by Alfred D. Byrd

Copyright © 2006 Alfred D. Byrd

Stumbling over an unseen stone in his path, the Hero again cursed the obstinacy of the people of the City on a Hill. He had come far that day, and farther on the days and nights before it, to reach the Baobab Tree at dawn. There he would slay the Monster that had been menacing the people's kingdom and, not incidentally, win the Prize promised to the slayer. Instead, though, of letting him sleep, the people had sent him to spend the night in vigil with a Prophet.

Surely they must see that he would stand a better chance against the Monster if he were well rested! He had had to walk the better part of the night. When he had set out, the Pleiades had just risen, and his shadow, cast by a full moon high in the south, had been behind him and to his left. Now, Rigel had cleared the horizon ahead, and his shadow had swung in front of him. At the walk's end there awaited him just a Prophet's empty ramblings.

Still, he thought, if the other Heros had been well rested, one of them might've won the Prize. For it he would gladly have faced far worse than a night with a Prophet.

The path dipped through a dry creekbed and ran through a copse of balsam trees. On the copse's far side the Hero stopped and cried out in amazement. The path ended at a field of gravel raked so smooth that it resembled a lake of milk. What a useless extravagance! the Hero thought. The kingdom's customs were clearly as odd as tales had made them.

Peering across the field, the Hero saw that it ended at what at first seemed a jumble of stones, but at length resolved itself into a peaked marble canopy upheld by four slender columns: the Prophet's Shrine. The Hero, striding onto the gravel, was glad to hear it rasp under his sandaled feet. Glancing back, he saw that his footprints, twin rows of black pits, marred the field's silvery perfection. Good! he thought. The people of the City on a Hill had inconvenienced him. Let them be inconvenienced in turn!

Ahead, the Shrine grew larger. Every inch of its roof and columns had been carved into figures that the moonlight turned grotesque and demonic. The Hero chuckled. Doubtless the figures frightened superstitious louts and children.

Within the Shrine a huddled figure -- a man, either bald or shaven-pated, wearing a shapeless gray robe -- sat cross legged, his head bent as he swiftly spooned a wooden bowl's contents into his mouth. He acted unaware of the Hero's approach.

The Hero stopped at the gravel's edge, planted his feet far apart, and put his fists onto his hips. "Hail, Prophet! I've come to keep you company tonight."

The bald head raised, revealing an aged face. Its massive network of wrinkles converged onto a pair of eyes -- the Hero shivered, not altogether from the night air -- each seemingly as wide as a gold piece and gleaming like silver in the moonlight. The Prophet's voice was the sound of a well-played flute. "You must be a Hero, come to slay the Monster! He glanced at the moon. "You've come late."

The Hero shrugged. "I wouldn't have come at all if I'd had my choice. I expect no useful counsel from a Prophet. Certainly, I've heard none from my own country's Prophets."

"Which country is that?"

"The Black Land, the Land of the Sacred River. I'm a nobleman's son from the Northern Capital."

The Prophet nodded. "I know that city. I was there once as a young man. It's a far better place to spend the days of one's youth than those of one's maturity."

The Hero chuckled, recalling the thrill of fear that he had felt on first seeing the Prophet's eyes. Just like every other Prophet, he was a speaker of trite proverbs and portentous-sounding words the meaning of which vanished as soon as he said them. "Well, Old Man, since I've come far, I'd enjoy some hospitality. A tankard of ale would do nicely."

"Alas, I have none. Just broth."

The Hero chuckled again. "It seems that I must content myself with broth. Have you an extra bowl?"

"Just the one in my hands. You may use it if you wish."

The Hero laughed. Unbuckling his swordbelt, he flung it onto the Shrine's stone floor with a crash. Accepting the proffered bowl and spoon, he made his way to a covered kettle resting on three stone brackets projecting over a firepit in which red coals glowed dimly. The Hero dipped the bowl into the kettle and sipped some of the broth. It was thin, boiled from vegetables, but to his astonishment the Hero learned that he was ravenous. He emptied the bowl in short order. Dipping a second bowl, he rejoined his host.

The Prophet was gazing across the field of gravel. The Hero felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe the field had been designed as an aid to contemplation. By walking across the field he had destroyed its effect. "I hope that my footprints haven't spoiled your view."

The Prophet kept gazing across the field. "Not at all, Hero. They teach me that nothing in this world is permanent. This world and everything in it is but shadows, and where we see shadows there is substance that we can't perceive, but only the One truly can."

The Hero swallowed a mouthful of broth. "I hope that you haven't brought me here just to hear empty mysticism."

