Captain of Captains

I met the Captain of Captains fifty years ago. As I approached his famed underground castle I trembled with anticipation. He bristled and drew his sword, his thick neck bulging.

“I am Darrow Fitzhugh,” I announced. “King Harol’s Man.” I stared at the bearded soldier before me, the epitome of a mercenary.

He returned his sword to its scabbard. The woman at his side glared at me with green and mystic eyes. She was so covered with filth and matted hair that it took me a moment to realize she was naked. A leash ran from her neck to the Captain’s hand.

I spoke again. “You are Van der Kahn?”

Gold-flecked eyes lingered on me. “How old are you? You don’t look old enough to be educated.”

“I bring a commission from King Harol,” I said, ignoring the insult. At seventeen, I was as educated as many twice my age.

Van der Kahn whispered to the woman and when he unhooked the leash she scampered into a nearby pit, disappearing beneath a roof of woven thatch.

He turned his scarred face towards me, the points of his thick moustache twitching. “And who educated you, young man?” he asked.

“The king,” I replied. “My father is the seventh son of the old First Minister.”

“Seventh? Ha! So, all that was left when your father asked for his boon was something for you.”

It was true. My uncles had received lands and horses. My father, with no hope of tangible wealth, had thought of me. Though I was only nine at the time, I was sent to school and trained to be of service. Now I was a courier.

“Show me the commission,” the Captain said.

I gave him the leather cylinder I carried. Kahn removed its roll of yellow paper and his thick lips moved as he read King Harol’s words.

“I have never killed a priest,” Kahn said. He looked at me. “Surprised that I can read?”

“No, Captain. I am surprised that you have never killed a priest.”

He gestured and I followed him into the pit. Would he offer me food and drink? I had come far and had had scant rations, being unwilling to take what my mother had pressed to my chest when I left King Harol’s Town.

The naked woman sat on a mat in a corner of the underground room. Her pointed chin and sharp cheeks conspired with her elbows and knees to give her a skeletal look

“The Priest of the Wooded Temple deserves to die,” I said, and prepared to recite the litany I had been taught. His followers, the Forest People, ravaged our towns. They were cannibals and he sanctified their feasts.

“My weight in gold,” Kahn muttered, “That’s the usual price.”

“Yes. Yes. It is all stated in the commission,” I said. “If you leave now, you’ll reach the Temple the day after tomorrow.”

Kahn snorted. “I will think this over. You will stay the night.” He opened a vented cavity in the earthen walls, unleashing a faint red glow. He lit a clay lamp, which smoked momentarily before casting his wide shadow on the wall.

A door in the floor provided egress to a stone staircase, which I descended with Kahn leading the way, the woman prowling behind me.

When we reached the bottom, Kahn lit a wall sconce and scores of lamps suddenly blazed to life, fed oil by channels chiseled into the rock. Using a burning wick at the end of a long pole, Kahn lit the colorful glass bulbs in the overhead chandelier.

Thick carpets and ornamental weapons decorated the walls, but my gaze went to the figures lining both sides of the banquet table. Their desiccated hands held empty goblets, forks and knives. Some had long white hair. Some had large teeth that smiled at me. Worms and insects crawled from eye sockets and gaping jaws.

“My vanquished,” Kahn explained.

I counted twenty on either side. “You saved their bodies?”

“Just their heads and hands.” Kahn poked one in the chest. Beetles erupted from the sleeves and scampered over the dead fingers.

Only the best of his foes, Kahn related, earned a place at this table, and he told me of his favorites. There was Jordan the Bane, a giant from the North Country. And Amelianna the Sorceress who refused to die until he kissed her and bit off her tongue. There were also the famous Kinnon Brothers, conjoined twins who fought as one, sharing a set of arms and legs. Bandits, they had roamed when my father was a boy. Now they shared a wide chair at Kahn’s table.

“You will sleep there.” He pointed at a black curtain. I parted it to uncover a deep recess with a thick mattress on a wooden frame, a table, and a trench where I could relieve myself.

“May I beg some dinner before retiring?” I asked.

Kahn glared at me. “The woman will bring you what I can spare,” he said.

I sat on the bed. It was alive with vermin. Hugging myself, my eyes drifted to the straw bodies at the banquet table. They reminded me of my childhood companion, Tomasi, a doll my mother had given me. Someday, she told me, a witch would come and make my doll a living person, a companion for life, either a boy or a girl, depending on my preference.

