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You never forget the first man you kill.
Well...that may be an exaggeration.
I was fourteen seasons at the time, a youth on my homeworld of Xenex. My father had died several seasons before that, beaten to death in the public square by our Danteri oppressors as a signal to all my people that we should know our place. It is my everlasting shame that I did not immediately retaliate. Instead I stood there, paralyzed. I can still remember my older brother digging his fingers into my shoulder, keeping me from attacking. That was what I wanted to do at the time. I wanted to charge from the crowd, leap upon the man who was inflicting such punishment upon my father, and sink my teeth into his throat. I wanted to feel his blood fountaining between my teeth.
Unfortunately, I was a child. My brother was probably concerned -- not without reason -- that I would be cut down before I got within twenty feet of my father's tormentor. So I stayed where I was, and watched, and wished the entire time that I could tear my eyes from my sockets, block out the cries from my father's throat.
Such a proud man, he was. So proud. What they did to him...
It fueled me several years later when I began my campaign against the Danteri.
There was a tax collector, a rather hated Danteri individual named Stener. A short, squat individual, he was, with a voice like a rockslide and a viciousness in attitude and deportment that made you cringe as soon as you look at him. He rode about on this mount, a large and hairy creature called a Pok that had been specially bred by the Danteri to be a sort of all-purpose steed. He always had several guards with him. On this particular day, he had three. They were massively broad, although it was difficult to get a precise idea of their build beneath their armor. They were not wearing helmets, however, possibly because it was hot and the helmets were sweaty. Instead their helmets were tucked under their arms. That would prove to be a costly mistake.
It was a very hot day, I remember. Very hot, the last day of a very hot week. Tempers were becoming ragged as it was, and whispers of my rabble-rousing were already beginning to reach the ears of the Danteri. At that particular time, though, they dismissed me as nothing they need concern themselves about. I was, after all, merely a loudmouthed teenager insofar as they knew. Perhaps more erudite than many, but nothing much more than that. Still, they saw the growing anger in the eyes of my people. The downward casting of glances, the automatic subservience... that seemed to be present less and less, and it very likely concerned the Danteri.
I was determined to give them more than cause for concern. I wanted to send them an unmistakable message. To let them know that my people would not tolerate their presence on my world any longer. To let them know that their torture of my father -- rather than serving as a warning -- had instead awakened the slumbering giant of Xenexian pride. And I wanted my hand to be the one that struck the first blow, that hammered the gong which would chime out the call to freedom.
Stener had collected the taxes in my home city of Calhoun, but he had very likely tired of the epithets, the curses, the increasingly aggressive sneers that greeted him. Nothing actionable or worth starting a fight over, but it very likely grated on him. He didn't know that I was following him, stalking him. He can be forgiven for his obliviousness. There were any number of scruffy, disheveled Xenexian youths around, so there was no intrinsic reason for him to focus on me any more than on anyone else. I stuck to the shadows, skulked around buildings, and whenever any of his men happened to glance in my direction, I managed to melt into the background, to disappear.
To a certain extent...it was a game. I was in the throes of youth, pleased with my skill and alacrity. As I paced them, keeping to myself but never letting them from my view, I felt an increasing sense of empowerment. Even -- dare I say it -- invincibility. That is naturally a very dangerous state of mind. Under such circumstances, one can become exceedingly sloppy. One should never underestimate an opponent, and I do not for a moment recommend it for anyone.
They reached the outskirts of Calhoun and still had not spotted me. Had they then decided to return to their vessel and depart, they might very well all have survived. But they didn't. That was their greed, their own arrogance and sense of invincibility...as dangerous to them as to me. Stupidity is remarkably evenhanded.
Since they were certain that my people were too subservient to pose a serious threat, they decided to make their way to the neighboring, smaller village of Moute. Everything was happening spur-of-the-moment. Had I given the matter any thought at all, I would have gone into it with something approaching a plan. But I was flying on instinct alone, which was a habit that I would thankfully not continue to indulge in for my future dealings.
There was only one road between Calhoun and Moute, and I knew they were going to have to take it. Stener's Pok was moving at a fairly slow pace, and his three guards had to walk slowly to match it. As a result I had more than enough opportunity to get ahead of them. I moved with an almost bizarre recklessness, searching out and finding higher ground along the rocky ridges that lined the road. Ideally there would have been something with sufficient altitude that I could have sent an avalanche cascading down on their damned heads. Unfortunately the territory was fairly low, the ridges rising no more than maybe ten feet, so that wasn't an option. So I had to resort to other means to accomplish my task. I examined the stones beneath my feet and around me as I kept in careful pursuit, selecting those stones that best suited my purposes. The best were smooth and round, capable of hurtling at high speeds if thrown with enough strength. Believe me, the way I was feeling at that moment, my strength was more than sufficient. Such was the confidence I had in myself that I only selected three stones. It never even occurred to me that more might possibly be required.