The Prophet turned to observe him. Again the Hero chilled, seeing the silvery eyes search his own.

"Do you truly think my words mystical? Clearly you're unfamiliar with the ideas of the Sages of the Isles. They teach that this world is just one of many coexisting in the same space. Each world is imperceptible to all of the others, but is linked to them by a property called baros, which men perceive as weight. The more massive an object is, the more baros it has, and the more likeky it is to be duplicated in each kosmos, each set of worlds. Thus, large objects -- the stars, the moon, this world -- are the same in each kosmos, whereas small objects -- especially man and his works -- are different in each kosmos and play out the drama of existence in different ways.

"Think of it, Hero! This field before us may at the same time be a busy market place, closed for the night, or the site of a recent battle where men lie moaning, awaiting carts to carry them either to healing or to death. Yet the same full moon in the Water Carrier shines on each of these scenes. Doesn't it humble you to think so?"

"Not really. I see just an empty field. These men that you mention, if they exist, will do nothing to help me slay the Monster. On that, by the way, I hear you're something of an expert."

The Prophet sighed. The Hero, recognizing that the broth was growing cold, set the bowl down with a faint click. "Still, let's suppose that this baros exists, and these invisible worlds are out there. How can you prove it? How can you experience something that you can't see, hear, or touch in any way?"

"By the Inner Vison. Even as one can know of your existence by the footsteps that you left in the field, one can know of the existence of other worlds' peoples by the footprints that they leave in the soul. Ever since I heard of the Sages' concept, I've trained my mind to perceive these other worlds, and the One has let me see them in visions.

"In one world, closely linked to ours, the City on a Hill is a holy city to men of three faiths and is the object of contention between the descendants of two half-brothers. Each side has a powerful ally, one to the north and the other on the far side of the Ocean, beyond the Gates of Sunset. Each of these nations controls weapons that rise on tails of fire, fly thousands of furlongs through the air, and destroy an enemy's city with the sun's power brought to the earth."

"We could've used one of those weapons in the war against the Isles. We'd all have got home sooner. Quite a story, old man. You still haven't convinced me. How do you know that your visions of other worlds aren't just dreams, or hallucinations brought on by hunger?" The Hero held up the bowl as testimony to the Prophet's poor diet.

The Prophet fixed him again with the silvery gaze. "I've been permitted, if only briefly and fitfully, to see Eternity. This transcends time that passes. In Eternity all time that passes exists at once. Thus, in the mind of the One, Who exists in Eternity, all that will happen has already happened and had already happened, in fact, before time that passes was created, whereas all that has already happened is still happening and will always happen. Thus, the outcome of your encounter with the Monster, about which you and I can but speculate, is already known to the One--"

"Who, of course, won't let you in on the secret--"

"--and even as the One transcends time, the One transcends space, so that the events of all of the worlds, which exist only because the One made them, are known to the One simultaneously. If the One wills, the One reveals these events to those who approach the One in submission, even as the One has revealed them to me."

The Hero raised a brow. "Impressive words. Are they your own?"

The Prophet shook his head. "They're what I recall from a book that I once read in a vision -- a book written by a Sage who lived more than a thousand years ago on the southern shore of the Inner Sea in the world of the flying death. His name, I believe, was Augustine; his book was called Confessions."

"Was he so ashamed of his thoughts that he called a book about them Confessions?"

The Prophet spread his hands. "I know not. I was permitted to read just part of the book. What I did read I recall imperfectly, as do all who live in time that passes. When I become part of Eternity, I shall know what is known in Eternity. How, though, shall I convey that knowledge to you?"

The Hero laughed. "A fine riddle! Well, old man, you're an excellent storyteller, as I've said, but I'm a practical man with a Monster to kill in the morning. If you could give me some useful information for a change, I might be grateful once I win the Prize."

"Can you truly say that what I've told you is irrelevant to your true needs? If you like, though, I'll tell you of the Monster."

The Prophet stared at the moon awhile, as if he were collecting his thoughts before he began his tale. "The Monster's origin is unknown," he said at length. "Certainly the One made it, but whether the One made it good, and it became evil, or whether the One made it evil to test men's faith, no one but the One can say. It's unknown even whether the Monster has existed since time's start or came but recently into being to bedevil the kingdom--"

"All useful information, to be sure. Still, it's gratifying to hear a Prophet admit ignorance."

The Prophet smiled. "Maybe what I tell you next will please you better. The MOnster first appears in the Kingdom's chronicles four generations ago in the reign of the present King's great-grandfather. One night that king, elated by a victory that his armies had just won -- over the Black Land, now that I think of it -- boasted at a banquet, 'My lords, there is no enemy under heavent that I can't master. If I had scaling ladders long enough, even Heaven might tremble with dread!'

