Three carriages sped towards the portcullis of the Tirthovaan. Manos peered out the window as the battlements came into view, and caught a flash of light from the mirror-tower. Uncle Tirthos’s keep, surrounded by its high walls, was like a miniature of Khatradesh, the seat of the Manu dynasty and capital of the realm.
Clattering into the courtyard, the newly-arrived convoy of carriages startled a few khatra who were drilling at swordplay. Tirthos’ two daughters, Tala and Arianna, stood at the foot of the stair that led up into the little temple.
Who is that old khatra beside them?
It took Manos a moment to recognize his Uncle Tirthos. He had grown his whiskers out, just like father, and wore a self-satisfied grin as the carriages shuddered to a halt. The driver of each hopped down from his seat to open the doors for King Manu and his family.
“Uncle!” Manos cried as he stepped down from the carriage. The old man came forward to embrace his nephew.
Tirthos broke his embrace with Manos and looked the King up and down, shaking his head.
“Good day, my King! What has happened to you? Have you hurt yourself?”
The King frowned. “Old age does not agree with me, brother. All those battles are coming back to revisit me. This is what a forty-year reign does to a man.”
Tirthos shot a concerned glance at the boys. “Fifty, you mean.”
Manu’s eyes widened a little. Then he smiled. He reached up to tug on Tirthos’ moustache. “What in Hutha’s name is this, brother? You’ve finally given in to old age too?”
Tirthos laughed. “I thought you might like it. I was ready for a change.”
Tala and Arianna rolled their eyes as one.
“You need to get off that throne of yours more often, brother. Look at you, hobbling about like an old woman.”
The King went to respond to the jibe but instead fell into a bout of coughing.
“Oh, you’re a lost cause,” Uncle Tirthos joked, then turned to look over his five nephews who had all dutifully presented themselves before him. “Welcome my boys! It has been too long since I saw you last! Aaah, it is good to have some male company for a change! Sorry my daughters, but sometimes a man likes to swear and drink and fart and not have to apologize for it!”
Tirthos’ two daughters, Tala and Arianna, gave their father yet another withering look, then turned to the business of welcoming their Aunt, Queen Vishalya. Ignoring the boys, they bustled her off towards their quarters, bombarding her with chatter. Life in the country was quiet, it seemed.
After getting settled, the brothers visited the temple to pay their obeisances to Hutha. En route to the dining hall, Manos slipped away from the group, turning left as they entered the main building.
They didn’t even notice.
Manos entered the silent foyer, taking the stairs that wound up to a mezzanine level.
A reverence came over him as he emerged on the Warrior’s Walk. Rows of glass cases, filled with artifacts, stretched along each side of the wide gallery that ended in a passageway running left to right. More artifacts were displayed there.
Manos soon found something that captured his attention: a book, displayed on a small wooden stand, on the history of the Angowathi people, the first tribes. He gently took it off its stand and began poring over the yellowed pages..
“Aah, the book by Jullika,” Tirthos puffed as he mounted the final steps. Manos turned, surprised. “Yes, very interesting. And very rare.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“Where else would you be?” Tirthos replied simply. “Which chapter do you read?”
Manos shrugged, turning his attention back to the book. “Its about the legends. The Angowathi myths.”
Tirthos nodded. “Yes… they are all that remains of the Angowathi. Apart from their language, of course.” He was at Manos’ side now, leaning in towards the tome. “Ah yes. I do love this. The legend of Lokos, as taken from enscriptures in a Mountain Temple near Ai.”
“Northern Angowathi?” Manos asked, a little surprised. He was not aware the northern prehistoric people had such similar beliefs to their southern counterparts.
“Exactly. Some of their customs were different to southerners, but the legends – exactly the same. Here,” he gestured for Manos to pass the book to him. Tirthos scanned the page with his finger, supporting the large book with his other arm. “Ah here we are. The wording is a little flowery at times. But it has detail you won’t find in the other histories.”
“Hutha, the Sun God, had two sons, Manu and Lokos… Both were great Khatra-Rishas, warrior-sages, and great sons to a proud father. However, when the time came to assign roles for the stewardship of mankind, it was decided by Hutha that Manu and all his descendants would rule, and that Lokos would be his general and master of his armies, guardian of the realm. And Hutha gifted Manu with the Hutha-shila, the Sunstone, a symbol of his divine appointment as ruler.
