Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



P&D welcomes this semi-historical yarn previously published in
Gauntlet Magazine -- a tale set in the time of ancient Rome about the great general, Hannibal, and his brother Mago Barca!  Now, you'll best remember Hannibal for his little stunt with a bunch of pachyderms, but here we see a slightly more supernatural side to the hero of Carthage.  Be careful when you make deals with the devil...or even with the dark god Melquart...

 
 

The Lion's Brood
 

By Howard Andrew Jones
About the author


GISCO WAS ANNOUNCED BY THE tent sentry as I swallowed the last olive of my dinner, and Hannibal called out for him to enter.

The priest swept the tent flap aside and strode in. The sun had stained the sky ochre as it sank for the night, and its rays dyed his ankle length cloak a dull orange. Gisco was oddly clean for a man who had passed through the marshes. His sandals and legs showed only a few muddy splotches.

Realizing that he must have cleaned himself before approaching the tent, I glanced down, suddenly embarrassed, at the mud splattered over my own feet and legs. Not wanting to call attention to myself, I looked back at Gisco.

The priest had changed little since I'd first seen him in the company of my father, more than fifteen years before. He'd aged well, for there was little silver amongst his hair and in the thick beard covering his round, jovial face.

Gisco bowed his head to Hannibal.  "General," he said, "are you ready?"

"I am.  Mago will accompany us."

Gisco's eyes instantly shifted to me. "Are you sure that's appropriate, General?" he asked Hannibal.

"Yes."

"Very well."  Gisco grinned at me.  "We may put some hair on your chest this night, Mago."

"I've had chest hair since my thirteenth year," I retorted.

Gisco laughed.  Hannibal smiled thinly, not minding that another mocked me. My brother might still think me a youth, but I planned to prove him wrong that very night. He had asked me to accompany him. He would not say why, or where, only that I could go with him if I wished. Naturally, I longed to go, exultant that at long last he trusted me with a mission of import. He'd stressed that I was to obey any order given me, instantly. I was naive enough to think he belabored an obvious point.

My brother was twenty-seven at that time, tall and broad and fair to look upon. He had the tight dark curls of father's hair but did not wear a beard, as father had done. His nose was straighter, finer; more like his mother's. Despite that, the men swore that he was father's very image. Others who had never seen father compared him instead to Alexander.

We left the tent and walked past the sentries, leaving the familiar smells and clamor of the camp for the oozing cold of the Arnus marshes. Apparently, Hannibal intended for the three of us to explore the marshes without an escort. I wondered what Maharbal, our cavalry officer, had said about that notion. Imagining the colorful cursing that must have taken place, I wondered if Hannibal had told him at all.

The moon was swollen with child that night and lit the sky with her pleasure. Insects chirruped, and beasts unknown to me croaked their challenges and love cries.  I never saw any of them, and it was easy to imagine that the invisible sources of the noise were spirits or monsters.

As we trudged forward Hannibal lit a torch and passed it to me. "The priest knows the way," Hannibal said. "Watch his footing."

Gisco knew the way very well, for he needed no light, pushing on through clinging shrubs, gnarled boles and the sucking mud. It was a strange thing for a priest of Melquart to know the Arnus marshes of Italy.  But there was much strange about our journey, and as we sloshed on I could only guess that we traveled to some rendezvous -- with a Roman faction, or with delegates from one of the Greek cities of the south.

Like many soldiers, I could gauge time at night almost by feel -- a result of standing night watches.  Three quarters of an hour passed before a low mound rose ahead of us.  Gisco cut through some thorny bushes and started up its slope, where a square structure squatted in the moonlight.

In a short time we stood with Gisco at the temple's base. Viny tendrils coiled thickly about six fronting columns, and the roots of plants and trees had pried great cracks in its steps.  It resembled Greek work, though to which god or goddess it was dedicated I could not guess, for vegetation shrouded it almost completely.

Once we'd surmounted the front steps we saw that the plants had made inroads within, though most of the stark gray walls were bare.  Aside from greenery, the rectangular room inside was without ornament. Somewhere out of sight water plunked steadily onto stone. A musty, fetid scent reached my nostrils.

"Mago," Gisco said, stopping, "look at me."

I studied the priest's craggy face and then could not look away.  His eyes stabbed into my own.

"Why are you here?" he whispered.

I answered before I'd consciously framed a response.  "Hannibal asked me."

"Did he say why?"

"No."  Again my response came before I willed it, almost as though compelled.

Gisco studied me for a moment longer and did not blink once.  Finally he turned to Hannibal.  "Your pardon, General."

