When the prince was born, he was beautiful, and perfect. The King of Utar bore him to the temple of the Faceless Gods, and he laid the child upon the black stone altar and placed around him a circle of silver coins. He bowed his head and called for a prophecy, that he might know the fate of his newborn heir.
The veiled priestesses came forth from the darkness, and they stood behind the altar. There were three of them, and they made no motion, only breathed and chanted, and then the one at the center reached out and touched the child, and the king saw her hand flinch away, as though she had been burned.
“Dark is this child’s fate,” the priestess said. “You shall not wish to know it.”
“Speak,” King Samudragos said. He was no longer young, and there was gray upon his temples and in his beard. For many years he had sought for a son, but all three born to his wives had died. Now he had a new wife who even now lay weakened from birthing. At last he had a son, and he would not turn aside. “Tell me the omens.”
“He will survive you,” she said. “He will be a king, but not here. He will rule a distant country by his own hand.”
“Tell me more,” the king said, fear in his heart.
“He will be strong. Stronger than any man. He will be a giant, and a warrior.” She reached out as though to touch him, but drew her hand away. “But he will be a cursed lord, haunted by dark power, a name of fear even to you.”
“I do not believe it,” the king said, for he was not a man to hold his silence, even in the presence of gods.
“Believe, or do not,” the priestess said. “Do not challenge the gods. You asked for the omens, and I have spoken.” She held up a hand in warding. “Blood shall spill by his hands. A sea of blood.”
The king took his son from the altar. “Speak no more of it,” he said. “My son shall be king when I am gone. Cast no more evil prophecies.” He looked at his son, so perfect and small. “Kumura, you shall be,” he said. “Kumura, a name from the kings of old.”
He woke in cold darkness, a fire in his chest. He breathed in frost and breathed out smoke, and pain crawled through his limbs to tell him he was alive. Kumura tried to move and found he was frozen fast to the stone, wrenched with his terrible strength and broke loose, cracking free of his sheath of ice. Winds holed across the mountain, moaning in the arches and halls of the dead city.
The sky was dark and covered in clouds, and he felt as though he had never before been warm. His limbs were like dead iron, and only in his heart was there any fire. He touched the place where his death wound lay seared into his chest, and he found it closed. The sword of fire had driven through him, but it seemed to have left there some primal shard of life that called him back from utter death.
He stood, his one hoofed foot striking like a hammer on the ice-rimes rock. He looked for a sign of the battle, for something to tell him how long he had lain here. He saw a phantom glow, and then the tableaux lay revealed to him. A ring of stone men, covered in a sheath of ice, with their spears thrust outward to make a hedge of steel, and at the center stood the great black silver tomb of the Sleeping Tyrant.
For a moment he wondered what had become of Chona, and then he saw her as well, frozen in a tomb of ice with her eyes closed. She held the two black swords crossed before her, and she bore a look of repose. He knew by the sight that she had chosen this. That she had decided to remain here and guard the emperor, and serve her sentinel ages here in the cold.
He went to her, dragging himself wearily among the stone men. There was no part of her that was not encased in ice, and he touched her face and felt nothing but the unyielding glassine shield of it. This was her fate, but it seemed his was not yet written.
Winds howled across the ancient plateau, whirling snow and shards of ice into the air, making a glittering haze that obscured anything but the silent figures standing guard in the endless dark. Kumura took a last look at the only woman who had ever looked on him without revulsion, and then he turned away and left that place. He was cold and scored by many wounds, but he was alive, and he would not remain here. His path lay elsewhere.
The prince was just a boy when he became accursed. He was in the gardens in summer, a perfect boy. He played in among the flowerbeds and the fountains. He laughed and chased after the birds that lived beneath the great crystal dome his father had raised above the gardens, creating a place that was ever green, ever bright, an eternal summer with eternal light. His mother loved it so, and she would sit with her ladies and her slave girls and watch him, content with her place.