I moved with speed and stealth, getting farther ahead until I was satisfied with the distance I'd put between myself and my targets. Crouching behind one of the upright outcroppings, I held one stone in either hand, and popped the third into my mouth for easy access. I listened carefully to determine if there was any useful information I could derive from whatever chitchat I might overhear, but there was no crosstalk at all. They rode in an almost eerie silence, as if they existed only to be my victims and otherwise had no lives up until that point.
The sun was beginning to descend upon the horizon, but it would still be quite some time until night. I had no interest in waiting until darkness. I wanted to see their faces clearly. I wanted them to know that even in broad daylight, there was still nowhere safe that they could hide. Besides, they'd be easier targets in the daylight. However, everything was going to depend upon my speed.
My back against the outcropping, I took a deep breath to steady my racing heart. I knew that the main thing I had going for me was the element of surprise. The moment that was lost, only pure speed could help me. I sprang from my hiding place and hurled the first rock, flipped the second rock to my throwing hand as I spit the third out. The first rock struck the closest guard squarely in the forehead. It knocked him cold. The second guard whirled around to see what had happened to his associate, but the second rock was already in flight and this one struck as accurately as the first. The third guard didn't even have a chance to turn; my last missile hit him bangon in the back of his head. He went down without a sound.
It had all happened so quickly that Stener hadn't fully had the opportunity to comprehend what was going on. His Pok was turning in place in alarm. It was everything that Stener could do to keep his grip on the beast. "What's happening? Who's there?!" he called out.
I admit, at the time I had something of a flair for the dramatic.
I leaped down from the rocks, landing in a feral crouch. My sword was still strapped to my back. Perhaps it was because of that that Stener didn't yet realize he was in any danger. The fact that three of his men had just been dropped in rapid succession didn't jibe with the unkempt teenager who was approaching him. He likely considered me some sort of prankster. "You, boy! Are you responsible for this?"
I took a mocking bow. "The very same," I said.
"These are my men! This is official business! How dare you --?"
"How dare you," I snarled back, quickly losing patience with the oaf. "How dare you and your people think that you can abuse my people indefinitely. Today begins the day we strike back. Today is the day we begin the long march toward freedom."
I unsheathed my sword, drawing it slowly from the scabbard on my back for maximum effect. It was that threatening sound, and probably the look in my eye, that made Stener truly comprehend that his life was being threatened. "Now, wait just a minute, young man," he said, but even as he spoke he tried to angle his Pok around, in obvious preparation for trying to make a break for it.
He need not have wasted his time. We were in a fairly narrow pass, after all, and it was no great trick to angle myself around and block his only real escape route. I brandished my sword in a reasonably threatening manner. Stener began to stammer a bit, his bluster become tangled with his concern for self-preservation. "Now...now wait just a minute...."
"I have waited long enough already," I replied. "All my people have. We wait no longer. Today we strike back."
That was when a sword seemed to flash from nowhere.
My block was purely on instinct as I brought my sword up to deflect the blow. One of the guards I had struck -- the one from behind -- apparently had a harder head than I had credited him for. Perhaps it was a lesson I was being taught for attacking from the rear -- a less than heroic tactic, I fully admit.
Our swords locked at the hilt. He was bigger than I was, and very likely stronger. But he was still slightly dazed from the blow to the back of his head. Even were I not the superior fighter, the fact that he was fighting at less than his best would have been more than enough to tilt the battle in my favor.
He tried to push me off my feet, but I disengaged my sword and faced him. He had put his helmet on, and it obscured his face, although his eyes seemed to glitter with cold contempt. He appeared to take the measure of me for a moment and then he swung his blade. Our swords clanged together, the impact echoing in the soundlessness of the place.
Stener was reining in his panicking Pok and attempting to send it back in the direction from which they had just come. I wasn't concerned; I was certain that I could dispatch my opponent and still catch up with Stener in time to kill him as well. Such confidence I had. Such confidence considering that I had never taken another life. The other two guards were unconscious only, as this one was supposed to be. Stener was intended to be my first blood, but my feeling at that moment was that the guard would do just as nicely.
He fought well, I'll give him that. For a moment or two, I actually found myself in trouble as his sword flashed before my face, shaving a lock of my hair off. I didn't even realize it until I found strands on the ground later. There were no words between us. Really, what could we have said? An exchange of names? Pointless. A mutual request for surrender? Beyond pointless. We both knew what was at stake, both knew that there would be no backing down. This was no coward I was facing; he was willing to die to do his job. Likewise, he must have known that I would never have staged the assault if I had not intended to see it through.
A parry, another parry, and I fell back. He smiled. He probably thought he had me, since I was retreating. He didn't understand that I was simply watching him expend all his "tricks" as I studied his method of attack, his offensive skills. They were, I quickly discerned, limited. I knew I could take him. I waited for the best moment, and eventually it presented itself. I appeared to leave myself open and he went for the opportunity. I blocked the thrust and my blade slid up the length of his sword, off, and then my blade whipped around and I struck him in the helmet with such force that I actually shattered the head covering. Understand, my sword was not some delicate, polite saber. This was a large blade, four feet long, heavy as hell. In later years, I'd be capable of knocking an opponent's head from his shoulders with one sweep. But I was still a young man, and hadn't quite "grown in" to my weapon yet. Nonetheless, the impact caved in the side of his skull.
