I spent most of my days singing songs and offering praises to my God for his protection. And yet, many of my nights I spent fearing for my life. Not in the way of a tree planted by living water. The glory of my youth having long since passed, I saw that though God was often with me, he was not in me, and my desire for all that I could not be—all that he had always been in spite of me and all that he would remain after my death—became the thirst that drove me deeper into the wilderness of my years. A thirst for God will often lead you into a desert.
* * *
I waited by the stairwell with my back pressed against the wall when the bunker hatch opened, squealing on its hinges, letting in a stream of concentrated moon, star, and planet-light. I waited for the intruder to cross the threshold of the stairs before lowering the barrel of my pistol to his right temple. He froze, and in the faint gleam of twilight I caught his smile.
“Don’t kill me, Áedán,” he said.
I lowered the weapon, and then he turned toward me.
“Don’t sneak up to my bunker in the middle of the night,” I said.
“If I had been sneaking, I would’ve knocked first.”
“Why have you come?” I asked.
“You must leave the camp,” he said. “Tonight.”
“Is that all?” I went to the sink beside the toilet and splashed water on my face. A cold shock to liven the blood.
“That’s wasteful,” he told me.
“No cleansing is wasteful,” I replied. “The unclean may spare water and so waste himself.”
“Father is sending men to kill you,” he said. “I’m supposed to kill you if I see you. You have to go.”
There was a painful, terrible moment when I wondered if he really had come to kill me, and I felt shame at the thought.
“How long am I to be gone?” I asked.
“Until I can convince father that you are not his enemy.”
“So this is a permanent exile, then,” I said.
“Not if I can help it,” he said.
Outside the porthole, wind rustled in the shrubs and among the trees; a few pebbles scuttled downhill and came to rest. His hand went to the pistol at his hip while we each held our breath, listening for the scuff of boots in the dirt and watching for shadows.
“It is wind, Asger,” I whispered.
“You’re probably right,” he said, and his hand dropped to his side. Sliding his pack across his shoulder, he said, “I’ve brought you food and ammunition. Exchange belts with me.” He unstrapped his belt and held it out, removing only his pistol. It hung heavily with the weight of loaded cartridges.
“More stones for my sling,” I said. I took his belt and fastened it about my waist, then retrieved mine from beside the cot and brought it to him. “How did you know I was running low?”
“You never have enough of anything,” he said, as if it were a law of nature I ought to have known. He fastened the belt I had given him with its one remaining cartridge.
“Someone may wonder at that,” I said, pointing to his new belt.
He shook his head. “I’ll have restocked by the time anyone sees me. You can be sure of it.”
“How am I to find you when all this is over?” I asked.
“Wait for my sign,” he said. “Hide in the hills west of the monolith. If all is well, I will place a single mark on the stone. If you are compromised, I will leave three marks.”
“I will wait two days but no longer,” I said. I had just finished filling my satchel with canteens and a few packets of the dehydrated food he had brought. Sealing it, I swung it over my shoulder. “You’ve risked too much—”
“Stop,” he said. “That was never a consideration, nor will it ever be. Don’t insult my labor.”
“I fear for your life,” I said.
“Fear for your own.”
I nodded. That was him saying to get a move on, or so I thought. As I moved toward the stairwell, he stretched out his arm to bar my way.
“Let me have a look at the field first,” he said.
I laughed softly. “As you will.”
When he signaled for me to come up, I crawled from the hatch as one rising from a tomb. Above us, Iunia and her two moons splashed the hilltops with radiant light. The night reminded me of a line from one of my songs. “In peace I will lie down to sleep,” it went, and the melody would fall on the word “sleep” with certain finality. Now, the line had taken on the weight and force of a warning, for I wondered how many sleepless nights awaited me in the desert. A little slumber, a little folding of the hands in rest, and so will a man lose everything.
My bunker lay on the camp’s southeastern perimeter, near the woodland. The forest teemed with acacia and corkwood trees, and through its heart a stream flowed from a riverhead thirty kilometers eastward—the camp’s water supply used to come from this source until the Dagonah poisoned the head. The barren-lands, inhabited by every tribe and clan of this persistent enemy, were north of the camp. Less than half a kilometer in that direction, the shrubs and grass dwindled until the landscape shifted into a hilly terrain of loose, dry dirt and rocks. Water was scarce in that region.
“Make for the desert,” he told me.
“I have nothing to give you,” I said.
“What you have already sworn is your gift to me,” he said. “Our sons and daughters will live in peace together. Go and wait for my sign. It will not delay.”
I left him and did not look back, as it would have been a sign of distrust not to be borne among brothers. The thought that this was that last of him I would ever see, I buried with all other idle projections. Perhaps it really was the last time we would meet; perhaps I would die in the wilderness or live the rest of my days as an outcast—one can drift quite peacefully in a wasteland of variables. Tonight, in the here and now, we had met as brothers. It was a thing established in the heart, and not even death could break it.