***

I awoke with mice scurrying across my chest. But they quickly dissolved into the dream whence they came. Scratching outside the curtain drew my attention and I parted the drape so I could peer beyond my narrow quarters.

A massive dog stood at the stone stairway. Its green eyes turned in my direction and its tail rose above its wide rump like a whip poised to lash a miscreant. Its long red tongue licked its thick nose and my imagination conjured two rows of pointed fangs.

Without a weapon, I was helpless. “Kahn!” I shouted. “Kahn!”

The dog ran off, its claws clacking against the stone paving. I listened for the creature’s return. I listened for Kahn’s footsteps. I listened intently and grew sleepy and lay on the bed.

To dream.

Of a woman in a white dress who stood in the sunshine, beckoning with a crooked finger. Her long blonde hair shimmered in the bright light. I stood in the open field with her, suddenly startled because only a moment ago she had been atop a mountain and the sky and the sea lay behind her.

I neither kissed her nor held her. I did no more than look into her gold-specked green eyes.

“You can free me,” she said. She sang her words “How?” I asked in a whisper that sounded like a roar.

She laughed. She screamed. Tears gushed from her eyes and splashed over me. I tasted salt water on my tongue.

***

Kahn stood over me with a pitcher. “Nothing like a dose of piss to get you up in the morning,” he said. “Come. We will hunt for our breakfast.”

My shirt sleeve stank of urine. I fought an impulse to vomit and followed Kahn out of his underground home. He moved like a bear, hunched over, arms grabbing at the stone steps. He pushed on the trap door and heaved himself up.

“I saw a dog last night,” I said.

“You saw my Night Watcher.”

“Is that its name?” I asked.

“I gave it no name,” he growled. “Come. We’ll find our breakfast.”

The woman sat at a small fire and stirred a pot of water. I followed Kahn into the woods. He caught a bird and found a nest with two red eggs. Satisfied, he gave these to the woman and she prepared our breakfast.

“We leave now,” Kahn announced after breakfast.

“Then you have accepted the commission?”

“We leave,” he said. “And you will accompany me.”

I said nothing in the face of Kahn’s determination.

The woman brought him his dagger and his sword and his crossbow, which he draped by its strap across his shoulders so it hung down his wide back.

From somewhere, she produced a cart, but instead of a horse the woman herself went into the traces. Kahn climbed aboard, grabbed the reins and snapped the air.

“Come on,” he said to me. “She can pull the two of us.”

“I will walk,” I said, but the look he gave me shattered my resolve and I climbed up to sit beside him.

***

We reached the wayfarer’s shelter at sunset. This was the same cabin where I had stayed the final night of my journey to the Captain. The refuse I had left had been removed. Clean blankets and straw mats, an urn of water, and a sealed clay jar of dried fruit had also been provided. As before, I found a leather bucket of tallow and a ball of braided cotton. Eagerly, I fashioned two small candles and soon the dark room glowed.

The woman prepared a fire outside while Kahn and I hunted for supper. Darkness fell quickly, so our evening repast was a mushy bean soup made from our stores and some of the fruit left for us in the cabin.

“Do we mount a watch?” I asked when we retired to the shelter to sleep.

“My Night Watcher will be on guard.” Kahn pulled the cabin door partway closed and settled onto a mat. He had the middle of the room to himself. I was in a corner, happily granting him the honor of the larger space.

Though my feet ached, I kept my boots on. The Captain’s woman remained outside by the fire. I wondered what crime she had committed to be condemned to such a life. Perhaps she was the widow of an enemy and the Captain punished the man’s soul. Perhaps she herself was once an adversary and Kahn had tamed and enslaved her.

Soon, I slept. In my dream I danced with a beautiful woman in a flowing white gown that dissolved when I spun her in my arms, leaving her naked beside me, her skin soft and warm, her face glowing, her eyes pale and absorbing.

I gasped and awoke. In the doorway stood the dog. It lashed the air with its tail. Its green eyes sparked and I wondered what light they reflected because no candles were lit and the cabin’s roof obscured the moon.

I extended my hand. The dog stepped slowly into the cabin. It crept towards me and was only a short leap away when Kahn roared, grabbed me by the wrist and flung me aside.

“Never touch the Watcher,” Kahn screamed. “Never give it your hand. Do you understand me, boy? Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“Speak up!” Kahn hissed. “Say the words!”

“I understand.”

Kahn returned to his mat. The Night Watcher stood at the cabin’s open door, its wide rump towards me. Shivering, I begged for sleep to come. When it did, I again saw the girl in the white gown. She placed her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Kill the demon and I will be free.”

