Hadan started trembling in his bed, his eyes locked onto the old man’s smiling face.
He could not believe what he just heard.
In an instant, he remembered all those stories bound to the name that the old man just pronounced.
Marduk tried to make the scariest face he could.
He imagined the terrified look on the boy’s face, as he heard him squirm in fear.
The old man broke into laughter, a dry sound that he himself had not heard in a few years.
<<Relax, I am just joking. Well, my name is Marduk, but I have not been cursed by some god lately>>
The boy let out a big sigh of relief. Marduk shook his head, getting up from his seat.
<<Still, you wasted a perfectly good plate. Look, there are broken pieces everywhere>>
Hadan remained wary of Marduk. After all, he could be lying. All bad people lie, and if this man was really the Marduk, he would surely lie to him.
<<Still, you haven’t told me your name yet, boy. Do you have one?>>
Hadan gulped his saliva, hesitating, unsure if he wanted to answer to the old man.
After all, Marduk did save his life.
So, it was a good thing, he thought. He decided to trust the old man, for now. He did not have any other options, the boy thought, as the feeling of pain in his legs reminded him of his conditions.
There was nowhere he could go, not at the moment.
Muttering, he shared his name with the old man.
<<So, Hadan. Care to tell me how you ended up on death’s door?>>
He knew, but he wanted to hear the story from the boy’s lips.
In his life, he had seen one too many of this kind of unfortunate situations.
A lone boy, half dead and sole survivor of his tribe.
His wounds would heal, at least those on his body.
But little Hadan had other wounds, deeper than the boy himself had realized.
And Marduk needed to make him talk, if he wanted to treat those wounds.
One time too many he had seen the same scene, a young mind crushed by the pain of having lost everything they held dear.
He needed to make the boy talk, to see how deeply his soul was wounded.
Muttering, first, then with a teary voice.
Hadan shared what happened to him, and Marduk listened in silence.
The boy was strong, both in body and mind.
Normally, someone his age would close himself in pain or shock, unable to process what just happened to him.
It was a good thing that the boy could talk about it, that he could share the pain, Marduk thought.
Still, it would take time before his wounds would heal, and they would leave deep scars.
For now, there was nothing much that Marduk could do for the unfortunate boy, beside tending to his wounds and talk to him, waiting for time to do his trick.
After all, time itself was the only effective medicine for that kind of injury.
Marduk walked past beside the bed where Hadan was, heading to the small entrance of his home.
More than a proper home, it was a furnished cave. He did not even put a door in there, only an old and worn tent to ward off sunlight.
After all, it was a temporary stay for him.
Marduk headed out, staring with his blind eyes in the distance.
He assumed that the boy was the sole survivor from that place, but he felt the need to check.
He closed his eyes, a pair of useless things. He did not need them, to see.
A sore smile popped on the old man’s face, followed by too many wrinkles on his old skin.
Too old, almost two hundred years worth of sunlight and spite.
<<Well, being cursed by a God has its perks>>
The old man thought, focusing his sight on the charred remains of the village.
He saw the smoking piles of ashes, the blackened wood sprouting from them like black, skeletal fingers coming out of the very earth itself.
Death everywhere, but, unlike he had surmised before, there was also life in there.
Faint, waning, but someone was still breathing in there.
He widened his perception, feeling an acute pain in his left temple as he did so.
Marduk endured, looking away from the village, searching if someone else survived the massacre.
He avoided the ones taken away from the village, their fate was already sealed. Most of all, he wanted to not see those things that took them.
The boy said that a group of men wearing shining armors attacked the village. But Marduk knew, that the boy had been wrong.
Those were not men, they only wore them.
He diverted his mind from the group, directing it further into the grasslands. There, he found some kin of the unfortunate little boy.
A group of men, heading back from a successful hunting trip. They were dragging back slain prey, a few Varn and a Fjalte pup.
Sighing deeply, Marduk headed back into his cave.
<<I’m heading out for a bit. Here, if you get thirsty, drink this>> he said to Hadan, giving a small jar to the boy.
With those words, the old man parted, leaving the boy alone.
