1100 BGW (Before Gods’ War)

1100 BGW (Before Gods’ War)

Amurtag hunched behind the gathering of minotaurs. She, along with the others, was summoned to the cave mouth. The sound of the waves crashing on the nearby shore covered much of the quiet speculation that ran through the group. The priests indicated they had an important message to convey. Her dark, round eyes peered at the crowd, and her skeptical frown drew the attention of her friend Moug who stood to her left.
“Muh,” the male said in greeting. Like hers, his coat was haggard, matted from grubbing about in the fields, with bare spots where their manual labour rubbed off the fur. His black eyes bored into hers with a look that was supposed to intimidate her. “You are troubled.”
She shushed him, noting that others turned their heads to listen. Movement at the front drew their attention away, and she glared at Moug. Fearing reprisals from the others, she spoke in a hushed voice. “This is foolish. We have much to do to prepare for harvest, and no time to listen to this crazed old priest.”
“And yet here we are,” Moug said, not lowering his voice to match Amurtag’s. “True, there are fields to harvest, boats to sail, and children to teach, but to ignore the will of Murgaphyie would be blasphemy.”
The intonation of their god’s name caused those nearby to stir, and Amurtag fell silent. Her heart raced, hoping the others would not turn on her. After all, she was not saying anything directly contrary to Murgaphyie. To be branded a heretic or blasphemer was a death sentence among the minotaurs. If Moug would not respect her lack of faith, she would not talk to him at such a gathering. She hoped to live a long, fruitful life, surrounded by many calves, and perhaps even become a village elder, able to undo the priesthood’s influence. After all, the priests did nothing for them, and neither did Murgaphyie. Maybe the god existed, but belief did not aid the common minotaur who struggled daily.
“You’re right,” another whispered voice said on her right. Turning, Amurtag smiled at Meeh, a short male with a broken left horn. Dishonored in combat, Meeh had worked the outlying fields for decades in solitude. No female would accept his interest, seeing his shattered horn. His eyes widened at her smile, and he continued to speak once he had an audience. “When I lost my horn, I prayed to Murgaphyie every day to help me regain my honour. My prayers went unanswered. Why would our god allow us to suffer, if it loves us so much?”
“Exactly,” Amurtag hissed. “If these priests did some work that actually aided us in a legitimate way, life would be easier for all of us. Instead they sit out in their remote caves and take our hard work for granted while we keep them clothed and fed.”
“They are a plague,” Meeh agreed. The strong words gave Amurtag pause, and she considered their proximity to the rest of the minotaurs. Meeh’s proclamation was too close to blasphemy for her comfort, but she found solace in speaking with someone who had similar ideals.
The two minotaurs entered into a quiet conversation so intense that Amurtag missed the priest’s exit from his cave to address the masses. Moug, however, gently elbowed her in the ribs to get her attention.
“What’s his name again?” Amurtag asked. “His new one, I mean.”
“Avariel,” Moug replied. This time he lowered his voice. Speaking before the priest was not against the rules, but was frowned upon.
“Right,” Amurtag said. The name was so foreign to her that it never stuck in her mind. The sound of it was awkward both on her tongue and in her mind.
Peering through the sea of horned heads, she noted Avariel was wearing a bizarre headdress made of bird feathers and a beak that protruded from his forehead. He’s really lost it, she thought, but kept her feelings to herself. Meeh was so short he could not see the priest, so Amurtag had no one to discuss the strange garb with.
“My children,” Avariel began like he always did. The condescension made Amurtag feel angry. There were plenty of minotaurs present who were older than Avariel. Who was he to talk to them like they were mere calves? He continued when the murmured greetings quieted. “Today is a great day for minotaurs everywhere. This moment will be inscribed in stone, for the future of our people will change forevermore.”
The pronouncement agitated the crowd, and anxious mutterings circulated. Avariel held up his hands, brandishing a brown feathered shaker. The sound brought order, and he smiled at them. “For generations have we toiled, tilling the ground, fishing the water, and fighting our enemies. However, when Margaff returned to us and killed his father, our chief, he brought with him a vision of unity. Scattered around Magur Bay in small villages we are weak. Fighting amongst our chiefs leaves us open to attack from marauding ogres, and pilfering by pathetic goblins.”
The crowd murmured their agreement. Even Amurtag nodded with the priest’s words. Throughout their history, the minotaurs had been fighting with everyone, including themselves. She knew nothing was going to change that, despite Avariel’s boasting.
Another figure stepped out in front of them. Margaff stood tall, even for a minotaur, and his foot-long horns remained unblemished. For a moment Amurtag wondered if he polished them, but she forgot the thought when he pulled a heavy cloak of black fur around his shoulders. It was his father’s hide. Fear rippled through the crowd at the grisly reminder of his rise to power.