***

Where the road led into the forest, Kahn pushed the cart to the side and nailed a small banner with his clan’s symbols emblazoned across a blue and white field. It was enough, I assumed, to give any thief pause.

“I’ll educate you for your king,” he told me.

“Then I am not a hostage to guarantee payment?” I asked.

Kahn laughed and presented me with a balanced, double-edged sword. I assumed a dueling stance, my right hand tight on the grooved grip, the sword’s curved guard protecting my knuckles.

“You were trained?” Kahn asked.

I slipped the sword into its scabbard and adjusted my belt to place the weapon at my left. My dagger was on my right. The hammer my father had given me when I left home days earlier was secured high on my back. As a child, whenever I played Warrior, I always used the hammer. I crushed melons — the skulls of my enemies — and often broke the wooden shields of my childhood opponents.

“Does your woman accompany us?” I asked.

Kahn snorted. “She is my Watcher, pup.”

I was taken aback. I pictured the massive dog that guarded the cabin last night. A Night Watcher? His woman? Did this Captain of Captain and Legend of Legends keep a monster as a pet?

The Watcher scampered into the forest; we followed in watchful silence.

“There!” Kahn shouted, and drew his sword. The attackers, their bodies streaked with red and yellow paint, emerged from behind trees. They pounded their wooden clubs against the ground, thumped their nail-studded vests. Some waved steel blades salvaged from past battles.

I drew my sword. Kahn grabbed me by the collar and dragged me backwards into the bushes, then turned and leveled his crossbow at the enemy. He released a dart, cranked back the bow, reloaded and fired again. Both shots brought down an attacker. I wanted to do my part, so I stepped up to ward off any threatened assault when Kahn had to reload. The woman lay on the road.

“The Watcher!” I shouted, and began to move toward her. Kahn stopped me. Leaving a half-dozen dead behind, the attackers scampered into the dense woods.

The Watcher was gone.

“They took her,” I said to Kahn. “Your Watcher. They took her.”

Kahn checked the bodies and killed a man who stirred. Up close, I saw that these forest people were puny creatures.

“What about the Watcher?” I asked.

“We wait for the night.”

***

We made no fire. A handful of dried fruit and a slice of cured beef was our supper, with a single ration of water to drink.

Now and then I heard a distant scream. Or was it a howl? Dozing, I ran alongside a stream and someone sang, “Kill for me, for me, for me.”

Awake, I sniffed the air. Fire.

“Come!” Kahn gathered up his accoutrements, rolled up his blanket and started down the road. I hurried to catch up to him.

A massive dog walked amid a ruined village of small round huts reduced to smoking clumps of sticks and straw. The bodies of Forest People lay strewn about. A frothy pink foamed at the beast’s mouth. Growling, she attacked a body and buried her snout in the entrails.

I vomited.

I sank to one knee and gazed at the ruined village. Now I understood why Kahn had allowed the Watcher to be taken.

Children were piled atop one another. Women sprawled across the thresholds of their homes. Men armed with clubs and spears were scattered everywhere. The Watcher darted into huts, tore through walls.

***

“Murderer,” I said.

The woman laughed, her nose a slit that pulsed and bled. “Free me and I have no need to murder,” she replied, her rubbery lips stretching over two rows of tiny teeth. Then she glowed; her beauty returned. She looked like a king’s concubine, her lips red and her cheeks pink, her eyebrows pale and her skin powdered and smooth, no hint of any flaw that I could see.

“Kill the demon,” she whispered. “Set me free.” Her breath was hot, and sweet like ripe berries.

I opened my eyes, awake now. The woman, old and wrinkled, sat on her haunches at the edge of the clearing. She licked blood from her thighs. Kahn kicked her and she groaned.

“We have a long way to go today,” he said, and then directed me to take some porridge from the pot by the fire. “There’ll be no trouble from them now,” Kahn continued. “She left a few alive to spread the tale.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s her way. I learned that when she and I were both much younger.”

“How did you find her?”

Kahn snorted. “You do not find a Watcher. She finds you.” He kicked the woman in the rump and made her fall. “She finds you,” he roared. The old woman whimpered. Her chin trembled. Ugly blue veins lined her legs. Her back bore long red cracks where her skin was creased.

We marched all day and when we camped that night Kahn allowed a fire. Having fashioned a snare with a length of braided string, he quickly caught a small rabbit.