Just that quickly, his body was transformed from something of use into a sack of bones with meat surrounding it. He went down with as sickening a thud as I'd ever heard. The abruptness, the violence of the moment, brought me up short. It just...caught me off-guard. I wasn't prepared somehow for the finality of it.
I heard the pounding of the Pok's feet as it put greater distance between us. I should have been concerned. I should have been immediately in pursuit. Poks are not renowned for their speed; even on foot, I could have overtaken it. But Stener was already forgotten. Instead my attention was focused on the guard. The other two were lying unconscious nearby, but they could well have been on one of Xenex's moons for all that it mattered at that moment.
I crept toward him. In retrospect, it's amazing how tentative I was. It wasn't as if he could be any threat to me. I had, effectively, killed him. But on some level that hadn't really registered on me. So I approached him as if he still might somehow strike at me. I drew closer, closer, until I was standing right over him. He was staring straight up, and he looked...confused. He didn't appear aware of where he was or how he had gotten there, and certainly he was unclear as to what had happened.
It was the first time that I actually had a chance to study him close-up. The pieces of his broken helmet had fallen away from his face, and I was able to see him clearly. I was stunned by his youth. He only looked several years older than I was. There was no belligerence in his face. He did not look...
...evil. That was it. I was expecting him to look evil. He was, after all, an agent of the enemy, a supporter of the evil oppressors. So his demeanor should have reflected that.
Except that I didn't know what evil was "supposed" to look like. The face of the enemy was not a great, monolithic thing, but rather millions upon millions of individuals, each with his own hopes and dreams and aspirations. And this face, this nameless face that was staring at the sky with a profoundly confused expression, had just had all his dreams shattered along with his helmet and his head.
I didn't know what to do. The Pok was long forgotten, Stener's getaway assured, and yet I didn't care. There were emotions tumbling through me, emotions that I had no clue how to deal with. Odd, isn't it. With all those emotions present, you would think that "triumph" would have been one of them. But I didn't feel that at all. In fact, it might well have been that I felt everything but that.
And then he said something that utterly confused me. He said..."Hand."
I was clueless as to what he was talking about. The word, bereft of context, meant nothing.
Then I saw that his fingers were spasming slightly. It took me a moment more to grasp fully what he wanted.
Slowly -- even, I hate to admit, a bit fearfully -- I reached out. Understand this: In the heat of battle, I was capable of slicing a man open, ripping his still-beating heart from his chest and holding it up into his face, and I say that with no sense of hyperbole. I actually did that, on several occasions throughout the years. I was not what anyone would call squeamish, and certainly had no trepidation over touching a dead or dying man.
But in this instance I did. My hand was actually trembling. I realized it and became angry with what I saw as my weakness. Taking a deep breath, I seized his hand firmly, still in a quandary as to why he appeared to want the gesture.
His fingers wrapped around mine and he looked into my eyes with infinite gratitude. I don't think he knew who I was. He didn't realize that I was the one who had struck the fatal blow. His mind was a million miles away. All he knew was that I was another being, another living, breathing soul. He knew that...and he knew, I have to believe, that he was dying.
In a voice that was barely above a hoarse whisper, he said, "Thank...you...."
I knew that he was beyond help, and furthermore, that more of the Danteri would be back before too long. Not only that, but the unconscious soldiers would come around sooner or later. I tried to get up, to get away, to extricate my hand from his, but he gasped out, "No." He didn't seem afraid of dying. He simply didn't want to be alone.
I lifted him, then. I was surprised by how light he was. The entire business had taken a most bizarre turn, but I didn't dwell on any of that. I was operating purely on instinct, answering some moral code that I couldn't truly articulate quite yet. I ran with him, ran to an area of caves and crevices that I knew about not too far away. It was a labyrinthine area which I had known about for quite some time, and explored extensively in my youth. I knew I could hide there indefinitely, and there were underground passages as well so it wasn't as if anyone could reasonably lay siege to it.
I brought the young guard there, my mind racing with confusion. I was unable to determine any reasonable answers as to why I was doing what I was doing. I brought him to a secluded place within the caverns, and there I sat with him.
This was the enemy. I kept reminding myself of that, over and over again. He was the enemy, his people had enslaved my people. I had no reason whatsoever to feel the slightest bit of empathy for this individual. But I did. Here I had had my first taste of destruction, had taken down my first opponent...and I have never felt weaker. I wanted to get up, to flee the caves, to leave his rotting corpse for whatever scavenger creatures might take a fancy to it.
Instead I stayed. Perhaps I felt that leaving him behind would have been cowardice. Perhaps I needed to prove to myself that I was capable of taking it. Perhaps I was simply morbidly curious. It may have been all of those or none of those. In the final analysis...I just couldn't. I sat there with him, and his grip did not lessen on my hand. Every so often he would tremble, shuddering, his body convulsing slightly. He faded in and out, and never once that entire time did he comprehend that the man who had killed him was next to him.