His body ached with each step. Marduk cursed under his lips.
Despite the undying part, his body was still that of an old man, with all the sweet little things that time gifts to a decaying body.
Like the pain that hit his hip every time he took a step, or the one that stabbed his hands when the air was too cold, or too hot.
All the sweet gifts given by time. Pain, pain and even more pain. Even when he pissed, or lied down on his bed for too many hours.
His blindness was another matter, however.
That was something that he gave himself, in order to stop seeing.
His mind fluttered, for a moment, toward the things that led him to forfeit his sight. The memory of them was faint, and he was thankful for that.
But every time that his thoughts wavered in that direction, his old heart started to race again, gripped by fear.
It all started that day for him, when the Idol spoke to him.
Marduk recalled that day, no matter how hard he tried to not let his mind wander to it.
The sight of his tribesmen lying dead, the pitch black eyes that stared at him.
And the grin on that thing’s face, as Marduk realized what he had done.
But the worst thing was seeing his tribesmen rise again.
That day, Marduk learned a terrible truth of this world. That there are others, far away in the black veil of the night.
And he brought something from those worlds, giving it a body in this one.
All that happened afterwards, was just a consequence of his actions that night.
Even Hadan’s fate. It was all tied to what happened there.
When he gazed in the thing’s eyes, he was changed.
The thing took Marduk’s head in his hands, cradling like a father would do to his son.
He still shuddered, remembering the cold touch of those hands, and the chilling voice that followed.
It spoke in an unknown tongue, yet Marduk understood.
The thing thanked him, for the service done.
It rewarded him, gifting Marduk with timeless madness.
And he went mad, for a time. Perhaps he still was, Marduk thought. Or at least, he wanted to.
But in his heart, he knew that madness faded away, and he regained reason. And with reason, it came guilt.
With a great effort, the old man shook himself from that train of thought.
There was nothing to be found in there, only bitter memories and distraction.
He stepped inside the ruined village, shielding his smoke with a corner of his ragged mantle.
The smell that lingered in that place was harsh to bear, the scent of charred skin and despair.
The air was still warm, and ash fluttered in it, swayed by the wind, almost like it was dancing.
Some of the burned huts and tents were still letting out a dark smoke, others had even some embers still burning.
Marduk looked around with his blind eyes. The sight he had only showed glimpses of the world, without being reliable like a pair of proper working eyes.
But years, centuries of blindness had honed his other senses, which had already been “tampered” by his old friend.
He found some of the survivors, following their scent and the waning noise of their beating heart.
Many of those he found were beyond help, the only thing left to do was give them a quick and painless death.
Others, so few that he could count them on his fingers, could still be saved.
Marduk dragged them out of the collapsed buildings, tending to their wounds.
He washed and bandaged, he applied lotions and unguents to charred skin.
He amputated limbs that were too mangled to be mended. He saved lives, albeit a few.
The day faded as he tended to the survivors of the tribe. As he did, Marduk recalled the time were there was no tribe there.
He found that place in the ravine, choosing that place to let his old bone rest. He thought to be far enough from them, from his old acquaintance.
How many years he fled, Marduk could not even remember.
Centuries, perhaps, but memories of that time were blurred, as his mind was still in madness’s grasp.
He remembered crossing the sea, and many lands after. All in order to leave that place behind, to leave his past and the horror in it.
He found this place, and he stopped. Thinking that the distance he put between himself and his old friend, his past, was enough for him to feel safe.
He was proven wrong, as the recent events had just taught him.
When Marduk stopped here, in this valley, it was still a lush place, devoid of human trace save for him.
Slowly, time passed, and the first nomads took residence there. Eventually they formed a village, becoming the ancestors of the people that were now in front of him.
Marduk saw generations of them live, struggle as they settled in the valley. Looking at them from his home in the ravine.
He did not care much for them, initially, only limiting himself to trade a bit with the tribe, exchanging their food for his potions and herbs.
Some generations treated him well, some even revered him. Others shunned him, and many held fear towards the undying, unchanging man.
They called him cursed, they told stories to their children about the man who stole a God.