Kumura did not know what a serpent was; he had never seen one before. This one was white as bone and it flowed across the grasses like water. Delighted, he chased it, running on his small legs, crying out in excitement. It stopped at a fountain and coiled up, reared back its head and flared a hood. It hissed at him fiercely, but Kumura had been sheltered from all danger for the five years of his life. He knew no fear, because he knew nothing to fear. He reached out his hand, and the serpent lunged forward and bit him, drawing dark blood like rubies on the white stone of the fountain.
The venom was like fire in his blood, and they carried him to his room and laid him on white silk sheets. They tried to draw the blood from the wound, but when they cut him he screamed and fought them. He grew fevered and pale, and all the color drained from his flesh and his eyes. For a day and a night he shivered and gasped, lay in a state so close to death his mother would not leave his side, for she feared every breath would be his last. She held his unbitten hand and begged the gods to save him.
His father would not beg. He went to the temple of the Faceless Gods, and with him he brought twenty soldiers. He cut down the banners of the gods and dashed the idols to the marble floor. He took the priestesses and held them at the point of his sword and ordered them on pain of death to save his son’s life. That if they did not call upon their gods he would cast down all their temples, slay every priestess, burn and break every idol. He raved that they had accursed his son and he would destroy them for their insolence.
The high priestess looked upon King Samudragos, and she knew how afraid he was, and how afraid he would become. She pushed the sword-point from her throat and she pronounced her curse. “Your son will live,” she said. “That is his fate. He will survive you, as was foretold. He will become a name of terror, and of evil.” She looked at him with cold eyes. “He will live, but you will curse it, and wish that he had died.”
When she spoke, Samudragos cursed her and struck off her head. He had the priestesses dragged forth and executed, and he burned down the temple of the Faceless Gods. He was a king, and he held himself higher than any god in his own heart. He did not believe that the gods would curse, and punish.
Kumura limped down from the mountains with only tatters and torn armor to shield him. He had lived his life in cold and darkness, with light only a memory, so he walked by night and hid by day. He was weary and hungry and weaponless, yet he would not lie still and simply give way. His will had sustained him all his cursed life, and now it would not fail him.
He descended from the cold mountains into the stony, forested lands below them. Here he found wood for fires when he camped, and the trees stretched overhead and gave shelter from sun and from snow. He fashioned a spear from ash wood and seared the point to harden it, and with it he slew a great deer and ate the raw, blooded flesh.
He made a camp deep in the woods, and there he skinned the deer with a stone knife and scraped the hide and tanned it stretched between trees. When the year turned and the air grew warmer he had a cloak of hide to wear, and he had stitched his clothes and his armor with skeins and bone needles. He ate roots and berries and any meat he could find. His regained his strength and his wounds healed, all save the great burned scar over his heart. That one remained to remind him of death.
When summer came and the streams ran heavy with melted snow, he went west toward the setting sun. He left the wooded hills behind, and then he entered the older mountains where once he had slain a great spider of darkness. Now he found the beast’s caverns empty and haunted, but not by any great killers of the night. He did not know how long he had lain in his sleep of death, but it had not been long enough for another monstrosity to rise.
From the mountains he entered the scrublands – the barren, dagger hills that would give way, in time, to the desert. Here he found at last the marks of man. He saw smoke in the rocks, and then he heard horses. With his crude spear and wooden club he crouched in the rocks, and he waited.
They came riding, six men, and he knew they were bandits by their rough clothing and hard look. Men who lived in the borderlands, away from civilization and ease. Men who rode the rim of the world and took whatever they could find because there was no other way to survive in a place such as this. He saw them stop and study his trail, and he knew they hunted him, as they hunted any man who came within their reach, and he resolved then that he would slay them, and take all they possessed.
They did not see him, and so he leaped upon them like a storm of fury, and they could not withstand him. He impaled two men with his spear before it snapped under the power of his great strength. One of them tried to smite him with an axe, and Kumura simply dashed the weapon from his hand, and then seized his horse by the bridle and hurled it to the ground. Then he took his war-club – wooden and edged with teeth – and he met the next two men and crushed their skulls as if they were eggshells. The last man shattered the club with his sword, but then Kumura caught him and ripped his arm from his body, left him to scream on the ground until he broke his neck beneath his hoof.