I was looking into his eyes when he died. He had lain there, in the cool of the cavern, staring into space as if searching for some sort of answer. He said nothing. And then his head rolled slowly in my direction, his gaze fixing on me -- truly fixing on me -- for the first time. "You..." he managed to say.
I waited for the rest, or at least whatever it was he was able to manage. You destroyed me. You bastard, you took my life. You are the one who is responsible. You did this to me. Anything, everything, I was ready for it.
"Thank...you..." he told me. Then his head lolled to one side and I heard a sound that I would come to know all too well: a death rattle, his spirit leaving the meaty shell in which it had spent its mortal existence.
I stared at him for a very long time, and then I saw a large spot of wetness appear on his face. It took me a moment to fully comprehend what it was. It was a tear. It was not, however, from him. It was from me. Large, fat tears were rolling down my face, and I was so numb that I was unaware of it at first. Then they came faster and harder. My body started to tremble, great racking sobs seizing me. I couldn't believe it. I fancied myself already as a hardened warrior, determined and ready to lead his people to freedom. What sort of warrior and leader allows himself to fall apart in the face of killing an enemy? But the more I tried to pull myself together, the more the tears flowed.
I tried to stand up, tried to run, but there was no strength in my limbs. I collapsed and continued to cry, and I have no idea for how long it continued. It was probably minutes, but it felt like days.
Eventually it subsided, the sobbing tapering off. Still I lay there for some time, feeling the coolness of the stone against my face. Then I pulled myself together and dusted myself off. I picked up the body of the first man I had ever killed. He was significantly larger than I, and his body was even heavier dead than it had been alive. But my strength was rather formidable and I had no trouble hauling him out to the mouth of the cave. Prudence would have dictated that I simply leave him...it...there. After all, I was putting myself at risk weighing myself down, and if there had been any Danteri hunting parties passing by at that particular moment, I would have been at a disadvantage. The sun was already quite low in the sky, the shadows stretching like darkling fingers across the plains, as I left the corpse behind me and set off into the darkness.
I've often looked back on that day and wondered what possessed me. After all, I had known that slaying others would be necessary if I were to accomplish my goal and lead an insurrection that would result in Xenex's freedom. Why, then, did it affect me in such a way?
Perhaps I was mourning my lost innocence, or at least what passed for innocence. Never again would I be anything other than a slayer.
Perhaps the tears, in some way, were an expression of fear. In having irretrievably made that first strike, I had determined a course not only for myself, but for my planet. The Danteri would demand Xenexian blood by the ton in exchange for the assault upon their collector and the death of one of the guards. My people would not stand for it -- that I would see to personally. Perhaps I was shedding tears in advance for those of my people who were destined to die in the insurrection. With a stroke of my sword, I had doomed them. They would die fighting for a greater cause, but they would die just the same, and so those deaths would be on my head.
Or perhaps it was simply because I never knew my victim's name, or anything about him. Did he have a wife back on Danter whom I had just transformed into a widow? A son who would never see his father again? He himself had parents, that was likely. How would they react upon learning that their son was dead? Would his mother still hear the cries he uttered as an infant, like a haunting, mournful song in her head, and cry until her heart broke over the loss of that child? Or perhaps he was an orphan, with no parents, and had not yet had time to marry or sire children. In that case, he would leave no one behind to mourn him or those accomplishments that he might have achieved had his life not been cut short. Here I was, planning to lead a rebellion that -- if it succeeded -- would definitely give me a permanent place in the annals of Xenex, and the first casualty in that course might be a young man who was so without attachment to the world that he might as well not even have lived in it.
There was no way for me to know, no way for me to ever know, and perhaps that was what caused me to cry my heart out. But once it had been cried out, I then carefully and meticulously began to build a great wall of brick around it. The slaying of the young man was the first brick, and more bricks would follow while their thickening blood provided the cement between them.
In the final analysis, it might have been all of those plus one more: the evil irony of a young man dying while thanking the one who had killed him since his delirium had prevented him from understanding who I was.
I returned home, told my older brother, D'ndai, what I had done. He blanched considerably, and then his jaw set in grim determination. At the time he had no great love for the Danteri, and was as susceptible to my exhortations as was any other man. Although I would be designated warlord within a very short time, at that time I was given the appointment of a rank we called "r'ksha"... or what you would term "captain." D'ndai had several private fliers, all of which were pressed into work as our preparation for battle against the Danteri loomed. The largest one was given to me, out of deference to the fact that my determination was setting the entire situation into motion. I also had my first crew, and ten truer and braver men never walked the surface of Xenex. "Men." What a word. More like young boys, they were. We all were, although we felt much older, of course.
Sadly...I was the only one who grew to become older. The rest of them died within the first year of combat.