"His hall rangs with laughter at his drunken jest. Just then a gust of wind flickered tapers in the hall. Turning, all saw a Prophet -- one of my predecessors at this Shrine -- standing in the doorway. 'O King,' he cried out, 'there is one enemy that you haven't mastered. Before you can truly boast, you must slay the Monster by the Baobab Tree!'

"'What is this Monster of which you speak, fool?' the King roared out. 'I've heard of no such Monster!'

"'It's Heaven's answer to your challenge,' the Prophet said. Turning, he strode into the night.

"Although his nobles sought to dissaude him, the King rode at once alone to face the challenge. In the morning, when he hadn't returned, his knights rode after him. When they came to the Circle of the Baobab Tree, they found the King lying dead, his body rent savagely, a look of unspeakable horror frozen on his face."

"Yes, this story is told even in the Northern Capital. Go on, old man!"

"Is it, though? In any case the nobles, convinced of the Prophet's having had a hand in the King's death, stoned him to death before the Palace, but the Monster's depradations went on. The bodies of travelers by night were found mangled, sheep and cattle were slain and left to rot, and the people, speaking of demonic laughter that rang over the fields, shut themselves in and lay awake trembling in the dark.

"The King's son, the new King, sent warriors to slay the Monster by the Baobab Tree. Whether they went alone, or by twos and threes, all were found in the late King's condition. Even when the King sent a troop, it was struck with paralysis and lay all night awake, listening to an unseen presence that moved amid it and slew whom it willed.

"At length the King, despairing, came to the Shrine alone and weaponless at twilight. When the full moon rose, a voice spoke with him to make with him a covenant. The Monster would spare the Kingdom further ravagement if the King and his people honored the Monster with sacrifice. At each moon's full, a land, a goat, and a calf must be left tethered within the Circle of the Baobab Tree. At spring's first full moon there must be added to the sacrifice the Kingdom's most desirable virgin.

"Filled with grief, the new King agreed to the covenant. Month by month the requisite sacrifices were left in the circle at sunset, and in the morning were found torn asunder. Once a year the sacrificial virgin was chosen. Often there were riots then, and demands that the King defy the Monster. Throughout his reign the King kept his bargain. From time to time his heirs have sought to discontinue the sacrifices, but whenever they've done so the Monster has reacted with such ferocity that the Kingdom's people has been only too glad to resume the tribute.

"The occasional hero -- with only too many have I talked as I talk with you now -- has come to slay the Monster. Oddly enough the Monster has tolerated their efforts without visiting its wrath upon the Kingdom. Who knows? Maybe by raising false hopes and then dashing them it seeks to torment the people further. In any case, all of the heros before you have failed. Most have died. The rest have gone off maimed and so witless with fear that never can they describe their encounters with the Monster.

"So matters stood till, at the last full moon, the Monster spoke with me in a dream--"

The Hero's head, which had been nodding onto his chest, snapped upwards. "The Monster -- how did it sound?"

The Prophet stared again at the moon. "Its voice resembled a mighty wind's rushing -- a vast, cavernous, dreadful sound. Mixed with it were shrieks and, so I thought, the snickering of some small boy doing a furtive act of destruction. The words that the Monster spoke filled me with dread."

The Prophet paused, then chanted softly:

When the sun with the Virgin
     Goes to bed,
To the tree the fair Princess
     Must be led;
When the moon with the Fishes
     Swims the sky,
At the Tree the fair Princess
     Then shall die.

The Prophet sighed. "Thus, I had to tell the King that his own daughter, the Kingdom's most beautiful and desirable maiden, must be sacrificed to the Monster at the sixth month's start. I hardly need say that he took my news ill. 'Lying dog, false Prophet, son of the Evil One!' he cried out. 'I'll force you to confess your lies and requite them with your life.' He cast me into a dungeon and tortured me with hot irons to make me recant." The Prophet spread his hands. "How could I? I'd told the King just what the Monster had told me."

The Hero scowled. "The King's deed was evil. I wouldn't have done so."

The Prophet shrugged. "wouldn't you? Maybe you haven't had the same temptation. In any case, the King's heir, his only son, learning of my tale, rode out the next morning to save his sister. As he reached the Tree, there came a blinding sandstorm in which the Monster bore him down. 'Fool!' it said to him. 'I've tasted your ancestor's blood. Why have you come to give me more? Return to your father, Princeling, and tell him that, unless he offers me his daughter at the due time, I'll so devastate his Kingdom that even its memory shall fade from men's minds.' As a token of the youth's submission the Monster demanded of him a hand's breadth of flesh--"

"That hardly seems a great loss."