The man who had been cast from his horse tried to crawl away with a broken leg, but Kumura caught him and lifted him up. “Tell me,” he said, his strength terrifying. “How long has it been since the Tyrant and his servants crossed this desert and went into the east? How long?”
The man stared at him, terrified and in great pain. “That was ten years gone,” he said. “Ten years.”
“Ten years,” Kumura said. He threw the man against a rock and broke his neck, and then it was quiet. He looked to the west, where the sun was setting. That way the path led across the wastes, into dead lands where he had once walked with a Princess.
For many days the prince lay in a slumber so near to death that many believed he had indeed died, and only his mother refused to believe it. Yet on the ninth day he woke, and was hungry, and moved again as one alive. Yet he was never again the same. The pallor brought by the serpent’s venom never faded, and he remained colorless as ice. When he rose from his bed he never afterward laughed, or smiled. He became as a ghost of himself, solitary and still.
His mother tried to bring him back to happiness, and to light, but he would not. He preferred the cold, and the darkness. He shied away from the sun, and he began to eat only rodents and insects. His leg was twisted by the fever, and he walked with a limb, his foot slowly becoming malformed until it was as the cloven hoof of a goat.
Kumura grew, and he became stronger by the day. His arms grew long and heavy, and there was a power in them that frightened grown men. By the time he was ten years old he was no longer recognizable as the golden boy he had been. Now he was a pallid beast, almost as tall as a grown man, with the strength of an ox and the hunched back of some night creature. He walked with a terrible limp brought on by his deformed left foot, and even his mother trembled at the sound of his approach.
It was upon his face that the most terrible change was wrought. His eyes became wide-set and narrow, with slitted pupils like the eyes of a serpent. They reflected light in the darkness, and flamed like stars when he was angry. His hair grew long and lank, and his mouth turned down into a perpetual scowl of rage. His nose all but sank into his face, so he bore on his features an aspect of bestial savagery, and it was not dispelled by his actions.
He became easy to anger, quick to strike with his terrible new strength. When he was eleven a servant scolded him for killing a bird, and he took the grown man and dashed his brains out against the wall. His mother found him sitting beside the body, calmly plucking and eating the dead bird with bloody lips. Not one word could be spoken against him, for he would fly into a rage, and already he was too strong to restrain or control.
It was when he was twelve that he broke the bonds of all control, and became like a curse upon his name. Already larger than a grown man, Kumura was angered by a guardsman who would not get out of his way. The pale prince took the man and hurled him to the ground and then took his sword and slew him with it. He hacked the corpse into pieces, and then he took the notched and bloody sword and cut down the hangings in the throne hall.
His father found him there, and at last he gave vent to his rage and cursed his son, calling him a brute and worse. He swore that the gods had taken away his son and put a demon in his place. Kumura listened to him, and then he came for his father with the bloody sword, and the guards flooded into the hall to subdue him.
It was no simple matter, for they were forbidden to slay him, and he was stronger than any three of them together. He cut down three more of them before they could bear him down and pin him to the floor. They bound him roughly with cords while he snarled and fought them.
King Samudragos almost had him slain, then. He looked on the bloody, raging thing that had been his happy son, and he almost gave the command that they should strike off his head and be done. Yet he stayed his hand for his wife, who even now held hope that her child could be redeemed. Rather than death, Kumura was to be imprisoned, perhaps for his life.
There was a tower in the old gardens, where the slaves of the dead kings were buried in nameless graves. They took him to that tower, and they cast him inside, placing an iron door on the cell at the top where he would be sealed away. A father of one of the men he slew took the place as his keeper. He was a blind man, and he never spoke. He took the only key, and he dwelled there in the dark tower among the dead. Above him, in the iron tower, was the howling of the dread prince as he battered against the walls of his prison.
Kumura could not ride an ordinary horse, and these scrubland ponies were far too small for him. He took what he could from the dead men, fashioned better clothes, and took a sword that was not too ridiculously small. He took their water and food and then, with a spear for a walking stick, he went out past the hills and into the desert he had once crossed in company with a deadly princess.
