He upended his cup. He marked the wine as it spread, staining the wooden table, flowing into the cracks and then dripping beneath the floor. The act came of impulse. He did not care about the wine, there was more. He did not care about the cup. With his arm he swept it away, and the wine flask besides. The stoneware flask struck the stone floor and broke. The wooden cup bounced and came to a stop on its bottom.
Azariah put his head in his hands and wept.
It did no good. It did not wash him clean of his misery. It did not change his condition. It did not bring comfort. He grew aware of his elbows resting upon and damp table and lifted them, wiping them clean across the belly of his doublet. He stared helplessly over the table and into space. His gaze could not help turning to the parapet next to the table, to the town that spread out beneath the citadel he sat upon, and to the line of the road that curved from the high valley, past the town, and through the flat plains beyond. Dust hung in the air, obscuring the horizon, so that the brown of the plain mixed with the pale sky.
He could hear the panicked trundling of the untold hundreds who made their way away from the valley along the road. He watched the overloaded wagons and carts scurry along the ruts, wheels bouncing over things that had fallen from wagons that had gone before. Between the animals pulling these loads were other animals, driven sheep and goats, squawking chickens, heavily laden donkeys and mules. Here and there the occasional camel carried goods. No animal carried a rider ... every man, woman and elder child walked, trudging their way, shouting at their animals, fighting with them, beating them with sticks to drive them forward or dragging upon reins to keep them moving. Some ran from the road after livestock that sought its own direction. The faster refugees clumbered off the road and kicked up dust along the shoulders, screaming curses at their slower fellows, then having to slow or stop as something of value fell from their own vehicles that demanded attention. Then, with the road barred by a slow traveller, and the side barred by fools, the train would stumble to a forced halt that would carry its way for half a mile, backing up the road.
Azariah sat and watched as a fight broke out between two groups of men, children watching, women daring to step between the combatants and thrust aside or struck. Azariah was but a few hundred yards away, forty feet above the empty streets of the town, which had heard the news and had left in most part the day before.
Gramen were coming.
He did not care. He chose to let them come. It was not the refugees he wept for, nor the oncoming horde with its will to tear and destroy. They knew nothing. But he, Azariah, knew more than he wished to know.
A scream rose from the trap door that linked the roof of the citadel with the tower rooms below. He paid it no attention. It was not the first. He judged it would not be the last.
The fight had settled itself out, and now the participants gathered things together and heaved them up once more upon their carts. The women drew their veils back over their faces against the dust and again began their march, the children falling in behind them. A young girl carried a duck in her arms. A boy of fifteen led a donkey, his hand hooked around the animal’s bridle. A father with an infant on his shoulders, small hands clutched in his pater’s hair, dragged a loaded gig as an animal. The parade steadily moved forward.
Hands appeared upon the ladder that rose out of the trap door, and a lean, dark-tanned man climbed upwards and onto the roof of the citidel. He wore only a shirt and robe, the latter that reached only to his knees. His shins were bare, his feet shod in sandles that tied around his ankles. A belt hung over his shoulder and fixed on the belt was a short, curved blade with a hooked handle. Over his wrist was hooked a loop of hemp, and hanging from the hemp a flask of wine. Azariah did not watch him, but turned away.
Azariah knew him . His name was Nathan. They had travelled and killed together for past seven years, and still they did not particularly like each other. It was a circumstance that Nathan was apt to find amusing, and when not at a risk to his own life, a circumstance Nathan would exploit.
Seeing the cup laying on the stone, Nathan moved forward and scooped it up. He placed it on the parapet, uncorked the bottle and filled the cup. He gazed at the people below and smiled. He drained the cup, tilting it back into his mouth. He filled it again, turned about and sat on the stone edge, his back to the fall.
“Do you suppose it would help if they knew?” he asked.
Azariah did not answer.
“You are right,” said Nathan. “They wouldn’t understand, would they? They have their fantasy and it brings them comfort.” He paused. “As it once did us.”
“Do not speak of it,” warned Azariah.
Nathan sipped at the wine. He watched the scene. “They don’t look comforted.”
Moments passed, with neither one speaking.
“Perhaps if I were closer,” observed Nathan, “I could see that they were actually happy.”
“Be silent,” warned Azariah again.
"Were you, when it was before … were you happy?”
Azariah did not answer.
“I do not think I was happy,” said Nathan. “I think I believed … I am certain I did. I was told as a boy and from then I always believed. I am not certain that the belief brought me comfort. It did not make me happy.”
“You were told as a boy,” answered Nathan. “Like me, you believed. And it did not make you happy, like me. Isn’t that interesting?”
His fists on his knees, Azariah pressed his fingers tightly together. He considered his own sword, hanging from the belt around his waist, the tip in its scabbard resting on the stones.
Nathan finished his wine and poured himself more. “When the gramen come, I wonder. Will we fight them? Because you know, if we die, that will be the end. There won’t be an Afterlife. And that is why I wonder. If this is all we have, this here and now, will we still fight. If we had known all those years that there was no Last Kingdom, would we have become mercenaries? Would I know be a soft-footed shopkeeper, trimming my wares and setting them out for the customers in the morning, chasing my sons out of my workspace, resting with my wife in the glow of the fire at the end of the long day, as my father had planned for me? Would I have thought the road less desirable, would I have loved metal pots and kettles more, would I have applied myself in my apprenticeship instead of slipping away to the rivers and forests to practice my bow?”
He moved forward to Azariah’s table, and sat on the wall next to it, setting his feet where the wine had begun to dry in the warm day. “And you, my friend. What would you be doing now? I remember when we met, the confidence you had, the certainty of our becoming rich, of the enemies we’d slaughter together. And always the way you would laugh at death. Would you laugh at death now, Azariah? Knowing at last, for certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that death is for certain.”
Azariah sat bent over, his head inches above the edge of the table, his hands clenched over his knees, his breath growing heavy.
“What were you before, my friend?” asked Nathan. “A miller’s son, you said. Were you a quiet boy? Would you have grown to be another man? A humble mover of sacks? I don’t doubt it. But would you have been so foolhardy as you’ve become in your later days? Tell me, Azariah, you were a brave man. If you had known, before ... would you now be a coward?”
With a roar Azariah exploded to his feet. The sword came easily to his hand. He lunged with his arm to unbalance Nathan upon the wall, and swept the sword at him, to break his shoulder and send him reeling from the height.
But Nathan was not there. Azariah’s arm touched nothing. His sword, sweeping across, touched nothing. Then Azariah felt a blow land across his forehead – the pommel of Nathan’s sword. The hit clouded his vision, his sword swinging high and still hitting nothing. Another blow with the pommel fell upon the soft flesh beneath Azariah’s ribs. Then Nathan’s shoulder caught Azariah in the side, and Nathan’s foot behind Azariah’s heel brought him down to the ground, onto his back.
As Azariah’s vision cleared, he found his sword arm, hand still clutching his weapon, under Nathan’s foot. The point of Nathan’s scimitar rested delicately upon Azariah’s throat.
“On any day when you are not an ox,” said Nathan, “you would chance to kill me. But not on this day.”