The last of my crew was wiped out in a devastating raid on a Danteri outpost which went horribly wrong. I had had several early successes, you see, and became emboldened as a result. Consequently, I became sloppy. I trusted a tip from a source who proved to be not as reliable as I had previously thought. What I had intended as a surprise attack on a strategic outpost turned out to be a crafty trap by the Danteri. I have a "sixth sense" for danger, I always have. Just before their trap sprang shut, I sensed that we were heading into an ambush and tried to get us out of there before it was too late. In one respect, I accomplished that goal. Had I not realized when I did, we would have been slaughtered within seconds. As it was, we narrowly avoided capture, but the firefight that resulted from the nearly perfect ambush was catastrophic. My vessel limped back to the city, with my urging every last bit of speed out of its failing engines. I was hoping, praying that I would be able to save at least a few lives of the handful of men -- boys -- who were left to me. But by the time I made it back to the city, it was too late. The last of my crew died in my arms. Unlike the time with the first man I killed, though, this time I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. The wall that I had built around my heart was a strong one by that point, and not easily pierced. No more tears would I, could I, shed over the deaths of others, be it at my hand or not.
That was the theory, at least. Nonetheless, the guilt weighed heavily upon me, despite D'ndai's assurances that it was not my fault, that I had no way of knowing. That was no excuse. I should have known. It was my first major setback, my first major loss to the Danteri, and part of me was angry that I had survived while the men who had been counting on me had lost their lives. My resolve was not shattered...but for the first time, I began to doubt myself. I had never wavered in my belief that I would triumph over the Danteri...until that moment.
I wandered the streets of Calhoun aimlessly that night. I had a slight limp from an injured leg, and I had not washed off the smoke and soot from battle or the crash of my vessel. My hair was wildly askew. In short, I wasn't especially pretty to look at, I can tell you. I passed the fortifications that had been erected around the city of Calhoun. The perimeter guards saluted me, nodding in approval as I passed, gave me gestures of assurance. All of it felt hollow, empty. They still had confidence in me, but I did not have it in myself.
Understand, I knew every foot, every square inch of the city. Nonetheless, after walking aimlessly for a time, I found myself in an area of town that was oddly unfamiliar to me. Furthermore, I was drawn to one particular door that had an odd sign hanging on it. In Xenexian, it read, "R'Ksha Foldes." Or, to translate into English: "the Captain's Table." I had no idea what it was referring to. I had never heard of the establishment, if such it was, and that alone was very odd since I had thought I knew every place of business in all of Calhoun.
I placed an ear against the door and heard what amounted to a faint murmur from within, but nothing I could distinguish. It sounded like voices, but I couldn't make out anything that anyone was saying. For a moment I thought of turning away, but something within me rebelled at the notion. It smacked too much of cowardice, and therefore was an intolerable option.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed open the door.
It was a very odd sight.
In many ways, it seemed no different than a standard Xenexian tavern. Weapons hung upon the wall as a convenience for drunken customers, as was always the case in Xenexian taverns. The reason, you see, is that customers who allow themselves to get too drunk to fight, but try and do so anyway, are too stupid to live and therefore duels with such individuals should be facilitated. That way they won't continue to cause mischief.
But there was something about the place that I couldn't immediately identify. A scent, perhaps, like sea air, and a breeze wafting through which was of mysterious origin considering that outside on that night there had been no breeze at all. Furthermore -- and this, I assure you, was the oddest part -- I couldn't help but feel that the floor was rocking ever so gently. Not a quake, most definitely, but just a very delicate swaying motion, as if I were standing on the deck of a ship of some sort.
What was most peculiar of all, however, was the astounding mixture of alien races who populated the place. At sturdy wooden tables were representatives of all manner of species, including any number that I could not identify. It's not as if Xenex has a large number of visitors. Despite the fact that Calhoun was one of the larger cities, Xenex was -- and is -- largely the province of Xenexians. Nevertheless, there were individuals with blue skin, green skin, red skin...every permutation of the spectrum, it seemed. Some with antennae, others with multiple eyes or no eyes, one with tentacles, another with a spotted shell and a perpetual scowl.
There was one man off to the side at a table by himself. Of the species I now know as "humans," he was dressed in blue, with a trim white beard. He was simply shaking his head as if in perpetual annoyance and confusion, and there was the sadness of the grave in his eyes. He kept muttering the same words over and over again: "Damned iceberg. Goddamned iceberg." I had no idea what he was talking about. I started to approach him, and then felt a hand on my shoulder.
I whirled because, of course, I had no idea who was behind me. I was conditioned to anticipate attacks at all times.
"Just leave him be, son. You'd be wasting your time anyway. Poor devil's off in his own world."
The man who had spoken, who had stopped me from going near the bearded man in blue, had somewhat unkempt white hair himself. He wore an apron, and had a ready smile that I found comforting somehow. He was not Xenexian, but in an odd and fleeting way, he reminded me of my father. "They call me Cap," he said.
"Are you the owner of this place?" I asked.