He did not take the way through the deep desert this time, for there was no trail to follow now. He turned north and rode along the hard lands at the edge of the sea of sands. He passed through caravan camps and along desolate trails. Even in this land of wanderers people avoided him, afraid of his glittering glance and dead white skin. He slept in dark places by day and walked by night, and he spoke to no one.
He saw smoke ahead of him, a pillar of it rising in the dark sky, lit with silver by the ocean of stars. He smelled dead flesh and fire and he followed them to where a town lay broken and burning under the night. Nomads had burst through the gates and ravaged through the narrow streets, and he saw bodies scattered on the stones. The smell of blood was strong, and ahead of him, at the center of the town there was a great fire raging, and he heard the chants of warriors at their victory celebration.
Kumura saw dead children in the streets, and women hacked down as they tried to shield them. He stood in the dark and looked, and it disturbed him in a way he had not thought to feel it. He remembered the slain in the ruins of his homeland, the corpse of his father in among the other dead. There was hatred at the memory of his father, and also a brooding tragedy – a loss of what might have been.
Terrible and silent, Kumura came through the dark to where a tribe of nomads drank and shouted to the skies as they made sport of prisoners and gloated over their looted treasures. Their chieftain was a giant man, hooded in black robes but armored in mail and with a great helm crowned with broken sword blades. He shook a massive sword to the skies, and called on the gods to send him a foe worthy of his strength.
Kumura gave no warning when he leaped from the dark like a pale tiger, and the nomads did not know what came until he was among them. He did not roar or howl battle-cries, he simply cleaved about him with his sword and rove men apart, splitting heads and limbs as if they were made from reeds. He slew three before they realized what was happening, and even then, many were too drunken to resist.
He cut them down, splitting flesh and bone and armor with great sweeps of his blade driven by his hideous strength. He kicked over braziers and scattered burning oil on the ground, rose among the sudden flames like an apparition from the nighted ages before man learned to speak of the terrors that haunted him.
Caught by surprise, the nomads screamed, seeing in him a ghost of the desert lands – a demon come to torment them. They threw down their weapons and scattered, shrieking for the gods to save them. Only one did not flee, and he met Kumura there in the center of the blood and the fire.
The sword-crowned chieftain heaved up his massive sword and rushed into battle, and when their blades met Kumura found a strength and a fury that almost matched his own. The barbarian seethed with joy to be granted such a contest, and he hacked furiously at Kumura, laughing and singing praises to the gods of war.
They battled across the plaza, stepping over the bodies of the slain, treading in the pools of drying blood and scattered gold coins. Their swords flashed and rang together and sent sparks cascading down. The chieftain struck Kumura on the shoulder and ripped through his stolen armor, drew blood from his white skin. He laughed, looking at the red on the edge of his blade.
Kumura bared his teeth. His hatred had been born in venom and nurtured over years in darkness and solitude. He would not go down before the blows of some hulking savage. He struck a savage blow that rang on the nomad’s helm and snapped the blade of his sword in two with the force of it. The chief staggered, and Kumura caught him up and hurled him into the towering bonfire, smashing it apart and scattering flames across the stone.
He came through the fire, unmoved and unfeeling, and when the chieftain tried to rise, Kumura seized him by the throat and smote him on the helm with the pommel of his broken sword. They strained together, iron muscles rigid and cords standing out, until the flesh of the nomad’s neck parted, and blood gushed out. Kumura held him down as he bled into the dust, black heart blood pouring over his fingers.
Then it was silent. He stood and looked around him, seeking any who lived, any who might contest with him. There were none. He looked down at the dead man. A chief of nothing, now. Kumura was a prince without a kingdom as well. The Left Hand had destroyed his city, and there was no place now for him to return to. To the west the roads led to the city where Chona had ruled. She had been his friend, and so he would go to her city and see it was well. He would do that for her. In fact, he had nothing else to do, and that made him laugh.
He took the helm from the dead man, and then he lifted up the nomad’s heavy sword. Here at last was war-gear he might make use of. He would arm himself with iron and with a killer’s blade, and he would ride east into whatever legends waited there.