This angered Lokos, and he brought all of the potency of his dakas (penance), which was formidable, to bear on his own father. But to no avail… Hutha, the Sun God, was unassailable by his son who was somewhere between a god and a mortal. However, Lokos managed to take the Sunstone from Manu, which angered Hutha . The Sun God let loose his fury on Lokos, demanding he return the stone, but instead Lokos fled, retreating to a distant island. There Lokos used the Hutha-shila to tame the beast Ta’mak, a great monster of the sea capable of swallowing whole vessels.. Lokos rode Ta’mak to his brother Manu’s abode, (the site of modern-day Khatradesh), and unleashed all the potency of his dakas on the stronghold there, raining down fire and lightning using the power of the Sunstone. But Manu, who was undiminished in dakas and honour, repelled the attack and subdued Lokos, his brother, with a sword of pure nightstone the only weapon that could subdue such a demon… With the help of his risha Vinrika, the Hutha-shila was reclaimed and the traitor Lokos was imprisoned deep within the earth in an underground fortress made entirely of hyulweh, and the great immortal sage Vinrika used up all of his dakas to bring forth a mountain range to lock the labyrinth within the earth, further safeguarding mankind from Lokos… Ta’mak was set free, innocent beast as he was.”
Manos nodded. “That is exactly how it is told by Mandrika, the library risha.”
“Of course. No doubt he has a copy of this also.”
“It is hard to believe, Uncle, that bit about Vinrika.”
Tirthos smiled. “We should not doubt the redaks , nephew. They are the literal truth of our history.” Uncle Tirthos handed the book back to Manos and turned, walking off along the row of displays.
“Does the sword of nightstone still exist?” Manos asked, closing the book and replacing it on its lectern.
His Uncle turned, surprised by the question. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “That was many, many dynasties ago, nephew. Those things are lost in time.”
“So how do you know it is even real, this nightstone?”
Tirthos smiled. “You can see it in Rishapada, nephew. In the ceiling of the main temple.”
Manos nodded. Rishapada. That’s so far away.
His face must have shown how he was feeling; Uncle Tirthos put a hand on his shoulder. “You will go there one day,” he consoled. “Plenty of time for that.”
The Prince shook his head. “I’m barely allowed outside the Huthavaan gates without an escort. I wish I could just… escape. You don’t know what its like for me, Uncle. I’m a prisoner. My blood means I have dominion over everything… but I’m not allowed to enjoy anything. Even experience it!”
Tirthos nodded, smiling. “One day you will be thankful for who you are, my boy. You come from a great family. And one day, you will be King.”
Manos ignored this comment, and turned to walk over to a display of beautiful ancient swords and armour, glittering softly under torchlight, blades dancing with a hundred golden stars. He stopped by a large, ornate helm. The style was unfamiliar, as were the characters that adorned the eye slits.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Tirthos remarked. “And in perfect condition. Go ahead, pick it up.”
“You don’t mind?”
Manos lifted the helmet from its stand. It was uncommonly heavy, and large. Whoever wore this must have been a giant, maybe even bigger than Bhumos. Manos turned it this way and that, inspecting the detail. It was one piece of metal, bronze probably, with slits for the eyes and a row of small circles at the mouth to allow for breathing.
“Where is it from?”
“Far Shore,” Tirthos answered quickly. “An ancient Kingdom that invaded us around the time of the Matsos Dynasty.” He paused. “Put it on.”
“Pardon?” Manos thought he had misheard.
“I said, put it on.”
The Prince obeyed. It felt even heavier on his head.
“Yes, it belonged to a large man, no doubt. Perhaps everyone was a bit larger back then. Take these longswords, for example. They bear the same characters as that helmet.” Tirthos took two longswords from the wall, handing one to his nephew. “Feel the weight of that!”
Manos gauged the weight of the old blade, discerning that it was heavy, but perfectly balanced. Suddenly his uncle had the other in his right hand and was standing opposite, in battle stance. “Square up, my Prince.”
Manos tutted. “Uncle. Come now.”
“Nephew, please. Humour an old man. I may be old, but I still know how to use a sword. The one you kill with, and the one between my legs.”
Manos failed to stifle the laugh. “I’m surprised that still works.“
The sword came swiftly arcing down.
Manos watched his own sword rise to block the stroke, as if someone else were controlling it, but the force still made him step back. Quickly he moved to face his Uncle’s left hand side.
“Aaaahh, yess, there’s my boy,” Tirthos said as he adjusted his stance accordingly. He gave the aged old weapon a couple of twirls to warm his arm up. “You see, nephew, you have many generations of Khatra behind you. So, whether you like it or not…”
Without warning, Tirthos advanced quickly on him, and began raining solid blows down on Manos’ upheld sword. The Prince quickly shifted out of the path, pushed his uncle in the back with a foot and levelled his sword at the back of his head. When Tirthos turned, Manos’ blade was just under his chin. His Uncle grinned, breathing heavily.
“You are khatra,” he puffed. “It is in your blood, in your soul. Inescapable, my son.”
Manos lowered his blade, and held out his hand. “I wasn’t saying that, Uncle. I know I am khatra. I’m proud to be khatra.”
“Come on. I see it. I’ve known you your whole life. Your father, the King, is old. As am I. You know that your rule may come soon, and you feel it. It is clear as day, written on your face.”
Manos shrugged. “All I was saying was that I feel trapped. I want to get out of Khatradesh, see more of the realm, before ministers and generals are dogging my every step.” Placing the longswords back in the stand, Manos sighed. “Come, Uncle. Let’s rejoin the others.”
