The Last Kazarine
I have a few stories I want to write involving disembodied heads. Why? I nunno. Here’s one to get started.
A head start… ha, ha, ha… (ahem).
his is a last supper of hard, flat bread, washed down with water. Black cumin cracks on snagged teeth and gums bleed on dry rises slashed with a knife.
There is no clay-cooked smell of summer’s harvest here – just the aged, malodour of dust.
Father Markus is not accustomed to such fare, but that disastrous girl is fled, so who will get more? And there is certainly no time for him. Sand bulges in the bottom of the narrow-wasted glass; the sun is squeezing down into the hollows of the mountains.
His eyes are drawn to the window latches and the heavy draw-bolts on the door. Pushing back – mouth a gummed hollow – he hobbles to these locks and gates and peers out into desert; an ocean, where stone formations break amongst the long dunes.
And then, the ragged stones beyond – an edge to all things.
Sundered blocks corrode and the torsos of great statues decline. Stoic faces and forms, broken swords and shields, become a harbouring wall, or a causeway, lost to historical tides. But that arrowed line from horizon to horizon is a close-veiled barge – in a few, short breaths, the sun dies in the funerary reds and oranges of crushed lilies.
There is nothing else to do, so he carefully closes the hatches over, with rough hands smoothed to wood and iron.
Forgive him that final tremor.
The ceiling is low, the floor creaks. On the table are four heads – large blocks of stone, crumbling into sand at their severed necks, but very much cold and open in their faces; where white eyes, like blank, stone mirrors, regard the room. The stone is local – a soft, white sandstone from the cliffs of Notumra, not two days away, where great dark pockets of stoneworking can still be seen, open like toothless cavities. The heads are old and dramatically pagan, worn to touch and desert winds, teeth set in the compressed sand of long-dead seas. Chisels have loved them, their hair curled like succulent grapes, dry and rough as the skin of a dogfish.
Their canines, also dog.
Markus desires more than anything to throw a sheet over them, or remonstrate with their blank indifference, but there has been much too much ignorance and beseeching, already.
“Once,” said Kyla, “these heads were brightly painted.”
He imagined – suggested – gaudy, wishful in the gaze of their massive faces.
“Like clowns,” he sneered, “smeared with blood and berries”.
The girl had made a fleeting, pained expression.
“Not so,” said the girl. “These were beautifully painted, to look like gods.”
“Hah,” Markus had said.
Their pupils have the white, blank curve of the horizon.
Now, the lantern is flickering. The goat fat is a thick, pungent tallow that burns fitfully, with too much meat and gravy. If it were not for the importance of light – drawing its long shadows of severed limbs – he would have eaten it on the bread.
Why this unyielding thirst?
The clatter of the clay ewer and the slop of water, to the bright trickle, to the cracked beaker, to the grit on teeth and the warm, almost claustrophobic, swallow of it. It tastes like earth.
Old, pagan things.
Beside the heads, the long iron mattock that struck them from their bodies. His hands still ring with the unyielding severing, and his mind with the fresh, bloody stone he saw at their necks.
The latch rattles. He turns, shoulders a webbed sling of sagged flesh on bone, forcing his eyes to the metal, considering: one more rattle, and it’s not the wind…
But at the slot beneath the door, there is just a fine waft of silt: a twin tributary sliding across the floor, one thread winding over the other. The hidden source is split where a scrubby patch of theselay – grown to the threshold – has a long thorn in its back; scratching back and fore, like an extended cat’s claw flexed with the desert’s breathing.
That white dust coats his nostrils.
The cup bangs down. “Devils!”
1900 years ago, the armies of Kazarine marked the great cliffs and the high valleys with a wall – a great wall of ponderous stone, high as two camels and a hamut, broad enough for wagons and men to pass, and the rolling way passed out across the desert, keeping the might and military of the south, from the great dark places and demesne of the painted people to the north.
Kazarine were Markus’ forefathers. Their hatred was directed where it most assuredly belonged, and where the wall lay was a great division between bronze swords and modern war; and the knotted and fierce, brown-eyed spirits of the north, who wore flesh below the sun, and horrific spirals of iron-coloured wode spat through formers of horn and jaw.
Their impurity is here: the lips-pursed blowing of the desert winds. Eyes to the latch. Hooooooooooooooooo-oooo.
Kazarine and painted dogs stood the walls together, eastern clans fighting northern, but one as pagan as the next.
Together, they carved four kings – full bodied, stone blooded – as a symbol of unity and souls best left eternal; uncollected.
Do not. Think not. “Lay aside that iron. Such heads are magical,” wept the desert girl, gathering her skirts, wide eyed – hands covering blasphemous lips, lest more ‘old country’ spilled forth.
And so he struck her, and she fled.
She left him marooned.
Find them in a cup, a well – the heads of severed men – at shrines. All over the desert, staring out at lost ages gone. Standing like an army.
Trivial magics – long lost, forgotten; entirely diminished. Or so it had seemed.
“Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaa,” breaths the desert, hot and warm at the door, though the sun has slid, the heavens gone to stars and wind-blown memories, the metal beaten from the bronze of the day.
The table creaks, gifting its expansion as heat, and a dart of terror, shamefully repressed.
There is but one God. And no severed heads are needed!