The old woman prepared the meat, keeping the entrails for herself. Kahn impaled the rabbit’s head on a stick and thrust it into the ground as a warning to any night creatures. I did not think such totems had any effect on Forest People.

I dozed with my back to a tree. When I awoke, a tall, blonde-haired woman with soft green eyes and smooth pale skin stood nearby. She wore a garment of white cloth draped over her breasts and crisscrossed between her legs. When she came close, I noticed a thin blue vein where the curve of her nose blended into her face.

“Who are you?” I asked, and thought of the girl who plagued my dreams. “Who is she?” I asked the Captain.

“You know nothing about Night Watchers,” Kahn said, and slapped the woman’s back. Yelping, she scampered ahead as we resumed our march.

Towards midday, we stopped to rest and drink our water ration, and I questioned Kahn about this woman.

“She feasted on human flesh,” he explained. “It restored her.” He snorted and threw a pebble at the woman. It struck her upper arm and left a mark. “But she’s still our Watcher,” he roared, and threw another stone.

The Watcher flexed her knees. Her eyes fell on me, absorbed me, bore into me. I yearned to touch her.

I breathed deeply, feeling depleted and needing air to rejuvenate myself. I looked around. I was alone. Kahn and the Watcher had walked away. Quickly, I joined them.

And saw the Temple’s distant spire towering over the trees.

We hid in the foliage. The Watcher glared at the source of any nearby movement or sound. I marveled at her abilities. I envied the Captain because he controlled this creature. He abused her, but she did his bidding, helping him, protecting him, killing for him. Without her, what would this Captain of Captains be?

***

Night came.

The Watcher beast crept ahead of us. Every few minutes it stopped, its ears standing up and its tail stroking the air. I held my sword at my side and tread carefully. Soon I heard drums and then a rhythmic chant comprised of howls and guttural barks.

The Captain cocked his crossbow. Ahead, the road poured into a clearing where scores of blazing torches shot sparks into the air. Did they burn human fat? I wondered, recalling the stories I had heard about these worshippers of the woodland gods.

The torches rose and fell in a pulsating circle of fire around an eight sided building, the Forest People’s temple. Four short towers dominated every other corner, surrounding a central spire. The worshippers paraded in fine garments most likely stolen from wayfarers, and helmeted men with spears stood on guard, like fierce statues.

I looked for dead captives hanging from drying racks or caged prisoners who would soon be eaten. I looked for vats of boiling entrails. I looked for the pots where fat was rendered to make tallow for candles. I looked for the sons they dipped in blood in their rituals of manhood. I looked for the daughters to whom they fed the living hearts of our soldiers. I looked for the symbols I had been taught to hate, the symbols of the enemy. And saw none.

A horned giant emerged from the temple. Nails sprouted from his breast. His long snout bore a mouth riddled with pointed teeth. As the giant spun around, the chanting grew louder. The ground vibrated and the drumming made my ears ache.

Suddenly, the giant pulled off his mask, flung off his vest and ripped off his gloves. He was tall, much taller than any forest dweller, but underneath his disguise he was no monster.

The Watcher growled.

“They are purging the forest,” Kahn whispered to me. “That giant is their priest.”

The drumming resumed and the worshippers marched once more around the temple before filing into the dark forest, their torches flickering.

“Do you feel the breath of their gods?” Kahn asked me. I gave him a confused look. He explained. “They have asked their gods to blow us away.”

“You understand them?”

“Not word for word. But enough. Just as your priests call for strength, so does the Priest of the Wooded Temple appeal to his gods for aid.”

“But we are not cannibals,” I said.

Kahn looked at the Watcher, who stood ready to fight.

“No,” Kahn said. “We’re not cannibals. But we hang our criminals. We flay traitors. We banish and enslave.”

I did not argue. “You have your commission. Kill him.”

“Yes,” Kahn said. He strode forward. The Watcher loped ahead. The temple guards jabbered wildly to one another. The Watcher sprang into the air.

Kahn fired a bolt from his crossbow and brought down one of the guards. The others readied their spears, which were tipped with fire-hardened points.

I screamed and held my sword above my head as I ran towards the temple. The Watcher ripped into several guards at once. Blood spurted into the air. The enemy, so tiny that they seemed like children, gave way. I stabbed with my sword, then drew my hammer to smash one man in the face. Kahn slashed and thrust and threw himself into the enemy.