Uncle Tirthos shook his head at his nephew as Manos walked past and took the stair.
The stair wound down past a large window that looked out on Tirthos’ front courtyard. Night had descended. The lights of Tirtharya were visible to the south-east, and a range of low hills were visible against a blue sky to the south. As they descended the long, curving stair, they saw flashes coming from those hills.
“A beacon,” Tirthos remarked. He quickened his pace and Manos did the same. Walking out onto the front landing, he hailed the mirror-tower. “Reghos! Are you manning the beacon?”
“Yes my lord,” came the reply from across the courtyard.
“Bring the message to us, when you have it all.”
“Of course, my lord.”
In the dining room, the topic of conversation was as predictable as it was heated. Manos and Uncle Tirthos took their seats.
Not more politics.
“These mines you speak of are owned by merchants from Vishadesh, father,” Bhumos said. “They bought these mines from Manu the Eigth of the Matsos Dynasty, centuries ago. This is heirloom property, passed down for generations.”
“Certainly,” the King replied. “And if I want them, I can easily buy them back.”
Javos paused, weighing his words. “Not without angering our northern friends… I think we should tread lightly here, father. The situation in Muuthavarsha is complex. Our governance there hangs by a thread.”
“I think that is enough talk of politics,” Queen Vishalya said firmly, leaning forward. “This can wait. Manos and Tirthos are back, we should eat now. Then it will be bed, I think. We want to be back in time for Huthadin. Tara and Arianna will be inconsolable if we miss that!” The girls nodded vigorously at this, smiling gratefully at the Queen.
“And you, mother,” Drunos remarked quietly. Manos smiled, glad to hear him speak.
“Your mother loves a good festival,” King Manu enthused. He looked at Manos again, and they exchanged an awkward smile.
On cue, the dinner courses started arriving: three types of sharji and shaan, various filled and plain chupas spiced with seeds, rubbed with butter, whole legs of bullock and goat, aromatic fish stew, and an endless parade of pastries, soups, and breads. Manos was not hungry at first, but found his appetite when he tried a particularly fine nimba sharji, his absolute favourite. The others had soon all eaten their fill and barely a dent was made in the banquet. Bhumos was still eating heartily, of course, but everyone else had finished. Even Uncle Tirthos was loosening his belt as Manos’ huge older brother ripped the flesh from a spiced leg of goat, sauce dripping down his beard.
“This is excellent, Uncle,” Bhumos said through the mouthful of meat. “We may have to kidnap your cooks and take them back to the Huthavaan.”
“Ugh!” Arianna grimaced. “You eat like a pig, cousin!” Bhumos returned a sauce-stained smile.
“You’ll have to excuse my son, Arianna,” Vishalya said, smiling. “He does not know how to act around young ladies. Too many years spent in the company of khatras, I fear.”
Tirthos laughed. “I am looking forward to our stay in the Huthavaan, brother. The country is nice, but I miss Khatradesh. I’m looking forward to seeing what has changed.”
“A lot of building,” Javos said, leaning back in his chair. “Much expansion. A bit like your waistline, Uncle.”
Uncle Tirthos chuckled. “Yes, I think we have all eaten our fill.” He summoned a servant with a wave. “Take it all away. Leave the goat, though.”
Soon a contented calm descended on the table; the evening was winding to a close. The Princes leant back in their chairs, exchanging a quiet joke or story as the fire dwindled in the hearth. King Manu sipped his wine and the girls chattered to the Queen on the far side of the table. All had eaten and talked their fill.
The peace was broken by Reghos, Tirthos’ sentry on the mirror tower, who entered the room in a clatter of armour.
“You asked to be notified of the beacon,” Reghos said. The brothers, the King and Uncle Tirthos all turned their attention toward him.
“It comes all the way from the village of Rukos. The people there complain of a disturbance in the mountains.”
“Brigands?” the King asked.
“No, your Highness. Loud noises at night. They fear a demon of some sort.” Reghos exchanged looks with Bhumos, a quick smile; there was some secret joke going on there, Manos thought.
King Manu shrugged. “Well, I suppose we ought to send someone. I will send one of my own guard at first light, brother. You are light enough on men here. Thank you, Reghos.”
“Nonsense!” Tirthos said. “One of my men can leave immediately. He’ll be there by daybreak.”
“Very well, Tirthos,” King Manu said. “Send one of yours.”
“I will send Ghujos, my lord,” Reghos said, bowing his head.
Tirthos gave him a nod and a smile. “Yes,” he said, and stood. Reghos disappeared out the door, and a command was called.
“And now, to bed.” The old man turned and ambled off, followed soon after by the King, the Queen and her nieces.
The brothers sat at table until late, drinking and joking. As Manos felt his lids grow heavy, he thought, If I have them around me, perhaps I can be King. We can all be King.