"Yes and no. In a way, we're all owners of this place. You, me," and he gestured to encompass the rest of the bar, "them. This is your first time here, but eventually you'll understand." He smiled. "Congratulations, by the way."
"For what?" For a moment I bristled. I was still angry, bitter over what happened to my men, and some part of me thought he was sarcastically alluding to that tragedy.
"For being the youngest captain ever to visit the Captain's Table. Previously the youngest we had was Alexander. He was only here once, and then on a technicality, since in truth he was a king. But he fancied himself a captain of great armies, and that was sufficient to gain him entrance in a sort of probationary status. It was just the one time, though. He tried to take over the bar." He shook his head resignedly. "Should have expected that."
"Should I...know this person you're speaking of?"
Cap tilted his head back and declaimed as if in the theater, "'And Alexander wept, for he had no new worlds to conquer.'" The mention of the name drew glances from several of the other patrons, and there were what appeared to be grim smiles of acknowledgment and recollection.
I decided not to pursue it. As if sensing my thoughts, he guided me to a small table to one side. "I think it best, what with this being your first time and considering your age, that you simply observe rather than try to interact extensively. We do not, after all, want to have any problems."
"I...suppose not," I said. I was having difficulty understanding where I was or what was happening. Without really paying attention, I sat down at a table.
"No, not that one," Cap said quickly, and he pointed off to my left. "The one over here."
I was beginning to become annoyed. The eccentricity of the place, the odd atmosphere that was a bizarre blend of strange-yet-familiar, and my own state of mind thanks to my recent setbacks, were serving to put me on edge a bit. "This one seems fine," I told him. "I think I will stay right --"
A huge dagger slammed down into the tabletop with such force that it threatened to split the wood in half. The hilt quivered slightly.
"Captain Gloriosus," Cap said with clear warning in his voice. "You know the rules."
Slowly I glanced up, and up, at the man whose powerful hand had wielded the dagger. He was dressed in glittering chestplate armor and a metal skirt that ended at about midthigh. His legs were powerful, his arms no less so. He had a long, bristling beard so thick that it looked like wire, and a fierce scowl that showed from beneath a plumed helmet. The scabbard for his dagger was on the inside of his right calf, and from his left hip hung a massive sword.
"This pup is at my table," the one called Gloriosus said.
I did not appreciate the tone of his voice, and told him so. This seemed to amuse the one called Gloriosus, and he laughed in a booming tone that was unbearably condescending. "Cap," he bellowed, "are we letting any upstart who wishes it to sit at the Captain's Table? Have we no standards anymore?"
"The standard is that patrons have to be captains of one sort or another," Cap told him as if addressing a small child. "He fits the criteria, Miles, as do you. As does everyone here."
The others were making no pretense of looking away anymore. About forty or so pairs of eyes took in the entire confrontation. They sat back and observed as if watching a vid or an adventure in a holosuite.
"That means," continued Cap as if unaware that this situation were anything other than the most intimate of disagreements, "that he is under the protection of the bar...as are you, Miles."
"A captain of the Roman legions needs no protection from a whelp," the one called Miles Gloriosus said.
I didn't like this tone, or his arrogance. More, I felt as if he had made it a point to try and shame me in front of the others who were scattered around the bar. I had no idea why the opinions of these strangers mattered, but something within me simply refused to allow myself to be treated as a laughingstock.
Captain Miles Gloriosus was continuing to boast about his own general fabulousness. I didn't bother to listen. Instead with my right hand I yanked the dagger from the table, and with the left I reached up and grabbed a fistful of his copious beard. Before he was aware of what I was doing, I yanked down as hard as I could. His head hit the table and I brought the dagger around and down, driving it squarely through the beard and into the tabletop with a resounding thud. Gloriosus was pinned, momentarily immobilized as his beard was entangled with the blade. Given time, of course, he would have managed to pull it loose, but time was not something I was inclined to afford him.
I was on my feet then. I could have used my sword, which was strapped onto my back, but instead I yanked out the Roman captain's own sword from his scabbard. He yelped in frustration and grabbed at the knife to extricate it from his beard...and suddenly he became very quiet, probably because he felt the edge of his own blade against the back of his neck. One movement downward and I could have severed his head.
The tavern, which had been bustling with energy only moments before, suddenly became very quiet. Every single individual was watching with stony, impassive silence. It was impossible to tell whether they approved or disapproved of my actions. Cap said nothing, but merely stood there with his arms folded, inscrutable.
I had his sword in a firm double-handed grip, and the blade did not waver so much as a centimeter. I had one of the cutting edges of the blade tucked just under the bottom of his helmet. Very quietly, very deliberately, I said, "It would appear you need some protection from the whelp after all. Wouldn't you say that's true?"
He muttered something that sounded like a curse, and I repeated, "Wouldn't you say that's true?" To underscore my point, and the delicacy of his situation, I pressed the blade down ever so slightly. A thin line of blood welled up. I couldn't see his eyes from the angle I was standing, but from the sudden tensing of his body I was quite sure he felt it.
"M'k'n'zy," Cap said warningly.