"Precautions are understandable," Hannibal said.  He stepped forward and took my torch but gave no word of explanation.

The priest chuckled; a dry, thick noise.  "I will set to work."

Hannibal lit another torch from the first and then shoved them into rusting wall sconces.

Gisco pulled brushes and a small flask from the bag at his side, then crouched to paint a blood-red circle within another upon the uneven floor. He filled the space between them with curling writing of a language I did not recognize.

"What's this all about?" I asked Hannibal softly.

"Allies."

"Oh, it is more than that, young Mago," Gisco said without looking up or ceasing his efforts.  "It is about a pact your father made with Melquart. It is about the blood sacrifice your brother made at Saguntum."

I remembered no altar-bled animals before the siege of Saguntum.  And then I realized the priest did not mean an animal and I felt a strange quiver. When we'd finally breached Saguntum's walls the dry ground could not drink all the blood we spilled, so thickly did it pool.  Our soldiers, frustrated after the long siege, had taken their vengeance.

"You think it chance that victory is Hannibal's by-word?" Gisco asked.

I did not think it chance -- my brother was a great general.  Neither I nor anyone else had ever supposed sorcery was involved.  I looked to Hannibal for reassurance, for denial, but he said nothing.

"Is this true?" I asked him.

"Father prayed to Melquart," Hannibal said.  "And victories came to him. Iberia came to him, as Italy will come to us."

"And Saguntum?"  I asked, thinking of the bloody heaps of dead.  Of the little forms I'd first thought for dolls or cloth bundles and later saw were babes, slaughtered like sheep.  I have killed my share of men, and had once been forced to watch the sacrifices to Baal Haamon, but Saguntum -- that was a thing that haunts me still.

"Melquart needs blood, Mago," Hannibal said, scowling.  "All gods do. Don't get squeamish.  We do what we must, to win.  If we lose we are Rome's vassal, if they suffer Carthage to live."

I nodded slowly, numbed.  I had always thought Saguntum had horrified Hannibal as much as myself; he hadn't condoned the massacre.  I knew not what to say.

Whistling in a tuneless whispery way, Gisco walked about the eight foot circle he'd drawn on the stone.

Again I tried to reconcile myself to the idea that Hannibal used magic to reach his goals.  I'd always thought his prowess a result of his training and intellect, and to suddenly learn it stemmed from blood, human blood not spilled on the battlefield but slashed from women, children, and the weaponless, left me empty and cold.

The priest's whistling ebbed, and then he chanted in a singsong way that burst occasionally into dark melody.  My neck hairs rose.

"What's he doing?" I whispered.

Only the barest hint of strain in his voice belied Hannibal's calm. "Summoning Melquart.  Stand ready."

"Melquart?"  A god was coming here, to us?

"We will kneel," Hannibal commanded me, "when the darkness forms."  His eyes held mine, as though he meant to communicate a warning, but I could not guess his intent. I was still trying to believe that Melquart, lord of battles, would stand before me.

Hannibal pulled the wine flask he wore from over his shoulder and unstoppered it.  Curiously I saw its narrow end had been cut free, leaving a far wider opening lower on the neck.

Amidst all the strangeness a swig of wine sounded immensely grounding, but I was so startled by my brother`s revelations that I fell into cautious formality. "Might I have a drink?"

He shook his head.  "Later, brother.  Now we watch."

I frowned.  He might have been my general, but he was also my brother, and it wouldn't have killed him to let me have a draught.

The priest finished his circling, kneeling beside Hannibal just as his peculiar song reached ferocious screaming pitch.

And then Gisco was silent.  There were no animal calls from without, no creaking from insects. The air was horribly still.

In the flickering shadows something blacker birthed itself in the circle's center.

"Kneel," Hannibal ordered.

I did.

The shadow stretched up into a broad man-shape half again the size of Hannibal.  It was unrelated to the torch shadows and did not waver like our own.  And somehow this shadow cast its own.

With Hannibal and the priest, I knelt, my heart pounding, then followed their example and prostrated myself. I reflected that if I'd been told I'd face a god, I would have trimmed my beard.

"Arise, favored children."  The voice was strident, dark, powerful.

Hannibal climbed to his feet, the priest and I a moment behind. Then my brother did a curious thing -- he upended his wine flask over the priest's head, drenching Gisco's hair and face.

The priest screamed and slapped his hands over his face.

"Kill him, Mago!" Hannibal cried.

I pulled free my sword and spun toward the priest, bewildered.  Had I heard him properly?  Kill Gisco?

Hannibal lifted his sword and leapt at Melquart.  He's gone mad, I thought, then hesitated no longer and drove my sword point at the screaming priest.