Passing along the outskirts of the camp, I met the eastern watchman at his post.
“I’m going into the forest to pray,” I told him. “Do not be anxious for my return.”
He nodded. If there was any suspicion in his eye, I could not tell. His hood was drawn closely over his face in the manner of night watchers.
I turned eastward toward the dark, shadow-ridden line of trees. Entering the forest, I followed the stream northward, ever keeping to the lesser-known paths. Iunia, like an eye of emerald in the heavens, sunk slowly into the northwest as the night waned. By the time I reached the desert she had at last begun to set, and the heat of morning found me alone and exposed on the barren fringe.
* * *
Through the cold night I waited on the ridge overlooking the vale. I would not go within a hundred meters of the monolith. Black upon a midnight grey, like a thin void cutting across the stars and into the desert, it grew more mysterious after dark. Now, at the hour between Iunia’s vanishing and the hesitant thrust of morning I waited among the crags, watching and listening. There isn’t much else one can do in the wilderness.
Before I saw anything, I heard the mellow yet distinctive hum of engines. From the south, a black shape sped across the flats toward the towering rock while something like a small whirlwind followed in its wake. I used my binoculars to get a better look: a single chariot with a single pilot, hooded and masked to guard from the gritty and chilled night air. Behind him the drape of his cloak danced like a standard in the gusts. He did not slow until he came within ten meters of the rock; I watched him dismount and walk up to it. He drew something from his cloak and used it to mark the stone—I watched the motion of his hand, the thrice dipping of his wrist.
Then, as if moved by some guiding sense of the present, he turned toward me or in my direction at least. Slowly, he removed his hood and drew the mask down below his chin, exposing his face to the night. It was only for a moment, delicate and fleeting, and then he returned to the chariot. Securing again the mask and cowl, he sped into the south whence he had come. Even from a distance, his sign was clear enough. Shouldering my pack, I started northward across the stony passes and made for the Canyon of the Fount.
* * *
Those who believe in fate cheapen the power of human initiative. The day I went out to face the Iunian half-breed, I did what any human could have done under the hand of God. Many disagree with this, arguing instead that I was chosen. Yet, I am confident that it could have been anyone; it did not have to be me.
Still, I was the one who killed the warrior from another world: shot him in the left eye with a five-chamber hunting pistol, and only because he had taken off his helmet. This, some argue, was an act of God in itself and perhaps this is true. Perhaps the giant would not have taken off his helmet for a real warrior. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a human being assumed the risk and performed the act. As I have grown older, I have come to see that belief in God is neither thought nor feeling—it is human action in defiance of the inevitable.
It is from such acts of defiance that legends are born… No, not born. Spawned and disseminated like larva, or a plague. The people sang songs about my victory, and it wasn’t long before they were making up new songs for victories I’d never had, for battles I had never fought. With the giant, I did what needed to be done just as I always had, what I knew God wanted to be done. Yet, an interesting thing happens when you carry out the will of heaven—people will sing your praises and forget the one who drew you from the dust. Since those times, I have learned that there exists a form of idolatry as debilitating as the superstition of our ancestors.
It is the worship of heroes.
An infant mind dreams of becoming a hero, and looks to the hero for guidance. But anyone seeking guidance from me will only receive this admonition: do nothing to be noticed, but serve God quietly and in secret. Go out into the wilderness, live among the homesteaders, find a wife and raise children who honor God. Last of all, remember that nothing is worth the loss of a father’s love. Nothing. The price of slaying giants has turned out to be more than I could ever hope to pay.
* * *
For a while he stood outside the cave, peering in. What did he expect to see in the shadows, looking with sun-stained eyes? Man is so dependent on his physical capacities that he will peer into darkness in spite of both blindness and shadow, expecting all the while to see. But then, I did not blame this particular man. When approaching a cave in broad daylight, you could never be certain that you were the first to have found it without risking your life in the quest for that certainty. The hesitating stutter of his movements told me he knew as much.
He was alone, armed only with a short knife at his right hip and a pistol holstered at his left. My weapon was already drawn and pointed; I had seen him climbing the hill toward the cave, could have killed him then and been out of sight before anyone knew where to start looking. I could kill him now, only the echo of a gunshot in a cave would carry far out into the canyon, perhaps over the distant plains. But what did that matter? Gazing past me like a blind fool, here stood the man who had driven me into the desert, who had slandered me among my brothers and sisters, who… who had given me a home and a family when I’d had none to call my own.
The pistol grew heavy in my hand; I followed him with the nose of the barrel as he stepped into the cave and moved toward the rightmost wall. Resting his forehead against the rock, he unbuttoned his trousers and began to urinate, his water spattering the dirt. He truly believed himself to be alone.
