Our destination was Bezakirah, home to two rival Houses, each laying claim to the region but neither completely able to subdue it. Eventually, we came upon a wooden signpost pointing to a nearby town.
You are entering Bezakirah, the City of Deep Waters Birthplace of Mali, the Prophet of Mazdah
The land was still baking under the setting sun and I thanked the good gods that the night’s coolness was drawing near. I was sweating heavily, and my water skin had but a few drops remaining. The promise of drinking deeply at the wells of this desert oasis soothed my soul.
“Our purpose here, my lord?” I asked Angrok as I stopped in front of the sign and sucked the last bit of moisture from my pouch.
“Judgment,” he answered ominously, and continued walking, not waiting for me to finish my feeble attempt at refreshment.
I hurried to fall back in place by the Avenger’s side, always but one step behind my leader. Each firm stomp of his iron-shod feet subdued the ground beneath them. Even the sand fleas and gnats, which chewed at me constantly, were afraid to pester him it seemed.
The city’s brick protective wall was rather shabbily constructed. Perhaps it had been breached at one point and the people’s hearts just weren’t in the rebuilding of it. Our pace quickened and we passed through the wooden gates. They were open and unguarded. Bezakirah was strangely silent under the fading sun, and the hazy orange light bouncing off the buildings cast an eerie spell over this desert outpost.
The buildings we passed were square, constructed of sundried brick and covered with a thick layer of plaster. They would have been bright white with regular care and cleaning, but the sun-hardened dust darkened them so that the town was the color of muddy water. I hoped the wells of Deep Waters weren’t similarly polluted.
Nothing stirred as we made our way along the main avenue toward the town’s center. Angrok and I were silent as well, but when the street opened wide to reveal the village square, I couldn’t help but gasp. The packed dirt at our feet was moist and deeply stained with blood. Throughout the square were broken chariots and dead horses and camels. Atop these were bodies pierced with spears and arrows, and parts of bodies sliced and strewn everywhere. Market stalls, once filled with dried figs, raisins, and pomegranates, seeds and grains, and spices from the Far East, lay overturned, their wares mixing with the mayhem that recently occurred there. Already, the rotting smell wafted in the thick, irritating heat.
Angrok took it all in without a word. Suddenly, a man in a loose brown and black robe bolted into the square from a western alley. He was a wiry man with dark skin and a clean shaven face. He saw us and waved excitedly. “Thank Mazdah!” he cried as he ran up to us. “Are you Angrok the Destroying Avenger?”
My master lifted an iron-clad hand – it seemed more in warning than in response. I unslung my crossbow and waited. The stranger’s eyes bulged in elation. “I have heard many stories about you, O Great One! You have the strength of ten men! You’ve wrestled elephants and won. You freed the Sultan of Bajir’s daughter from the dragon Belial but refused her kiss of betrothment. And what is more, no one has seen your face.”
Angrok stared at the man coolly from behind his iron helmet and said nothing. “Forgive me, Great One. I am Zahir, servant of Jabbar, ruler of House Moezin. He bids you welcome and invites you to banquet with him to discuss…er, certain matters.” Zahir waved at the desolation. “As you can see, The City of Deep Waters desperately needs your help! House Altir – may Mazdah strike them! – is responsible for this brutality. They massacred the followers of our noble House this very day! We beg of you, O Great Angrok, we beg of you…”
“Take us to Jabbar,” Angrok said. The man twisted in delight, running and pointing back the way he had come. “Thank Mazdah!” he cried, as he disappeared ahead of us into a dusk darkened alley.
We were ushered into the banqueting hall of House Moezin. A massive table on a raised dais spread lengthwise before us. At its center, facing us from across its solid frame, sat Jabbar, the supreme ruler of his clan. He wore shimmering robes of white cloth, as did the rest of his family who fanned out on either side of him. At the far end of the table, featured prominently upon a large bronze platter, was a roast pig surrounded by steaming vegetables. Evidently we’d been invited to a celebratory feast.
“Welcome good men of the desert,” Jabbar said without rising. “Your presence at this table is most fortuitous. Please.” Jabbar indicated chairs opposite him.
Angrok acknowledge this with a slight nod and we stepped up to our seats. Zahir also sat on our side of the table, but in a place furthest from the food. The sweet, smoky aroma of roast pork caused my stomach to grumble. I accepted a glass of wine from a kitchen servant while Angrok waved it off.
“House Altir is a thorn in the side of all good men,” Jabbar said, without preamble. “They are promiscuous…extravagant…improper. They worship the slut-goddess Issa, though they insist on residing here in Bezakirah, the birth city of the Holy Prophet Mali.”
At the sound of the prophet’s name the diners lifted their hands and shouted, “Praise Mazdah!”
Then an elderly woman spoke, presumably Jabbar’s mother for no other woman would have ventured such impudent words and tone. “We know all that,” she growled. “Give the Destroyer proof of their treachery so that we might dispatch him and his companion in blood vengeance and so restore honor to House Moezin.
That she spoke of Angrok and me was clear enough, though I noticed she refused to look in our direction.