"Think you so? The Prince might disagree with you. Without that flesh he can beget no future heir. In any case, he returned to his father with the Monster's words. The King released me to await any future oracles from the Monster, and now you've come to succeed or die as the One wills."

The Hero laughed. "You should've been a bard, not a Prophet; you tell a good tale. Still, I'm a practical man. So far I've heard nothing useful. What does the Monster look like?"

The Prophet shrugged. "It appears to each man as he sees it."

"A truly prophetic response! If you can't describe the Monster, at least tell me what weapons have been used against it."

"Many have come with sword and dagger as you have, but without success, Who knows? Maybe

"Bare hands will avail
"Where weapons will fail."

"A wellspring of useful information, aren't you, old man? I could bandy words with you all night, but I must fight a Monster at dawn--"

"Think you that that is far off? Look to the east! Lucifer has risen with the Twins. Dawn is almost upon you."

Following the Prophet's pointing finger, the Hero cursed. "You've kept me up all night. We'd best be on our way."

The Hero gulped another bowl of the now gelid broth; then he rose, buckled on his sword belt, and followed the Prophet out of the Shrine. By now a faint cobalt suffused the eastern sky. A path led down from the Shrine into a grove of olive trees, their leaves sere or fallen, their branches gnarled or broken. The dawn seemed strangely quiet. Only the crunch of the two men's feet on gravel broke the silence. The Hero was puzzled; then he recongnized that the twittering of birds at sunrise was missing. The silence amid desolation made him shiver. Old man, he thought, you've shaken me.

When the sky had turned turquoise, promising heat, the path ended at a circle of standing stones -- twelve, the Hero noted -- enclosing a patch of bare sand. At the circle's center stood a squat tree with a thick trunk as round as a gourd and spindly branches sticking out of the trunk's top like wires.

"The Circle of the Baobab Tree," the Prophet said. His eyes, which in the moonlight had appeared silvery, were brown and mild, a tired, kindly old man's eyes. "Here the Monster will meet you."

The Hero glanced around. "Where is it?"

"Are you so eager to meet your fate. Maybe you should be grateful for a chance for prayer."

"I'm eager, old man, to finish this business!" The Hero sat down on the nearest standing stone and stared towards the east. There the sky kept brightening, and a pearly glow crept over the horizon. The world was still. No breeze stirred the Tree's branches; no breeze stirred the Circle's sand. No bird sang. Minutes passed.

"Still no sign of the Monster, old man." The Hero's voice cracked, disquietening him. "Maybe it's decided not to come."

"It'll come, Hero. Have no fear."

The Hero grunted. Just then the limb of the sun raised itself over the horizon. Red-gold light, molten iron tapped from Heaven's kiln, spilled over the world's edge. Blinking, the Hero turned away, tears streaming from his eyes. When he could see again, a massive, tawny beast sprawled at the Tree's base. The beast turned lazily to regard him; then it shook its bushy mane and daintily licked a forepaw.

"The Monster!" the Prophet breathed out.

The Hero burst into laughter. "The Monster is a lion? You called me here to fight a mere lion? Truly this is a royal jest!"

The lion's mouth gaped. A tongue as red as blood lolled between cruel yellow fangs. A voice -- the rushing of a deadly wind, a vast, cavernous, dreadful sound, mixed with shrieks and the snickering of a small child doing some furtive act of destruction -- roared out a challenge:

"Cease your laughter, fool, and fight!"

The laughter died in the Hero's throat. "Behold the lion who speaks!" he cried out.

"Truly, if the One puts speech into a beast's mouth, the One must do so for a purpose."

The Hero glowered at the Prophet. "Not so, old man! I've yet to hear a purpose to the speech that the One has put into your mouth."

The Prophet cackled; the Monster roared anew. "If you've come here just to bandy words, fool, cast aside your weapons and don a Prophet's robes! If you've come to fight, advance to meet your death!"

"Nay, Monster!" the Hero cried, drawing his sword. "It's I who've brought your death."

He charged across the sand. Before he could strike a blow the Monster was upon him. Its breath's sickly fetor gusted down his throat; the sword went flying. He felt himself smashed to the ground. Fighting a yellow wave of sickness and a black wave of unconsciousness, he grasped for his dagger. This, too, was knocked from his grasp. Rolling in the sand, he avoided the rake of claws and the snap of jaws till, with a desperate lunge, he seized the Monster's throat. With as much effect his fingers might have squeezed a tree's trunk. He could just hold deadly jaws at arms' length while claws shredded his flesh and amber eyes, crimson lights flaring in slit pupils, bored into his own.

