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▶  More from Fiction Yusef of the Dusk
The Varangian
Scene Five, Yusef of the Dusk

The laughter of men rang in his ears and beat joyfully in his heart, as his wine-flooded blood thrummed in his flushed veins and his soul lifted in victory, having overcome four desperate killers, three alone on this spot, including an iron man of much ire. The sorrowful face of the eyeless man, cheeks burned from the brand that had cooked his peepers out of their sockets yet smoldering, smiled as tears streaked and turned to mist as they cooled his burnt cheeks. The other fellow, cowardly to his leathery core, laughed as well, laughed frantically with a cackle of mirth so tinged with fear that Yusef wondered if these poor fellows thought he would do them harm, the hard one laughing with irony and the soft one with fright. But they seemed to regard the sky.

Do they see her there, longing for a consort in the night sky?

No! She is no whore like her earthly sister—she longs for me, she beckons to me!

The two men, weak and wounded before him, now directed their mirth at him, laughing at him, as if they had already bedded her and he were the consort come lately to the Purple-Eyed Woman of the Moon Face lounging beautiful in the night sky.

They laugh the harder? They laugh at me, who has just now saved them from hideous doom!

He looked into their eyes and saw—even in the empty ones—knowledge of his fate, evidence of some mighty foolishness on his part.

In exasperation he shook them each, one by each shoulder, his sword now sheathed in shame at menacing such as these. He spoke in Arabic, a tongue, that, though Indians, they had already spoken with more fluidity than he who had learned it first as a youth and had used it often as a desperate man, “Dare you mock me, who has saved you?”

The wise, eyeless man, the Sailor on the Sea of Got, who had correctly judged in a few words that Yusef had made the avaricious pilgrimage down to Zanzibar, placed his own leathery hand gently on Yusef’s mailed shoulder and intoned forgivingly, “Thus spake the man to the monkeys, ‘I have saved you friends from that vile leopard, and you would be rude to laugh at that greater tigerish doom which rises from the very shadow at your back you thought it to be.’”

An icy chill played down Yusef’s neck and back, a chill in which his slain father believed not, even as Death came upon him, a chill which Yusef of the Knife had long ago learned to heed.

The laughter did not resume, as grave faces came to dominate the leathery skulls that perched atop sweaty, snakelike necks in the dancing coal glow.

The sky above was sea-bottom blue.

He knew she slunk there in her pallid hue—watching him to see if he was worthy of her eternal embrace.

Behind him, the prow of the dhow dipped like a hand in a whore’s bath.

Above and behind him, the moan-song creaking of planks spoke of a heavy rising.

The small men before him froze, one in knowing without sight and one in craven fright. There they receded into tiny, spectral forms in the quavering coal glow.

He turned like a cat, like a coiled alley cat of Alexandria that senses the silent hound at his back.

Above him, a spear cast off, on the prow of the dhow, having risen from some makeshift throne—a chest strapped to the rail planks—bulked the form of the ironclad Norseman in service of Constantinople, the Varangian he had somehow mistaken for a carving of the same, helmet glinting dully under her lustrous face, beard forked in monstrous sweeps below his glowering eyes smoldering a red-shot blue, improbably white teeth grinning in cruel satisfaction, a great, bearded axe in his left hand, a half-drank wineskin that could have watered a horse, in his right.

Yusef seethed at his own stupidity, too embarrassed to draw steel, leaving the shamashar in its undersized scabbard and the wicked, long dagger nestled in its sash of silk.

She had risen from her bath and was of no mind to avert her eyes, glaring harshly bright behind his enemy, placing a keen surety in the mind of her hopeful that she wished for him to standup and be accounted uncountable.

The raspy moan of the shamashar’s spine played against the wood of the scabbard, and there he stood feeling more than man enough, illuminated as he was in her soft, white light, steel in hand.

The Varangian leapt out and down, covering two horse lengths in his blood hunger and plunging the depth of two spear lengths, his feet splashing ankle deep and his knees bending with the weight of his body and the heavy mail of his brutal office, not to mention the sack of wine. The jump alone would have crippled many men. When he rose and stalked out of the weakly-lapping surf, for she was not pulling her watery blanket after her yet, Yusef, a head taller, twice as broad as the sailors at his back, faced a man that was as superior to him as he was to them.

The fellow had straw-colored hair, greased and shimmering in two horse tails and two forks of beard, wore a heavy, eye-circled helmet with neck coif of light mail. Hanging from his broad shoulders was a double coat of mail, topped with steel-capped shoulder guards from which flowed the tails of his cloak. His feet were curiously booted and sheathed to the ankle in steel greaves. Across his hips, behind, was sheathed a broad one-handed sword of the type with a rounded tip. A broad, needlepoint dagger was belted on the front left hip. What brought the well-reasoned fear was the great length of bearded battle axe, sheathed in iron along the haft and reaching as long as the now shivering sailors stood tall.

The Varangian [1] spoke in guttural Arabic, “Little Wolf lucky, lucky no more.”

Yusef snarled and drew the wicked-long knife in his left hand as the big man sucked wine from the sack like a great fish breathing water and somehow not dying from the act. He then gasped in ecstasy, belched deep and roared, in some other language, that which certainly meant slave, “Thrall!”

To this buffalo-like bellow, the cowardly sailor scampered to the foul-tempered giant, standing and shaking beneath him, to receive the wine skin with an oath, “Water my axe food.”

As the wine-reddened eyes that still shone a glint of blue, burned into Yusef, the cowardly sailor hurried to Yusef with the wine skin, nearly as large as his body, more unwieldy than heavy at this point and pressed the utter mouth to his lips, holding the skin as high as he could reach so that the wine would flow down into the drinker’s mouth, a drinker who drank with both eyes on the smoldering giant before him, but five paces away, hefting an axe that could cleave through any armor, wreck any shield, even send a head from a stallion’ shoulders—or so he had heard the old jihadists speak of such men. Calculating, ever calculating his chances, Yusef counted himself lucky to be without a shield and a fool to be drinking even more deeply of the wine that had already made of him a stumbling parody of the man who once slew three scimitar-wielding eunuchs in the pleasure gardens of the Bey of Tunis, on an errand he had ever since denied.

His drought done, Yusef sighed and licked his lips, sneering invitingly at his host with equal arrogance, “To our dance, axe-slave.”

1. Three years later, in 1204, a Frankish Crusade, stopping in Constantinople, supposedly to be fitted out and advised on their invasion of Islamic lands, turned on their Byzantine hosts and overthrew the seat of the dwindling empire which had guarded Christendom against Islam for half a millennium.

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