Marduk did not know if they invented that story, ironically getting close to the truth about him, or if they heard of it, his story and his name shared by mouth to mouth, from traveler to merchant and so on until it reached the tribe.
He did not care, as long as the tribe still traded with him.
And they did, no matter if they revered him or feared his name.
Even during the time he was shunned, people still came to him, in secret, bringing their goods.
A Varn’s leg in exchange for medicine for their sick daughter, a sack of grain for a potion that would help a man’s virility.
Some even asked him to make the rain fall from the sky.
And he did, a few times. When his old friend gave his cursed gift, Marduk was changed.
Not only his body, denied of the natural end. His mind was changed, allowing him to see, to do things that no one should be able to do.
At first, Marduk relished the gift. But with time, his expanded mind showed him the truth, and he could not bear to look anymore.
It was so hard, that he robbed himself of his sight, only to have a bit of respite from the harsh reality of this world.
Perhaps, it was that moment that gave him back his sanity, not anymore challenged by the apparitions that lurked in the night sky.
Marduk took a deep breath. Disappointed by himself, because he let his mind wander again in those memories.
Trying to distract himself from them, he took an old, wooden pipe from the little pouch he hung on his waist.
With gestures that he did too many times, he loaded the pipe with dried herbs, and lighted them on fire.
The smoke was a poison, without a doubt. He had seen one too many men become addicted to it, to the sweet thing that the poison brought to a human mind.
Because that poison clouded thoughts, turning them into a mild nothingness, for a while.
He relished as the drug started to show the effect, as he waited for the hunters to come back.
The Sun started to set, painting the sky of a dense red. Or at least, that’s what Marduk imagined.
He knew that the day was falling, since the night birds started to sing their songs, as they always did to the waning sun.
It was the only thing he regretted, being unable to see the beauty of this world.
It was a trade that he did, beauty in exchange for sanity. And sometimes, he felt like he cheated himself in that trade.
The hunters came to the ruined village. Marduk felt their despair, and the little relief they had when he showed them the survivors.
From the tribe, no more than sixteen people survived, counting the hunters.
And they were hundreds before the attack.
The old man talked to the hunters, begging them to collect their wounded and whatever they could salvage from this place, and move north, leaving this place.
The hunters accepted his suggestion.
They took some of the survivors.
Three women, and a little girl with no more than ten years on her back.
The others, an old couple and a man that lost his leg and left arm, were killed on the spot. Harsh as their decision was, Marduk could understand it.
The women and the girl could still walk, and they would give new blood to the tribe.
The wounded man was not useful, like the old couple.
They would have dragged the others down, and so they chose to get rid of them. A cruel decision, but understandable.
And the remaining hunters decided to leave Hadan behind. Marduk told them about the boy and his conditions.
As he expected, they refused to take him. It could have gone different, if some of the survivors were relatives of the boy.
But that was not the case, and the boy was only seen as another mouth to feed.
And, with his wounds, Hadan would not be able to move, much less fend for himself.
The survivors took the decision to leave the boy behind.
Marduk was not surprised by it, albeit he wanted a different outcome for the boy.
He parted from the ruined village, leaving it behind his back.
On the way back home, he thought about what to tell to the boy.
Hadan’s condition was critical right now.
If he told him that there were survivors, he would be happy about it.
But that would lead to telling him about how he was abandoned, and that notion would probably crush the young boy’s mind.
Marduk weighted his options, thinking about the best thing to tell to Hadan.
He came to a simple conclusion, a bit cruel but necessary.
He would lie to the boy.
After all, he could not bring himself to tell him the harsh truth, that he was abandoned to his fellow tribesmen.
By telling the boy that he was the sole survivor, he would spare him the pain of rejection.
When Marduk came home, Hadan was sleeping soundly.
The old man entered his cave, moving slowly to make as little sound as he could.
He watched the boy sleep, for a moment, before heading out to gather herbs again.
He was out all night long.
His task was finished soon enough, but he took some time for himself, to think about the future.
One thing was clear to the old man.
He could not stay there anymore, not for long.
He could not abandon the boy there, wounded, all alone in the world.