To add to the shock, in his hands he held two horns of different sizes and colours, blood-encrusted scalp still attached to both. “May this be the last blood I shed,” he said, sorrow in his voice. He let the horns drop to the ground, and shed his cloak, revealing his powerfully muscled body and white coat. Naked before them, he kneeled. “My kin, our numbers have grown.”
Amurtag looked around and gasped when she saw dozens of new faces around them. So many of their kind in one place was usually a precursor to battle, yet these newcomers got down on their knees and bowed to Margaff.
Stunned, Amurtag could not wrap her mind around what she was seeing. Margaff continued. “I have traveled to our neighbours, and have spoken with their chiefs. I implored them to join us here in peace, and work toward a united minotaur state. They denied me, and even the sight of my dead father’s hide did not dissuade them from battle. Two villages I visited, two chiefs died. Soldiers loyal to both tried to best me and failed. We are now one.”
“All kneel before Emperor Margaff, unifier of our kin!” Avariel cried out, raising his shaker to the skies.
The minotaurs bowed, except Amurtag, who was still uncertain. When Margaff looked upon her, she grew bold, for he did not look at her with disapproval or anger like Avariel did.
She said, “Why did you do this? We don’t have enough food to feed all these extra mouths.”
“Have faith in Murgaphyie!” Avariel shrieked, but Margaff held out a hand to silence the priest. The newly appointed emperor waved her forward.
Casting her eyes down, Amurtag stepped carefully through the crowd. Some of the minotaurs turned their eyes up to gaze at her, clearly appalled by her brazenness. Was she a fool for speaking out against Margaff? Was he about to make an example out of her?
In a voice just loud enough for her to hear, Margaff said, “Our fortunes change today. Think of these newcomers not as burdens, but rather helpers. Together — united — we can accomplish greatness. Three villages stand before me under a common leader. When the other villages hear of our might and witness my grace in accepting them, they will join us willingly. This is the dawn of our dynasty. Once we all work for a common cause, we can deal with the threats from outside our borders. Ogres will no longer kill our livestock, or threaten our farmers. Goblins will no longer sneak into our villages and steal our grain.”
“So you will kill all opposition?” Amurtag dared to ask, looking up at him.
He shook his head slowly, his lips drawn to a thin line. “I said I do not wish any more bloodshed, and I meant it. Life is sacred, and I will protect even the lowly goblins. We will all live together in peace.”
The idea of living amongst goblins was repugnant to Amurtag, and she could not hide her disgust. The Emperor looked down on her, frustration wrinkling his bull-nose.
Margaff looked up to the others and raised his voice. “Together, with our new allies, and our new weapon, none will dare threaten the minotaurs. Even if you doubt me,” he said, casting a quick glance down at Amurtag, which made her feel isolated and vulnerable. “You will not doubt them.”
Amurtag drew back, falling over a kneeling minotaur and sprawling across the ground. Others gasped when a figure as tall as a minotaur strode out of the cave, but instead of fur, it had feathers. Its head was that of a bird, with enormous black eyes, and a short, hooked yellow beak.
More disturbing than the creature’s appearance was its weapon. The minotaurs had simple tools to work with, which could be used in a fight, but the long gleaming blade strapped to the figure’s back looked like nothing Amurtag had ever seen.
Its clawed feet flexed, tearing at the ground, and it raised its arms to the sky and let out a piercing shriek. Others came, and Amurtag counted a dozen of the alien creatures. The way their heads bobbed when they looked at the gathering reminded her of similar motions she had seen with smaller birds.
“Meet the Aeri,” Margaff said, motioned to the bird-like creature beside him. “The first race, despite what claims other species may make. They were created by the titans Air and Earth, together, to have dominion over the sky and land. Their people are from a far away land, but heard Murgaphyie’s call and came to us.”
Everyone knew the dwarves came first, Amurtag thought. After all, their own creation came after the dwarves when the first race became corrupted. It was the dwarves who then tainted the minotaurs, and to say otherwise was to mock their ancient feud. Who were these newcomers to think they could uproot generations of history? Just because they were different did not mean all their claims were true.
The doubt on her face must have been visible, because Margaff was staring at her, and he appeared to be fighting to remain calm. His muscles twitched, his eyebrows lowered, and his next words were louder than before. “With Murgaphyie’s priests and the aeri’s magic, we have created the ultimate weapon. When it is unleashed, no force will be able to stand before us. Our enemies will bow to our superiority.”