Gisco caught it in one hand that was no longer human -- a span of blade-like talons.  His head elongated and his teeth, half hidden still behind one shielding hand, overgrew his lips.

I did not hesitate, though my thoughts reeled.  I was Mago Barca, son of Hamilcar, brother to Hannibal -- I would not falter before this monster.

I wrenched my sword from Gisco's grasp and ducked a blow from his other hand, surmounted now by three sharp claws.

"Strike!" Hannibal cried, "Before the change completes!"

I heard howls of rage from Melquart but could not look.  Gisco's arms lengthened. His chest swelled.  He hissed, still shaking his head.  His arms beat a hypnotic, protective pattern.

I aimed a low kick for a knee and one arm lashed toward my foot, quick as a cat. But I'd feinted.  I swung the foot back down and sprang off them both, beating Gisco's other arm wide with my own and driving my blade through his chest.

He screamed. I dropped low, palming the ground to swing out with both legs. I took him in the back of the calves and he crashed into the floor.

I was on him in an instant, and sliced through his throat.  He flinched and soon ceased movement altogether. Whatever he was, his blood was pale brown and treacley.

Only then did I pull back, gulping in disgust at the thing I'd once laughed with.  I did not ponder long, though.  I turned to look for my brother.

Hannibal stood before the circle, his sword planted hilt upright in a crack in the floor.  Melquart stood close to the circle's edge, a portion of the shadow cast by his midnight form skewered on the sword blade.  The god strove to step back but could not pull his shadow free.

"Release me!" he shouted.  "Release me or I doom you and all your descendants!"

"I think not," Hannibal replied calmly.

"I am your God!"  Melquart cried.  "How dare you defy me!"

"I know not what you are, but you are no god of mine."

"I will destroy you!"

"I think not.  Surely you feel your substance shifting even now -- through the sword, out your protective circle, leaking into the warmth of the Earth.  The longer you banter, the weaker you become.

"Mago!"  Melquart cried out to me.  "Strike down your brother!  I will grant you his powers!  Women, gold, Rome will be yours!"

Emboldened by my brother, I made reply, though still astonished.  "You sound more a merchant than a god."

Melquart howled like a maddened wolf.

"He sounds more convincing when he's not dying," Hannibal said to me, a faint smile brushing his lips.  "He fooled me once.  As he fooled Father. You'll have no more blood dedicated from me, creature."

"I will take my vengeance for this!"

"How?" Hannibal asked.  "Your summoner is dead."

"I have others."

"So you may.  But you are nearly powerless here, and still you bicker while your strength ebbs."

The shadowy arms clutched at the sword hilt but could not reach it because, as I later learned, it rested outside the inner circle.

"What game do you play?" It asked finally.

"I want to bargain."

It laughed in a comradely way.  "Why didn't you say so?  Release me and I'll be happy to discuss arrangements and prices."

"No.  You will set my father free, and I will remove the sword."

Our father had been ambushed and killed in Iberia when I was a stripling -- I could not have heard my brother right.  Hannibal and my brother Hanno had been riding with him when Iberian warriors gave chase.  Father had sent my brothers one way and led his pursuers another.  A patrol had found his mutilated body on a spear the next day. The head had been left untouched, so that we might know him.

"I can't make a bargain to undo another bargain!" The thing cried.  "Your Father profited from me!"

"You will release Hamilcar, or you will die."

"Ask anything else!"  It raised its black arms as if in supplication.

"I ask only this."

"Things will not go well for me if I release him!"

"I don't care," Hannibal snapped.  "Why do you dally?  Your life fades even now!"

Tiny gaps were appearing in the shadow's substance, as though the air ate away at the edges of its form.

"You will release me, if I release him?" It asked.  Its voice was softer now.

"Yes."

"How do I know you speak the truth?"

"I am my father's son," said Hannibal.  "And you've little choice."

The shadow did not move for a span of six heartbeats.

Something detached itself -- something translucent, man-sized, vaporous.  It slid quickly free, gliding across both circles, and stood at Hannibal's side.

It was my father's spirit.

He was as broad as Hannibal, not quite as tall, his nose flatter, his body compact and powerful.  "Let it die," he said, his voice a growling whisper.

It was him -- my father's ghost.  Even Hannibal looked on him in wonder for a moment.

"No. My word is good," said Hannibal, and pulled the sword free.

The shadow of the shadow-god shot up like a serpent.  Father and I shouted but Hannibal had already fallen back with a startled yelp of pain.

The false god laughed.

"Break the circle!" Father yelled.

I scuffed the circle with my foot and the shadow's laughter choked to a stop.  Air rushed past me through the gap I'd rent in the circle.