The Monster's voice spoke in his mind. Give up, fool! I'm your death. For the moment you may hold me at bay, but soon your arms will weaken and your strength will fail. In that moment your life will bleed out of you into the sand.

"Not just yet," the Hero muttered.

It's useless to struggle. I'm no mere mortal foe who'll weaken and fail. It isn't by a mortal man's unaided hands that I'm fated to die. I was created to be men's slayer. That role I'll fulfill till time's end. Behold my power!

The Monster's eyes dissolved into clear windows. Through these the Hero saw scenes of the Monster's career: a haughty King, whose arrogance fled from him in his death's moment; dismembered bodies, once valiant soldiers; a night of terror, filled with screams of prostrate men awaiting a destroyer's touch. Through a blood-red haze the Hero viewed a feast of blood, the blood of animals and men, young and old, strong and weak. Their terror, fountaining out as blood, strengthened the irresistible strength that they faced.

See that against which you've ranged yourself! Admit your despair and die!

"Admit your own."

Still you struggle. Does others' suffering have no power to move you? One image you can't view without dread. Behold your deepest fear.

In the Monster's eyes the Hero now saw himself, his fingers locked in his foe's throat. His face glowed crimson; the veins at his temples and on his arms stood out like trees' roots. As he watched, his jet hair grew white, his face's skin grew furrowed with wrinkles, and his eyes, gleaming flakes of obsidian, were shrouded with milky film. His mouth gaped, a toothless pit. His sinewy arms dwindled to bent sticks ending in bony claws.

See what you're swiftly becoming! The strength on which you pride yourself is deserting you; the weakness that you fear overwhelms you. Night comes, the night to which there is no dawn.

No longer could the Hero force a denial through his lips. His arms, which had blazed with fire, were now cold and numb. His hands at the Monster's throat formed a vision that kept no connection to his body. A hollow roaring filled his ears. The Monster had won. He could release his grip and cast himself into the darkness...

Something within him, refusing to yield, called out for help. At the moment of his despair there spoke in his mind another voice, quiet and dry. Half fearing madness in himself, he heard the voice coming from the Tree:

Ponder my roots. They grow deep, breaking rock, to let me live in dry places. My roots draw on the earth's strenght and the sun's to bring the earth's strength to the sun and the sun's to the earth. If you strive in your own strength, you will fail; only if you yield your desires to those of the One will you prevail. Become like my roots. Draw on the earth's strength and the sun's to overcome your foe. Let yourself live, not in your own strength, but in Mine.

From a distance the Hero heard a snap. The images faded from the Monster's eyes. They grew amber again, and the red lights in the pupils faded swiftly to black. A ponderous weight settled onto the Hero's legs. The Monster's head, falling onto his chest, drove the breath from his body.

For a time he lay dazed while the earth and the sky spun around him. He felt nothing. Although he was aware of his being the Hero, who had slain the Monster and won the Prize, knowledge awoke in him no feeling of pride. Nothing in him was left to respond to such a feeling.

At length a throbbing in his arms roused him from his torpor. Shoving the Monster's head off of his chest, he sat up and dragged his legs from under the Monster's corpse. Waiting till circulation returned to his legs, he thrust himself to his feet, swayed, and turned to leave the Circle.

The Prophet came to greet him. "You've won the victory, Hero. Now you'll receive the Prize."

The Princess, the King's own daughter, the Kingdom's most beautiful and desirable maiden, came to him. A sky-colored gown bedecked her tall, slim form as she glided towards him; jewels sparkled at her throat; waves of titian hair falling in loose rings framed an ivory face whose every feature was a Hero's dream. As she knelt at his feet, her sea-green eyes gazed into his own eyes, and her dewy lips parted in supplication.

"Hero, you've earned the undying gratitude of my father the King and of all of the Kingdom's people. For your deed no adequate reward exists. Take, if you will, as a token of what you truly deserve, my love. I'll be your bride, and you'll become a son to the King. You'll father strong sons of your own who'll reign in the King's stead when he sleeps with his fathers. You'll found a dynasty, and your name will be revered while the Kingdom lasts."

The Hero, looking at the Princess, fair and sweet beyond words' power to describe, sighed. Although for her he had come to fight the Monster, he now felt no desire for her. With distant sadness he saw that he never again would feel such desire. His struggle had turned him from a path that ended at her to a path that had no ending.

"Ah, Princess, you're indeed all that a man could want. I fear, though, that I must become a Prophet."


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