And then Miles Gloriosus growled, "Yes."
"Yes what?" I wasn't going to let him get off quite that easily.
"Yes...on reflection, I would say it's true...that I could have used..." He hesitated, and I applied just a hair more pressure. "Protection against the whelp!" he practically spat out as quickly as he could.
I stepped back then and he spun with a good deal of speed, forcibly tearing himself away from the table with such violence that a generous chunk of his beard was torn right from his chin. He didn't seem to notice. He was too busy focusing the fullness of his ire upon me. For a moment, just for a moment, I envisioned what it would be like to face him on a true battlefield. I had a sense of him, a feeling of the environment from which he came. I realized that the truth was that I had been rather fortunate. Had he not been so swaggeringly confident, I never would have been able to manhandle him so easily.
He extended a hand and I thought he wanted to shake mine. Then I realized that he wanted his sword back. I handed it over to him hilt first. This was a tactical gamble -- some would say error -- on my part. I was holding the blade as I offered the sword to him. Had he wished to do so, he could have grabbed the hilt, swung the sword around and tried to gut me like a freshly caught fish. Whether he would have succeeded or not is debatable, but he certainly could have had a good shot at killing me. Instead, however, he took his sword from me without comment and slid it into his scabbard. I was impressed by the soundlessness of it, since both the steel and scabbard were so well oiled. There was no hiss of the metal against the leather; instead it went in noiselessly, and presumably was pulled in much the same manner.
"You," he growled, "were lucky."
I couldn't disagree. I felt the same way.
"You would be well advised to stay out of my way," continued Gloriosus, "lest things not turn out quite so well for you the next time." Pulling together what was left of his pride, Gloriosus swaggered away.
My gaze swept the other captains who were in the bar. Many of them didn't seem interested in meeting my glance, but were instead suddenly very preoccupied with looking in other directions entirely. I felt very unwelcome and unwanted, and had no idea what the hell I was doing there. I started to rise from my seat, intending to head for the door, but Cap put a hand on my forearm and quietly said, "Stay. You have as much right to be here as anyone else."
"I doubt that," I said, but I sat anyway.
Cap placed a mug in front of me. I have no idea from where he pulled it, but there it was. "First drink for a firsttime customer is always on the house," he said, gesturing to it. I reached for it tentatively
My general paranoia and uncertainty made me hesitate, but then I sniffed at it and looked up curiously. "What is this called?" I asked.
"Bihr." I rolled the unfamiliar word around in my mouth, then took a sip of it. It was more pungent than I'd expected, but had a certain degree of kick to it. I must have been quite a sight: the scruffy barbarian, surrounded by men and women who were, for the most part, far more cultured and civilized than I could ever hope to be. Everyone was watching me, even those who were pretending to look in another direction. They probably wondered what I was doing there. So did I.
I swallowed half the beer and found the sensation somewhat relaxing. I looked at Cap, a gentle warmth beginning to develop in my gut, and I realized, "You called me by name before. How did you know my name?"
"How did I know you?" He feigned surprise that such a question could even be posed. "Why, everyone knows the name of the great M'k'n'zy. Weren't you aware of that?"
"I was not aware of any greatness," I said bitterly. "My men were depending on me, and I let them down. It was my fault."
"Yes. It was," Cap said, matter-of-factly.
I looked up at him. His comment was a stark contrast to D'ndai's words of consolation. "What should I have done, then? How could I have avoided it?"
"Oh, you couldn't have," said Cap. He had seated himself opposite me, and was holding an empty glass, which he was wiping clean with a white cloth. "There was nothing you could have done differently. You made all the correct decisions based upon the information you had available to you. Any other person here, in your position, would have done the same thing."
"But...you're still saying it's my fault...."
"Of course it is. You're the captain. You're the leader. That makes it your responsibility. All these people," and he nodded his head in their direction, "oversee vessels or armies or crews, some of them numbering in the thousands. And whatever happens, these people here are the final authorities. Theirs is the final responsibility. Even when it's not their fault...it's their fault. Tell me, M'k'n'zy..." He leaned forward in a conspiratorial fashion. "Do you feel something filtering through the air? A sort of sensation, a distant heaviness that seems to settle around your upper torso?"
"I...suppose. Yes...yes, I think I do at that." I flexed my shoulders. "What...is that?"
"It's the weight of the world," Cap said with a ragged smile. "Everyone here carries it on them, and it just kind of leaks around and filters through the atmosphere of the Captain's Table. The nice thing about this place is that we all share each other's weight, and that makes it all the more bearable."
I stared at him skeptically, unsure whether he literally meant it or not. I found my gaze resting on the man in blue once more, the one with the beard who was off by himself. "What's his problem?" I asked.
"He lost his vessel," Cap told me. "Over a thousand souls perished, claimed by icy waters. As his vessel was sinking, he discovered a door on his deck that he had never noticed before. He stepped through it...and found himself here. He's been here ever since. Nothing for him to go back to, really."
"How long has he been here?" I asked.