The thing shrank, but it ranted as it passed. "I curse you, Hannibal!  By your own hand you will perish!"

"Begone!" I cried.

But it already was.

I could see Hannibal through my father's spirit as though through mist.  My brother's hands covered his face.  His sword lay beside him.

"Are you all right?"

"It struck my eye," Hannibal managed.

"Let me see it," Father commanded.

Wincing, Hannibal removed his hand and widened his eye.  I feared it gone, or shredded, but it looked normal, though bloodshot.

He clamped it tight again.  "I can't hold it open."

"It looks fine," I said.

"Help him rise, Mago," Father said sternly.

I did.

"I don't know what it did," Father said, "but you'd better get it looked at.  Is Synhalus still alive?"

"It will be all right," Hannibal said.  But he kept his hand over his left eye.

Father frowned, then looked at me.  "You shouldn't have let him do that."

"He didn't tell me what he was going to do, Father," I said, a little irked.

"It was too risky," Father said.

"You would have done the same for us," Hannibal countered.

Father considered that, and said: "Well done, then.  I thank you both."

I bowed my head.  Praise from Father had ever been rare.

"But you've got to remember that there are some times when you can't keep your word," he continued, "as with a thing of darkness."

"I plan no further speech with creatures of darkness," Hannibal said.

Father chuckled.  "That's wise.  I hope that thing's curses are as impotent as its aid.  How did you two know what had happened?"

I hadn't known anything, of course, since Hannibal hadn't bothered to tell me, so I indicated my brother with my hand.

"Hanno made . . . inquiries about our benefactor and his priest, after Saguntum," Hannibal answered.  "When I spoke with that," he looked to Gisco's body, "about furthering our cause, it told me of the steep price you'd paid.  And I determined to free you."

Hannibal looked at me with his good eye, still shielding the other.  "I'm sorry I couldn't share my plan.  Hanno had fashioned my sword as a talisman long ago, so I was immune to Gisco's magics, but he could read your thoughts."

I nodded, somewhat grudgingly.  His explanation made sense, but I would still have liked to have known a little more beforehand.  "What did you pour over Gisco?"

"A mix of herbs unloved by underworld creatures."

"I wish you'd killed him," Father repeated bitterly.  "He never did a thing for us.  Once he had my spirit he used to delight in tormenting me with that knowledge.  He planned on getting you next," he finished, nodding at Hannibal.  "I should have known you'd see through him."

Of course, I thought.  Oh, Father had praised all four of his boys, calling us the lion's brood, but he'd always favored Hannibal.

Father cocked his head to one side, then slowly turned to stare at an empty corner.  "I'm being called to go," he said quietly.  "There is your mother. And Dru."  He smiled almost innocently.

So there'd be no chance to speak with him -- to know him as an adult.  Just a few compliments for Hannibal and then back to the spirit world. Unaccountably, I started crying -- not so much because I grieved, but because it just wasn't fair.

"Do not weep, Mago," Father told me gently.  "You and your brother set me free."  He brought his hand over his chest and saluted.  "Keep your swords sharp, and trust not the stars.  And try to snatch a little happiness. Fare you well."

And he turned, striding for the corner, and faded away.

Hannibal clapped my shoulder as I choked down another sob.

"He will rest easy now, Mago."

I jerked away from him, hating him and Father and myself a little for not loving either of them enough.  In a short while I remembered my brother was wounded, and then I remembered that he was cursed and blinked tears away.

"What about you?" I asked.  "That thing cursed you."

"A strange curse, wasn't it?  I wouldn't worry about it.  We have a war to win."

A small party of our finest soldiers waited for us two hundred yards from the temple -- Hannibal had obviously told them to follow.  With them was Synhalus the physician, who set immediately to work on Hannibal's eye.

Many bloody battles have come since that night -- some of them our greatest victories -- but never again has Hannibal set our soldiers loose in captured cities.  Synhalus, in the history he writes of the war, has tactfully suggested that the massacre at Saguntum was the result of Hannibal's inexperience with men in siege war, and no one has corrected him.  He likewise has ascribed the loss of vision in Hannibal's eye to a fever Hannibal carried from the temple and bore for a few days following.

As for the curse, the thing placed upon my brother, it disturbs me still. "It lied continually," Hannibal told me once, on one of the few occasions we spoke of that night; "who knows how much was truth and how much falsehood?"

It may be that the false god's threats were as false as its promises had been, but lie or no I am still glad it had no time to curse me.

 The End



 
 

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The Lion's Brood is copyright by Howard Andrew Jones and was previously published in Gauntlet Magazine. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)