After we killed the guards, we entered the temple. I had been cut in the legs. Blood oozed down my calves and pooled inside my boots. My head ached where I had been hit by a wooden staff. The Watcher, her muzzle covered with blood, lowered herself to the floor and crawled into the temple sanctuary.

Kahn took a torch from the wall. Looking for trap doors and hidden passageways, we discovered a narrow opening between two panels of wood. Kahn forced the panels apart so we could pass into the adjacent chamber, where we found a bed with soft cushions and velvet covers. The horned helmet, the gloves and the giant’s other garments lay on the floor. The Watcher prowled the edges of the room, scratching at the floor.

I heard a snarl, turned and saw the priest in the opening between the sanctuary and this room. He touched his torch to a velvet drape and in an instant the room was ablaze. Heat stifled my screams. I backed away from the fire and struggled to reach the opening to the next room.

The panels had shut tight behind the priest. Kahn pounded on them. He tried to part them with his sword. Smoke billowed around us; the walls smoldered.

The Watcher rushed into the wall, tearing at the wood and plaster with its teeth and nails. When an opening appeared, it smashed its head against the hole to widen it. Kahn kicked at the wall, while I used my hammer. The dog charged again, its head lowered, and broke through. Kahn crashed out through the hole as I staggered and fell. My throat ached from smoke. My eyes burned.

Something pulled on me, tugging me away from the heat. I crawled on my belly, and then managed to get to my knees. I gulped the night air. Opening my eyes, I saw the Watcher looking at me with hard green eyes, her pointed ears upright and twitching. Behind her, the Temple burned.

“The priest,” I croaked, coughing. “Kill the priest.”

A figure loomed outside the temple. The dog pounced on the giant.

My hands were black with soot. The sweat and ash on my face stung where I was singed. My boots were blistered. I had lost my sword and my hammer, but I still had my dagger. Its metal hilt burned my side.

The Watcher growled when Kahn pulled her away from the priest, who lay with his throat ripped open and his blood pouring into the ground. The Captain raised his sword and cut off the giant’s hands and head. He stuffed these trophies into his sack. The dog glared at Kahn with hungry eyes.

“Kill the demon and I will be free,” the beautiful woman had said in my dream. Faintly, I heard the same words now, but the voice was deep and coarse, not sweet and enticing.

“You’re a King’s Man now!” Kahn shouted, and pulled me to my feet.

Kahn had the trophies he wanted and released the dog with a wave of his hand. It ran to the giant and gorged itself. I closed my eyes to this horror. And pictured Kahn and his Watcher looking at me, welcoming me into their fold with smiles and silent entreaties.

“Do you know about my dreams?” I asked.

“Kill the demon and I’ll be free?”

I nodded.

“That is my dream,” Kahn said, and glanced at the Watcher. “Kill her and I’ll be free.”

He met my eyes and a new vision formed in my mind. I saw a boy with soft hands and blonde hair who sang while a green-eyed woman helped him reach the proper notes. They stood in a great hall with yellow banners hanging from the rafters, each banner emblazoned with the symbols of the boy’s clan.

Their bodies touched. The woman smiled up at the boy and pressed against him, gripped his hand and held it to her chest. He sang with his eyes on her face, his mouth and darting tongue forming melodic words that tumbled like flower pedals onto her moist pink lips.

“If you love a Night Watcher,” Kahn said, his voice making my vision dissolve. “This is what you become.” He tapped his chest. He tapped his sword. He tapped his crossbow.

The Watcher sat beside Kahn and licked blood from its paws. Now I knew the truth, which unveiled itself so relentlessly that I couldn’t deny it. There was no beautiful woman imprisoned by a killer, but rather a youth who had grown old enslaved to a monster.

I wanted to ask why, but the question sounded childish. What magic did the woman wield? It had to be more than mere infatuation that kept the Captain from freeing himself by killing this fiend? Had she become so much a part of him? Like the belligerent wife a husband refuses to abandon. Like the abusing spouse a wife seeks only to please.

The Watcher made her demands and Kahn fulfilled them. He gave her victims and she gave him unabashed love and adoration. And in the process he enjoyed fame and respect.

“Why?” I asked, unable to keep from uttering the question I knew I should not ask.

Kahn snorted. “Don’t seek answers from me.” He touched the dog’s head. Her flanks shivered and she wiped her mouth with her tongue.

The dog bounded away and the Captain followed. I trailed behind them. The commission was fulfilled. The priest was dead. Kahn would be paid. And I knew never to love a Watcher.

 

The End

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