And they could not yet live, for the boy’s wounds would still need some time to heal.
He thought, for a moment, to use his gift to mend the boy’s body.
He quickly dismissed that thought, since he did not want to use those methods anymore. Curing the boy with traditional methods would be fine, after all.
He could spare some time to let Hadan recuperate on his own, and then they would move away from the valley, leaving behind the cave in the ravine.
Perhaps, they too would head north, Marduk thought, crossing the river towards the Hussar plains.
Or they could head west, towards the forest and even beyond, cross the mountain range whose name Marduk did not remember, and arrive at the sea that was beyond the mountains.
Yet, those were thoughts for a later time.
For now, he only needed to tend to the boy, hoping that the perpetrators of the tribe’s massacre would not come back in the valley.
He knew that the possibility of it was small, but it was still there.
Days passed, as the boy healed from his wounds.
Hadan wept when Marduk shared the fate of his village, of his tribe.
The boy remembered his family, their faces, their embrace, something that he would no longer be able to feel.
He resented the old man for telling him those things, he even doubted his words.
But as he grew stronger, as his wounds healed, Marduk took him into the ruined village, to see the devastation that struck his home.
That time, Marduk tried to teach an important lesson to the boy.
Do not seek revenge.
Those words, among many others, the old man repeated to the boy.
Day after day, until the burning desire in Hadan’s chest waned, a bit at least.
He still dreamed about the day he would meet again those men dressed in light.
He often saw himself, his body that of a strong man an not that of a wounded boy, drawing his bowstring as he took aim to one of those men’s neck, releasing the arrows that carried his fury, his revenge.
Some times, in his fantasy, he would kill them with a knife, slitting throats while whispering his family’s names.
Other fantasies involved spears, or him as a powerful sorcerer, raining fire on his foes as the Father shone his blessing on him.
The boy knew that those were only fantasies of a child, daydreaming about something that would never happen.
Because Hadan was smart.
He knew better than doing something silly like seeking revenge.
What could he do, against people that decimated his tribe? His father, and Wahsu, were the strongest hunters he had ever seen, and yet, they fell against those people.
Although he cherished those dreams, he knew that they were impossible to realize.
He would stay with the old man, for as long as Marduk let him.
Initially, he was wary of Marduk, still being swayed by those stories that the tribe told about him.
He owed his life to the old man, without any doubt, but he could not bring himself to trust him, to like him.
Most of all, he was scared by the old man’s ability to see.
It confused Hadan, a lot.
He knew that the old man’s eyes did not work, and yet, Marduk behaved like he had a pair of perfectly functional eyes.
Even more, sometimes it felt like Marduk’s eyes could see more than a normal pair of eyes.
It was a mystery to Hadan, how could the old man do what he did.
As he gave it more thought, he realized how impossible would be for a blind man, and especially for an old blind man, to survive in there.
Perhaps, before the attack he relied on the tribe to find food.
But if that was the case, Hadan thought, now that the tribe was gone the food should have gone too.
Instead, every day, there was food in their plates, and fresh water. Herbs, fruit, and sometimes meat.
Sure, a blind man would be able to smell the fruit and herbs from afar, but hunting? Hadan knew that it was something out of the ordinary, and it scared him.
Initially. With time, however, he became used to this weird blind old guy.
As days became months, his opinion of the old man changed.
He grew fond of him, seeing Marduk as the substitute of a family.
Like a grandfather, something that he never had.
He slightly remembered his grandfather, a faded memory, more an impression than a proper figure in his mind.
He was too young when his grandfather passed away, too young to properly remember him.
Gradually, Hadan warmed up to Marduk, and the old man did the same.
Hadan was a stranger no more to the old man.
Initially, he saw him as a burden, a responsibility to hold as he was the one that decided to save the boy’s life.
But, as time went by, Marduk saw something in Hadan.
He was smart, and a good company.
He listened to the old man’s stories, feeling them deeply.
It was a nice change for Marduk to have some company, he realized, almost regretting to have secluded himself for so long.
As the boy’s condition grew better, Hadan started to head out more and more, often bringing prey and herbs with him.