"A few minutes. A few centuries." Cap pulled thoughtfully at his chin. "It's all subjective, really. Never an easy answer to that one. Somewhat like being a commander, really. The easy answers don't always present themselves readily."
A slow, eerie feeling began to creep over me. "Cap..." I said slowly.
"Am I...are we...dead?"
He laughed loudly and boisterously at that. "No, young M'k'n'zy. We, and you, are not dead. Oh, in sense, we're dead to the world, I suppose, in a small way. It's really the only way this bar can function, because there is so much responsibility borne by its patrons that they'd be pulled out of here by those demands if those requests could reach them. But in the standard sense, we are very much alive. The land of the living awaits just beyond the exit."
I looked in the direction he was pointing, and then I asked suspiciously, "How do I know that, if I pass through that door, I won't wind up splashing about in the icy waters that took his vessel?" I indicated the white-bearded captain.
"So many things you desire to know, young M'k'n'zy," Cap said, and if a man less charming had said it, it might have sounded patronizing. "I'm afraid that there will be some matters which you will have to take on faith. Besides, you have a destiny to fulfill, and that destiny certainly doesn't include sinking beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean."
"Of the what?"
"Of an ocean," Cap amended.
"And what would this destiny be?" I asked.
"How would I know that? I'm simply a bartender, M'k'n'zy. I'm not God."
"Are you certain of that?"
He didn't seem to answer at first, but merely smiled, and then I realized that the smile itself was indeed the answer. "If you need a refill," he said, "just hold up a hand and someone will attend to you directly. And M'k'n'zy...be aware of something...."
"Every single person here has had failures, setbacks, and frustrations. Every one has blamed himself, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. The important thing is to keep to the hope of all the things you can do to benefit others. You can do great good, M'k'n'zy. Never forget that your men are depending upon you...but also never forget that you are not a god. You are not infallible. You are simply ... a captain. Just worry about being the best captain that you can be, and let the rest sort itself out as it will."
"That's too easy, too facile an answer," I told him, but he wasn't there anymore. He'd moved away from the table, and a quick glance around the room did not reveal him.
I sat there for a time longer. A waitress would bring over another beer whenever I wanted it, although interestingly I never actually had to ask her for it. It was simply there. And when I had enough, the table space in front of me remained vacant.
I realized that Cap was right. What made me realize it was that I kept going over and over it in my mind, and I wasn't feeling any better over what had happened, but on the other hand I wasn't coming up with anything I would have, or could have, done that would have made it any better.
Eventually, I knew it was time to leave. To this day, I don't know whether the impulse came from within or without. But I was already in motion before my mind had fully adjusted to my imminent departure. I had left a random amount of Xenexian currency behind as a tip, having no clue as to how much would be appropriate. But Cap, who was behind the bar, tossed off a salute. I had never seen one before, since Xenexians tend to bow in deference to commanding officers. But I returned the gesture and from his approving smile I surmised that I had done so correctly. "M'k'n'zy," he called to me I turned and waited expectantly. "Next time," he said, "a story."
I looked at him oddly. "A story? You'll tell a story?"
"No," he told me. "You will."
He shrugged. "Whatever." Then, effectively ending the conversation, he picked up another glass and whistled as he wiped it down. I was going to continue to ask him what he was talking about, but decided that it would be best simply to be on my way.
I walked out of the tavern back onto the Xenexian street. The evening had grown colder. I had no idea how much time had passed while I was in there. Drawing my cloak more tightly around myself, I started down the street...and then hesitated. His words about a story were still with me, and I felt myself overwhelmed with curiosity. I turned and retraced my steps so that I could ask Cap for clarification.
I couldn't find the place.
I was certain that I passed the tavern's location several times. It wasn't as if there was now a vacant area where once the tavern had been. The shops and eateries had simply closed ranks, as if they were hiding one of their own from prying eyes. On the off chance that I had headed down the wrong street, I went to the nearest intersection and circumnavigated the block. Nothing. Gone. Completely gone. It wasn't at all possible...but it had happened. The Captain's Table had somehow managed to make itself scarce.
I thought of ghost stories that I had heard, strange tales of visions and such that I had always half-kiddingly traded with my friends. I was convinced, though, that this night I had had an experience very much along those lines. Perhaps I had been given a preview of an afterlife set aside for warriors ... such as your Earth's Norsemen, I would learn in later years, described their Valhalla. Or perhaps I had wandered into what could best be termed a haunted house. Perhaps some bizarre interdimensional anomaly had situated itself smack on a side street of the city of Calhoun and had allowed me into it.
Or perhaps I just wasn't getting enough sleep.
Resolving to do something about the last circumstance, at least, I went into the night without a backward glance. This was deliberate: Part of me was afraid to admit that I would not see the place again when it had so clearly been there, and the other part was concerned that the Captain's Table had somehow sprung into existence again. If the latter occurred, I would not be able to resist entering once more...and it might be that, given a second opportunity, I might never leave at all.
That was my first time at the Captain's Table.
This is the second....
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures