By T. F. Cooper (Based On A Story by Gary Cohn)
In the ancient
Oh, it thought itself respectable enough.
The tavern regulars wanted for nothing in the way of jolly company, hot intrigue or violently strong ale, and the beds of the inn above were never empty for very long. Merchants from the old Vine Jungle trading routes south of Elshimere flowed through like tapped spirits, as did weary travelers and pairs of lusty adulterers. There was a familiarity to things here that locals took comfort in, and just when they thought they'd seen all, they were turned from their full tankards and hot gossip to find the Maltar the Tavernmaster's son, a youth as lean, as he was awkward, dressed in a blue tunic and fur pelt, belted about his narrow waist with a rusty chain.
And no one knew quite to make of it.
"I go south, father," Uther
told Maltar, as the big man polished a bowl behind
the bar, "into the Vine Jungles! Where the men of the
Big Maltar snickered. "Safer to go north, son, ..to the kitchens, where spit and grease will make us a livin'!"
The tavern folk roared their laughter.
"You're as likely to be made a meal of in that place," one man shouted over the ruckus. "That’s if you can find it boy!"
“And no women, there,” leered a one-legged, buckskin-clad trader, who stank of sweat and ale, "Plenty of fightin' there for a skinny boy like you, ..on cold nights."
The youth gritted his teeth, unable to conceal his indignation. "Plenty fightin' right here, you ugly, one-legged ..!"
The trader rushed across the tavern far faster than he looked capable of moving on his remaining leg, seized the collar of the lanky youth and drew a dagger up to his chin.
Behind the bar, Big Maltar threw his apron aside ..and aimed a pistol in the trader's direction. "Put my son down, One-legged Egan! You know Uther's tongue's the most dangerous thing on'im!"
The old man's gaze never left the eyes of the boy in his clutches, who was trying his best not to look scared. "Time he lost that tongue, ..mayhaps!"
In a blur of movement, a blond giant rose from his table, swept back his cloak and drew a broadsword. "Put the boy down, ..and I may forget the insult you've paid my tribesmen."
Egan eyed the stranger suspiciously.
He sported the native dress of the
"Put him down," the man said with an unsettling calm - his blue eyes narrowing to slits, "or your next cold night'll be spent with the worms. You’ll be the second fool I’ve fed them in a fortnight."
One-legged Egan lowered his dagger and, with a dismissive grunt, hurled the boy aside with such force that he broke apart an unoccupied table. "Take that out of the kitchen-rat's wages, Maltar, ..an' pour me a another drink!"
From the tavern folk, as much relief as fear could be found in the nervous laughter that followed, and amidst the pointing and howling, Uther saw his father lower his blaster and return to his work, shaking his head. Flushed red with humiliation, young Uther pretended that he did not see Maltar pour One-legged Egan that drink.
A young, auburn-haired tavernmaid, helped him to his feet, but Uther was so distracted that it was almost as though he hadn't seen her at all. A sea of eyes dogged the young man to the edge of the blond giant's table, ..where, tightlipped and trembling slightly, ..he waited for an invitation to sit. Two features of the man's wardrobe struck Uther, as if by witchcraft. One was the harness he wore strapped over each of his shoulders and across his massive chest, upon which a cross was formed from inlaid, blood-toned rocks. The other novelty was the huge broadsword the man carried, and Uther's heart raced to hold it as eagerly, as he'd welcomed the touch of a woman.
Or what that might be like. Someday.
"Sit, Uther of Elshimere," the stranger commanded. He saw something in the youth's face that was ennobled by the way he had addressed him, ..and sit, Uther did. "I am Adam, He-Man of the Vulnarians."
"He-Man of the Savages, you mean!" The scarlet robes and gold rings of the man at the opposite end of the bar marked him as a priest of the Celestial Church, whose devotees, one of whom He-Man knew to be the King of Eternia, revered the Master of the Universe. Many of the priest's order to be honorable men, who served the people of Eternia in selfless, charitable ways, ..but just as many were haughty and disdainful of any, who did not claim the church's ways as their own. "Tell this boy the truth, ..if you dare court it! Tell him of your heathen rituals – your conquest of women!"
"Could any less than savage might destroy the Evil Horde, holy man?" He-Man answered, his chest heaving with outrage. "Could any less than savages drive the Imperium Serpentis back into the Shadow Lands ..or break the Beastman Dominion's grip on the Fertile Plains? Aye, man! Of the many things we Vulnarians’ve been, we’ve been savage - no less than the whore I smell on your robes!”
With an imperious glare, the priest quit the tavern in a flutter of scarlet, and the mocking laughter of the tavernfolk followed him out into the streets.
"I've read about your warrior-god, Vulnar the Bold," Uther professed proudly, hoping to impress the jungle warrior with worldliness that was not his, "and of his legendary Sword of Power! Is that it?"
"Aye, it is," He-Man told Uther, holding the silvery weapon out before his broad chest, "forged many eons ago in the emerald fires of Fierce Heuay, sister to Mighty Teela ..and goddess of destiny! My brothers endured a brutal tournament in Heuay's honor to choose who be most fit to champion mankind with Vulnar's divine weapon – I am the first to endure it in five thousand years! I'll not rest until the demon that brought them low is destroyed!"
"Then, you are the last of the Vulnarians," Uther's eyes widened sorrowfully. "How’d this demon kill them, Lord He-Man?"
The He-Man took a long drought from his tankard and
sheathed his blade. "What little I know of my tribe’s last days has been
given me by the wives of my brothers, who fled our country to save their young.
My brother and king, Simyran, had gone missing for
many moons, and my tribesmen had searched the land for him to no avail. I was
still razing the Evergreen Forests for him, when he was finally carried back to
Big Maltar peeled off his apron and pulled a stool under him. "What became of this boy, Mr. He-Man? Breakfast, ..lunch ..or supper?"
Laughter erupted from the tavern folk, but quickly ceased with the knotting of the young Vulnarian's brow.
"Morgun was accorded all the honors of manhood," He-Man told them, ignoring the big man's jest, "and given the ritual terrahedrons to burn, that he might commune with Mighty Teela directly, while other boys his age were still entrusting prayers to their masters. He was shown the use of our weapons and fighting arts. Simyran embraced the boy as a son, just as he'd done me many years ago, when cruel fate had taken mine own family, ..and all of our tribe's secrets were laid bare to his young eyes."
"What of the monster, then?" asked One-legged Egan, biting into a crusty roll of bread. "You Vulnarians're such great trackers, why din't you hunt the thing down n' kill it?"
"For a time, the beast was all but forgotten," He-Man answered. "Our king was returned to his people! Wild boars were roasted! Women from the surrounding jungles were called to share in our celebration, and my brothers made revelry that might bring down the very walls of Heaven! Mine own search for Simyran had led me to Castle Grayskull, and .."
"Grayskull?!" Maltar leaned forward over the bar. "We've all heard 'bout the last battle there! Not a year ago, it took the Queen Marlena herself to its black halls and not ten legions of His Majesty's soldiers could wrest her from its grip - ten legions! Slaughtered every one of'em, before some miracle saved the Queen! I'd not follow me own mother there. You've any quarrel with that cursed place, Mr. Jungleman, be off now - y'hear?! Want no trouble from the demons what dwell there!"
"Castle Grayskull, like my tribesmen, is not what your lore's made it," assured He-Man, with disarming calm. "Mighty Teela is one of many celestials, who, long ago, appointed themselves protectors of Eternia. As I serve her, she and her fellow ancients serve us all. Grayskull's merely the weapon through which they focus and confederate their power."
"What'd you find there, Lord He-Man?" inquired Uther. "Ghosts? Devils?"
"The hardest fighting I'd ever seen," the Vulnarian answered grimly, "worse even than what you've been told. A demonking of Infinitias had taken the castle and threatened to slaughter good Marlena, if any attempt was made to take Grayskull back, ..before he'd sacked it for its cosmic secrets! The Captain of the Royal Guard was taken prisoner, and a great deal of bloodshed was seen before the enemy was driven from the castle! Inside, we found a hell-maw left open in the demogorgon's hasty escape, believed intended for the Queen."
"Merciful gods," an old woman muttered, pulling her scarf about her shoulders.
"Merciful gods indeed, good lady," refrained the Vulnarian. "The Holy Warrior, Mighty Teela, appeared to us and, before her mighty Rod of Order, the dread portal closed - the inviolate constitution of Grayskull restored. Then, after being told the truth of my mysterious origins in the world of men, did I make haste back to the Valley of Vulnar, as the warrior goddess commanded. The moans of the dying, ..the stench of opened flesh - it was in the air many miles from my jungle homeland! Though, I did not yet know it, several moons had passed there and, when I arrived in the valley, it was plain to see ..that I'd been too late."
"The beast, Lord He-Man?" Uther asked with poorly concealed trepidation. "The same what butchered the boy Morgun's kin?"
"Aye, friend," nodded He-Man. "My dead brothers, heroes now lost to legend, lay everywhere. Some, half-eaten. Others, beheaded ..or twisted in ways that man's body cannot be made to twist. Most of their wives, some of whom witnessed this slaughter, had fled with their children. Those poor, few women, who’d remained, lay near their men and half-mortal sons – weapons clutched in their lifeless hands. The moans of the dying that had haunted me through the mountains had all been silenced, ..and only the wailing of a single boy could be heard."
"This thing spared the boy, then?" Maltar asked. His eyes wide with relief.
"Never had I known gratitude, such as I did that moment," He-Man sighed, washing his mouth with drink. "Covered in gore, much as he'd been, when Simyran had found him, this child embodied the simple hope that my brothers' ways would survive the ages, ..and he was all I had left of the only father I'd ever known! Now, poor Morgun sat at Simyran's side, holding his lifeless body in his little arms. Even in death, he'd not left his king's side. 'Not you! Master, ..not you,' he'd cried."
"Brave boy." An old man in a tattered coat shook his head.
"Aye, a remarkable boy!" another taverner added, wiping a tear from his eye.
"More remarkable than you could know," He-Man answered, swilling back more ale. "He ran into my arms and wept upon my shoulder - all the warrior we'd made of him rained down his little face. The demon, Morgun told me, had come for him, and my brothers had risen to his defense! He told me how bravely they'd fought ..and died - and the smell of their entrails was still on his breath."
Not a sound was made amidst the tavernfolk.
Looks were exchanged between faces struck with disbelief, ..as if to confirm what all believed had been heard.
“In the guise of a boy, he'd come to us immortal Vulnarians,” the Lord of Vines continued, gripping his tankard in a large, bronze fist. “Eight millennia's hatred burning in him all the while, ..and as I held in my arms, this thing I might’ve called brother, upon whose narrow shoulders all our faith had been set, Morgun drove a talon deep into my side.”
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