Nothing too grand, small rodents and birds, still he had the making of a hunter in him.
What surprised Marduk the most, however, was the boy’s aptness to his teachings.
He started to share some notions as a whim, bored, when he waited for Hadan’s legs to recover until the boy could start to walk again.
From the start, Hadan showed an acute curiosity towards the principles that Marduk shared.
He started with some simple notions about herbs, and the boy surprised him with his own knowledge.
Hadan knew several kind of plants and their effects, and even held some basic notions and understanding of how to compound them into poultices with healing effects.
The boy shared how his mother had taught him, since she was a healer in the village.
Hadan’s face went dark as the memory of his mother touched his thoughts, and it was in that moment Marduk took the decision to teach the boy what he knew.
It was a decision taken on a whim, but as time went by, Marduk became more and more pleased with his choice.
He started to teach Hadan to read, but, much to Marduk’s surprise, the boy already knew to do so.
His knowledge of words and symbols was still limited, however it was a rare thing for a boy his age to know how to read.
Apparently, there was a merchant that spent some months with the tribe, when Hadan was no more than seven years old.
The boy told Marduk about how he spent much time pestering the merchant, begging him to share stories about the world he saw in his travels.
He bonded with the merchant, and the man taught him how to read and write some symbols.
Hadan remembered those moments, and even chuckled while thinking about how his brother had scolded him, telling Hadan that reading was for women and men without courage.
Wahsu said another term, a bad one, and Hadan did not want to repeat it in front of Marduk.
He choose to use an euphemism, out of respect to the old man. However, he himself hated bad words.
He never spoke them, as they felt wrong to say in his mouth. Wahsu was very fond of them, however.
Especially when they were alone, he used more bad words than proper ones. Hadan missed his brother, and, however painful and unfair that thought was, he missed him even more than his father.
Hadan’s mother passed away when he had only nine years on his back.
After that, his father grew distant, cold, both with Wahsu and with him. His brother, however, was always there.
To make him laugh, to scare off those that bullied him.
And Hadan’s hearth ached deeply at his memory.
To quench the feeling, he delved into studying what Marduk taught.
He surprised the old man by showing how he could already read and write his name.
He felt proud when Marduk praised him, the first positive feeling he had in a long time.
The old man taught Hadan new symbols and words. He then taught him numbers, and how to add and subtract them one from another.
Months went by, and Hadan was able to walk again. His old wounds hurt no more, and he could run, jump and stand right on his hand, like he could before he got wounded.
He started to go out and hunt again, first placing traps, then using a crude bow and arrow he crafted himself.
After a while, the old man and Hadan moved from the ravine, heading away from the valley.
They brought the more indispensable things from their cave, like cooking tools and two old bedrolls made with leather, wooden sticks and filled with soft plumes from an animal unknown to Hadan.
The rest, they would get on the road. Or so Marduk told the boy.
They marched for some days, reaching the limit of the valley itself.
They were going east, towards the forest. At least, that was what Marduk said.
To Hadan, the destination did not matter.
He was excited, his heart pounding in his chest. He never left the valley, not even in his wildest dreams.
As the two started their travel, he was initially worried by the old man.
How could a wrinkled, old body like his cross the valley, much more reach those mountains that he spoke off?
However, his doubts vanished, like mist in the morning. Not only the old man was able to keep Hadan’s pace, he proved himself faster, and stronger.
Things like those, they were a surprise no more for Hadan, as he grew accustomed to the old man’s weirdness.
Perhaps, he thought, he really was the Marduk from those legends. For Hadan, however, that would mean that those legends were very wrong about him, after all.
<<Look, there on your left>>
Marduk tapped Hadan’s shoulder, pointing towards a lush green spot in the distance. From their position, high on a rocky hill that they just climbed, they overlooked the valley below.
In the distance, the place they left behind, the ruined village and the ravine that was their home.
In front of them, bathed in the new day’s light, a new place appeared before Hadan’s eyes. A green sea of tall grass, spotted with white flowers. And beyond that, the forest.
Hadan drank the view before his eyes, breathing the fresh air of the morning.