“Show us this weapon, so we might judge it for ourselves,” Amurtag said. Shock rushed through the audience, but she had invested too much now. She needed proof, not words. All the priests offered them were pretty words and hollow sermons.
Instead of growing infuriated, Margaff appeared to regain his composure, and even smiled at Amurtag. “Bring it out.”
The aeri beside him turned clumsily, its talons not well suited for the maneuver. Stalking back into the cave, Amurtag heard its clawed feet rattle on the stone. When the aeri returned, it took all of Amurtag’s presence of mind not to burst out laughing.
In the aeri’s outstretched hand was a small cage. The silvery metal gleamed in the sun, and inside sat a small bird upon a swing.
Meeh was unable to control himself, and his laughter washed over the crowd. Others appeared skeptical as well, but did not voice their doubts. Margaff pointed to two minotaurs near Meeh and shouted, “Bring the honourless blasphemer to me!”
Lets too short to outdistance them, Meeh was hauled off his hooves. Although he struggled with all his might, he could not break free and soon stood before Margaff and the aeri. Screwing up his courage, Meeh stood straight and stared defiantly. “I do not fear your little bird.”
The bird chirped a merry tune. Amurtag wondered if it was even aware of the conflict taking place.
The aeri stepped closer, and Amurtag was able to see the bird more clearly. Instead of being a typical feathered bird, its body was covered in what appeared to be small brown stone plates. Its legs and talons looked like the same metal that the cage was crafted from. And its emerald eyes shone with an eerie inner light.
The priest Avariel crowed and brought Meeh closer to the cage. Meeh squirmed, a momentary look of fear revealed in his eyes. The aeri opened the small door in the cage and held the opening up to Meeh’s chest.
“Now, behold but a taste of our weapon’s power,” Margaff said. His sorrowful tone surprised Amurtag, and she wondered if perhaps she was wrong about the creature in the cage.
The bird hopped over to eh opening, and Meeh sneered at the tiny thing. He tried to sound brave. “It will take it a lifetime to peck through my –”
The bird opened its stony beak and emitted a sound so shrill that all present held their hands up to their ears to block the sound. Meeh screamed, as did Avariel. Amurtag could not look away. Her head hurt, she wanted to wince in pain, but her gaze could not leave the two minotaurs.
Both Meeh and Avariel shrieked, their voices nearly drowned out by the little bird. Avariel, holding Meeh against the cage, was too close to escape the attack. Their abdomens ruptured, gushing gore into the cage, and all over the ground. Crying out, they fell in a heap together, their hands gripping at their innards.
Without emotion, the aeri closed the door to the cage, and the bird stopped its sonic assault. Margaff ended the suffering of the two minotaurs by stomping his hooves on their skulls.
Amurtag looked up from the corpses and saw that Margaff had tears streaming from his eyes. Never before had she witnessed a chief cry, for the leaders were always the strongest, most hardened warriors in the tribe. For Margaff to show weakness before the three combined villages was unthinkable. She wondered if he would be challenged and killed before he got the chance to unify their people. Would he live out the day?
When he spoke, his voice shook. “And now you have all witnessed but a small piece of the power our new weapon holds. Together, Avariel and the aeri petitioned the titan Earth to bring this weapon into existence. The titan himself created the cage, imbuing it with the unbelievable strength. This metal — mithril, Earth called it — is light, yet capable of turning the most powerful blow aside. Thus, the Weapon is safe, until we need it. With this, we will be unstoppable.”
The crowd erupted in cheers. Hope for something more than daily toil filled Amurtag’s heart. While she had doubted, the proof before her was undeniable. The aeri and minotaurs had been united to create the Weapon. If that was but a small show of what it was capable of, she believed Margaff’s words. What force could stand before something that could destroy with the sound of its voice?
When the cheering subsided, Margaff gazed at those assembled before him. He nodded his head slowly, until his eyes settled on her. “I will work with the priests and aeri to determine our best course. Today the first dynasty of the minotaurs begins. Now, return to your work, but do not fret, for soon we shall have luxuries beyond our greatest imaginings.”
Amurtag turned to leave with the rest, but Margaff said, “Not you, cow. You stay here.”
Watching the others leave, Amurtag did not turn to face Margaff. Her legs shook when his hand rested on her shoulder, and she expected him to break her horns. Instead, his voice was soft in her ear. “Do you believe in me, now?”
Turning, she noticed that the aeri had left, and only Margaff remained. He was taller than she, and his musk smelled pleasing to her. Bowing her head slightly, she admitted, “Yes. You have great vision. You are a mighty leader.”
“Come with me to the cave,” he said, turning and walking to the entrance.

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