When he had finished he turned and left. If that was all he had come for, then his men were somewhere close. His dark head, slick with sunlight, sunk lower as he descended the slope. I let my arm fall at my side—I wanted to drop the pistol in the dirt. Suddenly the line separating mercy from cowardice had become a blur or an illusion or nothing like a line at all, and I found myself unable to distinguish between the one virtue and the other vice. A voice inside me whispered, “Arise, you who judge the worlds.”
Pushing out into the heat, I saw him at the bottom of the slope. He was heading for the spring situated at the canyon’s lowest point, and with each stride a heap of dust swirled about his ankles.
“My lord!” I said.
He turned and at the same time reached for the pistol at his hip, but his foot struck a small boulder and he fell backward into the dirt. I heard him curse as I sprinted down the slope—he tried to level the pistol again but I kicked it out of his hand and struck him in the jaw. His other hand reached for the knife but I stepped on the wrist, pressing it into the dirt. Just enough force keep it down without snapping the bone. He shouted again as I took the knife and tossed it to the rocks. Then I backed away two strides, drew my pistol and waited.
He looked up at me while favoring his wrist, and then rested his back against the boulder. His hair was unkempt and his cheeks were flushed from struggling. His gray cloak was yellow with dust.
“What are you waiting for?” he said.
I knelt so as to be level with him. “What evil have I done?”
“Need I tell you?” he scoffed. “You have turned the people against me. You conspire with the sages and priests. You are a thankless son and a usurper.”
“If I were a usurper you’d be lying dead in a puddle of your own urine back there in the cave. I was with you the entire time. Now tell me again: what evil have I done?”
He was silent as he looked at me, his eyelids squinting in the sunlight.
“My father,” I said. “You have ventured three days into the desert with a hunting party of your best men for the purpose of taking my life. You would have sent Asger, my brother, to kill me in my sleep if he had only been willing. I ask for the last time: what evil have I done?”
His tongue moved only to lick the blood from his lower lip.
“My lord,” I said. “Do you truly hate me so?”
“You will be captain of our people,” he said. “God will put you in place of me, in place of Asger. This is the evil you have done. Do not insult me by denying that you know of it.”
I stared at him. “I do know of it. It was told to me in secret many years ago.”
He smiled coldly. “Much is done in secret it seems. Even God hides his deeds from me.”
The sun was still high in the northwest, though above the canyon heights to the east the bald top of Iunia began to rise. The earth was hot beneath us, so hot I could feel it seeping into my boots.
“I have no say in matters of God’s judgment,” I said.
“Yet you are not hesitant to embrace that judgment when it favors you,” he sneered.
“I live or die as he chooses—what he hopes to do with me he can just as quickly do with another. He can forge a ruler for his people from the fire and the pit. You and I are nothing, Father.”
“For God’s sake stop calling me that,” he said.
I gazed at him then with indifference—an old man in a tattered coat with a bloody lip and a sprained wrist. It surprised me at first, but the longer I looked at him the more I shared his disdain for the word.
“To appease his anger,” I said. “That’s why you took me in, isn’t it?”
“You know nothing,” he said, and he looked away, anywhere but into my eyes.
I refused to relent. “You thought that if you showed compassion on me he might change his mind, because you knew that he had chosen me even then. The signs were clear enough.”
“You are arrogant and naïve,” he said.
“I only speak the truth. Why didn’t you kill me then?”
“I nearly did several times. Have you forgotten?”
I shook my head. “No, I haven’t forgotten.”
He looked over his left shoulder, out into the canyon. “Promise me something,” he said.
“As you command.”
“Stay true to Asger,” he said. “Stay true to his children. Swear to me that you will not destroy my family.”
I nodded. “I swear it.”
He looked at me again. “Now where does that leave us?”
I rose and holstered my pistol. “I will leave this place. And you will stop hunting me.”
“Where will you go?”
“To the Dagonah,” I said. “Perhaps they have forgotten my former deeds. Will you let me go?”
He gazed up at me for a moment, as if deliberating. Then, he nodded.
“Yes,” he said.
“And let us come to one more understanding,” I said. “It will be the last thing that passes between us.”
“What is it?” he said.
“You were never my father. I was never your son. Are we clear?”
Again he nodded. “Yes.”
I said nothing, but turned and ascended the slope toward the cave. Retrieving my pack from the inner recess, I emerged just as a cloud was passing over the sun. Iunia darkened in the shade, while beneath her the canyon lay desolate and noiseless but for a calm, east wind. My enemy was gone, but whether to betray our agreement or to fulfill it I could not yet know.
Quickly, I filled my canteen at the spring, then shouldered my pack and took to the northern pass. I ran in places where the climb was smooth and when I reached the rolling plains I ran in spite of the evening heat, ever northward. By nightfall I had come to the edge of the mountains where the Dagonah dwell in large numbers. There, I rested and prayed and waited through the night for him to answer, but no voice spoke to me—only I had this sense that he was with me even in his silence. When dawn came I slept as I’ve never slept, as one without fear. My present hope was to take refuge with the enemies of God, for I knew I would no longer find it among my people.