” She smells of smoke and iron, dirt and fire, creation and destruction. She hits me hard across the face and I feel the blood raise to the surface. I break from the grip of her muscular arm and run out into the streets of Spalato. A moment later, I hear the sound of the hammer dropping back onto metal. My grandfather sits on a small, wooden chair outside of the shop as he does everyday, and I climb up into his brittle arms. He pats my head and reminds me in his crackling voice, “Your mother is fire, she is very beautiful, but very wild and dangerous. You must learn to be more careful.” I tongue the inside of my swollen mouth as I try to understand. Then, in a secretive tone he smiles and asks, “Would you like to hear a story?” I love my grandfather’s stories; they are my reason for living. “A story about my dad and The Crusades?” I ask. His smile suddenly fades and my grandfather seems as if he is a thousand miles away. Seconds pass like hours, and the street around us are silent until a nobleman on horseback trots by in the direction of the palace. My grandfather’s eyes fill with life again, “I know, how about a story of a fearsome horse tribe in a far away land?” My eyes beam wide with curiosity as he begins, “Far away from Spalato, in lands beyond all the forests, rivers, and mountains of Europe, there is a tribe of men who worship horses. The men and the horses become one, the men even sleep on top of the horses! For many years, the men lived in many different small villages, and they attacked each other in the dark night. Each of the tribes wanted to take the land of the other, and so for many years, the horse tribes fought and killed each other. Then, a great warrior united all of the tribes into one large tribe called the Tatars. That man’s name was Genghis Kahn.”My grandfather’s hands make sweeping motions through the air and then turn into large fists, “He became a great and villainous man who led an unstoppable army across the plains and valleys. Other villages and cities knew when Genghis Khan was nearby because even the earth beneath them shook in terror. As the army moved, thunder was their shadow and their song.” My grandfather’s eyes fill with both admiration and disquietude as he tells me one last thing about the Khan’s great army: “A Tatar without a horse is like a bird without wings.” As his story ends he picks me up off his lap and sets me back onto the ground, but his story confuses me, “But grandpa, what happened to Genghis Kahn and his army?” His becomes serious once again, “They are still out there, but you have nothing to worry about, the shadow and thunder of Genghis Kahn live far, far away.”
A war-cry wakes me from my memories. No, not a war-cry, the scream of a horse falling to the ground; an arrow finding the meat of its neck. The shadow is no longer a shadow, but a legion of Tatars on horseback. Men fire arrows into the hearts of men and the horses they sit upon. The army is infinite, and with each man that falls another takes his place. In an instant, the shadow surrounds the base of the mountain and I know it means to swallow us whole. Closing my eyes, the world changes to percussion and crashes: The thud of an arrow against a shield, the hooves of horses upon the ground, the metal of armor chiming as it moves around me, the groan of a man trying to climb over the stone walls… I open my eyes just in time to loose an arrow downward. The arrow finds his shoulder and the man falls off the wall and rolls down the steep cliff beyond. The next hours pass as arrow after arrow is let loose from my grip. Blood wells to the surface as the bowstring breaks the skin on my thumb, but the shadow remains infinite while my arrows quickly dwindle. Men on the walls push large, heavy rocks that gain enough speed to cut small lines through the shadow’s legion of men. There is a shout from a man outside the walls in a foreign language. I fire my last arrow in the direction of the voice, but the man keeps shouting. My eyes grow wide with fear, I know the man, he is Kadan; grandson of Genghis Khan. I shout back and the fighting seems as if it halts around me, “Kadan! Kadan!” The shadow outside the wall becomes still for a moment. The man that is Kadan shouts up from the ground below as men continue to climb the hills. His words are distant and guttural but the soldiers around me begin to shake with a single word: “Bela.” The Great Khan’s grandson believes that King Bela IV of Hungary is hiding inside of Klis, we will all surely die today. Why have I come to this place? What legacy had my father left me?
A priest with a pinched face and an ever-disapproving glare shuffles hurriedly in my direction, “You have missed your lesson once again! How do you expect to become a Templar without proper devotion to God and His Word?” My dislike for the priest makes me feel a need to argue, “I apologize, I was distracted with weapons training. Isn’t it more important to train to be a great warrior for God if I am to join the Templars? Skilled warriors aren’t trained on books.” His face distorts into anger, “It is not ‘a book,’ it is ‘The Book.’ Your Godless mother taught you nothing before she gave you to the church.” His words remind me of the day she sold me to the Church. I had screamed and cursed at my mother, telling her that I hoped she would burn in her own forge. The resentment I had for her was strong, but had faded over the years. As I look at the malicious priest, I want to tell him that my mother did what she could, and that it was not her fault that she only knew how to create hard, indestructible things. Instead, I turned and walked away; a coward. I walk across the courtyard towards my room and try to quiet my anger towards the priest. When the evening begins to set, I take my sword up to the castle walls and practice my slashes and thrusts. I pretend to be my father as he fights against the heathens in Jerusalem, “In the name of King Andrew II, who God has chosen to take back the holy city of Jerusalem, lay down your swords and repent!” My sword swings and hits the stone walkway of Klis, and I realize there are tears in my eyes. “Why did my father die? Why did the heathens fight against God’s will?” I decide I will follow my father someday and gain vengeance for my father, but first I must train to fight the Tatars who have already arrived in Hungary. I pick up my sword once again and make my own war cry, “In the name of King Bela IV, dismount your horses, lay down your weapons, and repent!” I decide that I will stop the great army of Genghis Kahn. I will defeat the unstoppable army of my grandfather’s story.
And now, the grandson of the great Khan has come to Klis to claim the head of a man who is not here. A man who I have never met. A man who people tell me I must die for. I refuse.
The shadow will not take me. I see corpses all around me, and the air smells of dirt, blood, and horse shit. A templar to my left spits and calls the Tatars a pack of heathens. Are these the heathens my father fought? Are these the unholy men that the Father asks us to fight? My mind feels as though it will be torn to pieces. Does God truly wish for me to die here for a foreign king? Did God want my father to die across the seas for a city made of stone like any other? Are these men outside upon horses any different from those of us inside? Must they not eat the same food to survive? Do they not also sleep as the sun goes down? I will not die here. I will not die for my father. I will not die for The Father. Spears and arrows pour over the walls. I watch the red cross on a man’s uniform fade to red as the white disappears from around it. The walls are thick and keep us protected from much of the sharp wooden rain that pelts against the fortress. Countless men climb the steep cliffs all around the fortress and crash over the wall like a wave upon the beach. I smear the blood from my thumb across my neck and hide under the corpse of the man whose cross is no longer a cross. Blood seeps from his body and covers my own. My body shakes as I cry. I tell myself that I cry for my father who died in the holy land. I tell myself that I cry for my mother who abandoned me. I tell myself that I cry for the priests and men who will surely die. These are not why I cry. I cry tears of shame and fear and godlessness, and I know that I must not cry. The shadow moves through the fortress and removes the white from this place. I do not cry. I do not breath. I must be dead or they will know that I am not. The Tatars realize that Bela IV is not here and they leave Klis. For hours I lie underneath the corpse of a man who was once my brother.
I stand up and look around. I am the only person left alive. The shadow is gone and death has not found me. The shadow is gone, but their is no white left in Klis. My world is red, the corpses are red, my uniform is red, and I know that God has left this place. I am not with God anymore. My hands scrub violently at the red on my uniform. I stand alone, and then I leave alone, and this place and God forget me.